The APA Torture Scandal and the Importance of Humility

July 16, 2015

Categories: Humility,Psychology

I opened my Twitter feed this week to read some shocking headlines regarding my profession of psychology.

Three senior officials lose their jobs at APA (American Psychological Association) after US torture scandal

Psychologist accused of enabling US torture

Leading psychologists secretly aided US torture program

Psychologists’ collusion with US torture limited our ability to decry it anywhere

You can read the full report here, but the main conclusion was that senior officials at APA (American Psychological Association) colluded with the government to ensure that the APA ethics statement on torture was not more restrictive than the government wanted it to be. Namely, it allowed psychologists to participate in interrogations using torture, despite other laws and broad professional ethics that were designed to prevent this type of behavior. The report also discussed how dissenting voices were systematically disregarded and shut down.

This is a dark day for psychology and the APA. I believe it may take years for psychology as a profession to regain the public’s trust. One of the reasons I’m proud to be a psychologist is that as a profession we claim to take a strong stand on social justice and human rights issues. That high-level officials in APA were in cahoots with the government to allow the exact opposite to occur is quite a shock.

If the profession of psychology and APA is to move forward from this crisis and regain the public trust, I think it is essential that we move forward with humility. This isn’t the first time that the APA has been criticized about its role in the government’s use of torture. In years past, APA has shown a lack of humility on these matters, failing to admit its failures and instead defending its position. Moving forward, this needs to change.

Humility involves an accurate view of our selves, including an awareness of our limitations. Our professional values state that we should do no harm and advocate for the disadvantaged and underprivileged, but we are a profession comprised of flawed human beings who don’t always live up to the standards we promote. We need to acknowledge this fact honestly, rather than pretending to be more righteous than we actually are. Because of our limitations, we need structures in place that limit the power of individuals to make unilateral decisions. We need checks and balances.

In addition to acknowledging our limitations, humility involves an openness to the other, even those whose opinions are discrepant from our own. In the recent scandal, important dissenting voices were ignored, disregarded, and actively shut down. If we are to move forward as a profession with humility, we need to make it a priority to listen to minority voices, even if they are discrepant from our own opinions.

The time for defensiveness and pretending to be more righteous than we actually are is over. In my opinion, moving forward with humility is the only viable option.

Discussion: What is your reaction to the APA torture scandal?


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