Faculty

A Meeting of Psychologists Becomes a Moment of Soul Searching

Aaron Vincent Elkaim for The Chronicle

During the American Psychological Association’s conference in Toronto, members reflected on how the group and the discipline can recover from revelations about torture. Some also attended a separate gathering of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, which held a teach-in focused on the matter of psychologists involved in torture.
August 10, 2015

As the crowd filled the convention hall, a cluster of angry words appeared on two large screens. Among them: Ashamed. Disappointed. Disgust.

On a stage at the front of the room, Susan H. McDaniel, the incoming president of the American Psychological Association, sat nervously in a director’s chair, holding her hands in her lap. Those ugly words and others, taken from a recent survey of student members, represented the collective outrage over what is arguably the darkest period in the association’s 123-year history.

And Ms. McDaniel was here, at a "town hall" during the association’s annual meeting, to answer hard questions, pledge to make changes, and say sorry on the group’s behalf.

The association has faced withering scrutiny since the publication of a report that found that it had colluded with the military to establish loose ethics guidelines regarding interrogations of terrorism suspects during the George W. Bush administration. Essentially, the report says, the group turned a blind eye to psychologists involved in what many now call torture.

The report, released last month and written by David H. Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer, also detailed a dysfunctional culture among the group's leadership during that period, with examples of bullying of critics and conflicts of interest.

The conference, the first time the membership has met face to face since the now-infamous report came out, amounted to four days of soul searching and contrition. Amid the 4,000-odd panels and speeches on mental health were expressions of anger and confusion. Many asked: How did an association of healers forget its values? And how can the APA, if not psychology itself, regain the public's trust?

As Ms. McDaniel told the APA’s governing council at one point: "We're here today to reset our moral compass."

Repairing a Damaged Image

To help fix that compass, the APA’s Council of Representatives on Friday passed a resolution that prohibits members from participating in national-security interrogations. In addition, the council approved the creation of a panel to evaluate the organization’s ethics policies and procedures.

The resolution, which predates the Hoffman report but gained momentum after its release, passed the council overwhelmingly, 156 to 1.

Negotiations on its wording, however, lasted until the final minutes, with many late-night rewrite meetings all week, said Scott D. Churchill, a member of the council from Dallas who was one of the main authors of the measure.

The resolution was an emotional victory for Mr. Churchill — he said he had held back tears as it passed on a dramatic roll-call vote — and other psychologists who have long sought to strengthen the association’s prohibitions against torture.

Steven Reisner, a New York psychologist and a member of the council, said the resolution removed any possible loopholes by aligning the association’s standards with international laws, like the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

Mr. Reisner is part of a small group of self-described dissidents who have pushed to expose the APA’s secret workings with the military and intelligence agencies for almost a decade. Some of the critics have faced harsh personal attacks by the APA leadership in that time, but they now have largely been embraced. That shift is a remarkable turnaround for an organization that just 11 months ago was defending itself against charges that the Hoffman report would eventually affirm.

Aside from the personal vindication, Mr. Reisner said, the resolution would help repair the APA’s badly damaged image.

"The public is legitimately wary of the American Psychological Association as the representative of professional psychology," he said. "And if it is the representative of professional psychology, the public will be wary of professional psychology."

During the meeting, though, psychologists who work for the military questioned whether the ban would have a positive impact.

Thomas J. Williams, president of the Society for Military Psychology, a division of the APA, said he worried about what seems to be a growing antimilitary stance by the group. Instead of rebuilding trust with the public, he argued, the ban may backfire.

"The American public places its trust the most in those organizations whose members possess and reflect values which most align with preserving and protecting the freedoms and liberties we most cherish," he wrote in an email to The Chronicle. A handful of military psychologists who are named in the Hoffman report have also objected to its findings, calling the investigation a "rhetoric-laden prosecutorial brief."

But judging by the town hall, which was held on Saturday, critics of Mr. Hoffman and the new prohibition are in the minority. Few questioned the lawyer’s findings, and many applauded the passage of the ban.

Yet it was clear from the nearly two-hour meeting that matters are far from settled. More apologies, more dismissals of personnel, and more clarity on future steps were demanded.

Ms. McDaniel responded to concerns along with Nadine J. Kaslow, the group’s past president. (Barry S. Anton, the current president, did not participate because he is mentioned in the Hoffman report.)

The two women, who received praise during the session for their leadership during the crisis, promised that in the future decision making by the group would be more open and inclusive, but they also called on the members to hold them accountable if they don’t live up to that pledge.

Invoking a saying by President Ronald Reagan, Ms. McDaniel said the membership’s attitude should be "trust, but verify."

‘Is Reform of APA Enough?’

For the 9,000 or so people at the conference, the Hoffman report was the buzz of the halls and at dinners. While not everyone thought that psychology itself had suffered a black eye because of it, almost everyone had an opinion about the association.

Inevitably, talk with a psychologist about the APA, and a diagnosis emerges as if the group were a patient on the couch. It suffers from narcissism, repressed hostility, or an inferiority complex to psychiatry.

Whatever the diagnosis, the key question is whether it can be cured.

"Is reform of APA enough? There needs to be a revolution perhaps within APA," said Yosef Brody, president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, which has criticized the group’s leaders. "If it doesn’t change, then there are bigger questions: Can we do without the APA?"

During the meeting, Psychologists for Social Responsibility held a "teach in" focused on Mr. Hoffman’s findings, the role psychologists play in the CIA and the military, and the long history of such connections.

Mr. Brody said one way the field of psychology can recover from this episode is for professors in graduate schools to discuss what happened at the APA in the classroom and do more to teach the ethical dilemmas students may eventually face working for the Pentagon or corporations.

While the courses he took as a student at Long Island University did a good job of educating him about the ethics of working with clients in a clinical setting, Mr. Brody said, the curriculum did little to expose him to the broader moral issues that the discipline wrestles with.

"Students need to understand the history, what got us here, and the ethical dilemmas. That hasn’t been happening," he said. "Graduate programs need to think about what’s most important."

On Thursday evening, Mr. Brody’s group gathered at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, a few blocks from the conference, to bolster support for the interrogation prohibition. Some who attended wore red T-shirts emblazoned with the words "First, Do No Harm," which became something of a rallying cry for activists here.

Among the crowd of about 50 people, sitting in the back on a redwood pew, was Allayna Pinkston. She earned her degree as a doctor of psychology the same day the Hoffman report was released, essentially entering the field at perhaps psychology’s lowest moment.

Throughout the conference, a persistent issue was whether young people like her would continue to join the nation’s largest professional association for psychologists or leave it, further exacerbating a recent decline in membership. (The group says it had about 150,000 members in 2010 and has around 120,000 today, a decline due in small part, it says, to those upset about the APA’s ethical controversy.)

For Ms. Pinkston, Mr. Hoffman’s 542-page review was "disappointing," but she decided to continue to be a member.

"It’s not the time to run away. It’s time to run toward the people who are trying to hold those accountable and make a difference," she said. "Ultimately this ethics code is mine regardless of whether I’m an APA member."

Ms. Pinkston is one sign that the embattled American Psychological Association has a future. But as she also made clear, it has to be a future that looks nothing like the APA’s past.

Ian Wilhelm edits coverage of international issues and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @ianwilhelm, or email him at ian.wilhelm@chronicle.com.