Why I Am Not a Member of the
American Psychological Association*

Craig Chalquist, PhD


Techniques cannot be neutral. Those who talk of neutrality are precisely those
who are afraid of losing their right to use neutrality to their own advantage.
— Paulo Freire


The American Psychological Association was founded in 1892 at Clark University. The primary purpose of this new organization was to advance psychology as a science. One of the founders, G. Stanley Hall, was keenly interested in psychodynamic therapy and invited Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung to Clark to visit and lecture.

This spirit of free scientific inquiry was about to change drastically beyond any hope of restoration.

Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays set the tone by transplating psychology into modern advertising, a field he referred to as “the engineering of consent”; his techniques were admired and imitated by Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. It was Bernays’s campaigns that convinced women to start smoking, previously an activity restricted to men.

In the U.S., John Watson, a president of the APA, taught behavioral techniques to mass marketers after losing his professorship at Cornell University. Hugo Munsterberg, an early APA member, started industrial psychology by writing Psychology and Industrial Efficiency in 1912. “The psychological experiment,” he wrote, “is systematically to be placed at the service of commerce and industry.” Walter Dill Scott directed psychology into personnel screening and wrote The Theory and Practice of Advertising. Scott, who had arrived at the idea of workplace efficiency while plowing a field, also advocated appeals to emotion to override reason and heighten consumer suggestibility.

By 1915, a clothing manufacturer in Cleveland used psychological tests to select workers, in effect corporatizing a now-common invasion of privacy; as a result, by 1917 companies sponsoring psychological research on salesmanship included Ford, Goodrich, Westinghouse, Heinz, Prudential, and Carnegie Steel. In most cases prospective and current employees had to submit to being tested, nor could they learn the test results afterward. Psychologist Lillian Gilbreth extended employee selection schemas and workplace efficiency methods to management training. Reacting to all this, journalist Grace Adams, a thoroughly disenchanted former student of psychology, wrote “The Decline of Psychology in America” to criticize the field for so shamelessly selling itself out. At a meeting of the American Psychological Association, William Montague protested the overemphasis on behavior and efficiency with a paper titled “Has Psychology Lost Its Mind?”

During WW I, the APA secured funding by mentally testing soldiers and, eventually, by helping the U.S. Army develop psychologically friendly battlefield equipment. Watson served as a military psychologist. Scott won a medal from the Army for helping them select soldiers. B.F. Skinner designed a guided missile system directed by pigeons but failed to secure enough funding to build it because of the invention of radar. That since Descartes “machines have become more lifelike," as he put it, "and living organisms have been found to be more like machines” he took as a sign of progress rather than as a vast colonization of the social imaginary.

By 1924, John Watson worked as vice president of J. Walter Thompson, one of the largest advertising agencies in the U.S. There he pioneered celebrity endorsements, brand loyalty (with Yuban first, then Camel Cigarettes, Johnson’s Baby Powder, and Ponds), impulse buying, timed obscolescence, and methods for conditioning consumers to want ever-newer products. In her book Breaking the Silence, actor Mariette Hartley described the emotionally devastating impact of Grandpa Watson’s obsessive behavioral regimentation of her family. This included putting everyone, including infants, on a rigid schedule and limiting the amount of time spent in physical contact.

Meanwhile, fed by military and government contracts, the APA continued to expand. In 1951, the U.S. military established HumRRO, the Human Resource Research Organization, to develop methods of psychological warfare under the direction of psychologist Meredith Crawford, the former APA treasurer. In 1952, psychologists and other social scientsts were funded by the CIA--in some cases covertly--for conducting research on psychological warfare. According to Patricia Greenfield, Carl Rogers sat on the board of the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, a front for CIA interrogation research. An internal CIA memo he never saw circulated in 1960 to note his research as useful for evaluating techniques that influence human behavior. The Society gave a grant to professor Martin Orne to explore research on hypnosis. From the Korean War onward, in fact, the CIA paid for decades of social science research on mind control. The results landed in the agency’s interrogation manual and, from there, spread to repressive Latin America regimes who made effectively murderous use of it during the 1970s and 1980s.

This is D. O. Hebb, whose sensory deprivation research was funded by the CIA, justifying his torture of research subjects:

The work that we have done at McGill University began, actually, with the problem of brainwashing. We were not permitted to say so in the first publishing.... The chief impetus, of course, was the dismay at the kind of “confessions” being produced at the Russian Communist trials. “Brainwashing” was a term that came a little later, applied to Chinese procedures. We did not know what the Russian procedures were, but it seemed that they were producing some peculiar changes of attitude. How? One possible factor was perceptual isolation and we concentrated on that.

Hebb was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1960, and he won the APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1961.

In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer describes how former APA president Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, was invited by the CIA to speak in 2002 at the Navy’s SERE (Survival, Resistance, Evasion, Escape) school in San Diego. In the 1960s, Seligman had found that by shocking a dog unpredictably, he could brutalize it into total, helpless passivity. His theories were adapted for use in CIA prisons. In 2010, Seligman won a $31 million contract to provide combat resilience training to U.S. soldiers. Reporter Mark Benjamin argues that Seligman’s work also laid the basis for the Bush Administration’s torture program.

Seligman was not the only accomplice. Former APA president Joseph Matarazzo worked with psychologists Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen to design a new CIA interrogation regimen, much of it based on techniques employed by Chinese Communist torturers. According to the New York Times, these two psychologists were part of what Defense Department officials nicknamed the “Resistance Mafia” of experts on how to survive enemy interrogation. The two directed the torture of Abu Zubaydah at a secret CIA detention site in Thailand. Zubaydah was stripped, subjected to sleep deprivation, and waterboarded thirty-eight times before the interrogators decided he didn’t know anything of value. These methods were then used on dozens of other prisoners in various locations around the world: on underage prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, for example, the brutality of which has been publicly minimized by psychologist and former APA president Patrick DeLeon. After visiting Guantanamo, APA president Ronald Levant claimed that psychologists were present during interrogations to “add value and safeguards.” Subsequent documentation shows plainly that the psychologists--members of so-called Behavioral Science Consultaton Teams--were actually full participants. By 2007, the Pentagon was relying on psychologists for interrogation work rather than on psychiatrists because so many of the latter refused to be involved.

Today, more than three thousand detainees remain at Bagram, a facility about to be expanded to twice its current capacity. At Bagram psychologists like Morgan Banks, Bryce Lefever, and Larry James have overseen prisoner treatment programs operating in flagrant violation of international law and of the Geneva Conventions inspired by the ghastly revelations of the Nuremberg Trials. In 2011, however, James, former interrogation overseer at Abu Ghraib as well, was picked to serve on the White House Task Force for “Enhancing the Psychological Well-Being of The Military Family.” According to ethics complaints filed against him by the International Human Rights Clinic of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program, during his tenure at the prison boys and men were threatened with rape and death for themselves and their family members, sexually, culturally, and religiously humiliated, forced to remain naked and cold, deprived of sleep, subjected to sensory deprivation, over-stimulation, and extreme isolation, short-shackled into stress positions, and physically assaulted. The evidence indicates that abuse of this kind was systemic, and that BSCT health professionals played an integral role in its planning and practice.

Of course, the great majority of psychologists and other practitioners of social science do a world of good every day, psychologically, scientifically, and ethically. Hundreds have protested the shadow of their own profession: psychologist Beth Shinn, for example, who after watching president Gerald Koocher denigrate dissenters from APA policy as “opportunistic commentators masquerading as scholars” resigned from the APA in 2007 because “the American Psychological Association continues to condone psychologists’ work in detention centers that violate international law and because of actions by APA’s leadership to discourage dissent from its policies in this matter.” That year psychologist Mary Pipher protested by returning her APA Presidential Citation award. In 2008, psychologist Jeffrey Kaye wrote an article on “Why Torture Made Me Leave the APA.” Because of such push-back the APA finally issued an unconditional condemnation of psychologists’ involvement in torture.

The APA has also been busy on the home front. As of today, 25% of clinical psychology doctoral students cannot find internships because the APA now owns them through further legislatory acts of predatory self-promotion. Having ignored ecological destruction, extinction, and climate change for decades despite the urgent warnings of ecologists and ecopsychologists, the APA finally studied the problem in 2009 and came up with a comprehensive solution: condition people to recycle and to buy more green products.

None of these shadows--of ecologically destructive industry and mass marketing, of political propaganda, of covert imprisonment and torture, of restriction of psychology graduates’ rights to call themselves psychologists and practice as they see fit--should be dismissed as anomalies. Long-standing and of a systematic pattern, they are inevitable expressions of the ideology of seeing everything from the outside, as separable parts rather than as living relations. It’s breathtaking to imagine psychologist Clark Hull spending his entire professional life trying to mathematize human nature, only to admit shortly before his death that his theories probably applied only to hungry rats. The work of cognitive ethologists like Marc Bekoff throws even this claim into doubt: unlike the research psychologists who manipulate them, rats and other primates show clear signs of empathy when their fellow creatures are being tortured in laboratories.

As Viktor Frankl pointed out, the foundations of satanic mills like Auschwitz are laid at the drawing boards and lecterns of nihilistic reductionists who see living beings as automata. “Expectations that are only statistical," wrote analyst James Hillman, "are no longer human.”

Sometimes it’s not a matter of differing paradigms, but of refusing to sanction the colonialism, ambition, and inhumanity of institutions unable to redeem themselves.

See also "American Psychological Association Bolstered CIA Torture Program, Report Says" (New York Times, April 30, 2015), "Guantanamo Bay Psychologists to Remain Despite APA Torture Fallout" (The Guardian, July 15, 2015), and "Outside Psychologists Shielded US Torture Program, Report Finds" (New York Times, July 10, 2015).

Craig Chalquist, PhD is a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

* Excerpted from "Engaged Psychology: Past, Present, Prospects," Journal of Holistic Psychology, Fall 2013.