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How the American Psychological Association Lost Its Way

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Here is an op-ed written with my colleague Jean Maria Arrigo that appeared last week in the Los Angeles Times:

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The American Psychological Association is in crisis.

It began last December, when a Senate Intelligence Committee report laid bare the extensive involvement of individual psychologists in the CIA's black-site torture program. Then in early July a devastating independent report by a former federal prosecutor determined that more than a decade ago top APA leaders -- including the director of ethics -- began working secretly with military representatives. Together they crafted deceptively permissive ethics policies for psychologists that effectively enabled abusive interrogation of war-on-terror prisoners to continue.

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These revelations have shocked and outraged not just psychologists, but also the public at large. After all, the APA's ethics code for psychologists governs not only its own 80,000 members, but also underlies the policies of most state licensing boards.

The fallout will be on full display next month as the APA -- the world's largest association of psychology practitioners, researchers, and educators -- holds its annual convention in Toronto. There, APA authorities will face members' confusion and rage during three APA Council governance meetings, a three-day teach-in organized by Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and open town hall meetings. Can this soul-searching be channeled into fruitful reforms, not just to the organization, but for the future of the field? A lot is at stake in the weeks ahead.

The APA got into this mess by holding tightly to a deeply flawed assumption: that psychology should embrace every opportunity to expand its sphere of influence.

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The APA's relationship with military intelligence dates back to its contributions in critical areas such as aptitude assessment and teamwork during world wars I and II. After the 9/11 attacks, the APA sought to become an indispensable source of psychological expertise for counter-terrorism efforts at the Pentagon and CIA. Along with other health professionals, psychologists got placed in key roles in clandestine interrogation operations. When this made headlines, both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association issued declarations against their members' participation.

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Roy Eidelson is a psychologist who studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a member of (more...)
 

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