The Watchmen's blood-spattered smiley face symbolized the bone-cracking ironies of pacifist, free love America during the Vietnam War, exemplified by the character the Comedian, a cynical, ruthless battlefield government op who wears a smiley face button.
From the 2011 annals of Millennial Anxieties, I bring you this tidbit from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Ivory Tower's main paper in the United States. The Chronicle recently ran an interesting and chilling little piece on something called the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program. It has all the weirdness of military psych projects that I've blogged about here and here. It is a completely real, $125 million attempt to use positive psychology techniques among military personnel, and it is being implemented as you read this without prior testing.
The aim of the program is to train soldiers to be psychologically healthy and resilient and prevent conditions like post traumatic stress disorder. Of course that's a good thing. And it's to be expected that the military would explore dimensions of psychological warfare, which include tactics to make soldiers cope with extreme conditions and chaos. Yet the program has been developed by a researcher who induced a reaction called 'learned helplessness' by shocking canine research subjects for the CIA. He's also written a book on how to be genuinely happy, which is described as a "user-friendly roadmap for human emotion." Uhm. What?
Several prominent American psychologists have expressed concern about the program, but as one put it, "the train has already left the station." And just in case you think this has nothing to do with you, it looks like the idea is to use the military as a test case for broader application to the civilian population and make everyone happier.
I've never been quite clear on why happiness is generally assumed to be the only mood possible to indicate mental health. After all, depression is a mental reaction that occurs naturally and it serves certain functions. Within limits, it protects the individual from further stresses while the psyche seeks to heal. Since when was it 'healthy' to be 'happy' after being traumatized? And while being psychologically stronger and happier is obviously ultimately desirable, why are we farming out control over enabling our happiness, and our capacity to be happy, to outside parties?
Regarding mass application of psych techniques among civilians: think of sites like Facebook that already monitor our personal data, friends, behaviour and values, and manipulate the data for marketing purposes. Consider that mass psych techniques have been implemented in the creation of some dating services. In these systems, people willingly create intimate personal psych profiles of themselves and pay to hand that information over to private companies; is it not inconceivable that some dating services are in fact big psych tests - rat-in-the-maze scenarios - wherein a private company (aka dating service) monitors clients' behavioural reactions when presented with various choices? Now, would you like some military psych test mass results with that? I ask you: Who Watches the Watchmen? See the details of the report below the jump.
From the report:
Foremost among the worries is that it's been put in place without the trials necessary to see if it actually works. While the promotional materials talk about "equipping" and "training" soldiers, these critics say the program is in reality a huge study using involuntary research subjects. ...
The program is based largely on the research of Martin E.P. Seligman, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology and the author of the 2002 best seller Authentic Happiness and other popular books. ...
In November 2008, Mr. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, had lunch with Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the chief of staff of the Army, and his advisers. "I want to create an army that is just as psychologically fit as it is physically fit," General Casey told Mr. Seligman, as the professor recounts in his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. They discussed the psychological problems soldiers experience, like post-traumatic stress disorder, and Mr. Seligman suggested that a program could be created to make Army personnel more resilient, more emotionally stable, happier. To prevent problems, rather than simply treat them.
General Casey gave Mr. Seligman 60 days to outline the basics of such a program. The components included self-improvement courses, resiliency training designed to prepare soldiers to deal with trauma, and an online test called the Global Assessment Tool, or GAT, that allowed them to see in which areas of psychological fitness, like "spiritual" or "social," they fell short. Online modules would be developed. Master trainers would be trained.
The Positive Psychology Center Mr. Seligman directs at the University of Pennsylvania reportedly received $31-million from the Army over three years to develop Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.
Mr. Seligman describes himself as a maverick, a "wolf in sheep's clothing" amid his more purely academic colleagues. He is unapologetically interested in how ideas work outside of a laboratory, and frankly dismissive of the "puzzle masters" who edit journals and the psychologists laboring on "mathematical models of T-maze learning in rats."
For a professor who has said he wants to start a "revolution in world education" to teach everyone the principles of positive psychology, being asked to educate more than a million soldiers must have seemed like an irresistible opportunity. As he has written, it's "one of the largest-scaled psychological interventions ever undertaken." ...
At one point, Mr. McNally asked how the Army was going to know, without conducting randomized, controlled trials, whether the program was really fostering the resilience that its designers hoped it would. It was General Cornum who answered. "She said it was easier to simply implement the whole darn program than doing pilot testing," Mr. McNally recalls. Mr. Seligman reassured him that data would be collected from soldiers during the program. ...
[Professional] objection was echoed by three other psychologists in an article that was published online and later in abridged form in American Psychologist. "The CSF program is a massive research project launched without pilot testing to determine, first, the effectiveness of the training in a military environment," they wrote. "This is highly irregular and obviously worrisome considering the stakes."
Their objections run deeper than concerns about research protocol. One of the authors of that article, Stephen Soldz, a professor at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, says he's not sure that "making soldiers feel positive about their work" is a desirable outcome. "No one should feel great about killing people," he says. He also mentions the meetings, reported in the book The Dark Side by The New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, that Mr. Seligman had with the CIA to discuss his groundbreaking but controversial early work in so-called learned helplessness.
Those experiments, in which he found that dogs repeatedly subjected to electric shocks stopped trying to avoid it, eventually led to his hypothesis that resilience also could be learned. Critics have suggested that Mr. Seligman helped the CIA develop a torture program, though no proof of that exists. He has strongly denied assisting in the development of such methods and said that he was brought in to talk about how U.S. soldiers could resist harsh interrogations. ...
Mr. Seligman writes in an article that pilot studies "would have been great," he says the Army declined to do them because "such studies would have taken years—in the middle of a war—and because this program is by far the most replicated prevention program for mental health in the literature."
But, as Mr. Seligman concedes, the research the program is based on was done on civilians, not soldiers. And the descriptions in many of the essays, and in Mr. Seligman's own book, do make Comprehensive Soldier Fitness sound, at least in part, like a research project ... he writes that Comprehensive Soldier Fitness may be a boon to the entire country "if this program succeeds in assessing and predicting which soldiers do well." An essay written by three of the researchers who developed the Global Assessment Tool to measure psychological strengths includes the following sentence: "The study of U.S. soldiers is an ideal place to start if our concern is with people doing well." ...
A hint of that tension between whether the program is research or training can be found on the Army's Web site. In response to a "frequently asked question" about whether Comprehensive Soldier Fitness will prevent post-traumatic stress disorder, this is the answer given: "Perhaps, but we simply cannot answer this question yet because CSF is a relatively new program and we do not have enough data to analyze at this time."
NOTES FOR READERS OF MY POSTS.
If you're not reading this post on Histories of Things to Come, the content has been scraped and republished without the original author's permission. Please let me know by following this link and leaving me a comment. Thank you.