A Response to Bryant Welch

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Martin Seligman Director, Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania

Bryant Welch (November 16, 2009) claims that I "developed the techniques used by the Bush Administration in its 'enhanced interrogation program,'" and portrays me as assisting the CIA in this program.

His allegation is completely false.

I gave a three hour lecture sponsored by SERE (the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape branch of the American armed forces) at the San Diego Naval Base in May 2002. I was invited to speak about how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors. This is just what I spoke about.

I was told then that since I was (and am) a civilian with no security clearance that they could not detail American methods of interrogation with me. I was also told then that their methods did not use "violence" or "brutality." James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were present in the audience of between 50 and 100 others at my speech, and that was, to the best of my knowledge, the sum total of my "assisting the CIA."

I have not had contact with SERE since that meeting. I have had no professional contact with Jessen and Mitchell since then and I have had no contact with any of the other relevant agencies since then.

I have never worked under government contract (or any other contract) on any aspect of torture, nor would I be willing to do work on torture.

I have never worked on interrogation; I have never seen an interrogation and I have only a passing knowledge of the literature on interrogation. With that qualification, my opinion is that the point of interrogation is to get at the truth, not to get at what the interrogator wants to hear. I think learned helplessness would make someone more dependent, less defiant and more compliant, but I do not think it would lead reliably to more truth-telling.

I am grieved and horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such bad purposes.

Most importantly, I strongly disapprove of torture and have never and would never provide assistance in its process.

On another matter, I am proud to be assisting the United States Army in its program of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. This program is based in part of the Penn Resilience Program. Bryant Welch tells his readers that he cannot find "a meaningful distinction between it and Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking." One place he might look for the distinction is the empirical literature: there are twenty-one replications worldwide of this program involving thousands of young people demonstrating that it prevents depression and anxiety, two major components of PTSD.