Are Eugenics, Torture and Social Control Hidden Legacies of the American Psychological Association?

With the revelations of its connections to torture and hints in its history of connections to eugenics and social control, the APA may be an appropriate target for university boycott.

To think about the future, it is best to work backwards, tracing trajectories to the present moment, carefully working out the lineages that brought current conditions into being. Only then can thoughts of ‘what is to be done’ be meaningful.

(Smith, 2006, p. 83) Smith, D. (2006). Trying to teach in a season of great untruth: Globalization, empire, and the crises of pedagogy. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers

Just after the events of 9/11, however they were actually orchestrated, the American Psychological Association (APA) modified itsethics code. Its directors inserted a clause saying that when an ethical conflict cannot be resolved, members can adhere to existing laws, regulations and other governing legal authority that may exist outside of APA. The result was a diminished project of morality and civil rights. It seems agencies have repeated this process continually using 9/11 as a rationalization. In 2007, when it came to light that psychologists were participating in brutal interrogation practices, a movement was started in the psychology department at Earlham College to push the APA to take a stronger stand against it. In February of 2008, Kenneth Pope, a former chair of the APA’s Ethics Committee, resigned in light of APA’s continuing refusal change the code and take a stand. He wrote in his resignation letter, “APA’s ethics code now runs counter to the Nuremberg Ethic.”

I watched a Democracy Now! (DN) segment about more recent revelations regarding APA’s startling collusion with the CIA’s torture policy. It seems APA’s involvement is more remarkable than ever in light of monies paid to psychologists for helping orchestrate the recent gruesome and violent acts detailed in a Senate report about the torture techniques. As I was reeling from having watched the program, I received an email from an unknown doctoral student from the UK. Apparently having no one else to turn to, he searched me out after having read a text of mine entitled, The Authentic Dissertation. In part his email reads, “But I sense that you are sympathetic. I feel intense resistance to the conscious or unconscious efforts made by the academy to mould (sic) me in its own image.” Being familiar with such student frustration and having just watched the program about the APA, I could not help but to make a connection between the APA role in physical torture of “detainees” and its role in a much more subtle psychological injury, such as that this student described in his email. The apparent synchronicity between the watching DN and reading the email also brought me to consider the likely role of the APA in the oppression of Indigenous Peoples, a topic related to my main field of concentration.

So I did some cursory research to see if there might be connections between the three topics of this paper’s title. As a result, within an hour I felt compelled to write a letter to my university president requesting serious consideration regarding withdrawing from all APA relations, including from our highly valued APA accreditation and from our institutionalized use of APA academic writing guidelines. Although the connections do not result in a strong, triangulated argument, I believe that a position to boycott APA is sufficiently supported, as it was by the universities in 2007. Of course, this earlier protest against APA fizzled out and it may be that the current one won’t even get off the ground. Fear, denial or rationalization in the academy is common and might prevent this new movement from going anywhere. This is especially probable owing to the embeddedness of APA in higher education. It is part of the woodwork. Such routine institutionalization of a structural inequality more easily allows for rationalizing no action because “circumstances that are task oriented and routine can also obscure the relevance of moral principles” as states JoAnn Tsang in her article on “moral rationalization” published in the Journal of General Psychology.

As a former adjunct professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of Psychology; a vice-president of the Northern California Society of Clinical Hypnosis; a clinician at respected counseling center and a director of a treatment facility and school for troubled, adjudicated youth, I have long believed in the potential positive power of psychological intervention. Still, I’ve never been fan of the American Psychological Association (APA), nor of its diagnostic manual, its accrediting machinery, let alone its influence on academic writing and publication. I’ve written about each critically about over the years. So I have no qualms about rocking the proverbial boat at my university with the request to abandon APA based on the DN report and the evidence that supports it.

Nor am I hesitant to encourage other universities to withdraw from APA. I think that to support it now in light of what is known or likely about its policies being harmful to the greater good, we should have no option but to combat the influence of the neoliberalism that is ultimately behind any possible collusion. More and more educators agree with this proposition it seems, such as David Owen who articulates in “6 Ways Neoliberal Education Reform May Be Destroying a College Near You: Higher ed is on the verge of falling victim to the same neoliberal ideology as K-12.” Or as Henry Giroux conveys in his book on Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, “there is a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good” (Defending Higher Education in an Age of Neoliberal Savagery).

So what are the possible connecting dots that might involve APA’s influence on social control, neoliberal hegemony, torture and the eugenics movement? In the 1970s, documents show that between 25 and 50% of American Indian women were sterilized. In a July 10, 2013 article in “Policy,” Saudi Garcia wrote;

The US government recently admitted to forcing thousands of Native American Indian women to be sterilized. The procedures even included 36 women who were under 21 years old, despite laws prohibiting anyone 21 years and younger from receiving the procedure. Dr. Pinkerton-Uri found that 25% of Native American Indian women had been sterilized without their consent. Pinkerton-Uri also found that the Indian Health Service had “singled out full-blooded Indian women for sterilization procedures.” In total, it is estimated that as many as 25-50% of Native American women were sterilized between 1970 and 1976.

A number of scholars during this same time period, notably Kamin (1974) and Samelson (1979), were involved with the eugenic policies. According to Frederic Weizmann of York University whose article cites these two references, “it has become clear that psychologists played an important role in providing scientific support for eugenics policies” during the 1900s. One of the psychologists of note known to be involved in this was R.S. Woodworth. In his 1945 text, Psychology: A Science of Mental Life, he wrote “It is wise for society to take measures to perpetuate the best family stocks, which have a tendency to die out from their low birth rate” (p.238). (See the 17th edition published by Methuen of London if you want to check in out more thoroughly, and note how I have here avoided a classic APA format yet again!) Woodworth was elected president of the APA in 1914 and he was the first recipient of the APA gold medal for “distinguished and continuous scholarship and research,” apparently supporting his lectures until the early 1960s when he died.[1] As many “progressives” were associated with eugenics and the APA was largely originated by them, it seems likely a search of the other psychologists involved in eugenics will also be strongly associated with the APA. APA’s website itself confirms the progressive influence of the day. It may unintentionally hint at a vision that might well be applied to the current revelations.

The progressive movement in politics, which called for a more efficient, less corrupt, social order. The synergy of these two developments — specialized expertise and rationalized government — helped create the need for trained personnel to fill the new professional niches created by the demands for a more efficient society.

Another interesting thing about the eugenics movement was its lack of transparency. From the interviews on today’s DN program, the APA’s position has been remarkable for its secrecy as well. To tie this lack of transparency to American Indian eugenics, a recent piece by Gonzales, Kertesz and Tayac describes how a presentation of artifacts at the National Museum of the American Indian this year “provided a provocative vehicle for examining how eugenics-informed public policy during the first quarter of the twentieth century served to remove from official records Native peoples throughout the Southeast, providing an overlooked example of how racial policies affected a documentary erasure of native people and communities” (See Eugenics as Indian Removal.)

Another indicator of the kind of secrecy that supports suspicion is that in 2005, the APA appointed a presidential task force on ethics and national security, the so-calledPENSTask Force, in 2005. When their report came out, it was not signed by the members of the committee. However, it later was revealed that six of the nine members of this committee, investigating – forming policy on the ethics of involvement in interrogations – were themselves from the military and intelligence. Now there is even more evidence exposing apparent collusion, between theAPAand theCIAand perhaps theDOD. If there are even hints that APA did anything to support or protect or profit from those involved with eugenics, something that may still be operating, we should research it. Might we find more evidence about the genocide against American Indians having something to do with APA sponsored or “made-credible” scientific specialists? And I wonder if more research might find that the authority of the APA helps mold what is published and what isn’t out of the universities.

Such radical questions, however speculative, in light of the APA position on the horrific torture practices recently revealed, deserve attention. More and more educators are telling us about the growing power of neoliberal hegemony and social controls resulting from it. Chomky passionately explains how higher education throughout American history was established by those in power as a tool to assure continuation of their power. Giroux’s 2010 text, Bare Pedagogy and the Scourge of Neoliberalism: Rethinking Higher Education as Democratic Public Sphere calls on universities to stand up where they can. As well, Mayo and English (2012) argue that corporate and neoliberal hegemony has reached dangerous levels in adult education. Yet writing articles, chapters, books or giving presentations has never been as effective in changing systems as boycotts that impact finances, the jewel of neoliberal priorities. If you know a university controlled by and financing any aspect of the APA through its policies, see what you might be able to do to get them to launch some sort of boycott now (but only after you have studied the probabilities and proof in support of the concerns this paper raises).


1. I’ve not confirmed all these details and rely for purposes herein on a wiki entry, something I tell my students not to do except as a starting place for primary source research. Not using APA is one thing, but scholarship is nonetheless vital.

Other Notes:

It is often said that one cannot take responsibility for what happened in the past or for what an organization may have done in a different era. This is true enough, to a degree. If the continuation of anti-Indianism in the US did not exist, it would indeed be wise to ignore the atrocious history of American genocide, for example. Indeed, it is not wise to forget the past as it relates to the present. There are many good people involved with the American Psychological Association and it has had many remarkable presidents who have advanced important psychological principles. Referring to historical examples of APA members who participated in collusion with government efforts to rationalize inhumane treatment of people is only important to the degree that such ideology remains “in the woodwork” so to speak. This is why it is important to make comparisons between the current allegations of secrecy, support for torture and collusion with governmental officials to advance similar ideas of human hierarchy that shadow the history of the APA.

As for any relationship between such heinous authoritarian processes and my personal dislike for the APA influence on academic writing, I should not be humorous about the inappropriateness of the connection in terms of relative concern. Yet I have written much about a kind of neoliberal oppression of higher education that is growing – as have other scholars. The responsibility is not, however, with APA on this lesser but still significant concern. It is with the institutionalization of “in the box” approaches to learning and the creation of theses and dissertations. Thus, the letter I received while watching the Democracy Now (DN) segment did motivate me to couple the greater concern with the lessor one in asking American universities to make a wholesale abandonment of APA influence on them as an accountability protest but also as a way to free themselves from the hegemony that is growing.

Since I did not take time to do a thorough investigation for this article, feeling timeliness for public consideration of my thoughts to be more important, I offer the following references to show that indeed there is a hidden history in APA that has a consistency that is relevant to the DN story of December 16th.

“Lewis Terman of Stanford, speaking as president of the American Psychological Association, was pleased to report that psychology had become “the beacon light of the eugenics movement” p. 219–Jonathan Peter Spiro. Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison

“There is nowhere in the records of the Congressional hearings-nowhere-a single remark by a single representative of the psychological profession to the effect that the results of the Army testing program were in any way being abused or misinterpreted. That program had been organized officially by the American Psychological Association under its then president, Robert Yerkes. …They reflected the almost universal belief, already established among psychologists, in the potency of the testing methods developed by Terman, Goddard and Yerkes… The psychologists failed to appear before the Congressional committees, but other ‘patriotic thinkers’ carried their message for them.” Kabin, L.J. The Science and Politics of IQ. (2012,p. 24) New York: Routledge. Originally published in 1974. See:

The historical association between racism and standardized testing recently returned to haunt the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Educational Research Association (AERA). The APA was scheduled to present a lifetime achievement award to Raymond B. Cattell, a leading developer of standardized personality tests, until anti-racist groups revealed Cattell’s work in the eugenics movement.

The APA established an eleven-person task force, two of whom were Pioneer grantees, to evaluate the scientific conclusions of controversial The Bell Curve text and found that Black-White differences are found on relatively culture-free tests and that the book’s tests were not biased against African Americans.

14 JULY 1933: Hitler puts into law the Nazi Act for Averting Descendants Afflicted with Hereditary Disease, which is based on H. H. Laughlin’s US Model Eugenical Sterilization Law of 1922. Laughin receives an honorary degree from a German University (major Nazi research center on race purification) for his contribution to eugenics. Some figures of people who were slated to be surgically sterilized.

Harry H. Laughlin and Frederick Osborn, scientists who played a leading role in the American eugenics movement, and, as I will illustrate, who supported Hitler’s race policy, initiated the Pioneer Fund in 1937. Textile magnate Wickliffe Draper acted as its primary benefactor. The Fund’s stated purpose was to “improve the character of the American people “by encouraging the procreation of descendents of “white persons who settled in the original thirteen colonies prior to the adoption of the constitution and/or from related stocks” and to provide aid in conducting research on “race betterment with special reference to the people of the United States.” Today, the Pioneer Fund is the most important financial supporter of research concerning the connection between race and heredity in the United States.

Robert Gordon is yet another protégé of the Pioneer Fund. He was not as creative as Rushton, but he was the author of a comprehensive collection of publications. Since thee arly 1970s, Gordon has promoted the notion that the differences in delinquency rates of blacks and whites are due to differences in their respective genetic constitutions. Many of Gordon’s academic publications repeat the thesis that a connection exists between race, inherited intelligence and the tendency toward criminality. In 1975, Gordon presented his thesis concerning the IQ-commensurability of racially specific delinquency rates. In a paper presented to the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1986, he repeated that intelligence is a more accurate determinant in accounting for the black–white differences in crime rates than is income, education, or occupation

Henry E. Garret, another president of the American Psychological Association, was the nation’s eminent scientific spokesman in the defense of racial segregation between the 1940s and 1960s. p. 128. A Curriculum of Repression: A Pedagogy of Racial History in the United States By Haroon Kharem

When the Eugenics Record Office opened its doors in 1910, the founding scientists were considered progressives, (as were the founders of the APA), intent on applying classic genetics to breeding better citizens. Funding poured in from the Rockefeller family and the Carnegie Institution. Charles Davenport, a prolific Harvard biologist, and his colleague, Harry H. Laughlin, led the charge. Psychiatric institutes sent crates of case files to the office, where the chief characteristics of “the feebleminded” were collated into pedigree charts. Davenport himself devised a sophisticated apparatus to quantify skin color…”The Eugenics Record Office was built around very systematized ideas that still might be seen as legitimate today,” said Noah Fuller, an artist and co-curator of the exhibit. “At the time, this was widely accepted as legitimate science.”

Lewis Terman, Henry Goddard, and Robert Yerkes, (ALL presidents of APA) saw the army tests as an opportunity to prove their theory …owing to the low intelligence of the Negro theory. Brigham, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University at the time and later president of the American Psychological Association, concluded “According to all evidence available, then, American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate, as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive. The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the Negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it. There is no reason why legal steps should not be taken which would insure a continuously progressive upward evolution.” The steps that should be taken to preserve or increase our present intellectual capacity must of course be dictated by science and not by political expediency.”

Henry Fairfield Osborn, after perusing what Brigham, Yerkes, Gould and Grant had done with the army data from World War I, made the incredible statement that “those tests were worth what the war costs, even in human life,” since they clearly showed that the New Immigrants were “far inferior” to the race that built this nation. Brigham secured his reputation in the psychology profession. He was soon elected secretary of the American Psychological Association…As intended, Brigham’s interpretation of the army intelligence tests carried great weigh with Congress and helped to crystallize the sentiment in favor of more extreme restrictions. At a hearing before the Senate Immigration Committee, Francis Kinnicutt referred to the just-published “Study of American Intelligence, which he called, “the most important book that has ever been written on this subject.”