Prominent positive psychologist Martin Seligman, whose work on "learned helplessness" was utilized by CIA interrogators on detainees (and directly fed into the development of a torture technique known as "confinement-in-a-box," according to the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR)), was recently a beneficiary of a no-bid contract of $31 million to the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman heads the Positive Psychology Center at the University, which is headed by Seligman, to provide "resilience training" to U.S. soldiers.
The news of this award caught my attention because I earned the honor just over a year ago of being someone who received an automated letter from Seligman. The letter entered my inbox because I brought attention to his connection to CIA torture and human experimentation on detainees and the reality that psychologists had been complicitly involved.
The article Seligman responded to was titled, "Doctors Aided CIA Interrogators, Human Experimentation." It was a piece on the PHR report, "Aiding Torture," which mentioned Seligman. Seligman took issue primarily with this section, where I detailed PHR's claim that Seligman's "learned helplessness" research helped CIA develop torture techniques:
"Confinement in a box was devised as a direct appropriation of Martin Seligman's research on "learned helplessness." In fact, on at least two occasions, Seligman presented his learned helplessness research to CIA contract interrogators referred to in the Inspector General report. In Seligman's experiment, dogs were confined to boxes in which they discovered that familiar mechanisms of control would no longer have an effect in avoiding pain"
The man, who will now be teaching soldiers how to cope with the strain of multiple combat tours (in other words, repress the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so they can live after war or continue to serve in the military), outlined his "knowledge" of the "torture controversy." Here is the entire letter (which has been sent in some form to others who have followed U.S. torture of detainees closely in the past years):
September 1, 2009
Here is what I know about the torture controversy:
I gave a three hour lecture sponsored by the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency at the San Diego Naval Base in mid-May 2002. I was invited to speak about how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors. This is what I spoke about.
I was told then that since I was (and am) a civilian with no security clearance that they could not detail American methods of interrogation with me. I was also told then that their methods did not use "violence" or "brutality." James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were in the audience of between 50 and 100 others at my speech.
A report dated August 31, 2009 by the Physicians for Human Rights states: "In fact, on at least two occasions, Seligman presented his learned helplessness research to CIA contract interrogators referred to in the Inspector General's report."
This is false. On one occasion, the two contractors the report referred to (presumably Mitchell and Jessen) were present in an audience of about 50-100 people when I presented my research on learned helplessness. I did not present it "to them." I presented it "to" the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency. I spoke about how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness to evade successful interrogation by their captors. There was no other occasion on which I presented my research to Mitchell and Jessen or to any other people associated with this controversy.
I have not had contact with JPRA or SERE since that meeting. I have had no professional contact with Jessen and Mitchell since then. I have never worked under government contract (or any other contract) on any aspect of torture, nor would I be willing to do work on torture.
I have never worked on interrogation; I have never seen an interrogation and I have only a passing knowledge of the literature on interrogation. With that qualification, my opinion is that the point of interrogation is to get at the truth, not to get at what the interrogator wants to hear. I think learned helplessness would make someone more passive, less defiant and more compliant, but I know of no evidence that it leads reliably to more truth-telling.
I am grieved and horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such dubious purposes.