Category Archives: Military interrogation

Articles in the APA Monitor for October

articleSome articles of forensic interest in the October 2007 issue of the APA’s Monitor on Psychology 38(9):

  • APA’s council calls for ban on torture: APA names specific torture methods that the U.S. government should prohibit.
  • Stay involved or get out? APA members deliberate whether psychologists should play a role in military interrogations.
  • Evil’s mundane roots: Three renowned behavioral scientists illuminate the triggers of our darkest behaviors.
  • Stop the genocide: Several psychologists are working to end Darfur’s ethnic cleansing.
  • Deeper than sticks and stones: Discrimination not only undermines a person’s self-worth, it can destroy family life.
  • Psychologists’ testimony may not help: Judges and juries tend to trust their guts over psychologists’ testimony, speakers report.

    Upcoming Conference. War, Torture and Terror: The Role of Psychology

    Those of you following the continuing debate about the participation of psychologists in interrogations may be interested in a one day conference this Friday in New York.

    “War, Torture and Terror: The Role of Psychology” is being held on 22 June from 9am to 4pm at the Geraldine Schottenstein Center, 239-241 East 34th Street, NYC. Sessions include:

    • The Development of Psychological Torture: A Modern History of Coercive Interrogation and Its Effectiveness (Shara Sand)
    • The Role of Psychologists in the Global War on Terror; Professional and Ethical Considerations (Michael Gelles)
    • Torture, Ethics and the Consequences of Complicity (Leonard Rubenstein)
    • Torture Across the Generations: The Chilean Project of Theater Arts Against Political Violence (Steven Reisner
    • Human Rights Violations in Homophobic Persecution (Leanh Nguyen
    • Therapeutic Responses to Displaced African Female Survivors of Sexual Violence (Adeyinka M. Akinsulure-Smith)
    • Riding Two Horses: The APA’s Support for Interrogations, Psychological Ethics, and Human Rights (Edward J. Tejirian)
    • From Trauma to Tragedy: How Holocaust Survivors built Shattered Lives (Carl Auerbach and Shoshana Mirvis)
    • Defining Evil, the Depravity Standard and War Crimes (Michael Welner)

    More details via the conference brochure here [warning: big pdf download]; register online via the Yeshiva University website here.

    Hat tip to Psyche, Science and Society.

    Recent podcasts

    MP3onredSome recent podcasts on topics relevant to psychology and crime:

    Mentally Ill and Incarcerated (The Leonard Lopate Show, 5 June) :

    More than four times as many mentally ill people are in prison and jail than in all state psychiatric hospitals combined. Mary Beth Pfeiffer investigates why so many end up incarcerated in Crazy in America.

    Inside Abu Ghraib (The Leonard Lopate Show, 7 June) :

    In Fear Up Harsh, Tony Lagouranis talks about following orders to abuse prisoners at Abu Ghraib. And he explains why he became the first Army interrogator to publicly denounce the tactics he used.

    Death of a Dissident (The Leonard Lopate Show, 12 June) :

    Former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was fatally poisoned in London last November. In Death of a Dissident, Mr. Litvinenko’s widow, Marina Litvineko, and his friend Alex Goldfarb reveal what they know about the international murder mystery.

    Prison mental health (Royal College of Psychiatrists, May 07):

    Professor Graham Thornicoft from the Health Service Research Department, Institute of Psychiatry, discusses developments in prison mental health inreach teams with Dr Raj Persaud (podcast, MP3)

    Photo credit: Focus_on_me, Creative Commons License

    Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment

    Genocide Museum 17 Jan 06I’ve posted before here about the publicity surrounding Philip Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect. Two articles in the latest issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin take a look at Zimbardo’s famous/notorious Stanford Prison Experiment (follow the link for more details of the SPE).

    In discussions of the SPE, the participants have usually been referred to as ordinary students. But, wondered Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland, what sort of students volunteer for such a study? Are they the same in personality dimensions as those who would not volunter, or who would volunteer for a different sort of study? The question is important, because it is possible that people who volunteer to take part in a ‘prison study’ may show particular characteristics which, when they are put in particular situations, dispose them to engage in abusive, abhorrent or otherwise cruel behaviours towards other people. People who don’t volunteer might not behave in the same way if put in the same situation. If so, then it has implications for the situationist argument that, in the right (or, rather, wrong) situation, anyone could become a torturer / sadistic guard / terrorist ….

    Carnahan and McFarland couldn’t test this theory using the SPE data, and instead re-ran the volunteering part of the study to see what sort of people would volunteer for a two week study ‘of prison life’, compared to those volunteering for a study described in an identical manner but with the ‘prison life’ bit taken out. This extract from their abstract tells what happened:

    Volunteers for the prison study scored significantly higher on measures of the abuse-related dispositions of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and lower on empathy and altruism, two qualities inversely related to aggressive abuse. Although implications for the SPE remain a matter of conjecture, an interpretation in terms of person-situation interactionism rather than a strict situationist account is indicated by these findings. Implications for interpreting the abusiveness of American military guards at Abu Ghraib Prison also are discussed.

    Incidentally, I think the study on hooliganism that I reported a few days ago says something very similar, albeit in a different context.

    Also in this issue of PSPB, Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher (who ran their own version of the SPE back in 2001) offer a commentary on Carnahan and McFarland’s paper, discuss the research on situationist approaches to understanding evil and conclude (p.621) that:

    Arendt, Milgram, and Zimbardo played a critical part in taking us beyond reductionist explanations of tyranny as a simple product of pathological individuals. But now, their reductionist explanations of tyranny as a simple product of pathological situations—the banality-of-evil hypothesis—seem equally untenable. Instead, the case is emerging for an interactionist understanding that sees the social psychology of individual tyrants and collective tyranny as interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

    […] it is true that evil can become normal and indeed normative in groups and hence can end up appearing banal. However, the development of these norms and of their appeal is a long and intricate process. This process—the normalization of evil—is far from banal. Our theories of it should no longer be either.

    References :

    See also:

    Photo credit: me, Genocide Museum , Cambodia, taken Jan 2006.

    Webcast: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil


    If you’re in the Cambridge Mass area on Monday 2 April at 4pm you can catch a forum led by renowned psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who will be discussing his new book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. If you’re not able to be in Boston, the forum will be broadcast via this link (RealPlayer).

    On his website for the new book, Dr Zimbardo explains:

    In this book, I summarize more than 30 years of research on factors that can create a “perfect storm” which leads good people to engage in evil actions. This transformation of human character is what I call the “Lucifer Effect,” named after God’s favorite angel, Lucifer, who fell from grace and ultimately became Satan.

    Rather than providing a religious analysis, however, I offer a psychological account of how ordinary people sometimes turn evil and commit unspeakable acts.

    The Lucifer Effect website has details of other upcoming talks and interviews with Dr Zimbardo here, including The Daily Show tonight (29 March).

    Hat tip to Stephen Soldz’s blog.

    Photo credit: maria.g, Creative Commons License.

    Tolerance of detainee abuse

    According to a University of Pennsylvania study, military veterans are “highly tolerant of abuse” (press release 8 February).

    In a study that appears in the current issue of Military Medicine, William C. Holmes, MD, MSCE, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and lead author of the paper, assesses veterans’ tolerance for detainee abuse and variables associated with it.

    In the study, three scenarios of detainee abuse, taken directly from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, were presented to veterans. After each scenario, zero tolerance — or the belief that abuse is “completely unacceptable” regardless of who the detainee is — was assessed for the described abuse. Holmes, who is also an investigator at the Center for Health Equity Resesarch and Promotion at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, found that:

    • Only 16% of veterans indicated zero tolerance for detainee exposure and deprivation
    • Only 31% indicated zero tolerance for detainee exposure and sexualized humiliation
    • Not even half (48%) indicated zero tolerance for detainee rape

    “The level of tolerance exhibited by these findings is surprising, but may not be true for all veterans and certainly cannot be said to be representative of active-duty military,” says Holmes. He adds, “These findings do indicate, however, the value of assessing tolerance for abuse, and for using scenario-based assessment to do that; it provides an argument for similar work being done in active-duty military, particularly those who are heading to Iraq to become involved in sensitive, oversight positions.”

    On 9 Feb, the Washington Post published a disturbing article by an Arabic linguist who worked in Iraq as a contract interrogator in 2004. In An Iraq Interrogator’s Nightmare, Eric Fair descibes some of the interrogation procedures he was involved in and castigates himself for lacking “the courage to challenge the status quo”:

    Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.

    As Jonah Lehrer points out, “this is the Milgram experiment come to life”.


    We assessed detainee abuse acceptance and variables associated with it. Outpatients from a veterans’ hospital were administered questionnaires with three increasingly severe scenarios of a U.S. soldier abusing a detainee. Three questionnaire versions differed in the final line of each version’s scenarios, describing abuse either as: soldier initiated, superior ordered, or wrong by a “whistleblower” soldier. Three hundred fifty-one veterans participated, 80% with service during the Vietnam War. Zero tolerance for abuse—“completely unacceptable” regardless of who the detainee was—increased with abuse severity (16% for exposure, 31% for humiliation, and 48% for rape of detainee) and with soldier initiation. The strongest, most consistently significant odds were of depressed veterans, veterans with comorbid depression/post-traumatic stress disorder, and men being approximately 2, 3, and 4 to 20 times more tolerant of abuse than those without depression/post-traumatic stress disorder and women, respectively. There may be potential value to using similar scenario-based questionnaires to study active duty military perceptions of detainee abuse. Results may inform prevention policies.

    American Psychological Association reaffirms its unequivocal position against torture and abuse

    At their Convention in New Orleans last week the APA Council of Representatives approved a resolution reaffirming the organisation’s opposition to torture and abuse (APA Press Release, 10 August):

    The Association unequivocally condemns any involvement by psychologists in torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This APA policy applies to all psychologists in all settings.

    The resolution, approved on August 9, 2006, further underscored the duty of all psychologists to intervene to stop acts of torture or abuse as well as the ethical obligation of all psychologists to report such behavior to appropriate authorities.

    The full resolution is here, but apparently does not go far enough, according to some critics (reported in the Sun Sentinel, 11 Aug):

    “The ultimate question is, should psychologists participate in national security interrogations, and the answer is no,” said Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights. “It’s a question that other medical groups have addressed and the APA has not.”

    […] “There is no way for the APA to be involved in those interrogations without becoming complicit in torture,” said Rubenstein, who was among the speakers at this week’s convention.

    See also:

    What is a psychologist’s role in interrogation of detainees?

    As noted by Mind Hacks and others, the Americal Psychological Association’s position on on the participation of psychologists in military interrogations has been coming under fire in the run up to their annual convention (e.g. as reported in Salon here and here).

    MH suggests that the APA has “endorsed a report that sets out how psychologists can participate in the same interrogations that their medical colleagues have declared unacceptable”. What isn’t entirely clear from the Mind Hacks post is that APA – in common with the American Psychiatric Association and American Medical Association – is explicitly banning psychologists from particpating in interrogations using torture. And in fact the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association do allow physicians and psychiatrists to have some involvement in how interrogations are carried out, albeit at rather more distance than the APA’s position allows.

    In attempt to bring a bit of clarity, let’s return to the source documents and try to unpick the chain of events and the various positions held by these professional associations.

    Continue reading What is a psychologist’s role in interrogation of detainees?

    Study cites triggers for abuses at Abu Ghraib

    Princeton Universitypress release date: 25-Nov-2004
    When news broke about the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, many people questioned: Who could do such a thing? According to Princeton psychologists who reviewed decades worth of studies, the answer is: Anyone. Writing in the Nov. 26 issue of Science, professor Susan Fiske and graduate students Lasana Harris and Amy Cuddy contend that many forms of behavior, including acts of great evil, are influenced as much by authority figures, peer pressure and other social interactions as by the psychology of the individual. “Could any average 18-year-old have tortured these prisoners?” said Fiske. “I would have to answer, ‘Yes, just about anyone could have — unfortunately.'” Fiske and colleagues drew their conclusions from 25,000 studies involving 8 million participants, which explain how factors, ranging from the stress of war to the expectations of superiors, can combine to cause ordinary people to commit seemingly inexplicable acts. See also: Star-Ledger, November 26, 2004

    Decades of social science research should have prepared American military officials for the abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, a Princeton University professor wrote in today’s issue of Science. In the article, “Why Ordinary People Torture Enemy Prisoners,” psychology professor Susan T. Fiske wrote that soldiers who tortured Iraqi prisoners acted according to the ordinary — and well-documented — social forces of conformity and obedience to authority. She rejected the White House’s claim that a few untrained, poorly supervised “bad apples” were responsible for the abuses. The right — or wrong — social context can make almost anyone be aggressive and oppressive, to conform and obey, wrote Fiske, along with two Princeton doctoral students, Lasana T. Harris and Amy J.C. Cuddy

    Science article (subscription required):
    SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY: Why Ordinary People Torture Enemy Prisoners
    Susan T. Fiske, Lasana T. Harris, and Amy J. C. Cuddy
    Science 26 November 2004: 1482-1483.