‘Learned Helplessness’ & Torture: An Exchange

In response to:

The Psychologists Take Power from the February 25, 2016 issue

Saddam Saleh, a former prisoner at Abu Ghraib, showing a photograph of himself and other prisoners being abused there in November 2003 by US soldiers, Baghdad, May 2004
Saddam Saleh, a former prisoner at Abu Ghraib, showing a photograph of himself and other prisoners being abused there in November 2003 by US soldiers, Baghdad, May 2004

To the Editors:

In her defamatory article [“The Psychologists Take Power,” NYR, February 25], Tamsin Shaw seeks to portray me as aiding and abetting torture. I strongly disapprove of torture and I have never and would never aid, abet, or provide any assistance in its process. I have spent my life trying to cure and prevent learned helplessness, so I am horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such a bad purpose as torture.

If you accuse a fellow academic of supporting torture, you’d better have some pretty good evidence. Shaw does not. Here is her evidence and my responses:

Seligman was one of only three witnesses out of 148 who refused to speak directly with Hoffman’s investigators, demanding instead that they send him questions in writing…

Shaw seems to imply that I was trying to hide something by being interviewed in writing. On the contrary, I wanted the record to be public if necessary and Hoffman has refused to provide transcripts of others’ spoken interviews. Hoffman and I went back and forth for several weeks and I answered all his queries at great length.

In December 2001, Seligman convened a meeting at his home to discuss the participation of academics in national security efforts following September 11. Among those present were CIA psychologist James Mitchell and the chief of research and analysis in the CIA’s Operational Division, Kirk Hubbard.

This meeting occurred as described. The meeting was about how academics could counter jihadi violence. There was no mention of torture, interrogations, detainees, or any remotely related topic. Mitchell and Hubbard were entirely silent throughout the proceedings.

Seligman claimed to remember meeting with Hubbard on one subsequent occasion at his home, in April 2002, to discuss his theory of “learned helplessness” with Hubbard and a female lawyer, and that on this occasion he was invited to speak on the theory of learned helplessness at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school, sponsored by the US government. Hubbard, however, recalled meeting Seligman at his home several times after the initial meeting, including a meeting in April 2002 at which, according the Hoffman report, “he, Mitchell, and Jessen met with Seligman in his home to invite him to speak about learned helplessness at the SERE school.”

My discussions with Hubbard and Mitchell were entirely about how captured Americans could resist and evade torture. All of their questions were about captured American soldiers and what our soldiers could do. The Hoffman report verified this and Hubbard and Mitchell testified that they never discussed interrogations with Seligman and did not provide him information about the interrogation program.

The extent of Seligman’s further involvement has not been established, but in an e-mail sent by Hubbard in 2004, he expressed gratitude for Seligman’s help “over the past four years.”

The reason that my “further involvement has not been established” is because there was none.

I assume Hubbard was thanking me for the meetings above and for my pro bono lecture in May 2002 to the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency on how what is known about learned helplessness could be used to help captured American soldiers resist and escape torture. Shaw might have gone to the trouble of asking Hubbard what he was thanking me for, as did David Hoffman, uncovering no further involvement.

The Hoffman report twice states that Seligman’s denial of any suspicion that the CIA’s interest in his theories was for use in interrogations is not credible.

The first I heard that the CIA might be using torture in interrogation was only years later when I read Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article. It never occurred to me before that. If I had known about the methods employed, I would not have discussed learned helplessness with them.

Shaw ends her reply by denouncing “groundless psychological assumption.” But her charge against me is essentially that I might have guessed how my work was being misused, and therefore I support torture. To throw around such serious charges based on such a flimsy psychological assumption is, as Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker noted [“Moral Psychology: An Exchange,” NYR, April 7], conduct unbecoming a philosopher.

Martin Seligman
Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tamsin Shaw replies:

Martin Seligman has repeatedly insisted that he is an opponent of torture. He tells us in his letter that he “strongly disapproves” of it. If he found himself at the very center of the terrible episode in our recent history in which the United States inflicted brutal torture on detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison, the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, and at CIA black sites, this was, he maintains, entirely unwittingly. And yet, since he was at the center of this episode, being in direct contact with the architects of the CIA’s torture program at the moment of its devising, there are some clear questions that a declared opponent of torture might have asked in his position.

In April 2002, Seligman was invited to give a lecture on his theory of learned helplessness (a theory perhaps better called “induced helplessness,” since it involves being placed under such psychologically devastating stress that the subject becomes helpless) at the SERE school in May of that year. He says he believed that this was solely for the purposes of helping captured American soldiers resist and evade torture. But he was not invited by the military. He was invited by members of the CIA. His principal contacts were James Mitchell and Kirk Hubbard, who attended a meeting at Seligman’s home in December 2001 and whose affiliations are listed, in the document produced by Seligman on that occasion, as CIA (Mitchell had moved to the CIA in 2001 after retiring from his position as a US Air Force instructor in the SERE school).

We now know from the 2008 report by the Senate Committee on Armed Services that Mitchell was working with Bruce Jessen, his former fellow SERE instructor, to write a report on the resistance techniques used by al-Qaeda and also to study ways in which the theory of learned helplessness, employed by them both previously in SERE training, could be used in interrogations. Seligman may have been ignorant of the fact that in April and May of 2002 he was participating in a new initiative in which the CIA and the US military would collaborate via the SERE program to devise “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But it might have occurred to him ask why the CIA should suddenly have made the resistance and survival of US military personnel a priority for agency psychologists, even if no clear explanation presented itself at the time.

One explanation for the CIA’s interest in SERE techniques was certainly available in 2002, in the form of press reports of CIA interrogations during this period. A story by Philip Shenon, published in The New York Times on April 26, 2002, stated that “non-violent forms of coercion” were being employed, with the assistance of psychologists, in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, though the Bush administration claimed that the techniques used, such as sleep deprivation, fell short of torture. In December 2002 The Washington Post published a lengthy article by Dana Priest and Barton Gellman on CIA interrogations, describing the use of techniques that many people would consider torture, such as blindfolding, being bound in painful positions, being subjected to loud noises, and sleep deprivation.

And yet Seligman claims in his letter that he had no suspicions that the CIA might be using torture in interrogations until he read Jane Mayer’s article “The Experiment” in The New Yorker in July 2005. This is an extraordinary claim. Since CBS first broadcast, on April 28, 2004, photographs of prisoners being abused at Abu Ghraib, there had been tremendous public debate about the issue in America. Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker in May 2004, had explicitly linked the abuses to CIA-led interrogations. The use of psychological techniques against prisoners featured heavily in many of the media reports.

And social psychology was discussed very frequently in attempts to explain the abuse, with former American Psychological Association President Philip Zimbardo writing Op-Eds and giving interviews on the psychological conditions under which the prison guards had acted. He raised significant issues concerning the resilience of prisoners under stressful conditions (resilience being one of Seligman’s core research interests). In June 2004, a memo issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 2002 was leaked (as reported, for example, in a Washington Post story of June 8, by Dana Priest and R. Jeffrey Smith), in which it was made clear that the line between legal interrogation techniques and torture was being blurred.

The 2002 memo, moreover, referred directly to an issue central to Seligman’s area of psychological expertise. In the Washington Post article of June 8, 2004, Priest and Smith wrote:

“For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture,” the memo said, “it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years.” Examples include the development of mental disorders, drug-induced dementia, “post traumatic stress disorder which can last months or even years, or even chronic depression.”

And yet Seligman, one of the most prominent behavioral scientists in the country, with direct links to the CIA and the military, on his own account somehow, according to his letter, remained unaware of the reports I have cited in The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as The New Yorker report by Seymour Hersh, and the grave moral and psychological questions they raised.

On January 1, 2005, The New York Times published an article by Neil Lewis that, according to the Hoffman report, alarmed many senior members of the APA. It described in some detail the way in which psychologists were assisting in “break[ing] down” detainees at Guántanamo Bay. In early 2005, well before Jane Mayer’s article in The New Yorker, further details emerged in articles by Gregg Bloche (in The New England Journal of Medicine) and Jonathan Marks (in the Los Angeles Times). But Martin Seligman insists that he remained oblivious to this crisis in his profession.

As I reported in my review, David Hoffman, the author of the Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture, concludes: “We think it would have been difficult not to suspect that one reason for the CIA’s interest in learned helplessness was to consider how it could be used in the interrogation of others.” But he also tells us, “We do not have enough information to know what Seligman knew or thought at the time.” The question of what Seligman was thinking remains a mystery. He has not offered us an account to replace our “groundless psychological assumption.”

That question has significance as a small part of a much broader set of concerns for the psychological profession. Hoffman notes that psychologists possess “a special skill regarding how our mind and emotions work,” one that permits them to heal damaged psyches but also confers on them a special ability to cause harm. At the same time, they are especially vulnerable to conflicts of interest, owing to the enormous sums of money that the Department of Defense pours into their field. They are therefore in a position in which very serious moral failings may possibly be enacted on a very large scale. When this happens they have a special moral responsibility to analyze what went wrong.

In discussing the actions of the leadership of the APA between 2004 and 2008, Hoffman tells us that “by June 2005, it would have been clear to all well-informed observers that abusive interrogation techniques had almost certainly occurred and that there was a substantial risk they were still occurring.” Senior APA officials, the report claims, failed to investigate unsubstantiated assurances from the Department of Defense that the abuse had been halted. Hoffman tells us:

In this situation in a criminal case, one would ask whether this intentional decision not to seek more information constituted “willful blindness” or “deliberate avoidance….” One common legal definition of “deliberate avoidance” in this context is “cutting off one’s curiosity through an effort of the will.”

But Hoffman and his team were not prosecuting a criminal case. Instead, they have provided us with an important public document and information on the basis of which any concerned person might reasonably ask questions of the leading psychologists involved. Such public questioning will inevitably make deliberate avoidance harder and we can hope that it might even elicit valuable insights and explanations. It should in any case be welcomed by all those concerned with the moral standing of an exceptionally powerful profession.