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How Psychotechnology Works


Controversial Uses of Psychotechnology
A volunteer is prepared for tests in the laboratory for psycho-physiological research at the Shikhany research center near the town of Saratov, Russia.
A volunteer is prepared for tests in the laboratory for psycho-physiological research at the Shikhany research center near the town of Saratov, Russia.
East News/Getty Images

If you've ever seen Stanley Kubrick's controversial film adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel, "A Clockwork Orange," you might have a negative impression of psychotechnology. In both the novel and the film, a young teenager named Alex spends his time hanging out with his "droogs" -- slang for friends -- and committing atrocious acts of "ultraviolence." Alex and his droogs have a general disregard for law, order and authority, but one night, in the middle of a robbery, Alex kills a woman and is arrested. He is sent to jail for 14 years, but after completing a just two years of his sentence, Alex hears of a rehabilitation program, called the "Ludovico Technique," that will cure him of any urge to commit crime. Alex agrees, unaware of the horrifying, drug-induced treatment he'll have to undergo. Staff members at the prison affix a contraption to his head, keeping his eyes open and forcing him to watch horrifying images. The drugs he's been forced to take make him sick while watching these films, essentially conditioning him to retch at the possibility of violence.

Burgess and Kubrick were creating an imaginary, dystopian world to offer social satire, but is there anything like this in real life? Although most current societies haven't descended into authoritarian chaos, most examples of psychological testing eventually come with their share of controversy.

One of the most recent examples of fear and skepticism comes from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its interest in the Russian-based Psychotechnology Research Institute, located in the country's capital, Moscow. The institute developed an anti-terrorism technology called Semantic Stimuli Response Measurements Technology, or SSRM Tek.

According to a Wired magazine article, the software is a simple computer game that flashes quick, essentially unnoticeable subliminal images across the screen -- pictures of Osama bin Laden or the World Trade Center, for instance. A person taking the test presses a button in response to the images, without taking the time to think about what he or she is seeing. According to the institute, the test is able to detect a subtle difference between a terrorist's involuntary response and that of an innocent person's. The technology has been marketed as a useful system in airports, where flyers would take the test at checkpoints. Those registering a suspicious response would have to undergo extra checks.

Some argue, though, that no electronic technology can correctly pick terrorists and identify other complex traits and behaviors in humans; according to neuroscientist Geoff Schoenbaum, modern psychology is "still working at the level of how rats learn that light predicts food," the same concept physiologist Ivan Pavlov worked on more than a century ago with dogs. Many worry that any errors in these kinds of psychological tests could lead to mistaken accusations, something the scientific community and proponents of psychotechnology would like to avoid.

For lots more information on the mind and its state, see the next page.