Four Psychologists at the Gates of Hell

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

— Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll


This is a story of four siblings with improbable names: Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective. Just as improbably, they all grew up to become psychologists, each with a different area of professional focus. Over many years of independent practice, the four gained considerable recognition for their expertise. Eventually, they joined together to form a high-profile, all-in-one firm in which each sibling’s specialized contributions complemented the others.’

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Protecting Psychologists Who Harm: The APA’s Latest Wrong Turn


Shortly after learning about the American Psychological Association’s (APA) new “Member-Initiated Task Force to Reconcile Policies Related to Psychologists’ Involvement in National Security Settings,” I found my thoughts turning to the School of the Americas, Blackwater and, perhaps even more surprisingly, the Patagonian toothfish. Those may seem like a strange threesome, but they share one important thing in common. All have undergone a thorough repackaging and renaming in a marketing effort aimed at obscuring — but not altering — some ugly truth.

The School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, had become infamous for training Latin American soldiers who would return home and engage in repressive campaigns involving rape, torture, and murder of political dissidents. To combat its negative image, the school was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but the nature of its activities remain largely unchanged. During the Iraq War, Blackwater, a private military company supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. government contracts, gained international notoriety on many counts, including its use of excessive and often deadly force against Iraqi civilians. The company therefore renamed itself — twice — first as Xe Services and then again as Academi, with essentially the same core businesses. As for the Patagonian toothfish, it’s wrong to blame the fish itself. But in an effort to spur sales, merchants renamed it Chilean sea bass (for similar reasons, the slimehead fish is now known as orange roughy instead).  

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“Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective”?: It’s Time to Annul the PENS Report

Many viewers were outraged this past August watching NBC’s Today Show interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney. Promoting the release of his new memoir, Cheney nodded in agreement when Matt Lauer noted that the VP continues to support waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” (e.g., stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation, fear induction). Lauer also quoted a key passage from the book: “The program was safe, legal, and effective. It provided intelligence that enabled us to prevent attacks and save American lives” (emphasis added).

Cheney’s “safe-legal-effective” catechism is all too familiar to psychologists like me. It’s three-quarters of a phrase that has defined professional psychology’s decade-long ethical tailspin in the national security sector since the attacks of 9/11. And hearing these words again, I recalled an earlier interview with Stephen Behnke, Director of the Ethics Office of the American Psychological Association (APA). In August 2005, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! asked Dr. Behnke to explain the conclusions of the APA’s then newly released Presidential Report on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The Report advocated the continuing involvement of psychologists in the interrogation of national security detainees. Dr. Behkne offered this summary: “The Task Force said that psychologists must adhere, and they used four words to describe psychologist involvement: safe, legal, ethical, and effective” (emphasis added).

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The Dark Side of “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness”

(NOTE: My thanks to co-authors Marc Pilisuk and Stephen Soldz.)

Why is the world's largest organization of psychologists so aggressively promoting a new, massive, and untested military program? The APA's enthusiasm for mandatory "resilience training" for all US soldiers is troubling on many counts.

The January 2011 issue of the American Psychologist, the American Psychological Association's (APA) flagship journal, is devoted entirely to 13 articles that detail and celebrate the virtues of a new US Army-APA collaboration. Built around positive psychology and with key contributions from former APA President Martin Seligman and his colleagues, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is a $125 million resilience training initiative designed to reduce and prevent the adverse psychological consequences of combat for our soldiers and veterans. While these are undoubtedly worthy aspirations, the special issue is nevertheless troubling in several important respects: the authors of the articles, all of whom are involved in the CSF program, offer very little discussion of conceptual and ethical considerations; the special issue does not provide a forum for any independent critical or cautionary voices whatsoever; and through this format, the APA itself has adopted a jingoistic cheerleading stance toward a research project about which many crucial questions should be posed. We discuss these and related concerns below.

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Gay Marriage, the Manchester Grand Hyatt, and the APA

manchesterLate last month, American Psychological Association president-elect Carol Goodheart sent an email to APA’s Council of Representatives alerting them to a problem looming on the horizon. Several years ago, the APA entered a contract with the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego to be a headquarters hotel for the 2010 annual convention next August. But last year, hotel owner Doug Manchester contributed $125,000 to support California’s Proposition 8 initiative, which ultimately succeeded in banning same-sex marriage in the state.

In her email on behalf of the Board of Directors, Dr. Goodheart requested that “APA Divisions and governance members not boycott the Manchester Hyatt.” She warned that the financial costs of canceling the hotel contract could exceed $1 million. And she proposed that APA instead turn the situation into a “positive educational opportunity regarding the issue of same-sex marriage.”

Dissatisfied with and troubled by Dr. Goodheart’s letter and its recommendations, I sent her the letter below in response to her request for “other actions that APA might take.”

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No Place to Hide: Torture, Psychologists, and the APA


The role that psychologists and the American Psychological Association (APA) have played in the context of detainee abuse and torture is a pressing concern for the profession of psychology and for everyone committed to human rights.

There are now many excellent resources available for those interested in learning more and taking action–including carefully researched articles and books, exceptional documentaries, and an increasing number of publicly available official documents.

My 10-minute video above–“No Place to Hide: Torture, Psychologists, and the APA”–provides a brief, timely overview of what has unfolded over the past several years and where things stand today. I extend my thanks to colleagues who have shared their insights and expertise with me.

The video is also available on YouTube at