The American Psychological Association Takes Another Step—Backward


Roy Eidelson – TRANSCEND Media Service

17 Aug 2023 – Having witnessed first-hand a crucial vote by the American Psychological Association’s governing Council of Representatives earlier this month in Washington, DC, I couldn’t decide whether to begin this commentary with a quote from Lewis Carroll or George Orwell. So here are both.

Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass includes this memorable exchange between Humpty Dumpty and Alice:

Humpty Dumpty (scornfully): “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Alice: “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Humpty Dumpty: “The question is which is to be master—that’s all.”

And in Politics and the English Language, Orwell wrote,

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Both quotes seem painfully apt when trying to make sense of the Council’s approval of a set of wholly inadequate professional practice guidelines for operational psychology. If this domain is unfamiliar to you, operational psychologists are primarily involved in non-clinical activities linked to national security, national defense, and public safety. Their largest source of employment is the military-intelligence establishment, which includes the Department of Defense and the CIA. Of particular concern from the standpoint of professional ethics, in some cases these psychologists are called upon to inflict harm, to dispense with informed consent, and to operate in a covert manner such that external oversight by professional boards becomes difficult or impossible. They’re eager to have the APA’s official blessing of this weaponization of the profession because it’s a step toward achieving greater recognition and legitimacy for this kind of work.

In light of the manifest misalignment between key features of operational psychology and the profession’s fundamental ethical principles, I believe the proposed guidelines should have been rejected outright, so as not to lend credence to these practices without sufficient discussion and debate about the profoundly consequential issues involved. But it’s worth pointing out that these guidelines deserved a flunking grade simply in comparison to other guidelines recently approved by the APA’s Council for other professional practice areas. For instance, both the guidelines for working with persons with disabilities (2022) and the guidelines for working with sexual minority persons (2021) are each over four-times the length of these vague, abstract, and bare-bones guidelines for operational psychology. Count me among those who find it hard to understand why appropriate guidelines for how to ethically support military-intelligence operations are apparently so much less complicated than guidance for psychologists engaged in other work.

In part, the brevity of the operational psychology guidelines reflects the fact that the developers chose not to include some essential information. For example, it’s now thoroughly documented by a slew of credible reports—including those from the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services and the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—that some operational psychologists were involved in the abuse and torture of war-on-terror detainees at CIA black sites, Guantanamo Bay, and other detention facilities. This tragic stain on the profession and the harm done to detainees and their families and communities is critically important context for evaluating the practice of operational psychology going forward. But after a group of us reviewed a draft of the guidelines with the task force chair, he rejected our strong recommendation that this history be part of the document. Instead, the guidelines include only a passing reference to unspecified “controversy” associated with the practice domain. An obvious question arises: What is “controversial” about torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment?

The task force chair also rejected another strong recommendation we made: that the guidelines specifically describe current APA policies restricting the permissible activities of operational psychologists in the national security arena. For instance, these policies place clear prohibitions on psychologists’ participation in national security interrogations. Psychologists at Guantanamo and similar sites—determined to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions or the United Nations Convention Against Torture by appropriate U.N. bodies or rapporteurs—are also limited to working only on the direct behalf of detainees or as healthcare providers for military personnel. So why was this information intentionally excluded from the guidelines? After all, it certainly seems to be something operational psychologists should want to know.

These omissions from the guidelines are perhaps more readily understood when one recognizes that the most influential operational psychologists within the APA apparently still deny much of the historical evidence of wrongdoing and think these practice restrictions are unwarranted. Indeed, the task force chair himself has repeatedly sought to discredit those who criticize operational psychology for its ethical shortcomings. We need look no further than his recent book for telling examples. The foreword includes this: “We must ensure we are able to dislodge the opposition to operational psychology from within our profession. The most vocal and frequent of this opposition is too often thinly veiled in theshadows of distorted, disingenuous, and discredited diatribes.” The introductory chapter similarly states: “Disinformation, lack of critical thinking, and unbridled innuendo have combined to confuse and distort the truth.” And a later chapter accuses critics of “Fear mongering, innuendo, suspicion, and a well-resourced misinformation campaign.” Honestly, I can’t help but be reminded of the CIA’s informal motto: “Admit nothing. Deny everything. Make counteraccusations.”

It’s possible that the inadequacies in these operational psychology guidelines would have become evident much earlier in the development process if the 12-person task force weren’t solely comprised of psychologists who’ve worked for the Defense Department, the CIA, or in other forensic law enforcement settings. The guidelines document characterizes this group as “diverse in its experience, perspective, and background.” Really? Human rights experts, ethicists, and representatives of those who’ve suffered harm at the hands of operational psychologists are nowhere to be found. It’s worth noting as well that, while professional practice guidelines approved by the APA’s Council typically include the professional affiliations of the task force members, these guidelines do not. Why might that be? I wonder whether greater awareness that some task force members are military-intelligence contractors would have raised concerns regarding their degree of independence from outside influences and career considerations.

Returning to Carroll and Orwell, language matters—especially when the stakes are so high. That’s why abstract guidance like

“Operational psychologists strive to balance the demands of their organizational clients and societal needs with due regard for the autonomy, dignity, and well-being of affected parties”

is unacceptably vague and worrisomely obscure. What does it actually mean, for instance, to “balance” the government’s urgent demand for actionable intelligence against the human dignity of those suspected of having that information? Let’s remember too that the military-intelligence establishment has itself engaged in a lot of wordsmithing designed to disguise uncomfortable truths. Most obviously, the CIA used “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a substitute term for a much more familiar one: “torture.” With a similar purpose, the Pentagon reduced the number of reported detainee suicide attempts at Guantanamo by officially reclassifying them as cases of “manipulative self-injurious behavior.” And the number of “juveniles” imprisoned at Guantanamo was decreased by arbitrarily adopting sixteen as the cut-off age—even though a juvenile according to U.S. and international law is someone under eighteen at the time of any alleged crime.

For me, the low point in the Council’s limited discussion of the operational psychology guidelines may have been when the APA’s treasurer took to the microphone. His message was direct: the guidelines pose no risk to the APA, and the Board of Directors supports them. My immediate thought was this: Has protecting psychologists—so-called guild ethics—so fully displaced  professional ethics and the protection of those who may be harmed by psychologists? And have we so quickly forgotten how this misguided choice led to the APA’s abysmal failure to forcefully oppose the Bush Administration’s use of psychologists as crucial cogs in its brutal “war on terror”? Apparently so.

That this “no risk” endorsement from the Board may have been compelling to Council is troubling in its own right. The final vote was convincingly in favor of approving the operational psychology practice guidelines. To be fair, however, most Council members probably hadn’t even had time to carefully review the guidelines before they voted, since the final version only became available a day before the meeting—a day spent traveling to Washington, DC for many. The APA’s carefully cultivated norms discouraging disagreement or any hint of incivility among Council members—what one colleague calls “toxic positivity”—also may have played a role. And procedural rules were put in place that prevented critics of the guidelines from having the time they needed to correct misinformation and fully air their concerns. In short, praise for the task force’s efforts and good intentions was seemingly the order of the day—and even a shoddy work product wouldn’t be sufficient grounds for applying the brakes. For those who did indeed step forward to express their reservations, reassurances were offered that the guidelines will be reviewed again in just another five years—as if that’s hardly long enough for any adverse consequences to arise.

I mentioned earlier that a group of psychologists with significant concerns about the guidelines (myself included) accepted an invitation to discuss an earlier draft document with the task force chair and several of his allies. I’ve also noted above that our primary revision recommendations were rejected. Nevertheless, the final version includes this unsolicited addition: “Of note, these guidelines received extensive review and input from psychologists experienced in the areas of social justice and human rights advocacy and the TF is grateful for their thoughtful engagement and recommendations.” Personally, I find the inclusion of this sentence deeply misleading, perhaps intentionally so, because it suggests that the critically important areas of disagreement were adequately resolved through the revision process. This is far from true, and the task force chair presumably knows this to be the case.

For years, the community of “dissident” psychologists has struggled to preserve our profession’s fundamental commitments to “Do No Harm” and to similar ethical principles that protect the vulnerable. We’ve had our successes and our setbacks. Unfortunately, the Council’s approval of these operational psychology practice guidelines falls into the latter category. I suppose it’s not really surprising. The U.S. military-intelligence establishment is immensely powerful, and the APA always aspires to be in its good graces. The forces pushing to further militarize the APA—and psychology more broadly—are not new and they aren’t going away. But neither are we.


Roy Eidelson is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and was a member of the American Psychological Association for over 25 years, prior to his resignation. He is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, former executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Roy is the author of Political Mind Games: How the 1% Manipulate Our Understanding of What’s Happening, What’s Right, and What’s Possible and can be reached at

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Aug 2023.

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