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Psychology's Newest Joke: Not Very Funny

The American Psychological Association has some explaining to do.

There are quite a few jokes out there about members of my profession. Perhaps the most familiar of all is this one: “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answers that usually elicit at least a quiet chuckle include “Only one, but the light bulb must genuinely want to change” and “None, the light bulb will change itself when it’s ready.”

But this week there’s a new psychology joke making the rounds, a simple one-liner. Rather dark, more than a bit absurd, and relying on a healthy dose of incongruity between reality and pretense, it goes like this:

APA will not tolerate psychologist participation in torture.” 

If that doesn’t immediately strike you as funny, perhaps it’s because context and timing are often key for effective humor. So in terms of context, the words belong to Rhea Farberman, the American Psychological Association’s director of public relations. And in terms of timing, she was responding to The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman about the APA’s recent decision not to take disciplinary action against John Leso, a psychologist who had been involved in the brutal treatment of U.S. “war on terror” detainees at Guantanamo Bay. If Ms. Farberman’s comment still doesn’t bring a wry smile, the sort an utterance from an Alice in Wonderland character might produce, then some further background about Dr. Leso’s actions may help.

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According to a 2008 report from the Senate Armed Services Committee, while leading the first Behavioral Science Consultation Team at Guantanamo in 2002, Dr. Leso co-authored a counter-resistance strategies memo and recommended a range of coercive techniques for “high value” detainees. The list included isolation for up to 30 days without visitation rights by treating health professionals or the International Committee of the Red Cross (with additional month-long periods if authorized); removal of “comfort items” such as sheets, blankets, mattresses, wash cloths, and religious items; daily 20-hour interrogations; removal of clothing; exposure to cold; and stress positions. Many of these recommendations were subsequently applied to Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was held in solitary confinement for over five months and subjected to almost daily 18-20 hour interrogations over a two-month period. A leaked interrogation log confirms that Dr. Leso was present for at least some of the sessions, and that he provided guidance to the interrogators.

In addition, a 2005 report from Army investigators found instances of interrogations where Mr. al-Qahtani was forced to wear a woman’s bra and had a thong placed on his head; was forced to stand naked with women present; was held in place while a female interrogator straddled him; was tied to a leash and forced to perform dog tricks; was confronted by growling and barking military working dogs; and was prevented from carrying out his prayer obligations as a Muslim. The Army report concluded that these techniques were abusive and degrading. Judge Susan Crawford subsequently declined to refer Mr. al-Qahtani for prosecution because his treatment met the legal definition of torture.

There’s obviously nothing even remotely humorous about any of that. But despite the convincing evidence of Dr. Leso’s wrongdoing, late last month the APA decided that no formal action should be taken against him for ethics violations. That’s why I assume Ms. Farberman must be joking when she says, “APA will not tolerate psychologist participation in torture.” It’s kind of like the time several years ago when Stephen Behnke, the director of APA’s ethics office, pulled our legs and promised, “When we have the facts, we will act on them. And if individuals who are members of our association have acted inappropriately, the APA will address those very directly and very clearly.” 

Roy Eidelson, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, president of Eidelson Consulting, and a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

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