Centre for Confidence and Well-being

Skip to content
Carol's Blog
Postcards from Scotland

The Dark Side: The Centre's view

Following the allegations against Martin Seligman, which appeared on the web, the Positive Psychology coach Ben Dean was very effective in alerting people internationally to the story. He sent out an email with Martin Seligman's statement to thousands of people and asked them to forward it on to their database.

The Centre received the email from Australia, the USA, London and a contact in Scotland. Further feedback revealed that, unfortunately, Martin Seligman's statement was not going down well in the UK with some of his supporters as, rightly or wrongly, they did not think he should have had any contact with the military.?


People in our community also told us unequivocally that the Centre should ?report the issue on the website; that it would be wrong if we are only prepared to talk about Martin Seligman when it is positive and suits our purposes, but then to turn a blind eye to this issue. This is why we carried some of the basic facts about the controversy surrounding the publication of Jane Mayer's book on Emily's News. ?We also said that we would report further when we had read The Dark Side.?We have now done so and the following is the Centre's response.?


The Centre's Statement


We have now read Jane Mayer?s book The Dark Side. It is a sad indictment of the political administration in the USA as well as the various lawyers, psychologists and doctors who have been involved in the detention and torture of suspects, many of whom, even in the eyes of the CIA, are innocent of any wrongdoing. The book has been receiving rave reviews across the political spectrum and, within a mere three weeks, was number two in The New York Times best-sellers list.

?

There are many ?baddies? in Jane Mayer?s book but Martin Seligman is not one of them. Jane Mayer spends less than one page on Seligman. In it she recounts how he gave a lecture at the SERE school and how he thought it was to help US troops cope with torture.

?

Most of the furore surrounding Seligman has occurred since the publication of The Dark Side. This is because an eve of publication blog based on a summary by Scott Horton, an attorney and human rights lawyer, claimed that Seligman had ?actively assisted? the CIA in devising torture techniques. People now accept that there is no evidence for this and it is not what Jane Mayer claims.

?

However, Jane Mayer has made much more of Seligman?s involvement in the SERE school since the publication of her book. For example, Seligman was the focus? for a significant section of her interview with Democracy Now, she has issued a statement about Seligman?s rebuttal and she is mentioning Seligman in her book tour.

?

However, we have to remember that the nub of Mayer?s criticism is simply that Martin Seligman has not been forthcoming on his views and often says ?no comment? when faced with questions. When the topic is torture and the use of his ideas this does not look good and appears to be misjudged. But we have to bear in mind that this reticence is part of Seligman?s personal style and, unless there is evidence to the contrary, we cannot read bad intent into it. If you asked anyone who attended our events in Scotland with Seligman about what they remember about him, the chances are they?ll mention how he would say ?no comment? or ?I don?t have a view? when asked questions. They were often innocuous questions but he didn?t think he had any expertise to offer or they were subjects which didn?t really grab him.? Charles Darwin once said of himself that it was in part his ?mental constitution? which meant it was extremely difficult for him 'to turn from one subject or occupation to another?. We suspect that this could also apply to Martin Seligman and his involvement in his own work.

?

For many of us at the Centre, our main criticism of this whole affair is the way that those in various leadership positions in Positive Psychology, have tried to stop people discussing the issues.? We?re sure that people often take these steps for well-meaning reasons. However, those in executive positions in Positive Psychology have to remember that trying to cover matters up can make things worse by fuelling suspicion and alienating supporters. It is understandably distressing for Martin Seligman that allegations against him, unsupported by fact, are being circulated on the web. But gatekeepers in the movement have to realise that given Martin Seligman?s importance to Positive Psychology, particularly outside the USA, any reputational damage inflicted on him may have an effect on many supporters. Given their fears, supporters need the opportunity to talk about their concerns and learn more from Martin Seligman himself.

?

The second reason why people may feel aggrieved at not being allowed to raise the topic of Jane Mayer?s book is that the those who are attracted to Positive Psychology are, by definition, often fairly gentle types who want to make the world a happier place. They are appalled at the information The Dark Side reveals, not just about torture and detention, but also about the involvement of some psychologists (and the allegations some are making, rightly or wrongly, against the APA). It simply doesn?t feel right to them to have to circle the wagons so they look away from a best-selling book which is raising big issues of international significance. In short, ironically it may give supporters bad feelings about Positive Psychology. If this continues it could weaken their commitment to it.

?

The Centre is based in Scotland and in the next few years our work is going to have more of a Scottish focus. What?s more our agenda has never been exclusively focused on Positive Psychology and, given some of the big projects we?re planning,? this is likely to be even more the case in coming years. For? both these reasons the Centre is taking the view that the controversy surrounding Seligman is not a major issue for us and we simply want to draw a line under it. We?ll only return to the matter if there is a significant development which impinges on us.

?

Since our Chief Executive?s resignation as a Board member of the International Positive Psychology Association we have no locus or formal influence on Positive Psychology. If we had we would encourage leaders in various Positive Psychology organisations to discuss the matter rather than suppress it. A teleclass with Martin Seligman on every aspect of this affair would be helpful, including his views on Mayer?s book. Or he could write not just a brief? statement on some of the issues but something in-depth. This could tell us more about his version of events, and its impact on him, as well as looking at some of the issues surrounding torture through the lens of Positive Psychology. He may well be planning to do this but we think, given the feelings at present, it is required as soon as possible. Of course, if Martin Seligman speaks up about some of the issues, it may give more attention to them in the short term and apparently make matters worse.? But we think in the longer term it would have a cleansing effect, allowing the matter to be put in perspective.

?

No matter what happens, the Centre hopes that all those involved in Positive Psychology, including Martin Seligman, can move on from this stressful episode and start focusing on what they have to offer to the understanding of flourishing lives. It goes without saying that a flourishing life is one which manages to handle problems rather than buries them.?

 
Centre Events Previous Centre Events External Events Carol's Talks