Jay Richards Ph.D.

The Violent Mind

The Psychology of Torture

Cognitive behavioral theory got it wrong, but how?

Posted Feb 04, 2015

In my previous post, I called for the ouster from the American Psychological Association of two psychologists, James Mitchell and John Jessen, who were instrumental in developing the torture component of enhanced interrogations used by American military and intelligence agencies in the War on Terror. Neither the facts nor the indignation in my post were new. But my critique differs from the majority in one key way: I believe that the reason these two psychologists ended up doing what they did and that the APA allowed it to happen, has to do with fundamental flaws in Cognitive Behavioral Theory (CPT), the dominant theoretical approach and training model for professional psychology.

My criticism, put most bluntly, is that CBT is a theory that (like its predecessor, radical behaviorism) has largely cut itself off from psychology’s origins in the philosophy of mind and philosophical anthropology. As a result, it has lost its ethical anchor and can be used, for good or for ill, by nearly any person or initiative, regardless of their motives. The CBT model emphasizes efficiency and technical precision in helping people to change their behavior, which is well and good. However, CBT does not address the broader issues of human wellbeing and freedom. CBT utterly fails to answer the 21st century’s call to holism.  It is essentially an educational and exhortation model of the folk psychology of positive thinking that was dominant prior to the development of scientific psychology. It dumbs down the change process and splinters the image of the person into manageable chunks, neglecting the person as the sole point of convergence and unification. This model has grown exponentially over the last three decades largely because it has placed itself at the service of managed mental health care as an important tool for accounting and cost reduction in mental health.

By contrast, psychoanalysis has continuity with psychology’s philosophical heritage and has as its anchor a profound commitment to the practice of multi-leveled self-awareness which includes the aspects of self and society which tend to be disavowed, denied or at best minimized or ignored.  Psychoanalysis continues to be in dialog with philosophy and with basic questions that are at the foundation of the healing practices, such as the basis of secular ethics, and the meaning of personhood, freedom, responsibility, and community. The influence of psychoanalysis has withered in proportion to CBT largely due to the widespread growth of managed care companies, and the near elimination of care itself, which often proves to be a sprawling enterprise that is hard to accomplish in the usual allotment of seven sessions.

How did the philosophical blind side of CBT contribute to Mitchell and Jessen’s ethical breeches and to APA’s failure to respond? Mitchell and Jessen used Martin Seligman’s “learned helplessness” as the model for their interrogation interventions. Although CBT’s origin is usually attributed to former psychoanalyst Aaron Beck, Seligman’s early work contributed significantly to the scientific credentials of the model, and his current work on Positive Psychology continues to do so. In the mid-1960’s, Martin Seligman developed the learned helplessness model by performing experiments in which dogs were exposed to the trauma of being electrically shocked. Some dogs were pre-conditioned by being given painful electrical shocks in a cage in which the exit gate was blocked. Later these same dogs failed to escape the shocks by escaping through an unlocked gate. They had learned helplessness from their previous traumatic experiences and would not take the initiative required to escape being traumatized again. This was interpreted as a kind of negative operant conditioning, learning how not to learn and inducing helplessness to the point of blocking further inquiry about the traumatizing environment. These humanized animals (dogs were used not rats) were not only rendered helpless, they were unavoidably terrorized and forced to suffered the awareness of impending pain without being able to understand any reason for it. As a result of the success of this study and others like it, Seligman was elected to be APA’s president by the widest margin in its history in 1995, marking the triumph of CBT.

Mitchell and Jessen’s extrapolation from this model to an interrogation model was as simple as it was diabolical. They proposed that if traumatized detainees, like the dogs of Seligman’s early experiments, learn that they are helpless and they will transfer all power in the interrogation transaction to the interrogator, and do anything the interrogator demands. In order for this to work, the prisoner has to be thoroughly convinced that their situation is inescapable and under the total control of their handlers. They must not even be allowed the autonomy to basic physiological self-regulation such as eating, sleeping, elimination (deprivations that not even the experimental animals faced), and they must be deprived all forms of personal security or dignity. If we exchange their CBT-based theoretical framework for a theological one, the result is hauntingly familiar to the rationale for the “research program” of Tomas de Torquemata, the infamous Spanish Grand Inquisitor who also tortured Muslims, Jews and “nominal” Christians during the Inquisition.

APA Division 39, which is devoted to Psychoanalysis, has aggressively demanded that the torture issue be addressed (in contrast to the official stance of the APA as a whole). The Psychoanalytic Activist, the newsletter of Psychoanalysts for Social Responsibility, has reported and advocated around this issue since 2005.

Why is it that the minority opinion on the torture issue is coming from a group devoted to social responsibility, an issue that many psychologists and the public see as a historical sidebar? It could be that groups in the minority on theoretical and clinical practice issues are more willing to diverge from the majority on political and ethical issues as well. It could be that in its pointing to APA’s dark side, Division 39 is simply following its historical roots. During the Third Reich, for instance, the German psychoanalysts were the Socratic gadflies who kept asking the difficult questions, challenging the Nazi narrative, until they eventually shared Socrates’s fate. Their ideas were attributed their Jewishness, their books were burned, and their institutes were shut down. These are all important points. But I propose that the primary reason that many psychoanalysts have taken a stand regarding torture stems in part from their connection with psychology’s philosophical roots.

Psychoanalysis was created by Freud to reconcile his experience in the psychiatric consulting room with his training as a neurophysiologist, his understanding of Socratic/Platonic philosophy of mind, and with the insights of German romantic “dark side” poetry. Psychoanalysis stressed the reality that humans are often unaware, at a conscious level, of what they are doing, or why they are doing it.  Psychoanalysis views both culture and mind as insidiously deceptive, lulling us into doing do what we want to do, even when these desires run counter to reason, logic, and morality.  Psychoanalysis continues to be nurtured by a tragic sense of life in which heroism and even the pursuit of happiness will always fail to meet the human longing for completion and psychic rest, the Second Coming, when all drives have met their objects.  Psychoanalysis treats dreams, fantasies, accidental behaviors, mistakes, jokes, and most importantly psychiatric symptoms as important phenomena that help us understand how the unconscious works.  At the cultural level, folkways, fairy tales, myths and legend, religious practice, and the like are viewed by psychoanalysts as carriers of unconscious messages and motives. These phenomena, which are of critical importance to psychoanalysis, are almost completely empty of meaning in the CBT model, which often sees them as superfluous to the efficient management of behavior.

I think that if Mitchell and Jessen had paid attention to these kinds of unconscious phenomena during their training as psychologists, and not been dominated by the managerial culture of the CBT, they may have made different decisions about promoting, engaging in, and profiting from torture. More importantly, I am saying that psychoanalysis represents an element that must have been virtually absent from their socialization as psychologists. An important part of becoming a psychoanalytically informed therapist is undertaking an unremitting self-examination. Psychoanalysts in training engage in their own analysis (or supervision that resembles analysis) while they simultaneously provide closely supervised therapy to people seeking psychological help.  Such trainees are expected to learn about their own inner demons and to recognize how these uncontrolled aspects of self place limits their effectiveness as psychologists and sometimes result in harm to their patients. They encouraged to acknowledge when their interventions and intentions fall between the cracks, the ever-present gap between theory and professional intentions and the reality of the patient as a person.

I do not presume to know the specifics of Jesson and Mitchell’s practical training in psychology beyond what is reflected their dissertation and research interests. I would be very surprised, however, if these psychologists had ever engaged in an extensive process of learning to understand and come to terms with their unconscious processes—including the dark side of themselves—and how the elusive aspects of their own psyches affects their work as psychologists. The total absence of this openness to and serious curiosity about to the actual relationships among their motives, values, and desires make Jessen and Mitchell poster-boys for an unintegrated, amoral psychology. A  psychology which can contribute to unethical and immoral practices as extreme as torture.