Centre for Confidence and Well-being

Skip to content
Carol's Blog
Postcards from Scotland

Allegations against Martin Seligman

On Monday this week some blogs appeared on the internet which not only claimed that Martin Seligman?s learned helplessness theory had been used by two CIA agents (Mitchell and Jessen) to help them construct torture techniques but also that Seligman had ?assisted? in the process.

These claims were linked to the publication the next day (16th July) of a high profile book by a well-known and respected New Yorker journalist called Jane Mayer. The book is entitled The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. It looks at the Bush administration?s record on torture as well as the involvement of psychologists. Apparently one of the themes of the book is that the American Psychological Association has been slow to condemn torture or prohibit their members from being involved in such activities. (Unlike other healthcare organisations.)
Following these allegations, Martin Seligman put out a statement which reads as follows:
July 14, 2008

The allegation that I ?provided assistance in the process? of torture is completely false.

I gave a three hour lecture sponsored by SERE (the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape branch of the American armed forces) at the San Diego Naval Base in May 2002. My topic was how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness and related findings to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors.

I was told then that since I was (and am) a civilian with no security clearance that they could not discuss American methods of interrogation with me. I have not had contact with SERE since that meeting. I have not worked under government contract (or any other contract) on any aspect of interrogation or any aspect of torture. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen were present in the audience of about 50 others at my speech, and that was, to the best of my knowledge, the sum total of my 'assisting them in the process.'

I have had no contact at all with the American Psychological Association about their relevant policies.

As of today, I have not seen Jane Mayer?s book, only the blogs. If necessary, I will comment further on its contents.

Most importantly, I strongly disapprove of torture and have never and would never provide assistance in its process.

Martin Seligman

As yet the Centre has not managed to acquire a copy of Jane Mayer?s book but from an interview which appeared with her on the web, Seligman?s statement reflects some of her key facts. In this interview at least she is not.  as the bloggers made out, saying that Seligman actively assisted in devising torture techniques only that they were used by the  CIA. You can read Mayer?s interview online. (See her response to question 2.) 

Seligman?s statement that his contact with the military was to help protect American troops may well appease many fellow Americans. However, at the Centre we are picking up that his statement is not going down well with folk in the UK. Geoge Bernard Shaw reputedly said that Britain and America are ?two nations divided by a common language.? Americans are much more patriotic than the British in their support for the military or the troops. Given how hated the Iraq war and the Bush administration is currently in the UK, the idea that Seligman gave the regime support and advice on war matters is still likely to alienate potential supporters.
Once we have obtained and read Mayer?s book we shall give an update on this important story.

Centre Events Previous Centre Events External Events Carol's Talks