Torture Shrinks

What does a psychologist do at a detainee interrogation?

The American Psychological Association has decided to ban its members from participating in controversial interrogation techniques, including “mock executions, simulated drowning, sexual and religious humiliation, stress positions or sleep deprivation.” Psychologists who witness such things without attempting to stop the proceedings could lose their APA memberships. But the association stopped short of banning psychologists from all interrogations. Why would the military need a shrink to help question a detainee?

It makes it easier to push the right buttons. Psychologists and psychiatrists who work as members of behavioral science consultation teams (called “biscuit teams” by members of the military) can advise interrogators on how best to pressure detainees into giving up information.


A 2005 report (PDF) on Department of Defense interrogations said that behavioral science consultation teams can “observe interrogations, assess detainee behavior and motivations, review interrogation techniques, and offer advice to interrogators.” But they would rarely, if ever, take part in the actual interrogation; instead, they’d watch the proceedings on video or through a one-way mirror and later discuss with the interrogators what is working and what is not. Psychologists can also work in a more general capacity to train interrogators about how to read people and understand human psychology.


Psychologists’ training in human nature and behavior enables them to determine if a detainee is lying or reaching his psychological breaking point, among other things. They can also suggest strategies, like whether a detainee should be yelled at, cajoled, or reasoned with. According to the new APA guidelines, psychologists must also report any abusive behavior they see. Advocates of keeping psychologists near interrogations say this could help protect detainees from torture.

But it was actually two CIA-affiliated psychologists who developed some of the most controversial interrogation techniques used today. They based their methods on a Korean War-era program called Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, which was intended to train American soldiers to resist torture. Critics say that the SERE-based tactics used in CIA interrogations today are abusive and could lead detainees to give false information.

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Explainer thanksNeil Altman of New York University and Leonard Rubenstein of Physicians for Human Rights.