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Psychologist Martin Seligman Responds to Truthout Report on Army “Spiritual Fitness” Test

This article “Test was designed by Psychologist who inspired CIA’s torture program” may set the record for the sheer number of false statements about me, about positive psychology, and about Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. Apparently the reporter, Jason Leopold, has a checkered past in misreporting.

This article “Test was designed by Psychologist who inspired CIA’s torture program” may set the record for the sheer number of false statements about me, about positive psychology, and about Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. Apparently the reporter, Jason Leopold, has a checkered past in misreporting.

  • I had nothing to do with the CIA torture program, and I am strongly opposed to torture.
  • I did not design the survey used by Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.
  • All my time and work on Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is donated free.
  • The “spirituality” items on the survey are not about religion and I have been told that they were vetted by government lawyers so as not to violate the first amendment. Here are the items:

41. SPIRITUALITY I believe there is a purpose for my life. 
42. SPIRITUALITY I am a spiritual person. 
43. SPIRITUALITY My life has a lasting meaning. 
44. SPIRITUALITY I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world. 
45. SPIRITUALITY The job I am doing in the military has lasting meaning.

  • The results are completely confidential. No one but the survey taker ever sees them.
  • There are no required courses in spiritual fitness. The survey taker has the option of taking such courses if he or she wants to.

Here is what the Army said:

BACKGROUND. Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is a holistic program designed to give all members of the Army community* the knowledge, thinking skills, and behaviors that will optimize the ability and likelihood to “thrive” in their lives, as well as their ability to successfully cope with life’s challenges and adversity. The program does so by training specific skill sets along the five domains of human health and fitness (Physical, Social, Emotional, Spiritual, and Family). Integrating CSF results in greater “resilience”, which is the sum of each individual’s assets and resources in these dimensions.

Though CSF is largely focused on training skill sets (and how and when to apply them), it does delve into root causes of emotion, thought and action; what psychologists refer to as “meta-cognition”. CSF is a programmatic first step towards teaching members of the Army community to understand how and why they think a certain way. Once people begin to understand this, they are best postured to change their thoughts and actions to strategies more adaptive, and more likely to result in desirable outcomes, towards “thriving”.

Additionally, CSF uses a “strengths-based” training approach. Here, the program recognizes two important factors. First, that the best outcomes are realized if existing personal strengths are leveraged. Second, that “one-size-fits-all” training is both inappropriate and inefficient. Because some people are more resilient than others when first introduced to the CSF program, the education and training should be tailored to the individual. This increases interest at all levels, and greater likelihood of success.

The CSF program is not medical or psychological treatment. The program focuses on the ninety plus percent of the force that is fundamentally “well”, but at widely varying levels of fitness in each domain. With this in mind, CSF’s maximal benefit will be realized when incorporated early, and development of fitness is continuous.

People who are optimally fit will have the courage to take advantage of more opportunities, as well as the decision making, and communication skills to maximize the chance of success with these opportunities. And because attempting more DOES mean there is more risk of failure, internalizing the knowledge, skills and behaviors, making them part of doing business, will allow those individuals to weather the setbacks and disappointments better as well.

Conversely, when facing uncertainty and adversity, these same skills help to put the problems into appropriate perspective, find meaning in their lives, reduce rumination and catastrophic thinking, and focus on finding solutions.

Lastly, the CSF program recognizes that developing human resilience is a life-long process. There is no “end state” for a person’s resilience; they can always improve. Therefore, the need to develop human resilience is enduring, and CSF will continue to morph as the Army community’s resilience develops and its needs change.

SPIRITUAL FITNESS. Comprehensive Soldier Fitness defines spiritual fitness as a strong set of beliefs, principles, or values that sustains a person beyond family, institutional, and societal sources of strength. Beliefs, principles, or values are inherently intrinsic properties – they are, quite simply, within the person and derived by the person. Nevertheless, nowhere in CSF’s definition of spiritual fitness, its program literature, policy statements, training material, or web pages does it state that one must – or even should – believe in a deity, endorse religion, or in any way state that a soldier is unfit to serve if they lack spiritual fitness.

Rather, feedback provided to Soldiers after they complete the Global Assessment Tool merely suggests that those who score low within the spiritual fitness domain would benefit from completing training designed to develop their spiritual fitness. Department of the Army policy states that Soldiers are not required to participate in spiritual training associated with the CSF program. To be clear, spiritual training is completely optional, and unit leadership shall not coerce Soldiers to participate in spiritual training.

Comprehensive Soldier Fitness provides this feedback to Soldiers because the peer-reviewed scientific literature shows that spiritual fitness is a protective factor for a host of negative psychological health and behavioral outcomes. For example, Canadian researchers found that spiritual people had decreased odds of attempting suicide. Likewise, spiritual fitness has been related to quality of life, coping, and mental health.

The spiritual fitness questions on the Global Assessment Tool have been repeatedly tested for scientific efficacy. Likewise, the spiritual fitness questions were reviewed by a panel of attorneys, and all legally objectionable questions were removed from the version of the Global Assessment Tool that all Soldiers are required to complete annually.

Soldiers are free to disregard the Global Assessment Tool feedback if they feel that it does not apply to them. So, if Soldiers reject the premise of spiritual development, they are free to ignore the recommendations and refuse to participate in spiritual fitness training.

Finally, identifiable scores from the Global Assessment Tools are not provided to anyone other than the owner of the scores. Soldiers cannot be compelled to share their scores with anyone, to include unit leadership, the clergy, family members, or criminal investigators. Finally, Global Assessment Tool scores cannot be used as a means for promotion or selection.


Jason Leopold responds: Dr. Seligman’s claims that he did not design the survey would appear to contradict numerous published accounts, some of which describe him as the “brains behind the program,” and “the program’s developer.” Dr. Seligman’s CV also states that he has has been an “adviser” to the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program since 2008. The cornerstone of the CSF program are the surveys taken by soldiers, which is heavily based on “resiliency” surveys from the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, which Dr. Seligman runs. In an email sent to me Thursday evening, Dr. Seligman has requested that Truthout retract its subheadline, stating: “would proof that this headline is false, e.g., from those who did design the test, be sufficient to get you to retract?” In fact, it would. But such proof must come in the form of official documentation from the Army. The law firm Jones Day has filed an Freedom of Information Act request with Army officials on behalf of Truthout in hopes of obtaining documents that will shed further light on the development of this program and the vetting of certain questions by government lawyers.

Contrary to Dr. Seligman’s assertions, Army soldiers are not told that the spirituality training is voluntary, according to accounts more than 200 have given to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Nowhere on the surveys does it state that remedial training resulting from low scores is voluntary.

Dr. Seligman also cherry-picks a quote from at least one published peer-reviewed article in an attempt to support the efficacy of the program, particularly, its impact on reducing the number of post-traumatic-stress-disorder cases and suicides.

Indeed, Dr. Seligman asserts in his response: “For example, Canadian researchers found that spiritual people had decreased odds of attempting suicide.”

But the full quote from the peer-reviewed article Dr. Seligman relies upon, makes clear that the the authors came to a very different conclusion on the effect of spirituality on suicide attempts (emphasis added): “Identifying oneself as spiritual was associated with decreased odds of suicide attempt (adjusted odds ratio-1 [AOR-1]=0.65, CI: 0.44–0.96) but was not significant after adjusting for social supports.” They furthermore warned that “causality of relationships” in this study “cannot be inferred.”

Dr. Seligman says my report “may set a record for the sheer number of false statements about me.” It should be noted that each and every one of the statements about Dr. Seligman have been made by individuals who have either interviewed him or have worked closely with him such as Bryant Welch, the first executive director for professional practice of the American Psychological Association.

Dr. Seligman also states “I had nothing to do with the CIA torture program, and I am strongly opposed to torture.” I included Dr. Seligman’s denial in my report. But, as New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer noted during an interview with Democracy Now in 2008, Dr. Seligman is a “very erudite and savvy man” and to date he has not answered key questions about the torture program. Dr. Seligman was featured in “The Dark Side,” Mayer’s book about the CIA’s torture program.

“What did [Dr. Seligman] think he was doing when he went to talk to the CIA at their confab at the [Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape] school? How did he know [CIA psychologists and architects of the torture program, James] Mitchell and [Bruce] Jessen were in the audience, unless—did he speak to them? Did he know what their role was, in terms of interrogations? You know, there are a lot of things that would be great to know,” Mayer said. “It’s hard to tell, because he keeps shutting down the conversation when it gets interesting.”

Finally, I asked Dr. Seligman whether the CSF program received approval from an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which would be required for government research, and whether soldiers needed to provide their informed consent to participate, in Dr. Seligman’s words, “the largest study psychology has ever been involved.”

Dr. Seligman would not respond to my questions about the IRB process or informed consent and referred me to the director of CSF, Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum. I sent queries Thursday afternoon to Brig. Gen. Cornum and Army media relations. I will be writing a follow-up report when I receive a response.

UPDATE: Bryant Welch’s affiliation with the American Psychological Association has been updated.

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