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Oct. 27 2009 - 11:05 am | 28 views | 3 recommendations | 4 comments

Making the Tortured Seem Guilty

Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States.

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One of the enduring fault lines of the debate over torture in the United States is that, in general, those who have been close to torture and responsible for torture, from interrogators on up to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, have a very different perspective from many of those outside the loop. While there are plenty of exceptions — some people responsible for torture have turned into whistle blowers, and plenty of members of the general public support torture — as a general rule, people who were responsible for torture firmly believe it did good and that only guilty people were tortured.

This certainly lines up with what we know about human nature, especially cognitive dissonance: “I did it, therefore it must have been right and good.” And now, a new study out of Harvard (PDF) shows — via a clever experiment — that complicity in torture makes one more likely to believe that a torture victim is guilty. What’s more, the more pain the victim feels, the more the complicit believe he or she is guilty.

Here, from ScienceDaily, is how the experiment was conducted:

The study included 78 participants: half met the woman who was apparently tortured (actually a confederate of the experimenters who was, of course, not harmed at all), and half did not. Participants were told that the study was about moral behavior, and that the woman may have cheated by taking more money than she deserved. The experimenter suggested that a stressful situation might make a guilty person confess, so participants listened for a confession over a hidden intercom as she was subjected to the sham “torture.”

The confederate did not admit to cheating but reacted to having her hand submerged in ice water with either indifference or with whimpering and pleading. Participants who had met her rated her as more guilty the more she suffered. Those who did not meet her rated her as more guilty when she felt less pain.

“Those who feel complicit with the torture have a need to justify the torture, and so link the victim’s pain to blame,” the piece quotes Kurt Gray, a graduate student in psychology and the lead author of the study, as saying. “On the other hand, those distant from torture have no need to justify it and so can sympathize with the suffering of the victim, linking pain to innocence.”

The efficacy of torture in soliciting accurate information from a subject is a relatively unsettled question (which is part of why I’ve argued that torture opponents ought not fight and die on the ground that It Doesn’t Work). What’s closer to settled, however, is how torture affects the torturer. And, no, I’m not talking about how it morally corrupts one’s soul. I’m talking about how it biases the way we look at the information that comes from torture. As I discussed in this post, another problem with torture is the incentives it creates for tortured and torturer. Basically, it serves both for the person being tortured to just say something, anything, so that the torture can stop — because, outside of true sadists, the torturer finds torturing very unpleasant and will take any excuse to not have to keep doing it.

This study out of Harvard just emphasizes the problems for those who would set out to torture. Not only are they predisposed to believe whatever a torture victim says, they’re also — by virtue of their complicity in another human being’s suffering — more likely to assume that person is guilty. Which makes the prospects of gaining actionable and accurate intelligence from torture all that more dim.


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  1. collapse expand

    In a perfect world, if we could be a hundred percent sure the person was guilty, a hundred percent sure they know the information we need, and a hundred percent sure that torturing them was the quickest, most efficient method of getting the information out of them, torture would be a legitimate means of gathering information. I understand the concept of dirty hands, and while I might not like it, I’m enough of a realist to know it has to be done. Of course the world is not perfect. I’m not advocating 100% certainty, that’s not possible and waiting for it would ensure nothing gets accomplished. What I am saying is that in light of the enormous amount of doubt about the effectiveness of torture, coupled with its moral repugnance, we as a people should all reject its use. We certainly come down on it when other countries do. Of course, they’re others, not us, but that’s a different essay.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

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