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positives and negatives of psychological research – a case study of sorts

October 18, 2010

Not exactly sure what to make of this (click on the headline to get the Salon.com article):

“War on terror” psychologist gets giant no-bid contract

The Army has handed a $31 million deal to Dr. Martin Seligman, who once blasted academics for “forgetting 9/11”

Here’s the short story as I understand it:

  • 1965 Seligman initiated research on “learned helplessness” – especially how feelings of helplessness tied to depression and a general breakdown of mental functioning
  • 1980s-1990s Seligman shifted focus and became very influential within the developing field of “positive psychology” – understanding the strengths of human psyche and how we can improve the lives of all people (not just those dealing with a mental illness)
  • 1998 Seligman elected as president of the American Psychological Association
  • 2001 Following 9-11, interest was piqued in both of his areas of expertise:
    • “Government documents say that the goal of Bush-era torture was to drive prisoners into the same psychologically devastated state through abuse. “The express goal of the CIA interrogation program was to induce a state of ‘learned helplessness,'” according to a July 2009 report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.” (from the Salon.com article)
    • Seligman spoke at SERE training sessions in 2002 and hosted the behavioral specialists associated with the program in 2001 – SERE is “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape” training, providing elite soldiers the training they need to handle possible capture (and torture) by enemy troops. The behavioral scientists associated with the program developed the interrogation standards and practices that have been highly controversial and many feel cross the threshold of torture.
  • Recently, the University of Pennsylvania, where Seligman heads the Positive Psychology Center, was awarded a $31 million “no-bid” contract (based on the presumption that Seigman’s center was able to provide unique expertise and guidance) for the implementation of a program that would help soldiers deal with the stresses associated with multiple tours of duty.
  • Numerous individuals cry foul – they see the award as pay back for the “help” of Seligman in developing a program of torture
  • Seligman replies (from Salon.com article): “In his correspondence with Salon, Seligman said the CIA and military appear to have hijacked his learned helplessness work without his knowledge or consent. ‘I am grieved and horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such dubious purposes,’ he wrote in an e-mail. ‘Most importantly, I have never and would never provide assistance in torture. I strongly disapprove of it.'”

Science does not exist in a vacuum. When Seligman began his study of learned helplessness in 1965, it was somewhat by accident but surely with no eye to someday exploiting the theories and techniques to compromise the mental health of detainees. His work arguably improved the lives of many people suffering from depression – the insight that the helplessness associated with depression could be a learned state prompted new forms of treatment (Seligman later developed a counter to learned helplessness that he called “learned optimism”). His more recent focus on positive psychology has reflected a shift in how we think of mental illness and how psychologists see themselves as able to uphold the commitment to help people. The events that have unfolded since 9-11 illustrate how both of his areas of expertise can become entangled due to a single event. There is a clear theoretical link between the concepts of learned helplessness and positive psychology (two sides of the coin), but it is easy to lose sight of the relationship when individuals involved with the SERE training sought to exploit both the positive and negative aspects to gain some advantage in “the war on terror”. In their hands, it becomes one big mess of coercive interrogation and water-boarding and how American troops can be trained to handle the rigors of such experiences.

The Salon.com article notes that Seligman holds a “conservative” political view, and he most definitely had connections to the SERE program and some of the individuals involved. He stated publicly that he thought scientists should avail themselves to helping win the war on terrorism. However, these facts together don’t make the contract to the Positive Psychology Center a “pay-off” for Seligman assisting the development of the Bush era torture program (unfortunately, the military is well-known for making contract awards that later come under scrutiny). Complicated times can complicate the science of the times. Or something like that.

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