Short History of Psychological Torture

Alfred McCoyA lecture by Alfred McCoy about the history of psychological torture by covert services and the military in the US has just been been posted on YouTube. McCoy, a U. Wisconsin professor of history, is the author of the 2006 book A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror. He has also authored books on the international heroin trade and on the Australian underworld.

McCoy became significant to historians of psychology when he claimed in A Question of Torture that Donald Hebb’s sensory deprivation research and Stanley Milgram’s obedience research had been funded by the CIA, and that they were part of the CIA’s half-century of effort to develop and apply effective techniques of “no-touch” psychological torture that would evade the prohibitions of the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war. He engaged in a debate with biographers of Hebb and Milgram in an issue of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences last year (see AHP’s earlier post on this topic).

In this lecture McCoy discusses Hebb’s participation beginning at about the 14-minute mark. It is notable that McCoy does not claim here, as he has elsewhere, that Hebb was cognizant of the fact that his research was being funded by the CIA. Instead, he says only that Hebb was working “with funding from Canada’s Defense Research Board, which was collaborating with the CIA in this larger mind control project” (13:55-14:02). There is no mention of Milgram.

The bulk of the lecture deals with the CIA’s application of their findings, especially in the Kubark document, “The CIA’s Secret Manual on Coercive Questioning,” and on the US government’s effort to ensure that what he calls a “uniquely American” form of torture remain legal.

The technique of psychological torture, McCoy argues, is based on two principles: sensory deprivation (e.g., by hooding), self-inflicted pain (e.g., by forcing prisoners to stand, holding their arms aloft for long periods of time). With the coming of the Iraq war, they added the exploitation of Arab cultural sensitivities, especially about sexuality and about dogs.

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You can watch the full lecture, which runs 59 min., here.

Tip o’ the hat to Dan Aalbers for alerting me to this item.

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About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

4 thoughts on “Short History of Psychological Torture

  1. I would suppose that the permanent marks are in the very brain itself; therefore inaccesible in any meaningful way.

    The ‘sticks and stones’ mentality has subverted the very spirit of the law itself and makes the proponents of the defensibility of these actions worse than barbarous children lacking real culture.

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