Torture as learned helplessness, or how to make prisoners really sick on purpose

Amid my flu frenzy I missed Vaughn Bell's excellent consideration of CIA psychology through the declassified memos:

I've been reading the recently released CIA memos on the interrogation of 'war on terror' detainees. The memos make clear that the psychological impact of the process is the most important aim of interrogation, from the moment the detainee is captured through the various phases of interrogation.

Although disturbing, they're interesting for what they reveal about the CIA's psychologists and their approach to interrogation.

As Vaughn notes,

A couple of the memos note that the whole interrogation procedure and environment is designed "to create a state of 'learned helplessness'.. This is a concept originally developed by psychologist Martin Seligman who found that dogs given inescapable electric shocks would eventually just give up trying to avoid them and remain passive while electrocuted. The theory was related to depression where people with no control over their unpleasant lives supposedly just learnt to be withdrawn and passive.

Vaughn points out that while the concept is not particularly well validated, "if it was anbd you were an interrogator, you'd want to avoid learned helplessness at all costs, because they detainee would see no point in co-operating."

I'd add another point: Some studies have shown "learned helplessness" to be an apt model for major depression from both a behavioral and even a neurological perspective. In a sense, then, to intentionally produce it in someone by causing them pain and distress in a situation they are powerless to change is to inflict on them a mental illness. Y

You can argue that depression is not a mental illness (i'd argue back). But the point here is that the prevailing medical view is that depression is a mental illness, and that it may be defined (among other ways) as a state of learned helplessness, despondency, and hopelessness. It follows that intentionally producing that state through torture is to intentionally make someone quite ill. And regardless of the ridiculous arguments over whether waterboarding and beating and hanging by the arms for days is torture, the act of making intentionally making someone sick -- indeed, seeking to give them an illness known to carry a risk of death (by suicide) -- would seem rather not okay.

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It's really depressing to hear that tortures are permited... Moreover I feel ashamed that development of knowledge is used to make people sick. I strongly believe the root of psychology as science is to find the way to HELP people, not to humiliate them.
At least we know, that "learned helplessness" can be reverted, so both depression and despondency after being tortured can be at least softened.

Excellent article, thank you for posting this. I've been digging into the use of sleep deprivation tactics on American citizens as part of the little known or legally recognized crime called organized stalking. Sleep deprivation tactics are unique, because they can be inflicted covertly, without the victim ever becoming aware they are being assaulted maliciously. It's my belief that the use of covert sleep deprivation methods brings about a state of mental illness that can then be used to justify incarceration or commitment of the victim, an approach consistent with online attacks claiming that self-professed organized stalking victims are schizophrenic. Given the increasing number of online reports by victims there seems to exist within this country a very large pool of people who have first hand knowledge of what it's like to be subjected to sleep deprivation over a period of years. And a you pointed out in your posting concerning the risks of suicide, this appears to be the goal of organized stalking - incarceration, commitment or 'suicide'.