Politics & Media
Jul 18, 2008, 05:23AM

Applied Helplessness

Accusations of torture in the interogation of detainees have usually been confined to military and government personnel, as would be be expected, but recently a prominent psychology professor has been unfairly implicated in waterboarding. Here is a defense of this civilian and an explanation of how his academic research is used by the military.

In the blogosphere, her text has sparked something of a war against Martin Seligman, Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology, former American Psychological Association president, father of a Summer Pennsylvanian news editor and one of Penn's most prominent faculty members, known for his extensive contributions to the field of positive psychology.

Mayer claims that, in May 2002, Seligman gave a lecture at the San Diego Naval Base sponsored by the government program SERE (short for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) concerning his theory of "learned helplessness."

The SERE program historically instructed U.S. soldiers on how to endure and evade torture techniques while in enemy captivity, going as far as waterboarding soldiers in the program.

In short, the theory of learned helplessness demonstrates that helplessness can be conditioned. In the mid-60's, Seligman and colleagues discovered that dogs who were caged and shocked at random without means of escaping or predicting the nature of the shock later acquiesced to the pain when provided with means to escape.

This connection between Seligman's theory and its apparent application in interrogation, combined with Seligman's lecture in San Diego, has led to denunciations on the left-wing blog Daily Kos, as well as the claim by Andrew Sullivan that Seligman "assisted the U.S. government in the torture of detainees."

But there is, in fact, no evidence that Seligman directly assisted in torture.

And there is no evidence that Seligman suggested the application of "learned helplessness" in interrogations.


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