2010: Psychologist Martin Seligman awarded $31 million no-bid Army contract

Investigative journalist, Mark Benjamin reported that the director of the U.S. Army’s resilience program, Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum by-passed the contract bidding system and awarded a $31 million no-bid “resilience training” contract to psychologist Martin Seligman in February 2010. Seligman made his reputation with his theory of “learned helplessness” which he developed by conducting cruel experiments in which dogs were subjected to repeated painful electric shocks until they gave up trying to escape.

Seligman’s “learned helplessness” techniques served as an important psychological component of the brutal torture protocol used by the CIA and Pentagon in the interrogation of suspected 9/11 terrorists. Indeed, the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility Report (2009) confirms that the goal of the government’s prisoner interrogation program was to drive prisoners into a psychologically devastated state through torture: “The express goal of the CIA interrogation program was to induce a state of ‘learned helplessness.’”

Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association (1998). His fingerprints show up on the CIA and military torture programs in interactions at key moments with individuals and institutions that helped set up and carry out government torture. For example, in December 2001, a brainstorming meeting with professors and law enforcement personnel hosted at Seligman’s home was cited by The New York Times as the “start of the program.” The meeting was arranged by CIA’s director of Behavioral Sciences Research, psychologist Kirk Hubbard who invited James Mitchell, who became one of the key architects of CIA’s torture protocol.

In the Spring of 2002, Seligman made a three-hour presentation at the Navy’s SERE [“Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape”] training school again, arranged by CIA official, Kirk Hubbard. Among the 50 to 100 SERE officials who attended were psychologists James Mitchell and his partner in the business of torture, Bruce Jessen. (Jane Mayer. The Dark Side, 2008; Scott Shane. 2 U.S. Architects of Harsh Tactics in 9/11’s Wake, The New York Times, Aug. 2009)

Seligman now heads the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. Positive psychology is the current fad in pop psychology that has been criticized for its slick marketing and disregard for harsh and unforgiving societal realities like poverty; its failure to examine the depth and richness of human experience; and its growing tendency to promote claims without sufficient scientific support. The military and academic departments of psychology have jumped on the bandwagon as tens (possibly hundreds) of millions of dollars are awarded in grants. Seligman’s focus has changed course; from “learned helplessness” to “learned happiness.”

The University website describes him as: “Commonly known as the founder of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman is a leading authority in the fields of Positive Psychology, resilience, learned helplessness, depression, optimism and pessimism.”

In email exchanges with Salon correspondent, Mark Benjamin Seligman said that there was some non-specific discussion with SERE officials about interrogating Al Qaeda suspects at that 2002 meeting. He indicated that “he never intended for the government to use his ideas for torture and described the timing of the meetings as coincidental.”

“I have never and would never provide assistance in torture. I strongly disapprove of it.” He also claimed that he has no idea how or why the military awarded $31 million for resilience training to his psychology center “with no other competition allowed.”  (Mark Benjamin. “War on terror” Psychologist Gets Giant No-Bid Contract,” Salon, Oct. 14, 2010)

Seligman’s Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) for which he was awarded the $31 million military grant has not been shown to be effective in any meaningful way. The finding of a 2009 meta-analysis of 17 controlled studies of PRP effects:

“Preliminary analyses suggested that PRP’s effects on depressive disorders may be smaller than those reported in a larger meta-analysis of depression prevention programs for older adolescents and adults…

Future PRP research should examine whether PRP’s effects on depressive symptoms lead to clinically meaningful benefits for its participants, whether the program is cost-effective, whether CB skills mediate program effects, and whether PRP is effective when delivered under real-world conditions.” (Brunwasser, Gillham and Kim. A Meta-Analytic Review of PRP’s Effect on Depressive Symptoms, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2009)

Seligman’s PRP is the foundation for the military’s massive mandatory experiment, “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness” (CSF), requiring all 1.1 million U.S. soldiers to be its involuntary human subjects. Research always involves risks; which is why The Nuremberg Code mandates that: “the voluntary, informed consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.”

“This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision.” (Nuremberg Code)

While CSF is not in the category “Torture,” U.S. soldiers are being denied the right to exercise their fundamental human right to “voluntary, informed consent” to research. Psychologists who collaborate with government have habitually demonstrated their inclination to exploit the opportunity to conduct research on involuntary, non-consenting human subjects who are not informed about potential foreseeable harms that may result.

“we should never forget that the velvet glove of authoritarian planning, no matter how well intended, is no substitute for the protected freedoms of individuals to make their own choices, mistakes, and dissenting judgments. Respect for informed consent is more, not less, important in total environments like the military where individual dissent is often severely discouraged and often punished.” (Roy Eidelson, Marc Pilsuk & Stephen Soldz. The Dark Side of “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness,” Psychology Today, March 25, 2011)