My newest article, A Profession Struggles to Save Its Soul: Psychologists, Guantanamo and Torture is now available on CounterPunch.
For years, the varied mental health professions in the United States have been fighting turf wars. Psychiatrists tried to keep psychologists from being able to conduct therapy or, more recently, from prescribing psychotropic medications. Psychologists fought for rights to conduct these treatments. Psychologists, in turn, fought the attempts of their Masters-level colleagues for professional recognition. Social workers, mental health counselors, and psychoanalysts each fight for recognition against opposition from others.
These battles are fought out through traditional legislative lobbying and pressure. They are, however, also fought through showing one group’s value in furthering the interests of the powerful and through organized representatives of each profession maintaining access to non-legislative corridors of power. Thus, keeping in favor with the powerful and not alienating them can be a central aspect of a profession’s strategy of advancement.
In this decades-long struggle, the profession of psychology has tried to distinguish itself in various ways. One of these ways is through emphasizing its scientific character. Thus, representatives of organized psychology have been at pains to demonstrate the value of the “science of psychology” to the powerful in industry and in government, including the military and the national security establishment. In addition, psychology’s value to the education establishment has been emphasized, as has its value in industrial relations and marketing. World War II provided many opportunities for psychology to demonstrate its value to the war effort including through the screening of soldiers, the development of propaganda techniques to motivate the home front and to undermine enemy morale, the use of human factors engineering to improve airplanes, and the treatment of psychological casualties from the war.
The post-World War II development of a militarized national security state provided many further opportunities for psychology to garner attention to its contributions to the art of propaganda and the development of useable high-tech weapons through human factors engineering, among numerous others.
One particularly disturbing area where psychologists were attempting to demonstrate their value was in the development of sophisticated techniques of interrogation that could obtain information from unwilling captives through the application of behavior modification techniques based on psychological science. Historian Alfred W. McCoy has shed light in this area in his recent book A Question of Torture and in numerous articles and interviews. He documents the decades-long CIA effort to utilized psychological expertise to develop forms of torture that could break down the personality of detainees, rendering them, it was hoped, incapable of withholding desired information. Many of these technique were utilized during the Vietnam conflict and in the various brutal U.S.-supported counterinsurgency campaigns in Latin American in the 1970s and 1980s….
August 2nd, 2006