Although psychologists are better known for interpreting the dreams of others, sometimes we have nightmares of our own. The one recounted here took shape after I read the recent task force report on detainee treatment from the bipartisan Constitution Project. That report confirmed that the United States has indisputably tortured “war on terror” prisoners – and that psychologists and other health professionals played critical roles in the systematic abuse. The following description of past events and the glimpse into an imagined dark future reflect the failure of psychology’s leaders to adequately prioritize and defend the profession’s ethical commitment to doing no harm. What has already happened cannot be changed, but there are alternative paths forward. I believe the most promising one for my profession requires dedicated and unflinching efforts directed toward accountability and reform.
It was June 2025, and balloons, streamers, and fanfare celebrated the grand opening of the American Psychological Association’s new headquarters and museum at the former Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba. Although a wave of mass resignations had followed the Association’s controversial decision to move its home from Washington, DC, pragmatists viewed the unsolicited offer from the White House as simply too good to refuse: rent-free use of the facility in exchange for the APA’s continuing and uncompromising fealty to the Department of Defense and the CIA. Aside from the ubiquitous surveillance cameras that still remained, the military’s presence on the base was now restricted to a remote site that held those prisoners whose torture made them unsuitable for either trial or release. A small “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” sign hung unobtrusively above that isolated cellblock door.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written nearly 200 years ago, a young scientist brings to life a hideous monster made of body parts collected from slaughterhouses, dissecting rooms, and graveyards. Dr. Frankenstein is immediately horrified and sickened by what he has created, and he abandons the creature. Alone and shunned by society, the monster later returns and pleads with the doctor to create a mate for him. The remorseful Dr. Frankenstein hesitantly consents, but he stops his work when moral qualms and fears of unknown consequences intercede. Vengeful and enraged, the monster returns again and murders the doctor’s new bride on their wedding night. Dr. Frankenstein vows to spend his remaining years tracking down and killing his grotesque creation, but he himself dies before achieving this final goal.
Sadly, there is no shortage of arenas where the tale of Frankenstein – of science unmoored from values, of ambition unrestrained by conscience – resonates powerfully today. One that stands out for many psychologists is the American Psychological Association’s (APA) ongoing, decade-long embrace of “war on terror” opportunities that have placed U.S. psychologists at the center of coercive interrogations and other human rights abuses.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the infamous memo by John Yoo and Jay Bybee that authorized waterboarding and other forms of torture, as part of the Bush administration’s "war on terror." In the years that followed, psychologists acted as planners, consultants, researchers, and overseers to many coercive interrogations at Guantanamo, Bagram, and CIA black sites. Despite this profound abandonment of professional ethics, the Department of Defense argued that psychologists help to keep interrogations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective” -- and the American Psychological Association (APA) tragically agreed. The fictional account below, written last year, explores these disturbing realities. Readers interested in supporting a change in APA policy are encouraged to join thousands of others in signing the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology's PENS Report annulment petition at www.ethicalpsychology.org/pens).
"We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all." These were the words of Lord Brian Griffiths, Goldman Sachs international adviser, when he spoke at London's St. Paul's Cathedral last fall. With inequality at historic levels here in the United States and around the world, it's a reassuring message we all might wish to be true.
Unfortunately, scientific research reveals a sharply different reality: inequality is a driving force behind many of our most profound social ills. The Equality Trust reviewed thousands of studies conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the World Bank. Consistent patterns emerged, both between and within countries. Inequality is associated with diminished levels of physical and mental health, child well-being, educational achievement, social mobility, trust, and community life. And it is linked to increased levels of violence, drug use, imprisonment, obesity, and teenage births. In short, Lord Griffiths' claim--despite the venue--was a self-serving fiction.
The role that psychologists--and the American Psychological Association--have played in the context of national security detainee abuse and torture is a pressing concern for the profession of psychology and for everyone committed to human rights.
Many excellent resources are available on this deeply troubling topic--including a variety of carefully researched and exceptional articles, books, and documentaries. Especially valuable as well are the growing number of government reports and other official documents that have now become publicly available.
In an effort to make this information more readily accessible to those who might be interested, I have recently completed a 10-minute online video (below) entitled “No Place to Hide: Torture, Psychologists, and the APA.” It provides a brief, timely overview of what has unfolded over the past several years and where things stand today.
In recent weeks, new revelations about the harsh interrogation and torture of detainees during the Bush administration years have made headlines and stirred controversy. The positions of prominent advocates and opponents on each side are clear. But what do we know about how the American people in general have come to view the use of torture by the U.S. government?
The morning after last November's historic election, triumphant chants of "Yes We Did" drowned out the Obama campaign message of "Yes We Can." Now only four months later enthusiasm has waned, and last Friday the President felt the need to reassure reporters on Air Force One, "I don’t think that people should be fearful about our future."
The striking contrast highlights the fact that any long and difficult journey should be measured in two parts – the distance already traveled, and the distance still left to go. Both measurements are necessary to really understand how much progress you've made toward reaching your destination. Neither one alone is sufficient.
Stocks plummet on Wall Street. Home foreclosures mount across the country. Shameless finger pointing and disavowals swirl in the nation’s capital. And a recent Gallup poll finds that a record-low 9% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States.
The frightening numbers and front-page headlines certainly cry out for immediate short-term solutions. But they also raise a crucial question with long-term implications: How is it that our country’s powerful and self-interested defenders of the status quo so consistently succeed at suppressing popular outrage and combating calls for broad-based, progressive social change?
It's only fitting that a truly memorable demonstration of human gullibility will mark its 70th anniversary just before Election Day. On the night of October 30, 1938, thousands of radio listeners concluded that Orson Welles' adaptation of The War of the Worlds was the real thing: a live account of Martian invaders landing in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Those fooled by the show's air of authenticity exhibited signs of panic and hysteria. Some called the police for guidance on how they could protect themselves. Some fled their homes for greater safety farther from the invasion site. And some listeners fainted beside their radios. Within hours the hoax was fully revealed, and public outrage swiftly followed.
Today, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin seem intent on creating similar mass confusion for their own purposes.
Imagine people randomly divided into two groups for a simple psychology experiment. Those assigned to one group are asked two questions. First, “Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 140?” And then, “How old was Gandhi when he died?” Meanwhile, those in the other group are asked the same followup question, but their first question is “Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 9?”
The results of actual studies just like this one are quite consistent and robust, and they may surprise you. Participants given “140 years” as their initial comparison point think that Gandhi lived much longer than those who were given “9 years” instead. Findings like these demonstrate what psychologists call the “anchoring effect”: our strong tendency to make judgments that are biased toward arbitrary standards of comparison. The plausibility of these comparison “anchors” makes no difference to us--we rely on them regardless. As another example, research subjects asked whether Einstein’s first visit to the United States occurred before or after 1992 give a much more recent estimate of when he arrived than those asked whether he visited before or after the year 1215.
Many of us view the calendar's turn from 2007 to 2008 as an opportunity to start anew and to improve upon the year just past. But despite this resolve, it's easy to predict that 2008 will be another year filled with small slips and large blunders. As a psychologist whose work focuses on five core concerns--about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness--that are especially powerful influences in our personal and collective lives, I offer this list of ten mistakes I'll probably make on the way to 2009.
The White House's propaganda campaign laying the groundwork for military action against Iran dates back almost six years--to Bush's 2002 State of the Union address in which he designated Iran as a founding member of the "axis of evil." Since then, this drumbeat has waxed and waned as other concerns--primarily the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq--have often commanded center stage. Now, with the Bush administration approaching its final year in office, a renewed push and a shorter fuse are increasingly evident. The 3-minute video above entitled "Forewarned is Forearmed: Bush on Iran" offers a very brief but deeply troubling chronicle of the president's public warmongering and demonization of Iran. As has been said before, "the hour is getting late."