Seligman’s Response to Shaw’s ‘The Psychologists Take Power’

Martin Seligman submitted his response to a Feb. 25, 2016, article published in the New York Review of Books:

In her defamatory article, “The Psychologists Take Power,” Tamsin Shaw seeks to portray me as aiding and abetting torture. I Seligman's Response to Shaw's 'The Psychologists Take Power'strongly disapprove of torture and I have never and would never aid, abet, or provide any assistance in its process. I have spent my life trying to cure and prevent learned helplessness, so I am horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such a bad purpose as torture.

If you accuse a fellow academic of supporting torture, you’d better have some pretty good evidence. Shaw does not. Here is her evidence and my responses:

“Seligman was one of only three witnesses out of 148 who refused to speak directly with Hoffman’s investigators, demanding instead that they send him questions in writing…”

Shaw seems to imply that I was trying to hide something by being interviewed in writing. On the contrary, I wanted the record to be public if necessary and Hoffman has refused to provide transcripts of others’ spoken interviews. Hoffman and I went back and forth for several weeks and I answered all his queries at great length.

“In December 2001, Seligman convened a meeting at his home to discuss the participation of academics in national security efforts following September 11. Among those present were CIA psychologist James Mitchell and the chief of research and analysis in the CIA’s Operational Division, Kirk Hubbard.”

This meeting occurred as described. The meeting was about how academics could counter Jihadi violence. There was no mention of torture, interrogations, detainees, or any remotely related topic. Mitchell and Hubbard were entirely silent throughout the proceedings.

“Seligman claimed to remember meeting with Hubbard on one subsequent occasion at his home, in April 2002, to discuss his theory of “learned helplessness” with Hubbard and a female lawyer, and that on this occasion he was invited to speak on the theory of learned helplessness at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school, sponsored by the US government. Hubbard, however, recalled meeting Seligman at his home several times after the initial meeting, including a meeting in April 2002 at which, according the Hoffman report, “he, Mitchell, and Jessen met with Seligman in his home to invite him to speak about learned helplessness at the SERE school.”

My discussions with Hubbard and Mitchell were entirely about how captured Americans could resist and evade torture. All of their questions were about captured American soldiers and what our soldiers could do. The Hoffman report verified this and Hubbard and Mitchell testified that they never discussed interrogations with Seligman and did not provide him information about the interrogation program.

“The extent of Seligman’s further involvement has not been established, but in an e-mail sent by Hubbard in 2004, he expressed gratitude for Seligman’s help “over the past four years.”

The reason that my “further involvement has not been established” is because there was none.

I assume Hubbard was thanking me for the meetings above and for my pro bono lecture in May 2002 to the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency to lecture on how what is known about learned helplessness could be used to help captured American soldiers resist and escape torture. Shaw might have gone to the trouble of asking Hubbard what he was thanking me for, as did David Hoffman, uncovering no further involvement.

The Hoffman report twice states that Seligman’s denial of any suspicion that the CIA’s interest in his theories was for use in interrogations is not credible.

The first I heard that the CIA might be using torture in interrogation was only years later when I read Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article. It never occurred to me before that. if I had known about the methods they employed, I would not have discussed learned helplessness with them.

Shaw’s charge against me is essentially that I might have guessed how my work was being misused, and therefore I support torture. What is particularly indecent about this is her admonishing psychologists to more responsibly foresee the consequences of our actions.

And that work should involve addressing the likely practical ends to which their work will be put…

I was asked right after 9/11 to help American soldiers resist torture, which I gladly did, foreseeing that the likely practical end would be less suffering by our soldiers. In Shaw’s hands, this becomes aiding and abetting torture. While it was hard for me to imagine the unlikely consequence that some might use my knowledge in awful ways, it is easy for Shaw to foresee one likely consequence of defaming my actions: In the future when young psychologists are asked by legitimate government officials to serve the nation, they will be more likely to refuse lest they be defamed if their knowledge is misused.

It is hard to know what the future holds, but, unfashionable as it is, when in doubt I prefer that we err on the side of helping our soldiers.

Martin Seligman

Related Post:


  1. Caroline Goldsmith

    Slicing and dicing emails out of context is not going to prove anything other than the fact that the person doing it has no real evidence so they are desperately trying to manufacture some. Any true academic knows you test your evidence and eliminate confirmation bias, not try and manipulate the data to make it show what you want. Reading this article would make me doubt any research that Tamsin Shaw has done or participated in.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *