Psychologists’ ethics (or lack thereof)

Remember Ted Kaczynski?  I am reading The Emotional Foundations of Personality:  A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approachco-authored by Kenneth L. Davis and the great Jaak Panksepp, who did not live to see its completion but whose work and ideas inspired the effort.  So far it is interesting, a bit wordy and redundant as it argues for a different way of conceptualizing personality based upon the roots of our emotionality in subcortical structures.  The interesting part is when they depart from promoting their approach to actually detailing it in contrast with some previous approaches that struggle to be relevant biologically.

Being a retired clinical psychologist, I used to pay attention to personality theory. Actually, long years ago as an undergraduate English major, I read a book by Theophrastus on Characters, an early effort at understanding personality types.  Anyway, I used several instruments to assay the personalities of some patients, like the MMPI, a long, very long set of yes-no questions which has been used for decades.  The patterns of answers fit into certain personality profiles that were identified through statistical means (factor-analysis) and standardized through several iterations of the test.

Another instrument was the TAT, the Thematic Apperception Test, wherein I would show a patient a series of pictures and ask them to tell me a story about them, the assumption being that their interpretations were projections of their personality, e.g., of how they viewed their world, others in it and themselves. It was helpful.

Now I read in Emotional Foundations of Personality(written in 2018) that the TAT was created by Christiana Morgan and Henry Murray in the 1930s, and reading a note accompanying the text on my Kindle, that Murray ran a psychology study at Harvard for several years (1969-1972) that Ted Kaczynski (remember the Unabomber finally caught living the primitive life in Montana) participated in. Further, Murray’s study is now understood to have been quite unethical (and no surprise, had some funding links with the CIA).  Jumping Jehosaphat, as my hero Gabby Hayes used to exclaim, I needed to know more. Wikipedia was there for me.

From 1959 to 1962 Murray ran a study that looked at how to break down a person’s mind and control them.  Under the guise of a different experiment (thus the ethical violation of enlisting subjects without informed consent) the researchers would ask the subject about themselves, their lives, values, etc., ostensibly for a neutral purpose, but then use that information to subject them to insults, demeaning their persons, behaviors and values, to understand the effects of such psychologically sadistic behaviors (oh, another unethical behavior).

Ted Kocynski enlisted as a young 18 or 19 year old Harvard student and was subjected to over 200 hours of this ‘protocol’.  It would be enlightening to know how many subjects dropped out early in their participation.  He had been admitted to Harvard as a particularly gifted student in mathematics, described as mostly socially withdrawn, not unfriendly but not socially skilled or outgoing either.  Upon graduation he began to teach college mathematics but quit after 6 or 7 years and disappeared into the wilds of Montana, where he became increasingly alienated, critical and perhaps paranoid of modern society and government, eventually terrorizing the nation with letter bombs.  One of his biographers, drawing from family and friends’ interviews and Kaczynksi’s writings, believes his experience in Murray’s experiment had a profound impact on his mind, attitudes (his personality?) and mental stability.

I have found that psychologists have a mixed reputation amongst the population. When my wife recently told a new acquaintance that I was a retired clinical psychologist, she exclaimed that she would be afraid to talk with me.  Ah, yes, now that I focus on reading her mind, I can see why.  And of course we are not referred to as shrinks for nothing, or actually it is for nothing because ‘shrinks’ really refers to psychiatrists, but that is neither here nor there.

Consider also that two psychologists cooperated with the CIA, not having learned anything from the Henry Murray incident (maybe not knowing about it or seeing that he was not censored, went ahead anyway), to help design the CIA torture mistakenly called ‘enhanced interrogation’.  The American Psychological Association evidently also cooperated with this effort. Oh well, the two psychologists and their company were paid $81 million dollars for this work.  The rest of us received the assurance that the torture was, what?  Psychologically valid?  We know it was not reliable nor ethical nor humane.  Just ask the victims of torture and those victimized by Ted Kaczynski.

I gotta get out of this place, so I will quickly travel on.

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