Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Reverse Milgram

No, it’s not a wrestling move.  I’m wondering if anyone else has noticed that the collaboration of a portion of the psychology profession with state-sponsored torture during the Bush Jr. years is like the famous Stanley Milgram experiments, except that the psychologists are the ones turning the dials.

It’s an interesting question I suppose, if you put aside the fact that this torture, unlike Milgram’s, was real, whether the guys in the white coats are as susceptible to violating fundamental human rights if those in authority tell them to.  And the results of this experiment confirm and extend Milgram’s original findings.

Professional psychologists were brought in to assist the Bush administration’s torture program, and there was apparently no shortage of willing participants.  But the American Psychological Association has a code of ethics that would seem to make torture a form of professional misconduct.  To address this problem, the APA amended its code in 2002 to say that whenever ethics come into conflict with legally issued instructions, psychologists could just follow orders.  The sorry tale is summarized in this important article in the New York Times by James Risen, who has played a large role in uncovering the dark side of the “war on terror”.

A modern Milgram experiment would never pass an institutional review board, but we can now have this natural quasi-experiment with real subjects and real torture.

4 comments:

blissex said...

The biggest problem is that torturing dark or brown skinned nobodies "just in case" is immensely popular with Usian voters.

Most politicians who want to be re-elected (something that usually guarantees that they will become wealthy or wealthier if they aren't already quite wealthy) usually must pander to that.

The Usian voters re-elected thumpingly all their presidents and congresspeople who implemented or voted for torture, Guantanamo, executive death squads, Iraq, and also TARP, ...

That's how a working democratic system delivers: voters get what they really want, however vile and stupid. The vote is secret, and in the secret of the voting booth they can support whatever vile and stupid policies they want.

Dan Crawford said...

Hi Peter,

These posts have links. The first describes the APA. The APA refused as a body to reject torture, several officers resigned. Probably about money with the DOD. Social work and psychiatriatry associations rejected torture.

http://angrybearblog.com/2007/08/houston-chronicle-comments-on-american.html

http://angrybearblog.com/2009/05/5050attitude-versus-law-on-torture.html

http://angrybearblog.com/2009/04/we-elected-reformer-not-avengera.html

http://angrybearblog.com/2011/12/whats-person-to-do-or-motivated.html

Peter Dorman said...

Thanks, Dan. I was aware that there was more to the APA story (vague memories of past news items), but didn't want to plunge into the research. Seriously though, has anyone else commented on the Milgramish nature of this episode?

Jack said...

I was enrolled up to the dissertation in a graduate Experimental Psychology program in the very early '70s. By that time Milgram was an historical foot note with little significance beyond what not to do as an experimental psychologist. Also, lots of people call themselves professional psychologists and there are many ways to justify that title. Many of those who do so don't act so.