Biopower and subjection: The strange and disturbing case of Martin Seligman


By now, it should be clear that the role of psychologists in organising torture for the CIA does not merely implicate a few individuals, or even a corrupt institution (the APA), but large swathes of the discipline of psychology. That is, the tortures which occurred at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere derived directly from officially-accepted, paradigmatic implementations of cognitive-behaviourism, and were therefore in keeping (and not in conflict) with the dominant ethical and intellectual underpinnings of Anglophone psychology.

To illustrate, let us consider the case of celebrated psychologist, and former APA president, Martin Seligman. He claims to have been inspired by Beck, another prominent psychologist and advocate of coercive ‘treatment’. (Both men place ‘mastery’ and ‘control’ at the heart of their discourse). Seligman rose to prominence on the back of his theory of ‘learned helplessness’, a cognitive-behaviourist account of depression. This theory is a distinguished pillar of canonical psychology, and merits examination in some detail. Seligman and his colleagues obtained dogs, which they held in captivity, drugged, and tortured with painful electrical shocks. Where the dogs had no control whatsoever over the tortures they received, they appeared to become ‘helpless’, passive, immobile. On the strength of these bizarre and artificial conditions, Seligman and colleagues drew an analogy between the dogs’ helplessness and human depression. One need not possess a degree in epistemology to recognise such an analogy as conceptual garbage, a perverse cocktail of Sadean methodology and crude anthropomorphism.

Nonetheless, Seligman’s musings earned him far more praise than criticism, and he moved from straightforward cognitive-behaviourism to the faddish field of ‘positive psychology’, peddling degraded and radically individualistic notions of ‘authentic happiness’ and ‘well-being’. The positivists invented a theory of human functioning as self-evidently intellectual bankrupt as that which emerged from the tortured dogs: to wit, ‘well-being’, according to our positivists, relates to a magic ratio of positive to negative affects (about 2.9:1, respectively).  According to Seligman, who has ‘coached’ the military, “Companies with better than a 2.9:1 ratio for positive to negative statements are flourishing”. He defines ‘well-being’ as follows:

Positive Emotion: Momentary feelings of happiness; for example, when you see an old friend or hear a song that reminds you of a happy time

Engagement: Being so absorbed in an activity you are not aware of time; what athletes refer to as “in the zone”

Meaning: Serving a bigger cause than yourself that adds feelings of significance and worth to your life

Accomplishment: Achievements that don’t necessarily bring positive emotion or positive relationships

One cannot but be struck by how compatible these imperatives are with contemporary corporate (or military) servitude. (Being ‘in the zone’ and engaged presumably precludes any possibility of dissent, for instance). To the eternal disgrace of psychology, it took a mathematician to refute positive psychology and its false claims built on golden ratios, despite being self-evident junk science to anybody with a modicum of education. In the humanities, such comedic attempts at theory would earn you the satire of Sokal; in the ‘science’ of psychology, it nets you money and prestige.

This combination of two seemingly disparate approaches – the brutality of ‘learned helplessness’ and the cheesy sloganeering of ‘positive psychology’- came together in Seligman’s coaching of the US military and CIA. The latter approach is used to suppress the violent affects and adverse reactions of US soldiers to their work; the former was directly implemented on detainees, many of whom had nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism. In both cases it is a clear matter of subjection, of population control. It should be clear by now how popular paradigms within psychology played an instrumental role in the service of oppression, and that this was fostered by an individual whose ideas are presented uncritically in every undergraduate psychology textbook. Next to complicity in torture, the corrupting influence of Big Pharma on psychiatry is relatively benign, yet one is routinely criticised, the other, systematically ignored. And consequently, Seligman’s individual flaws – his intellectual bankruptcy, his Halliburton approach to ethics – are not just his alone, but those of a discipline (or at least, large parts of it). That the same discipline regards psychoanalysis (and philosophy, and existentialism, inter alia)  as insufficiently ‘scientific’ for its canon is one of life’s ironies, and an example of exclusion not being entirely disadvantageous to the excluded.


4 thoughts on “Biopower and subjection: The strange and disturbing case of Martin Seligman

  1. Thank you for your continued ‘voice’ in this area.
    This ” the cheesy sloganeering of ‘positive psychology’ ” is being sold to a high school in Melbourne, Victoria (to the Principal, the staff and the students).
    In effect, it utilises a real link to ‘corporate servitude’, as has been succinctly highlighted above. And, the enforcement of such imperatives ensures that ‘being in the zone’ precludes any possibility for dissent.

  2. Pingback: The Jargon of Authenticity – Positive Psychology and Ideology | Archives of a Divided Subject

  3. He owes animals a tremendous apology for this abject history of torture and should commit the rest of his life to redeeming these crimes.

    • I agree completely. What he did was animal abuse. The poor dogs did nothing to deserve having electric shocks administered to them.

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