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American Psychology Association colluded with Pentagon and CIA to protect interrogation program, report finds

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 13 July 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h3805

Blindness to institutional betrayal: How abuse of power can be known but not seen

The actions of the APA as described in the Hoffman report constitute nothing less than institutional betrayal, a term first defined by Jennifer Freyd and her students as “wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by individuals committed within the context of the institution.” (1) As Freyd wrote in 2009, six years before the recent release of the Hoffman report, members of the APA leadership committed betrayal on several levels; they betrayed the trust and human rights of those who are tortured, they betrayed the profession's ethics, and they betrayed the society that trusted them. (2)

But institutional betrayal is only half the story. We are still left with the question of how the collusion between the APA and the DOD was able to be kept relatively quiet for a decade, despite knowledge by many of its existence. In fact, the APA's announcement in 2005 that it would permit psychologists to participate in interrogations was public news. Why did respected psychologists believe APA's assertion that having a psychologist in an interrogation room would actually help protect the detainee, contrary to decades of social experiments on groupthink? In a recent news article, Jean Maria Arrigo, one of the psychologists the APA attempted to discredit for speaking against its unethical behavior, reported receiving numerous emails after the release of the Hoffman report from colleagues apologizing for not believing her. (3) But at the time, even well-meaning colleagues did not support her.

Such behavior can be explained by betrayal blindness, an unawareness, not-knowing, and forgetting exhibited by people when confronted with betrayal. (4) When individuals are dependent upon a more powerful person or entity, there is often an automatic tendency to ignore and discount information that threatens this relationship. In the case of the APA, members have a vested interest in believing in the “goodness” of their institution upon which they depend for their professional credibility, furthering of their collective interests, and other organizational benefits.

It is essential to address betrayal blindness on both organizational and individual levels if the APA and its members are to make true reparation and lasting change. At an institutional level, this includes increasing transparency and protecting its members when they report abuses of power. (5) For individuals, rigorous self-examination and self-awareness of our own tendencies toward betrayal blindness to increase the likelihood that we will “see” abuse in the future.

1. Platt, M., Barton, J., & Freyd, J.J. (2009). A betrayal trauma perspective on domestic violence.  In E. Stark & E. S. Buzawa (Eds.) Violence against Women in Families and Relationships (Vol. 1, pp. 185-207).  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

2. Freyd, J.J. (2009). Rules of conscience: Betray ethics, betray trust [Letter]. BMJ, 338, b2191.

3. Ackerman, S. (2015). 'A national hero': psychologist who warned of torture collusion gets her due. The Guardian, July 13, 2015. Retrieved:

4. Freyd, J.J.& Birrell, P.J. (2013). Blind to Betrayal. John Wiley & Sons.

5. Smith, C.P. & Freyd, J.J. (2014). Institutional betrayal. American Psychologist, 69, 575-587.

Competing interests: No competing interests

19 July 2015
Shin Shin Tang
291 W. 12th Ave, Eugene, OR 97401, USA