Psychologists and Torture: We Need Root-and-Branch Reform

A Guantanamo Bay detainee's feet are shackled to the floor inside the high-security detention facility, April 27, 2010. Michelle Shephard/Pool/Reuters

The release of the independent report on the American Psychological Association's ethics guidelines, national security interrogations and torture has brought renewed attention to a number of important issues as the four-day APA annual convention opens on August 6 in Toronto.

The report is the result of an independent investigation by attorney David H. Hoffman, and it outlines the APA's engagement with the Department of Defense in the interrogation and torture of detainees during President George W. Bush's war on terror.

On the one hand, it is important to restate that the psychology profession and its professionals do not condone the torture of a human being under any circumstances. On the other, this ethical and professional crisis within the APA is one that must be directly and thoughtfully addressed.

The APA does have guidelines regarding the role that psychologists in military and national security contexts might properly assume in government-authorized "enhanced interrogations." Known as the "Psychological Ethics and National Security" report, this critical professional directive took far too long to be generated, and the guidelines were too ambiguous and weak to be helpful when they arrived.

The members and leaders of the APA have to ask how this crisis really happened. They must hold the whole organization responsible: the CEO and the board of directors; the senior executives and the professional staff; the association president, council of representatives and other governance bodies; and the members themselves.

All have been contributors in different ways to an organizational culture that was vulnerable and lacked sufficient accountability. Even the recent press release announcing the retirement of several APA senior leaders made no mention that this scandal happened on their watch, and the APA leadership communications around this issue seem content to limit responsibility for the crisis to one or a few individuals and to urge the membership to "move ahead."

The APA took an important step (albeit delayed for years and only in response to sustained pressure) in asking for an independent investigation by outside counsel. Unfortunately, the investigators' report reads a bit too much like a novel that identifies culprits, speculates on individual motivations and creates a tale of intrigue. Several people are caricatured, seemingly to fit the narrative, even though their character and integrity are highly respected by those who know their work.

Quite unfortunately, the organization itself seems to be comfortable with the idea that a very few bad apples were responsible for the crisis and that these have been dismissed or publicly criticized. Yet experience teaches us that individuals alone are rarely the principal cause of such complex and far-reaching adverse incidents.

The famous Stanford Prison Experiment, funded by the Office of Naval Research, found that a bad culture can lead good people to do terrible things. College students who were assigned roles as guards became very cruel, and those deemed prisoners responded with extreme submission, to the point where the researchers abruptly terminated the study.

Research from many studies in social and organizational psychology has similar lessons to teach about the potential for dysfunction and even toxicity within group and organizational cultures. It may be efficient for the APA to lay blame upon a few individuals and to terminate or publicly shame them. It may feel temporarily satisfying for members of the organization to sadly, angrily or self-righteously resign. But the truth is that these actions are never sufficient to bring deep and enduring organizational change.

Real change starts with a willingness to courageously and objectively examine the structure, culture and the behavior of the organization in all its complexity, and to work with employees and members to make necessary changes in values, goals, policies and practices.

In appearance, for example, the APA seems to be two organizations: one a publishing company with a large professional staff and an investment in expanding its business, and the other a professional society with members who are committed to the science and practice of psychology to enhance psychological knowledge and the well-being of individuals, organizations, communities and society. It is not the only professional society with such apparent conflicts of interest.

Can these two disparate internal entities coexist? Is the APA really able to make these very different operations congruent and effective with its current structure? What are the problems in governance, leadership, accountability, transparency and practice that have facilitated both this ethical scandal and the apparent personnel and public relations errors in addressing it?

The opportunity in this crisis resides in the willingness of the APA to submit itself to further impartial review by external experts in organizational psychology and leadership. This should take a good deal of time to be done comprehensively.

The psychology profession must share the responsibility for ensuring that this type of examination happens so that a crisis like this does not happen again. Everyone must resist the temptation to conveniently assign blame to a few individuals or to separate from the APA at a time when their involvement is crucial.

Rather, members must become highly engaged stakeholders in the process of organizational self-examination and renewal because there is great value in a well-functioning APA for professionals and for those with whom we engage as psychologists.

Nicholas Covino is president of William James College.