When Psychology Is Used For Torture | Sojourners

When Psychology Is Used For Torture

Image via Janaka Dharmasena/Shutterstock
Image via /Shutterstock

An independent report commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA) has found that the association secretly colluded with the Department of Defense and the CIA to weaken the APA’s ethical guidelines and allow psychologists to take part in government torture programs under the Bush administration post-9/11.

As shocking as this may seem, perhaps even more alarming is that the key player implicated in the report was the APA’s Ethics Director.

Following the release of the report, Ethics Director Stephen Behnke was removed from his position. But it would be a mistake to think that this was simply the result of one bad apple. As the Guardian reports, for more than a decade the APA has “rejected media reporting on psychologists’ complicity in torture; suppressed internal dissent from anti-torture doctors; cleared members of wrongdoing; and portrayed itself as a consistent ally against abuse.”Also telling is the report’s summary of the many APA emails and discussions it uncovered, which it describes as focused on strategizing how to gain power, influence, and how to present the APA favorably to the public, but virtually absent of any discussion of ethics — of what would be good and right to do.

It remains to be seen how the APA will act now that the report is out. Will there be widespread systemic changes? Or will the focus be on “damage control,” rather than meaningful reform? In other words, will we see needed repentance (and yes, that is exactly the word we need to use here), or just more marketing spin?

As a theologian who is married to a psychotherapist, I have always been a vocal advocate of the value of psychology in the pursuit of human flourishing. Psychology is considered one of the “healing professions.” A central tenant among all health care providers is “do no harm.”

Yet because psychologists deeply understand how our minds and emotions work, that knowledge can be used to heal, and it can also be used to harm — as is clearly the case here.

It is not hard to see that the APA has lost its way, forgetting its core reason for being in its attempt to garner influence and favor among the seats of power. But this is really not a story about a particular ethical blind spot among psychologists. It’s a story about how money can potentially corrupt all of us.

Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, "You cannot serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Matt 6:24)

In the case of the APA we might rephrase that "you cannot serve both ethics and money."

Such corruption is not a problem unique to the APA, the mental health professions, or even science more broadly. Politicians can be corrupted. Pastors and professors can be corrupted. Tech companies can be corrupted. In short, none of us are immune from the seduction of power and money. When that becomes our “bottom line,” our values and morals are quickly and easily pushed aside.

"Love of money" is a sin to which we Americans are especially prone. So if we as Christians are concerned not to be “conformed to the values of this world,” we need to learn to pay special attention to the seduction of money and power, and be awake to the language of spin — regardless of the source.