Last Updated on
In 1789 the French physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin famously opposed the death penalty citing the brutal and often botched methods of execution of his day. He called for a more humane approach, with the long term hope of abolishing the death penalty altogether.
Just imagine his horror when, at the onset of the French Revolution, thousands of people were executed using the new improved device bearing his name; the ‘Guillotine’.
Those working in Positive Psychology know how he felt.
(Seligman’s personal response to Shaw’s article can be read here)
Positive Psychology has experienced several criticisms over the years. And while Chris Peterson (2013) said “criticism should be heeded when correct and valued even when incorrect because they are a sign the people are paying attention,” sometimes however, the attacks go a bridge too far.
In her article Shaw outlines a complex conspiracy theory in which Positive Psychology is working to impose a new conservative social agenda to subjugate western morality. I am not kidding. She specifically accuses well known Positive Psychology figures of partnering with the CIA to develop torture techniques.
Shaw’s essay takes a lot of paraphrasing but the key accusations include…
- Psychologists have ‘form’ for conspiring against western morality dating back to B.F. Skinner.
- Positive Psychologists like Johnathon Haidt are pushing for more conservative public morality and for more conservatives to join social psychology.
- Positive Psychology has partnered with the CIA to develop torture techniques.
- Psychologists are blinded by neuroscience and don’t understand the human ‘moral compass’.
I think the psychology profession should have a right of reply.
1. B.F. Skinner
Shaw begins by reminding us of B.F. Skinner’s (1904 –1990) designs on morality. In fact the famous behaviourist did believe the strategic use of rewards and punishments could reshape and improve human behaviour.
However Skinner’s Utopian, if somewhat degrading, vision for a brave new morality was binned from within the psychology profession itself.
I have two favourite examples.
One is from the great champion of human dignity, Carl Rogers. Once during a conference discussion, Rogers began by congratulating Skinner on his famous theory. He then added, with mischievous irony, that such inventiveness was evidence of a truly original and creative thinking process – elements that didn’t exist in Skinner’s own theory so he had in fact disproved himself (who’d have thought Rogers could be such a bastard?).
A more comprehensive ‘kicking the butt’ of behaviourism belongs to the boot of Professor Martin Seligman himself.
In his important book “What You Can Change and What You Can’t” Seligman reviews the evidence for the biological/genetic priming for certain psychological disorders. For example, people readily acquire phobias about snakes, but not of jamming fingers in doors because doors were not an evolutionary threat.
Natural selection and behaviourism don’t mix because genetic influences on human behaviour contradict Skinner’s view that people are blank slates- ripe for conditioning.
These debates were divisive at the time and brave people risked their careers challenging the dominant paradigm of the day. This; the profession’s finest hour is not the controversy Shaw is seeking.
2. Positive Psychology figures are pushing for a more conservative public morality and more conservatives in social psychology.
As conspiracy theories go this one rates like a tinfoil hat.
It is true that Jonathan Haidt complains that he is the only conservative in the village, and that the young people of today need a haircut.
However, his actual argument is that conservative values have the potential to expand on our existing liberal models of morality and promote more diversity in research topics. Fair enough; this fits with my left-wing conspiracy to have more conservatives in academia- and less in the White House.
Shaw then draws a long bow linking Haidt’s views with those of the U.S military suggesting “his priorities appear to align closely with those of the Department of Defense.”
To support this conspiracy theory Shaw quotes military psychologist Michael Matthews, who described witnessing ‘pro-military’ psychologists not ‘feeling the love’ at the 2007 American Psychological Association (APA) convention where anger was turned “toward any psychologist who was perceived as pro-military.”
This is appalling. This exceeds my own behaviour at conferences, plundering the free drinks and bravely calling anyone working for the gambling industry a fascist (not really, they already know).
However, back to Shaw’s claims of ‘taking control’; if pro-military or conservative psychologists really are ostracised by their own profession it contradicts the claim those psychologists are ‘taking power.’ Perhaps Shaw could re-title her article “The psychologists attempted to take power but ended up looking lame and standing in the corner with no friends.”
3. Positive Psychology has advised the CIA on torture techniques.
This is a far more serious claim. The original accusation raised by James Risen in his book “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War,” was that leadership officials at the APA colluded with the Pentagon during the Bush Administration to support torture.
The APA responded to these serious accusations by appointing federal prosecutor David Hoffman to conduct a far reaching investigation.
The resulting 542 page Hoffman report found that several high level APA officials, not connected to Positive Psychology, did collude with the military to change existing definitions of torture and to water down the ethical constraints on psychologists. As a result the APA officials involved in the scandal either resigned or were removed (some still protest their innocence) thus showing the investigation had real teeth.
Yet again, no Positive Psychology figures were involved.
So what is the remaining criticism of Positive Psychology?
At the heart of Shaw’s accusation is whether;
1) Professor Seligman collaborated with two interrogation consultants contracted by the CIA; James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and if there was any collaboration;
2) Whether Professor Seligman instructed them in how his ‘Learned Helplessness’ model could be used to enhance interrogation or torture techniques.
Let’s be very clear.
On one hand Professor Seligman agrees he delivered professional lectures and attended gatherings for the military in which his well-documented theory of Learned Helplessness was presented.
Professor Seligman has consistently stated he presented his model only as a support for American personnel taken prisoner. That is, as a protective factor for those on the receiving end of interrogation. It was never offered as a way of enhancing the interrogation of others. And while Mitchell and Jessen were in the audience at some of these talks, there were no private tutorials for them.
Shaw, however, insists otherwise. She states, ad nauseam, there were gatherings involving the above parties (readily conceded) and then distorts Professor Seligman’s involvement by quoting, very selectively, from the Hoffman report.
Here are two examples.
Shaw quotes from page 49 of the Hoffman report
“We think it would have been difficult not to suspect that one reason for the CIA’s interest in learned helplessness was to consider how it could be used in the interrogation of others.”
However, page 49 also says…..
“Hubbard and Mitchell say that they never discussed interrogations with Seligman and did not provide him information about the interrogation program. Seligman agrees and says he thought their interest in learned helplessness related to its insights for captured US personnel we do not have enough information to know what Seligman knew or thought at the time. And because we do not see any evidence that this was connected with actions or decisions by or communications with APA officials, we did not spend further time investigating the matter.”
Note how the further context refutes any smoking gun!
In another example, in her more recent article “Moral Psychology: An Exchange” Shaw claims Professor Seligman was uncooperative with Hoffman investigators claiming “Seligman was one of only three witnesses out of 148 who refused to speak directly with Hoffman’s investigators, demanding instead that they send him questions in writing…”
However the actual quote, from page 8 of the Hoffman report, states “Dr Martin Seligman also insisted on answering only written questions, although he proactively made himself available to us and answered our questions promptly.”
Again, the full quote provides a different story.
Of course Professor Seligman had already responded to these accusations well before the Hoffman report. In his book ‘Flourish’ he states:
“This could not be further from the truth. I have never and would never provide assistance in torture. I strongly disapprove of torture. I condemn it.” P. 175.
“I am grieved and horrified that good science that has helped so many people overcome depression may have been used for such dubious purposes.” P. 176.
Personally I would just add that torturers in some countries make use of electrodes; but we don’t condemn Edison.
So what has Professor Seligman really been up to with the U.S. Army?
The truly significant role Professor Seligman has had with the US army is The Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Initiative. This program teaches leaders and drill sergeants to treat their subordinates more humanly using the same supportive communication techniques used elsewhere in Positive Psychology.
Soldiers are also taught to identify and use strengths, to improve personal relationships and to use CBT skills to fight stress and depression. The intention is to lower levels of depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide.
Ironically this shows Professor Seligman is indeed influencing the U.S. Military from within; just not in the way claimed by Shaw. And when it is shown that the lives of veterans have been saved (as well as families and marriages) I suggest Professor Seligman receives the Nobel Prize.
4. Psychology and morality
Finally Shaw argues psychologists are too dazzled by advances in neuroscience and don’t appreciate the deeper implications of the human ‘moral compass.’
However while this navel gazing is great for keeping philosophers and academics off the streets there is a genuine risk in placing too much faith in supposed moral compasses.
At the risk of taking a sledgehammer to a complex issue, the basics are nonetheless important.
Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments into obedience, showed that when people are told to inflict pain on a helpless stranger, they usually comply. Sad but true.
Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment similarly showed when people are given roles that call for brutality, they usually comply.
The parallels with the real world are disturbing. Zimbardo’s work attracted renewed interest following the appalling cruelty perpetrated by the supposed ‘good guys’ at Abu Ghraib prison. No one should be surprised. These are hard lessons and it’s easier to forget them and retreat into protracted philosophical debates about moral compasses. But we mustn’t.
When we place our faith in the inevitable triumph of human morality we forget to build stronger safeguards, anti-bullying laws, whistle blower protections, and transparent oversights in those situations where unequal power dynamics are in play;- just to be safe.
I would suggest psychologists understand morality, we don’t just trust it. Sunlight is the better disinfectant. Then our supposed ‘moral compasses’, like Bart Simpson’s text books, can still sometimes be returned in their original wrapper.
Chomsky and others get credit for destroying behaviourism, but I wanted to emphasise attacks on behaviourism from within the psychology profession itself.
If you are not familiar with the work of Milgram and Zimbardo, this TED talk will amaze you. (Warning, it’s graphic but will challenge your ideas that evil is caused by a few bad apples instead of the barrel around them.
“citation-free attribution, spurious dichotomies, and standards of guilt by association that make Joseph McCarthy look like Sherlock Holmes.”
Time for you to make up your mind. Share your thoughts and views with us by using the comment box below.
Peterson, C. (2013). Pursuing the Good Life. 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. (1994). What you can change and what you can’t. Random House.
Matthews, M.D. (2014) Head Strong: How Psychology Is Revolutionizing War. Oxford University Press.
Risen, J. (2014). Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Shaw, T. (2016) The Psychologists Take Power. The New York Review of Books.