The Theory Behind Treating Detainees Like Dogs


The New York Times reports that the psychological theory underlying the enhanced/coercive/tortuous interrogation methods used by the CIA during the Bush administration was that inducing a state of "learned helplessness" in detainees would make them cooperative and eager to spill the beans:

During a break [at a 2001 meeting on Muslim extremism] , [Jim] Mitchell [a psychologist and CIA consultant] introduced himself to [University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin] Seligman and said how much he admired the older man's writing on "learned helplessness." Dr. Seligman was so struck by Dr. Mitchell's unreserved praise, he recalled in an interview, that he mentioned it to his wife that night. Later, he said, he was "grieved and horrified" to learn that his work had been cited to justify brutal interrogations.

Dr. Seligman had discovered in the 1960s that dogs that learned they could do nothing to avoid small electric shocks would become listless and simply whine and endure the shocks even after being given a chance to escape….

Dr. Mitchell, colleagues said, believed that producing learned helplessness in a Qaeda interrogation subject might ensure that he would comply with his captor's demands. Many experienced interrogators disagreed, asserting that a prisoner so demoralized would say whatever he thought the interrogator expected.

Mitchell's theory is dubious on its face, since the dogs in Seligman's experiments were conditioned to expect they'd be punished no matter what they did. Their "learned helplessness" meant they no longer perceived a connection between their actions and the way they were treated. Isn't that exactly the opposite of the way you'd want a detainee with important information to feel?

Evidently it took 83 waterboardings sessions to induce learned helplessness in Abu Zubaydah, while for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed the magic number was 183. In Zubaydah's case, the Times says, "the prisoner had given up his most valuable information without coercion." The story does not weigh in on the question of whether waterboarding Mohammed produced anything of value. But I bet neither prisoner tried to escape.

[Thanks to Tricky Vic for the link.]