The Dark Side of "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness"

(NOTE: My thanks to co-authors Marc Pilisuk and Stephen Soldz.)

Why is the world's largest organization of psychologists so aggressively promoting a new, massive, and untested military program? The APA's enthusiasm for mandatory "resilience training" for all US soldiers is troubling on many counts.

The January 2011 issue of the American Psychologist, the American Psychological Association's (APA) flagship journal, is devoted entirely to 13 articles that detail and celebrate the virtues of a new US Army-APA collaboration. Built around positive psychology and with key contributions from former APA President Martin Seligman and his colleagues, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is a $125 million resilience training initiative designed to reduce and prevent the adverse psychological consequences of combat for our soldiers and veterans. While these are undoubtedly worthy aspirations, the special issue is nevertheless troubling in several important respects: the authors of the articles, all of whom are involved in the CSF program, offer very little discussion of conceptual and ethical considerations; the special issue does not provide a forum for any independent critical or cautionary voices whatsoever; and through this format, the APA itself has adopted a jingoistic cheerleading stance toward a research project about which many crucial questions should be posed. We discuss these and related concerns below.

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Anchors for Progressives

anchor1Imagine people randomly divided into two groups for a simple psychology experiment. Those assigned to one group are asked two questions. First, “Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 140?” And then, “How old was Gandhi when he died?” Meanwhile, those in the other group are asked the same followup question, but their first question is “Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 9?”

The results of actual studies just like this one are quite consistent and robust, and they may surprise you. Participants given “140 years” as their initial comparison point think that Gandhi lived much longer than those who were given “9 years” instead. Findings like these demonstrate what psychologists call the “anchoring effect”: our strong tendency to make judgments that are biased toward arbitrary standards of comparison. The plausibility of these comparison “anchors” makes no difference to us–we rely on them regardless. As another example, research subjects asked whether Einstein’s first visit to the United States occurred before or after 1992 give a much more recent estimate of when he arrived than those asked whether he visited before or after the year 1215.

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Forewarned Is Forearmed: Bush On Iran

The White House’s propaganda campaign laying the groundwork for military action against Iran dates back almost six years–to Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address in which he designated Iran as a founding member of the “axis of evil.” Since then, this drumbeat has waxed and waned as other concerns–primarily the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq–have often commanded center stage. Now, with the Bush administration approaching its final year in office, a renewed push and a shorter fuse are increasingly evident. The 3-minute video above entitled “Forewarned Is Forearmed: Bush On Iran” offers a very brief but deeply troubling chronicle of the president’s public warmongering and demonization of Iran. If you find the video worthwhile, please share it with others. As has been said before, “the hour is getting late.”

Note: The video is also available directly on YouTube at

Congress Needs A Shot In The Arm

injection2Among the most important public health advances of the past century has been the development of potent vaccines against dangerous and life-threatening illnesses. Polio, tuberculosis, and measles quickly come to mind. Through a process of inoculation, a small dose of the pathogen is intentionally administered to the patient which induces immunity against the full-blown disease.

In a similar way, social scientists have demonstrated that attitude inoculation can be used to prevent the transmission of hazardous beliefs and behaviors from one person to another. For example, research reveals that adolescents can more effectively resist pressure from cigarette-smoking peers if they are given role-playing opportunities in which they rehearse their responses to students pressuring them to smoke.

But today we are in urgent need of an inoculation campaign against an entirely different threat to our nation’s health–namely, the Bush administration’s exploitation of its “global war on terror” to eviscerate the rule of law and our constitutional checks and balances; to prolong the disastrous occupation of Iraq; and to lay the groundwork for military strikes against Iran. Ever since the tragic events of 9/11 six years ago, the White House has promoted this agenda by working non-stop to spread a simple yet infectious idea: All actions taken by this president and his representatives are necessary to protect the United States from future catastrophic terrorist attacks.

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Desperately Needed: A Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion

wizardofozThere are so many instructive comparisons between the film classic The Wizard of Oz and the presidency of George W Bush that it’s hard to settle on just one. Here’s a particular angle that I think deserves more attention.

Through memorable characters and adventures, The Wizard of Oz reminds us that too often we underestimate ourselves and fail to realize that we already possess the very qualities and virtues to which we aspire. The Scarecrow travels the Yellow Brick Road in the hope of obtaining a brain; at journey’s end he comes to realize that he had one all along. Similarly, the Tin Man wishes for a heart but ultimately learns that he was a compassionate woodsman from the start. And the Cowardly Lion heads to the Emerald City in pursuit of courage–yet he demonstrates his considerable valor along the way. All told, it’s an uplifting tale of unpresumptuous, accidental heroes who rise to the occasion in the face of adversity.

But now try to imagine an altered script, an upside-down Oz where the key players, rather than underestimating themselves, instead make outrageous and false claims (to themselves and to others) about their intelligence, compassion, and courage. And also try to imagine that over the course of their own harrowing journey these travelers learn…well, absolutely nothing. Of course, sadly this re-write doesn’t require much of an imagination at all. This is the Oz rendition that’s been playing in Washington and around the world since Bush, Cheney, and their neocon entourage took center stage. Although many examples are available, let’s focus on the Iraq War alone.

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Resisting the Drums of War: VIDEO

The Bush administration promoted the misguided and destructive war in Iraq by targeting five core concerns that often govern our lives—concerns about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Looking ahead, the continued occupation of Iraq—-or an attack on Iran—-will likely be sold to us in much the same way. I examine these warmongering appeals—-and how to counter them-—in the new video above, entitled Resisting the Drums of War.

Five Questions and Their “Yes, BUT” Answers

saddam-statue-w-flagMy work as a psychologist suggests that five core concerns often dominate our individual and collective lives. These concerns revolve around issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Briefly, for most of us nothing is more powerful than the desire to protect and provide security for the people and things we care about (vulnerability). We often react to perceived mistreatment with anger and resentment, and an urge to right wrongs and punish those we hold responsible (injustice). We tend to divide the world into those who are trustworthy and those unworthy of our trust, in an effort to avoid harm from people with hostile intentions (distrust). We frequently aspire to be better than others in some important way—perhaps in our accomplishments, or our morality, or our destiny (superiority). Finally, we strive to avoid the experience of helplessness, and instead do our best to control the important events in our lives (helplessness).

Political leaders should be responsive to these five core concerns in identifying broadly shared goals and pursuing positive social change. Unfortunately, the Bush administration and its supporters have instead chosen to exploit these concerns in an effort to promote their own narrow ideological agenda. Perhaps the most tragic example is the profoundly ill-advised and costly war in Iraq.

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