Seeking Answers from Social and Personality Psychologists: 10 Research Questions in the Torture/Interrogation Debate

Bradley Olson

As someone trained in personality and social psychology—and now also working as a community psychologist—it’s clear to me that social and personality theory and research make essential contributions to understanding social justice issues.

I’ve long been an activist on the American Psychological Association (APA) torture issue and a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR). This led to an invitation to participate in a session chaired by Chris Crandall at the 2009 Society for Experimental Social Psychology conference in Portland, Maine. The session involved presentations of several excellent studies related to U.S. torture and interrogation. My role was to act as a discussant and to suggest what other areas, as an activist, I thought should be studied empirically.

For several decades, the horrors of WWII and the racism that led to the civil rights movement inspired the work of U.S. social and personality psychologists. As several participants mentioned at the session in Portland, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and Guantanamo can have similar influences on the discipline in the years ahead. I agree. From my perspective as an activist, here are 10 questions I would love social and personality researchers to help answer:

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John Brennan and the Administration Stalling on Bush Torture Memos

Stephen Soldz


Back in November we opposed former CIA official John Brennan for CIA Director. Our Open Letter was credited with playing a role in Brennan’s withdrawal (see also Rachel Maddow). Despite what some believed, we never claimed that Brennan played a key role in the Bush administration torture program. Rather, we were concerned that he had, when it mattered, never taken any position critical of that program. We needed someone who did not have such an equivocal history, we argued.

Afterward there was considerable criticism of those of us who opposed Brennan. We didn’t realize that Brennan was really opposed to the policies he could never get himself to publicly criticize, we were told.

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New Restrictions on Abortion: Protecting Irrational Women Everywhere (in Arizona, Anyway)

Kate Sheese

az_capitolEarlier this month, the Arizona state House voted to impose new restrictions on abortion, including a mandatory 24-hour waiting period during which a woman is required to receive information – in person – regarding the anatomical characteristics of the foetus at its particular stage of development and the apparent abundance of available support options if she decides against having an abortion.

There are a number of problematic assumptions that underlie these kinds of restrictions and these assumptions need to be made apparent in order to have any kind of productive and meaningful discussion on abortion and reproductive rights. These assumptions should be of particular concern to psychologists and psychological researchers who have been given a unique role in the debate over abortion as women’s psychological well-being is consistently invoked on both sides to prove either the necessity or harm of restricting access to abortion.

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