Snake oil salesmen selling torture

The US Government has just released its report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, aptly branded the “torture report”, which is available online as a pdf.

It makes for appalling reading but sheds light on the role of two psychologists in the creation and running of what turned out to be genuinely counter-productive ‘enhanced interrogations’ that were used in preference to already productive non-abusive interrogations.

In the report the psychologists are given the codenames Grayson SWIGERT and Hammond DUNBAR but these refer to James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen who have been widely identified by other sources in the preceding years.

Mitchell and Jessen were both contractors, who, according to the new report, arrived at detention centres to direct CIA interrogations, despite having no interrogation experience, and in face of sometimes severe reservations of regular CIA staff.

Later, Mitchell and Jessen formed a company, Mitchell Jessen and Associates – given the codename ‘Company Y’ in the report – which was contracted to the tune of $81 million to perform the interrogations. By interrogations here, of course, we mean torture that include waterboarding, unnecessary feeding through the anus, sleep deprivation, violence, threats, confinement to coffin shaped boxes for days on end, and painful stress positions.

Mitchell and Jessen’s approach was flawed from the start because it was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the theory they based their approach on.

They are frequently described in the report as saying that their interrogation method aimed to induce a state of ‘learned helplessness’.

This was a concept first developed by the psychologist Martin Seligman who noted that if you prevented animals from escaping when they were given electric shocks some eventually stopped trying and just fell into a state of passivity as they were repeatedly shocked.

Seligman argued that this might explain depression: people who experience multiple uncontrollable tragedies simply lose motivation and give up trying to make things better.

It’s not a great theory of depression but it does describe the loss of coherent self-helping behaviour that appears in some people who have no control over their abusive situations.

Mitchell and Jessen wanted to induce this state in detainees, thinking that it would make them more likely to co-operate.

This, to be frank, is just bizarre. The theory predicts the opposite would happen and this is, rather grimly, exactly what occurred.

Detainee Abu Zubaydah, the report notes, became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth” after repeated waterboarding. Ramzi bin al-Shibh started to exhibit “visions, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm.”

One CIA staff member understood exactly the counter-productive psychology of these techniques when he noted that “we believe employing enhanced measures will accomplish nothing except show [al-Nashiri] that he will be punished whether he cooperates or not, thus eroding any remaining desire to continue cooperating”. This is learned helplessness in action.

It’s not as if the entirely nonsensical basis of Mitchell and Jessen’s ‘learned helplessness’ approach was a complex or subtle theoretical distinction – it’s undergraduate level psychology. Even for the uninitiated, the clue is in the name.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions is why Mitchell and Jessen were given such a central and powerful role to carry out these useless torture sessions in light of their lack of experience, the incoherent basis of their ideas, lack of results, abusive methods and and massive conflict of interest.

On this last point, the report notes that CIA staff members on the ground expressed concerns that Mitchell and Jessen were responsible for assessing detainees’ suitability for ‘enhanced interrogation’, directing the sessions, evaluating their own performance, and profiting from participation.

If it couldn’t get any worse, the report mentions in several places that established CIA psychologists repeatedly expressed concerns about what was happening but were overruled.

The episode is both a monumental fuck-up on the level of the organisation’s ability to detect psychological snake oil and a vast human tragedy.
 

pdf of full report from Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

You won’t find the data in my pants

The journal contexts has an excellent article on the long history of exploring the sex lives of sex researchers as a veiled attempt to discredit their work.

…these stories suggest a troubling pattern: they tend to focus on researchers’ alleged sexual proclivities, spinning them as deviant motivations which compromise the research.

For example, James Miller’s biography of Michel Foucault links Foucault’s work to unconventional sexual activities like sadomasochism. Thomas Maier begins his biography with Virginia Johnson losing her virginity, portrays her as a sexually conniving secretary, and delights in exposing complicated aspects of the researchers’ sex life together. And historian James Jones depicts Kinsey as deeply twisted.

The problem is not simply that sexuality research remains stigmatized. It is that, in many circumstances, sex itself remains stubbornly discrediting. Sexuality’s cultural meanings are paradoxical—it is simultaneously repulsive and attractive, taboo yet vital to our happiness. It is difficult to write sexual stories without reproducing what Michael Warner calls “the ordinary power of sexual shame.” Moreover, stories that examine sex research through the prism of the researcher’s sex life rely on the simplistic notion that there is a specific connection between one’s sexual experiences and research.

A fascinating piece which covers the sort of leering interest sex research continually attracts despite it being one of the most important and under-investigated aspects of human health and behaviour.
 

Link to ‘The Sex Lives of Sex Researchers’ in contexts.

A simple trick to improve your memory

Want to enhance your memory for facts? Tom Stafford explains a counterintuitive method for retaining information.

If I asked you to sit down and remember a list of phone numbers or a series of facts, how would you go about it? There’s a fair chance that you’d be doing it wrong.

One of the interesting things about the mind is that even though we all have one, we don’t have perfect insight into how to get the best from it. This is in part because of flaws in our ability to think about our own thinking, which is called metacognition. Studying this self-reflective thought process reveals that the human species has mental blind spots.

One area where these blind spots are particularly large is learning. We’re actually surprisingly bad at having insight into how we learn best.

Researchers Jeffrey Karpicke and Henry Roediger III set out to look at one aspect: how testing can consolidate our memory of facts. In their experiment they asked college students to learn pairs of Swahili and English words. So, for example, they had to learn that if they were given the Swahili word ‘mashua’ the correct response was ‘boat’. They could have used the sort of facts you might get on a high-school quiz (e.g. “Who wrote the first computer programs?”/”Ada Lovelace”), but the use of Swahili meant that there was little chance their participants could use any background knowledge to help them learn. After the pairs had all been learnt, there would be a final test a week later.

Now if many of us were revising this list we might study the list, test ourselves and then repeat this cycle, dropping items we got right. This makes studying (and testing) quicker and allows us to focus our effort on the things we haven’t yet learnt. It’s a plan that seems to make perfect sense, but it’s a plan that is disastrous if we really want to learn properly.

Karpicke and Roediger asked students to prepare for a test in various ways, and compared their success – for example, one group kept testing themselves on all items without dropping what they were getting right, while another group stopped testing themselves on their correct answers.

On the final exam differences between the groups were dramatic. While dropping items from study didn’t have much of an effect, the people who dropped items from testing performed relatively poorly: they could only remember about 35% of the word pairs, compared to 80% for people who kept testing items after they had learnt them.

It seems the effective way to learn is to practice retrieving items from memory, not trying to cement them in there by further study. Moreover, dropping items entirely from your revision, which is the advice given by many study guides, is wrong. You can stop studying them if you’ve learnt them, but you should keep testing what you’ve learnt if you want to remember them at the time of the final exam.

Finally, the researchers had the neat idea of asking their participants how well they would remember what they had learnt. All groups guessed at about 50%. This was a large overestimate for those who dropped items from test (and an underestimate from those who kept testing learnt items).

So it seems that we have a metacognitive blind spot for which revision strategies will work best. Making this a situation where we need to be guided by the evidence, and not our instinct. But the evidence has a moral for teachers as well: there’s more to testing than finding out what students know – tests can also help us remember.

Read more: Why cramming for tests often fails

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here

Madness, murder and mental healing

London’s innovative biomedical centre, the Wellcome Collection, have created a fascinating interactive story on how ‘mesmerism’ and hypnosis played an important role in the history of mind and madness.

It’s written by the fantastic Mike Jay, who has penned many excellent books on the high-strangeness of the early science of the mind in the 1800s, and has been wonderfully realised as an interactive web site.

It’s called ‘Mindcraft: a story of madness, murder and mental healing’ and rather curiously, but also rather usefully, it has its own trailer.

After you’ve gone to the website, you just need to keep scrolling down to work through the story and you’ll be diverted into video, narrative and text along the way.
 

Link to Mindcraft.

Spike activity 05-12-2014

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

There’s a picture gallery from the abandoned Talgarth and Denbigh asylums at Wales Online.

The Guardian has a piece on psychologist William Marston, polyamory, feminism and the genesis of Wonder Woman. Doesn’t mention he also invented the polygraph.

The saga of the lost, maybe found, and probably destroyed lost brains of Texas University is covered by the New York Times.

Pacific Standard has an interesting piece on what sociologists can tell us about serial killing.

End of the Road for “Endophenotypes”? Neuroskeptic covers a provocative but not particularly well powered study on the highly cited psychiatric Lego blocks of the mind.

BBC News has an investigative piece on the ‘world’s most dangerous’ psychiatric hospital. Very disturbing indeed.

Excellent piece in BBC Future on common myths about PTSD.

For decades, the idea of a language instinct has dominated linguistics. It is simple, powerful and completely wrong, argues linguist Vyvyan Evans over at Aeon