Learned Helplessness

I wanted to highlight a point from yesterday’s NYT article on the decision to use torture:

“By late 2001, the agency had contracted with James E. Mitchell, a psychologist with the SERE program who had monitored many mock interrogations but had never conducted any real ones, according to colleagues. He was known for his belief that a psychological concept called “learned helplessness” was crucial to successful interrogation.

Martin Seligman, a prominent professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who had developed the concept, said in an interview that he was puzzled by Dr. Mitchell’s notion that learned helplessness was relevant to interrogation.

“I think helplessness would make someone more dependent, less defiant and more compliant,” Dr. Seligman said, “but I do not think it would lead reliably to more truth-telling.”

Still, forceful and brainy, Dr. Mitchell, who declined to comment for this article, became a persuasive player in high-level agency discussions about the best way to interrogate Qaeda prisoners.”

The role of learned helplessness in the development of our torture policies has been reported before. However, it’s worth unpacking this a bit.

Learned helplessness works as follows. When an animal, human or non-human, is exposed to repeated trauma that it cannot control, it sometimes just gives up trying, even when, later, it is possible to escape that trauma. Martin Seligman first hit on the idea when doing conditioning experiments with dogs: he gave the dogs shocks in a hammock from which they could not escape, and then put them in a box that allowed them to escape from shocks (which were delivered through the floor) by jumping over a barrier.

Normally, dogs scramble around trying to escape from the shocks, jump the barrier by accident, figure out (after a few tries) that this is how they can escape from the shocks, and then jump the barrier as soon as the shocks start. But the dogs who had been shocked in the hammocks, in which they could neither escape nor control the shocks, didn’t do that. They ran around for about thirty seconds, and then just lay down on the floor and whimpered.

In the book in which he describes learned helplessness, Seligman cites an even more striking finding: another researcher held wild rats in his hand until they stopped struggling, and then put them in a water tank that they could not escape from. Normal wild rats will swim for 60 hours before drowning. The rats who had been held until they stopped struggling, however, swam for thirty minutes and then drowned.

Learned helplessness happens to humans too:

“Extending the ramifications of these findings to humans, Seligman and his colleagues found that human motivation to initiate responses is also undermined by a lack of control over one’s surroundings. Further research has shown that learned helplessness disrupts normal development and learning and leads to emotional disturbances, especially depression.”

That’s learned helplessness. You put an animal, human or non-human, in a situation in which bad things happen that it can neither escape nor control, and eventually it just gives up. And that’s what the CIA was trying to do to its detainees.

The reason I bring this up is this. As I have noted before, acts intended to produce “severe mental pain or suffering” count as torture under the US Code. “Severe mental pain or suffering” is defined as “the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from” various things, one of which is “the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.” A lot of the discussion of techniques like sleep deprivation in the torture memos consists of arguments that since their effects are (according to the memos’ authors) short-lived and reversible, they do not produce “prolonged mental harm”, and thus cannot be considered torture under the law.

But there is just no way — no way at all — in which you can describe interrogation procedures designed to produce learned helplessness as not intended to cause “prolonged mental harm” via techniques calculated to disrupt personality profoundly. You just can’t. Recall: learned helplessness “leads to emotional disturbances, especially depression.” From Wikipedia:

“Apart from the shared depression symptoms between human and other animals such as passivity, introjected hostility, weight loss, appetite loss, social and sexual deficits, some of the diagnostic symptoms of learned helplessness — including depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation — can be found and observed in human beings but not necessarily in animals.”

I’d like to see Steven Bradbury try to argue that this doesn’t count as a profound disruption of personality, or that it does not constitute “prolonged mental harm”. From where I sit, it fits the statutory definition of torture perfectly.

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