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Psychologists Won’t Let Go of Torture Debate

Torture Flyer

A year ago, we reported that the American Psychological Association (otherwise known as the APA, the professional association for half of the nation’s psychologists) banned psychologists from torture interrogations. But since that ban, psychologists against the APA’s stance on torture have not let the matter rest.

Why has the debate raged on, despite APA’s insistence it is 100% against torture and psychologists being involved in torture interrogations?

A July 1 article in Psychiatric Times helps shed some light on the issue:

The American Psychological Association ethics code that was in effect before and through the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks set forth the following enforceable standard regarding conflicts between ethical responsibilities and various forms of state authority. “1.02 Relationship of Ethics and Law: If psychologists’ ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict.”

Although giving psychologists the option to violate their ethical responsibilities in order to follow the law, regulations, or other forms of legal authority had been discussed before September 11, it was only after that date—on August 21, 2002—that the American Psychological Association Council of Representatives adopted a new code (which took effect June 1, 2003) that added a new enforceable ethical principle to section 1.02: “If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority.” It is worth noting that this new option is absolute and unqualified and applies not just to the specific requirements enumerated in the code but more generally to all “ethical responsibilities.”

It’s interesting to note how the authors of this article infer a causal relationship between two unrelated events without any evidence to back their claim. Nonetheless, the gist of their claim is this — the APA changed their ethical guidelines to allow psychologists to be involved in unethical torture interrogations and be protected by the Ethics Code because they were following a legal authority. The authors suggest this gives psychologists leeway to continue to be involved in torture, despite the APA’s unequivocal stance against torture.

Indeed, that’s what the APA notes in their written response to this letter, among other objections to the mischaracterization of the APA’s stance on torture.

So you’d think all of this would finally put this matter to bed?


Psychologists at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association are distributing this flyer entitled, Protest Psychologists’ Involvement in Abusive Interrogations and Illegal Detention. The two hour rally will be held in front of the convention center in Boston where the APA’s meeting takes place on Saturday, August 16 at Noon and includes the following speakers:

  • Dan Aalbers
  • Ghislaine Boulanger, Ph.D.
  • Ruth Fallenbaum, Ph.D.
  • Brad Olson, Ph.D.
  • Anthony Marsella, PhD
  • Nathaniel Raymond
  • Steven Reisner, Ph.D.
  • Stephen Soldz, Ph.D.
  • Bryant Welch, J.D., Ph.D.

As a professional who’s stood largely on the sidelines watching this debate take place within my own professional association, I think it’s turned into something of a surreal experience:

Psychologists: “Argh! APA allows psychologists to be involved in interrogations that may involve activities commonly thought of as torture! We must protest and have such involvement ended.”

APA: “Okay, you’re right, our bad. We now ban torture.”

Psychologists: “Well, you say you do, but your Ethics Code doesn’t reflect that.”

APA: “Well, it doesn’t matter. Trust us, it’s banned.”

And here’s the specific claim made in the APA letter:

In characterizing the psychologists’ position, the authors assert — incorrectly — that APA’s
prohibition against torture is somehow not enforceable under APA’s Code of Conduct.
APA’s Ethics Code absolutely prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading
treatment and punishment, as the Ethics Committee itself asserted in 2005. It would belie
common sense and any respect for humanity for a health professionals’ code of ethics not
to prohibit torture. APA’s Ethics Code does.

Well, you can see for yourself by reviewing the APA Ethics Code and search for the words “torture” or “interrogation” or “inhumane” or “prisoners” and find none of those words appear in the Code. The APA has separated this issue out from the main Code apparently in a set of resolutions on the matter. I believe this is what is confusing the matter — these resolutions do not appear in the main body of the Ethics Code, and therefore can be seen and interpreted by some psychologists as not having the same force as the Ethics Code.

As a member of the APA, I’m confused too. The Ethics Code says nothing of consulting other documents for other parts of the Code and, in fact, makes it pretty clear that this is the full Code that is in effect (the last revision took effect in 2003). Given the existing Code makes absolutely no mention of these resolutions or whether they have the same rule of force as the Ethical Standards in the Code itself, the APA has only itself to blame for the ongoing confusion and controversy.

Perhaps one of these days, the APA will figure things out and ensure all of their documents are internally consistent. Because, as it stands right now, I can understand why some psychologists are still up in arms over this core human rights issue.


Pope, K.S. & Gutheil, R.G. (2008). The American Psychological Association and Detainee Interrogations: Unanswered Questions. Psychiatric Times, 25(8).

Psychologists Won’t Let Go of Torture Debate

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Psychologists Won’t Let Go of Torture Debate. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 6 Aug 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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