Gaslighting in the APA?

Bryant Welch

notortureWe are definitely not in Kansas anymore.

For psychologists committed to social justice, this is a very surreal time.

With the rise of the neo-conservative movement, concerns over Iraq and our eroding civil liberties were added to the longstanding issues that have united psychologists for decades, concerns based on respect and compassion for subjective human experience.

But for those of us concerned with such issues, there has been an astonishing, jaw-dropping chain of events taking place in our very own national organization that simply blows the lid off even the most basic veneer of decency we have always attributed to those with whom we have entrusted the stewardship of our own field.

Despite APA’s efforts to treat the torture matter as a complex nuanced issue, the bottom line is that APA, unlike the other major health care organizations, has repeatedly refused to condemn participation by its members in the Bush Administration’s detention centers. Grasping for a fig leaf of rationalization, APA has argued that psychologists would never support torture and that it is actually necessary to have psychologists engaged in the interrogation process to prevent torture. Kurt Salzinger is reported to have concluded the APA Council deliberation on the matter with an emotional plea “We must be there to bear witness.”

But we have now learned that psychologists did more than benignly “bear witness.” They actually designed some of the torture techniques that were at least in part based on expertise gleaned from a three-hour training session with a prominent psychologist who says that he was duped and had no idea that his work–predicated on torturing dogs–would be used to torture humans. Other military psychologists, it appears, participated in a psychological evaluation process the effect of which was to provide legal cover for the interrogators in the event the interrogation techniques resulted in untoward outcomes for the detainees, like death or permanent injury.

How did it happen?

As a starting point there are two things that seem clear and incontrovertible. One, there is something seriously wrong with the APA. Two, whatever the organizational problems are, they evolved over time, covertly not overtly.

In my new book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, June, 2008) I use the concept of psychological “gaslighting” by master manipulators like Karl Rove, Roger Ailes of Fox News, and the Religious Right to explain what I think has caused America’s terrible national regression. In the book I contend that the effectiveness of these gaslighters derives in large part from the manipulation of three psychological “battleground states”: envy, paranoia, and sexual perplexity.

I also contend that these techniques are infecting and subverting many national organizations that used to stand as a bulwark against threats to our fundamental freedoms and values. Ironically, many of the examples I used were drawn from my extensive experience with the APA where I first served in the APA governance and then became the first Executive Director of the APA Practice Directorate. I cannot in any way claim the prescience required to anticipate that the APA organizational dynamics I described would have resulted in the horrific outcome we are experiencing now. Sadly, it will take psychology as long to recover its good name after this debacle as it will for America to recover its good name after Bush and the Iraq war.

From a social justice perspective, I think there are some clear implications and lessons. It is one thing to oppose torture. But the more difficult task–one for which psychologists are uniquely suited–is to educate the general public about the techniques of political manipulation and the long term effects it can have on people before it becomes too late for America and the world.

Certainly some of the people at APA are morally culpable for what has happened. Not surprisingly several of them are currently being honored with high positions and grand awards at APA in a manner eerily reminiscent of George Tenet.

But we will never rid the world of evil doers and sociopaths. Many of the people on the APA Council who opposed bans on participation in the detention centers are not evil. A few suffer from malignant narcissism, but many do not. Their deliberative acumen on this issue, however, left much to be desired. Put more bluntly there was something wrong with their thinking.

Their behavior on the torture issue is consistent with the effects of gaslighting. For people who have not seen the movie, Gaslight, the essential experience of gaslighting is a “state of confusion” caused by psychological deception. People resort to very ineffective and irrational coping mechanisms when their reality sense becomes confused. They simply create, or let others create for them, an alternative reality that at least temporarily fills the void in their own reality sense. They become sheep.

Unfortunately, these effects of gaslighting are not self-limiting. Each time a person accepts the gaslighter’s reality, he or she further weakens the independent functioning of their own mind and becomes more and more vulnerable to the gaslighter. Atrophy sets in, and people become highly suggestible to anyone who sounds authoritative.

Torture would have occurred at Guantanamo with or without the APA. Authoritarian regimes throughout history have shown that it is not hard to find syncophants, opportunists, and closet sadists willing to administer the shock and awe of torture.

But the proper role of psychology in such a world is to lend its expertise and full moral weight to forces that oppose such psychological abuse and not to aid and abet the torturer. APA cannot advance a nuanced position that obscures the underlying pathology and shameful behavior.

PsySR member Bryant L. Welch, J.D., Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and attorney and author of the new book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, June 2008). He proposed and developed the APA Practice Directorate and served as its first executive director from 1986-1993 after which he directed APA’s health care reform initiative. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina. He currently resides on Hilton Head Island, SC and can be reached directly at


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