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Torture, the APA, and I/O Psychology

2015 August 12

If you haven’t heard by now, based upon several independent investigations and public accusations of wrongdoing, the American Psychological Association commissioned a law firm to create what is referred to in the media as the Hoffman report, an independent investigation of the degree to which the APA was involved in the support of the CIA’s torture program in the wake of 9/11. Within this report, it was found that numerous APA officials, including the ethics director, colluded with the CIA to ensure that the stance of the APA, as conveyed in public policy statements, provided broad support to their policies of torture.  In reaction to this, the APA has apologizedsome psychologists resigned from the APA, and a federal investigation is looming. In general, this seems to be a failure of individuals within the APA, and not of the organization’s ethics code – instead, that code was interpreted as “loosely” as possible to create these statements.  Regardless, without a doubt, public trust in the APA – and psychologists in general – has been diminished.

SIOP has also responded, and the gist is: “torture is bad, and we are all harmed by this.” I was personally not surprised by the lack of a more specific response. The relationship between the military and psychology is a complicated one, and there is a long history of collaboration with I/O psychologists specifically. We even credit the development of assessment center methodology to the selection of spies in World War II, and the classic Army Alpha and Army Beta tests, created to better place soldiers in World War I, were a major force driving early selection research. We’ve done a lot of good via military research, and a lot of that good has then been applied to other, much smaller organizations. Our most major and longest-lasting framework for defining job performance across all jobs comes from a massive military project called Project A.

So where should the line be drawn? This is a question I’ve been personally struggling with, as I ponder pursuing military funding for some of my own projects. I don’t think the military is inherently bad – if it could be considered evil, it is a necessary one, to some degree – but in the back of my mind, I must now consider if the outcomes of my research could ever be used to help kill people. As of five years ago, that’s not a question I ever thought I’d ask myself.

On one hand, the military is an organization much like any other, albeit huge. It is a highly complex network of hierarchical command relationships, cultures and subcultures, many of which are dysfunctional or at least non-optimized. By bringing psychological research to the military, as I/Os have for over a century, those relationships can be improved. Soldiers can live better lives. People can be placed into positions where they can display their talents. Training and development can waste less time. Skills needed for civilian careers can be developed through military service. And given the scope of the military, even small gains can have significant organization-wide and even nationwide benefits.

On the other hand, a much more straightforward problem: the military quite literally kills people to fulfill its core organizational mission. In many cases, this is done without their target even being provided an opportunity to fight back, many of them likely to be innocent civilians. To an extent, taking money from the military or conducting research with the military implicitly approves of its tactics.

There is also the practical side. Although this is a nuanced issue in reality, a researcher that has taken military funding at any point, for any reason, instantly becomes branded as biased, lacking credibility, and bought-and-purchased among a fair portion of the public. The public, in general, does not care for nuance. To what extent any particular I/O psychologist cares about that is a matter of individual differences.

What the Hoffman report should highlight for us is that the questions struggled with by the APA leadership – whether to bend our morality for the sake of the our organization’s growth, prosperity, and influence – is something I/O’s have dealt with regarding the military since I/O has existed. I imagine our per-member connections to the military are much higher in SIOP than in the APA, broadly. So I’d like to think we’re pretty good at managing it, but do we really know?

Have any I/O’s ever sacrificed their ethics to get access to data, to increase their influence, to make their careers? Do we only not know the names of these people because I/O has, to this point, been pretty small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things? As we continue to grow, perhaps time will tell.

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  1. August 12, 2015

    Thank you for sharing the article, Dr. Landers. As you correctly point out, the core mission of the military is killing people. Addressing dysfunctional leadership will make the military more effective at killing. Placing personnel in roles that best match their aptitude will likewise increase killing efficiency, as will improved training programs and anything else an I/O psychologist does on behalf of the military.

    To put it another way, if you received funding from a pepper farm to conduct research that the pepper farm would use to improve their operations, then your research–however indirectly–would most certainly contribute to more effective pepper farming.

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