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American  Psychological Association


July 12, 1983

 M E M O R A N D U M   (*)

TO:  The Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility,     American Psychological Association

FROM:  Steve Morin

SUBJECT:  Proposal for Task Force on Coercive           Psychological Techniques.


  1. Charge of Task Force

    It is proposed that a Task Force be established to investigate and issue a series of recommendations regarding coercive psychological techniques. The issue for discussion and determination by the Task Force would be whether or not limitations can/should be imposed on the use of coercive psychological techniques and principles used both by psychologists and non psychologists in such ways that abridge individual or constitutional rights. The charge to the Task Force will be to define the parameters and limits to which coercive psychological techniques may be used before invoking the principle of the "need to protect the individual."  

  1. Salience for the General Public and Psychology

    Psychologists have developed, described, and popularized various techniques for altering people’s behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes. The American Psychological Association is particularly concerned that these psychological techniques be used in such a way as to better the human condition. It is quite clear that many of the techniques developed by psychologists are used by non psychologists, e.g., behavior modification by classroom teachers. Nonetheless, the American Psychological Association has attempted to define conditions where the use of such psychological techniques is appropriate and inappropriate. The welfare of the individual is a basic concept in the ethical standards for psychologists, as well as in the attempts of the American Psychological Association to have impact upon public policy outside of the profession

  1. Pertinent Background Information

   The American Psychological Association has long involved itself with the ethical issues in the application of psychological techniques, e.g., the APA’s Task Force on Behavior Modification. However, some psychological techniques have not been as thoroughly examined and ethical principles for their use have not been well defined. In particular, techniques of indoctrination, "brain-washing" and "coercive persuasion" have not been subject to the same scrutiny as other psychological techniques. These particular techniques have been studied at least as far back as the Korean War. Such techniques are currently being used by religious cults (e.g., the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, etc.) as well as nonreligious organizations (e.g., est, Life Spring, etc.).

Psychologists have become increasingly involved in some of the contemporary controversy surrounding religious cults. For example, extensive psycological testimony was involved in conservatorship hearings in San Farcisco to determine whether or not members of the Unification Church were acting of a free will in choosing to stay with the Church or whether their parents should be granted conservatorship for the purposes of "having their children deprogramed". Likewise, extensive psychological testimony was involved in recent court deliberations to determine whether or not the Church of Scientology was a religious organization or a profit making organization that used psychological techniques to deprive individuals of their income. Similarly, psychologists are beginning to pay increased attention to "training seminars" such as est and Life Spring, which have popularized the mass use of coercive techniques. These movements have not been subject to the same scrutiny or involvement with ethical standards that apply to the work of psychologists who are members of the American Psychological Association and are required to ahere to the Association’s code of standards of ethical conduct.

It is quite clear that many of the religious organizations have involved in recruitment techniques which are the equivalent of psychological assessment. It would appear that these techniques need to be well defined and, if certain people are a high risk, that these people need to be warned with regard to potential harm. The fundamental issue facing psychology is a determination of whether or not certain people need to be protected from coercive psychological techniques. It may be impossible to discuss this aspect of the abuse of coercive psychological techniques without discussing legalistic implications. A thorough discussion of coercive techniques and the possible need for recommendations in order to protect the public would be in the best interest of psychology.

  1. Procedures to be Used

   As with the Task Force to Arrange Priorities for APA’s Involvement in Issues Regarding Children, Youth and Families, it is recommended that a Planning Committee be appointed to determine the agenda for the Task Force. Once the parameters of the activities of the Task Force are determined by the Planning Committee, then the Task Force should be selected from distinguished psychologists who have been active in defining and attempting to limit the abuse of psychological techniques, particularly as they apply to coercive techniques. The Task Force should meet twice annually for two to three years in order to acccomplish its mission and render a final report.

  1. Outcomes Anticipated

   The primary outcome of the Task Force would be a final report including recommendations to BSERP. The final report would be along the same lines as the final report of the Task Force on the Role of Psychology and the Criminal Justice System. Hopefully, this final report, along with recommendations, would be backed up by position papers on the various problem areas where coercive psychological techniques are currently being abused. It is also hoped that the final product of the Task Force would result in a publication like Who is the client? : The ethics of psychological intervention in the criminal justice system (Monahan, 1980).

  • Time Sequence

   A Planning Committee of five to seven members should be selected in 1982 in order to establish the more specific goals and objectives of the Task Force. The final Task Force members should be appointed and seated in 1983, to being their mission. The final Task Force should be composed of five to seven members, who would serve a two or three year term, depending upon how long it takes the Task Force to render a final report.

  1. Relevance to BSERP

   It is clear that BSERP is becoming increasingly concerned with aspects of social responsibility. BSERP is charged with being, among other things, the social conscience of the American Psychological Association. BSERP has historically been involved in movements to protect those in need of protection, e.g., children from "child abuse." It seems reasonable that organized psychology, through BSERP, speak out with regard to the issues of protecting adults from the abuse of coercive psychological techniques.

(*)  attached to the letter of July 12 th, 1983, signed by Arnold S. Kahn,
Administrative Officer Social and Ethical Responsibility.