Four Psychologists at the Gates of Hell
A cautionary tale about psychologists, torture, and golden eggs.
Posted Dec 19, 2011
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master -- that’s all.”
-- Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
This is a story of four siblings with improbable names: Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective. Just as improbably, they all grew up to become psychologists, each with a different area of professional focus. Over many years of independent practice, the four gained considerable recognition for their expertise. Eventually, they joined together to form a high-profile, all-in-one firm in which each sibling’s specialized contributions complemented the others.’
Brother Safe was an expert on risk. Nothing was more important to him than protecting his clients from harm. His siblings speculated that this passion was due to his having been a small, insecure, and fearful child, always lacking in confidence compared to his peers. Regardless, whenever a new psychological treatment began to gain popularity, it was Safe who carefully “read the fine print,” reviewed the potential adverse reactions and side effects, and then recommended whether the siblings should add the approach to their set of interventions. As a result of Safe’s meticulousness, the siblings were renowned for how rarely their clients suffered therapeutic setbacks that left them worse off than when treatment began. This was a source of tremendous comfort for those who sought the firm’s help.
Sister Legal was long considered the smartest of the siblings, and nobody was surprised when she obtained a law degree along with her doctorate in psychology. Growing up, Legal was a nitpicker, and she would worry about even the most trivial rules and infractions in the games the siblings played. Her brothers and sister were often irritated by this obsessiveness. But they also recognized how helpful it was whenever the four of them teamed up against neighbors in friendly competition. As professionals, having a talented attorney in the family business was a real advantage in avoiding potentially costly lawsuits. Legal made sure that the firm was always on the right side of the law. Her consistent recommendation was simple: stay away from the gray areas and keep a sufficient distance from the lines that should never be crossed -- that way you can’t accidently stray where you shouldn’t go.
Brother Effective was the youngest of the siblings, and he grew up feeling he wasn’t quite on equal footing with his brother and sisters. His response was to become hyper-competitive, always looking for an advantage wherever he could find one. Later, when Effective became a psychologist, he found his edge by dedicating himself to using only those therapeutic approaches that had the strongest theoretical and empirical support. He spent hours each week poring over the latest research findings and meta-analyses to determine which methods the firm should embrace -- and which should be avoided because there was insufficient evidence to support the claims of their overly enthusiastic proponents. As a result, Effective and his siblings were able to consistently report outstanding treatment successes.
Sister Ethical garnered considerable respect from Safe, Legal, and Effective for being the oldest of the four. But throughout their lives they also had found her tiresome, due to her incessant reminders about the importance of “doing the right thing.” During their childhood years, the siblings abandoned many a mischievous plan for entertainment or profit because Ethical’s overbearing lectures were simply too steep a price to pay. Nevertheless, as psychologists they appreciated having a member of the firm with such a reliable and finely honed moral compass. Ethical could always be counted on to discern in advance the potential ethical entanglements in any case. She knew all of the standards, and she was able to cite relevant passages whenever needed, including distinguishing enforceable code sections from those that were merely aspirational. In short, although Ethical wasn’t much fun, the firm’s public recognition as an exemplar of the ethical practice of psychology was a point of pride for all of them.
The siblings’ talents and hard work made their shared practice of psychology enormously successful. All four of them lived very comfortable and rewarding lives, which included the pleasure of working together and offering their unique perspectives on the many challenging cases that routinely came to the firm. The combination of expert insights on matters of safety, legality, ethics, and effectiveness seemed to be a special elixir. They consistently produced clear strategies and policy guidance in a professional world where many of their peers struggled amid competing considerations. By discussing each of their favorite questions -- “Is it safe?”, “Is it legal?”, “Is it ethical?”, and “Is it effective?” -- the siblings rarely found themselves stumped or uncertain about the best path forward.
But one afternoon everything changed.
Several large men, a few of them in uniform, paid an unexpected visit to the siblings at their downtown DC offices. They quickly dispensed with pleasantries. One of the men spoke in serious and sometimes whispered tones about an immediate, short-term, and highly lucrative consulting opportunity “related to matters of national security.” Even before hearing all of the details, the siblings began discussing which of the four of them could clear their schedules on such short notice. But their conversation was interrupted when one of the men firmly said, “Stop. We need all four of you. If any of you turn down this offer, you won’t hear from us again. I strongly believe you’d regret that. Think of us as the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs. We have a plane waiting for you at the airport.” At that point, he reached into his briefcase and placed four glimmering golden eggs on the conference table. “One for each of you -- consider them a down payment.”
Tragically, as it would turn out, all four siblings had a soft spot for golden eggs, authority figures, and special recognition. A few hours later Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective were together on the plane, and after a very lengthy trip they arrived at their destination the following evening, without any clear idea of where they actually were. Immediately upon disembarking they were hurried to a warehouse facility where very large men were barking orders to other men almost as large. The siblings felt a strange mixture of fear and pride when the very largest man approached them, extended his hand, and said, “Your country thanks you.” He then led them to a private room with an elaborate video console.
As soon as they were all seated, the man began his brief presentation. “Welcome. I hope your trip was comfortable. What we need from you is really quite simple. I’m sure my colleagues explained on the flight over that, among other responsibilities, we’re in the interrogation business.” After they nodded, he continued. “This work is crucial for our nation’s security, but we recognize it may not be popular with everyone. So our marketing people have developed a slogan for us, one that has tested very well in several focus groups. We want to advertise our interrogations as ‘safe, legal, ethical, and effective.’ It’s going to become a memorable phrase. Our analysts are confident that, with repeated use and mass exposure, it will silence even the most stubborn doubters.”
After a short pause, the very large man resumed. “No doubt you’ve now figured out why we contacted the four of you. We want the famous and much respected psychologists Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective to officially endorse our methods. Clever, isn’t it?” He grinned momentarily. “Your stamp of approval will be very useful to us, especially when people question our claims in order to advance their own self-interested agenda. So here’s what we’ve done. We’ve put together a dozen video clips for you to watch, showing the techniques we use to enhance our interrogations here. Whenever you want, you can pause or stop the player, or rewind the video if you want to view it again. Are my instructions clear?” The siblings nodded. “Good. The key is to get this done quickly, so that you can return home and we can launch our marketing campaign. Feel free to talk with each other. And I’ll be back in an hour to get written endorsements from each of you. By the way, we’ll be videotaping everything.”
The very large man stood up and left the room, leaving a guard standing just outside the door. Over the next half-hour, the siblings watched the video clips -- in utter disbelief. The first clip showed a naked, hooded prisoner in a small cell; he shivered uncontrollably each time he was doused with buckets of cold water. In the second video, a gaunt prisoner, struggling to maintain his balance, stood with handcuffs chained to the ceiling and with his feet shackled to a bolt in the floor; he appeared to have gone without sleep for a very long time. In the third clip, an obviously distraught prisoner, wearing only a diaper, was confined to a small, dark box too short to allow him to stand. The fourth video showed a trembling prisoner forced into the corner of a cell as two large, ferocious dogs yanked on their leashes and growled within inches of his face. The fifth clip was of a prisoner gagging and unable to breathe -- as he lay strapped to an inclined board and large amounts of water were poured over a cloth covering his nose and mouth.
At that point, all four siblings simultaneously reached for the remote control to turn off the video player. They stared at each other, dumbfounded and alarmed by the situation in which they now found themselves. The silence was broken when the very large man re-entered the room. “We’ve seen enough,” they blurted out in unison. “Excellent,” the man replied. “This will be even quicker than I anticipated. Let me assure you that the additional videos you’ve skipped wouldn’t change your views in any way whatsoever. Here are the endorsement forms, and here’s your compensation.” Two large men wheeled in a large suitcase and together lifted it onto the table.
“Let’s get started with our review,” the very large man said. “Dr. Safe, you’re first. Are you ready to confirm that the procedures you observed were entirely safe? Let me assure you that, except for one, all of the prisoners you saw in the videos are still alive today, and their major organs function within normal limits. That one exception is the individual who was chained to the ceiling. He died several days later from an unfortunate accidental fall, but it was entirely unrelated to these interrogation techniques. Admittedly, the prisoners in the videos are experiencing physical and psychological discomfort to varying degrees, but I’m sure you realize that’s quite different from their being unsafe. Don’t you agree, Dr. Safe?” The man opened the suitcase. “Here are a few golden eggs to help you with your decision. Take a few minutes while I talk with your brother and sisters.”
“Dr. Legal, you’re next,” the man said as he shifted his gaze. “I assume you didn’t observe anything illegal in what transpired in the videos, correct? But wait, let me back up a step. In posing the question to you, I’m also assuming that a psychologist with your legal expertise is familiar with the latest interpretations of U.S. law regarding what constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. I hope we haven’t misjudged you in that way. Also, as a point of caution, please don’t let yourself be distracted by any of the nebulous strictures that some supposed scholars refer to as ‘international law.’ We’re all patriotic Americans here, right? Let’s stick with what we know. And here are some golden eggs to focus your thinking as well.”
Effective wondered if he could feign sudden illness before it was his turn. But he realized the futility of that plan, just as the very large man turned and spoke directly to him. “Dr. Effective, this endorsement should not be difficult for you either, especially if you approach it in the right way. Start by putting aside any research findings with which you’re already familiar. Instead, focus on this fact: with everything we do here, we take very careful and detailed notes. We monitor constantly, and we collect and analyze all data with religious precision. And then we adjust our interrogation techniques accordingly. So the key question you should ask yourself is whether or not this is an effective research project for determining which techniques work and which do not. You also have my assurance that we’re learning valuable things from the people we interrogate -- all of which is classified and top-secret, as I’m sure you understand. If you have doubts, perhaps these will help.” The man pushed a few golden eggs across the table. Motionless and staring blankly until then, Effective reached out and caught one of them as it was about to roll off the table.
Ethical had just watched as her brothers and sister, all of whom she had long admired, were seemingly mesmerized, one after the other. She knew that she too would be severely tested. “So Dr. Ethical, I turn now to you, last but not least,” the very large man began. “Before you weigh in, let me mention that there have been discussions about rolling out a shorter slogan, just ‘Safe, legal, and effective.’ But ‘ethical’ apparently carries a lot of weight in certain quarters. Do you agree that everything you saw was ethical? We don’t require enthusiasm, just assent. As I’m sure you realize, ethics are unavoidably nuanced, abstract, and subject to interpretation. Also, if it simplifies matters for you, keep in mind that the people we interrogate are ‘the worst of worst,’ and they have crucial information we desperately need. From an ethical perspective, is any consideration more important than the preservation of our society itself? Have some golden eggs while you quickly ponder that.”
The very large man stood up again and glared in turn at each of the four siblings. “Why don’t we get these endorsement papers signed now, so we can get you home without further delay? If any of you would prefer some solitude to speed your thinking, down the hall we have several small cages that are currently empty. I apologize if my attempt at humor doesn’t strike you as funny.” The siblings smiled halfheartedly. But this apparent ploy at intimidation was entirely unnecessary. Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective had already wilted in their seats, and they had each begun mentally exploring the options for how they might later defend their endorsements, if ever called upon to do so. The siblings had all been silent until this point, but Ethical now asked a question: “Who else is going to see those videos?” “Oh, you needn’t worry about that,” the man quickly replied. “We plan to destroy them.”
He then offered some further reassurances. “Look, you all seem a bit hesitant. I’m not sure why. Just keep in mind what a huge opportunity this is,” the man said, opening wide the suitcase filled with golden eggs. “Opportunities not only for the four of you, but for the entire profession of psychology. Do you fully appreciate that? Your help here tonight will open many doors to a lot more work -- consulting, research, everything. And trust me, we’re in this for the long haul. We’re offering you ‘a seat at the table.’ We want you to be part of our team, the winning team. The team that conducts ‘safe, legal, ethical, and effective’ interrogations.”
Of course the four siblings knew that “safe, legal, ethical, and effective” did not actually describe what they had traveled thousands of miles to watch. But the horrendous video images, painfully fresh in their minds, merely intensified the psychologists’ internal efforts at twisting reality. Each of them now puzzled over questions they once would have ridiculed as absurd: How dangerous must something be for “safe” to be an inaccurate description? Can anyone truly distinguish, with absolute certainty, between what’s unlawful and what is “legal”? Why should unambiguous, documented evidence of success be required to conclude that something is “effective”? Are judgments about what’s “ethical” ever black-and-white in a world that is often so gray?
The siblings cast sideways glances at the very large man, then at each other, and then at the suitcase filled with golden eggs. Ethical started to speak, but the man abruptly cut her off. “Sorry. Let me mention one more thing. It turns out we were misinformed about the schedule of outgoing flights back to the States. As planned, there is one tonight, in about an hour. I’d hate for you to miss it, because I’ve just learned that the next one isn’t for another two months. I’m sure our accommodations here are not quite what you’re accustomed to. Let’s just say that eight weeks with us would probably feel even quite a bit longer -- although it would give all of you a chance to observe and assist with some of our interrogations first-hand. But perhaps you’re ready to sign the endorsements now?”
With sheepish looks all around, the four psychologists dutifully signed the forms, thereby giving the interrogation techniques their highly prized and widely respected endorsement. The siblings kept quiet about any fears that a lifetime of regrets and nightmares might now await them. Instead they muttered aloud to each other about how little choice they really had, and how others would do exactly what they had done.
And so, in a far-off land in the dead of night, an historic marketing campaign was launched and a new era for psychologists was born. Pushing a gurney carrying the large suitcase filled with golden eggs, Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective acknowledged the applause from dozens of smiling large men as they headed outside to the airstrip. As they neared the plane, the very large man approached them one last time.
“Doctors, there’s a bit of bad news. As it turns out, we need to transport four prisoners on this plane too. With their hoods and shackles they won’t cause you any trouble. But there will be a brief stopover on the way to DC. The bigger problem is this: with these additional passengers, that suitcase of golden eggs will put the plane dangerously over its weight limit. So either the suitcase or the four of you will have to stay behind. Sorry about that.” The very large man shrugged his shoulders and walked off. Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective looked at each other, unable to speak -- which made it easy for them to hear the sudden anguished screams from the warehouse behind them.
Postscript. In 2005, despite evidence that psychologists were involved in abusive and torturous interrogations of national security detainees, an American Psychological Association (APA) Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) concluded that psychologists play a critical role in keeping such interrogations "safe, legal, ethical and effective."
With this stance the APA, the largest association of psychologists worldwide, became the sole major professional healthcare organization to support practices contrary to the international human rights standards that ought to be the benchmark against which professional codes of ethics are judged. The PENS Report continues to be highly influential in psychological and national security settings today.
The Coalition for an Ethical Psychology is leading a petition campaign calling for annulment of the APA's PENS Report. Readers interested in supporting the annulment initiative can read the petition materials, review the current list of organizational and individual signers, and sign on to the petition at www.ethicalpsychology.org/pens.