Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

The American Psychological Association (APA) has been in the press again, and once again it is bad press. The old specter of collusion between psychologists and CIA interrogators and torturers was raised in an article in The New York Times (Risen, April 30, 2015). There really should not be anything controversial about this issue. It is clear from our Code of Ethics that psychologists are prohibited from engaging in inhumane practices, yet it took a Task Force (APA, 2005) to reiterate that psychologists are always bound by their ethical responsibilities, regardless of work setting. There are no exceptions.

The “Nuremburg defense” does not hold. In 2013, APA adopted the Policy Related to Psychologists’ Work in National Security Settings and Reaffirmation of the APA Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (APA, 2013). Last year, after continued dismay that several license boards had failed to hold psychologists responsible for their involvement in dubious interrogation practices, APA elected to conduct an independent review. The report from Mr. David Hoffman, attorney with the law firm of Sidney Austin, is pending.

The reports in the press have been confusing for the public and for psychologists alike. The question may come up in psychotherapy, so psychotherapists may wish to consider how they might deal with this with clients. The torture methods used in detention centers post-9/11 are a prime example of the misuse of psychology, but by no means the only case. Also much in the news recently is the issue of police brutality and the use of lethal force, particularly against African American men. The riots and indictment of six police officers in Baltimore this week must be seen in the context of persistent, daily injustices and microaggressions affecting the lives of many in poor minority neighborhoods.

The question has been posed: Why do police officers act and react this way? One suggestion from Dr. Seth Stoughton of the University of South Carolina School of Law (Cornish, 2015) lies in the type of training they receive. A paranoid, hypervigilant stance is fostered by training videos in which members of the public are depicted as armed and dangerous, and hesitancy or complacency can be fatal. Officers face real challenges and risks, but may be trained to see themselves as soldiers among enemies, resulting in an exaggeration of the actual danger in a given situation. Stoughton calls for a paradigm shift starting in the Academy, from the “warrior mindset” to a “guardian” role (Cornish, 2015).  Profiling, a psychological skill, is often misused. Instead bias and stereotypes prevail.

FBI Director James Comey recently pointed out the danger of “mental shortcuts” that lead to biased policing, and Dr. Joshua Correll’s research into racial bias and threat perception at the University of Colorado has demonstrated that participants in a video game test situation are more likely to shoot a Black person than a White person, and shoot more quickly when the simulated target is a Black person rather than a White person (Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2002). There is now a move to train police officers in “Fair and Impartial Policing,” attempting to neutralize bias. Psychologists who work with police officers or departments are well situated to assist in education and fostering a new mindset (Kaste, 2015).

These examples are from settings outside traditional therapeutic contexts. Even within the clinical domains of diagnosis and therapy, however, there are cases of misuse of psychology, some egregious. Whole groups of people have been pathologized in various iterations of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Only in DSM-5 (APA, 2013) has Gender Identity Disorder been changed to reflect the fact that not all who question their assigned gender have a “disorder.” In therapy, ineffective and often harmful techniques have been used to “convert” nonheterosexual patients to heterosexuality (APA, 2009).  In 2010, President Obama appointed Amanda Simpson to the Commerce Department. She is the first openly transgender woman to be a presidential appointee. She recently made a strong stand urging that conversion therapy be banned, pointing to its long correlation with misery and suicide (Hudson, 2015).

Despite APA’s longstanding opposition, conversion therapy is still offered by some mental health providers and may be sought out by members of the public (Grisham, 2015), often parents who want to “make” their teenaged children “straight.” Psychologists and psychotherapists have a responsibility not to provide such damaging therapy, and need to take part in educative, as well as therapeutic, activities to help their colleagues and clients better understand the issues.

These are all matters of public interest, social justice, and professional ethics. In and out of the psychotherapy room, psychologists and their clients are affected by these issues. Pursuant to the Code of Ethics (APA, 2010), psychologists have an obligation to do good and not harm (Principle A, Standard 3.04), to prevent misuse of psychologists’ work (Standard 1.01), to promote and protect civil and human rights and dignity, and to be aware that special safeguards may be necessary to protect the rights and welfare of persons or communities whose vulnerabilities impair autonomous decision making (Preamble, Principle E).

Cite This Article

Adam-Terem, R. (2015). The misuse of psychology. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 50(2), 61-62.


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Risen, R. (2015, April 30). American Psychology Association bolstered C.I.A. torture program, report says. The New York Times. Retrieved from


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