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Former Penn Professor Martin Seligman's research on "learned helplessness" may have influenced the CIA's controversial torture techniques. Credit: D. Myles Cullen/Public Domain.

The CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” outlined in a controversial report released earlier this month from the Senate Intelligence Committee, was influenced by a Penn professor’s research. 

Psychology professor Martin E. P. Seligman famously conducted studies at Penn in the 1960s that revealed a “learned helplessness” in dogs subjected to repeated eletric shocks. Instead of adjusting their behavior upon receiving multiple shocks, the dogs remained in place, providing valuable insight into the workings of depressed or abused persons. Now, his research is being used for torture rather than healing according the the Senate report.  

For Seligman, who “strongly disapproves of torture,” the misapplication of his theories is devastating. 

“I have spent my life trying to cure and prevent helplessness, so I am grieved and horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such dubious purposes,” he wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

According to the Senate report, controversial interrogation techniques like waterboarding were intended to create a “desired level of helplessness” in detainees. The architects of the military’s advanced interrogation program, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, drew influence from Seligman’s research.

One of Mitchell's earliest exposures to the learned helplessness theory was in 2002 at the San Diego Naval Base, where he attended a speech by Seligman. In a 2010 letter to the editor of the Voltaire Network — an international relations-focused online publication — Seligman recounted that in the speech, he applied his theory to American troops, who could use learned helplessness to resist torture by captors. Seligman denied ever discussing the research personally with Mitchell, though The New York Times reported Mitchell had visited Seligman’s home in 2001. 

“I have read since in the press that that the torturers used my theory of learned helplessness as a partial basis for what they did," Seligman wrote in the letter to the editor — which specifically responded to the connection of his work to prisoner torture at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp — "If that is true, it was done without my consent, without my knowledge, and certainly without my ‘supervision.’"

Seligman doubts that his theory would yield the results the CIA intended. In an email to the DP, he wrote, “I think learned helplessness would make someone more passive, less defiant and more compliant, but I know of no evidence that it leads to more truth-telling.”

Other psychologists agree that Mitchell and Jessen applied the theory incorrectly. 

“It was never a model of human influence or motivation (something relevant to the interrogation question as to whether a person will decide to give up valuable information),” Charles A. Morgan III, an associate psychiatry professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, wrote in an email. 

While Morgan agreed that brutal interrogation techniques make detainees more compliant, he said the information they disclose is not always reliable. “With respect to interrogation (if the actual goal is to obtain valid information) it's a bit like smashing your radio with a hammer and hoping it will improve the signal and sound quality,” he wrote.

According to the Senate report, the interrogation techniques did not contribute any more valuable information than what had already been obtained without torture. Morgan said that lack of success failed to convince the military interrogators to abandon methods with “little basis in science.” 

“The psychological principle of ‘commitment and consistency’ kicks in and the people who supported it can only say more emphatically that it was the correct thing to do,” Morgan said.

As for Mitchell and Jessen, the CIA architects of the program, Morgan said, “They are zealots who never question what they do and, as a result are, in my view, quite dangerous.”

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