Making Sense of the APA Debacle

This is an email letter which I sent to members of the Chicago Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology, of which I’m President, about the American Psychological Association’s involvement in psychological torture and related issues.

Hi Everyone.  Here’s my July-August President’s letter.

Making Sense of the APA Debacle

I’ve been trying to get my head around the crisis in APA, to rise above the anger and sense of betrayal, to achieve some distance and perspective; what I call the “helicopter view.”  There’s a lot to process:  the Division 39 listserve is abuzz with dialog and information, the Hoffman Report is over 500 pages, and the Executive Summary alone is 72 pages long.  The report is available on the APA website (

What Seems to have Happened

It looks like a small group of people in APA leadership, some more aware than others of what they were doing, in direct and/or indirect collaboration with the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the Department of Justice, modified APA’s ethical code in the post 9-11-01 period, and misused APA’s governance procedures, to confer APA approval for psychologists’ participation in psychological torture (“enhanced interrogation”), without adequate consultation of the membership for a decision of this magnitude.  There followed 14 years of cover-ups by misleading statements, executive secrecy and bullying, thwarting the attempts of colleagues, including outstanding Division 39 members, to bring this to light.  When it became national news, as part of journalist James Risen’s reporting on national security in the post 9-11-01 period (in his book, “Pay Any Price”), APA leadership, by now including officers who had not been involved in hijacking the ethical code and covering it up, commissioned an independent investigation, which produced the Hoffman Report.  And here we are.

How to Understand It

How can we understand what happened?  Some of the players in this fiasco benefitted economically.   Some may have truly believed that psychological torture was appropriate after the nation was attacked.  (it isn’t; aside from the basic humanity issue, the bad information from torture far outweighs the good, and it creates far more enemies than it disposes.  Trained military interrogators warned against it.)  The behavior of APA’s chief ethicist, who worked for the Department of Defense while in charge of ethics for APA, will probably be in future ethics textbooks.  But at the heart of this matter is the behavior of psychological leaders who lent their considerable professional stature and authority to advancing the social status of psychology at the expense of the meaning of psychology.  They wielded their power in the pursuit of power, and used it to dismiss the concerns of more conscientious colleagues with dissimulation, condescension, contempt, and/or threats.  Some of them are issuing apologies now—“I didn’t know, I trusted what I was told, I was trying to do the best for psychology”—but such explanations don’t say much for the depth of psychological knowledge and ethical discernment of some of the profession’s leading figures.  The meaning of psychology has been lost to APAs leadership, not because a small group of misled and/or unscrupulous people hijacked the national association, but because the highest psychological officials not only allowed it to happen but consistently obstructed efforts to open the matter to transparent review by the membership.  This is not about psychology, as a science and profession; it is about power.

Throughout its history, psychology has been seen as a second-class social entity.  Unlike the physical sciences and medicine, which mainly live by their results, psychology has struggled with defining what valid science and practice are, with conflicting definitions entangled in turf wars.  As psychology struggled to establish its credibility, the social status and economic viability that psychologists seek have generally been hard won by some, and elusive for many.  Even the procedure codes through which many of us earn our livings, and the catalog of mental disorders which qualify patients for our services, are still mainly written by and for physicians.  Many of APA’s real achievements have been about establishing psychologists’ eligibility to practice; through state licensure, participation in Medicare (where we are still very much second class citizens) and eligibility for insurance reimbursement; always with the fear that the rug might be pulled out from under us at any time.  (Which may have contributed to the “apparently mandatory dues for lobbying” fiasco, settled by APA, so the improper taking of member dues will be paid for by member dues and there will be no transparency or accountability for that episode.)  Even though APA is “the world’s largest association of psychologists” (Wikipedia), you can’t say that psychology has arrived under those circumstances.

Weaponizing psychology (“enhanced interrogation”), establishing a scientific foundation for practice comparable to that of medicine (“evidence-based practice,” a phrase borrowed from medicine and then perversely weaponized in the therapy turf wars), and acquiring prescriptive privileges for psychologists, have all been excluded from thoughtful and transparent consideration among the APA membership.  Instead, they have become platforms for those seeking to empower psychology into a social entity on par with medicine and the physical sciences.

Where Do We Go From Here

APA has to reconnect itself with the meaning of psychology, and it can’t do that through ethics–although we need to revise our compromised ethics–or slogans.  One of the lessons of this debacle is that there is no ethical code that can’t be usurped and undermined by a suitably motivated and empowered group.

Psychology—in its meaning as the study of human nature by methods appropriate to its subject— has acquired a great deal of knowledge about human nature, and how individuals and groups behave.  In psychoanalytic psychology, Freud, Jung, and Adler, among others, show how power can be sought and misused, for reasons which the conscious mind defends against knowing; to compensate for feelings of vulnerability and inferiority, among other reasons.  In social psychology, Hadley Cantril shows that when a group is threatened with loss of socioeconomic status, it creates conditions for totalitarian and terrorist movements to take root.  Maslow’s model of motivation shows how the same language—for example, an ethical code—can be understood very differently by people at different levels of motivation.  Behavioral psychology shows how reinforcement can shape behavior, without awareness on the part of the person(s) whose behavior is being shaped, and for which they give entirely irrelevant attributions.  Each and all of those psychological lenses bring the dynamics of this APA debacle into focus.  APA can heal itself when psychologists know more about psychology, understand it more deeply, and apply it to ourselves.