Why Should Psychologists and Group Therapists Be Interested in the Group Processes that Lead to Torture?

It is not immediately obvious why psychologists and group therapists should be interested in the group processes that lead to torture. It is an historical truth, as Alfred McCoy states in his book, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, “–torture research had involved three of the ‘100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century’ –Hebb, Milgram, and Janis–as well as several presidents of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association ” (p.33)

But beyond this formal, scholarly involvement, group therapists are quite aware of the power the leader has to manipulate and shape the behavior of individuals acting in a group. Authoritarian leaders require obedience of group members and establish a norm that rewards the conformity of its members and punishes any departure from conformity to agreed upon practices and tolerates no compunction expressed by individual members.This phenomenon has immediate implications for the the group processes that proceed and lead a group to become torturers. Dissenters are branded as disloyal. In such a hierarchical system, responsibility becomes diffused. Everyone is just doing their job. Whatever accountability there is often falls to the lowest members carrying out the orders. They become the bad apples, if shameful or criminal behavior comes to light.

It is clear that psychologists and group therapists must use their special knowledge to counteract the aberrant group behavior described above. The Ethical Guidelines and Professional Standards for Group Psychotherapy, ratified by the membership of the International Association for Group Psychotherapy and Group Processes, “…condemns the participation of group therapists in the planning, execution, or passively witnessing torture, or participating in any procedure in which torture is threatened.”(www.iagp.com)

As professionals we must enjoin our colleagues to follow these guidelines.

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