Donald Trump claims torture ‘works’ – but what does the science say?

By Coral Dando | (The Conversation) | – –

The US president-elect Donald Trump has on several occasions insisted that torture is a good idea and that procedures such as water-boarding are not “tough enough” when dealing with terrorist groups like Islamic State.

The view is clearly morally and ethically questionable. But if we put that aside, does he have a point? If we need to get information out of someone who is plotting to kill lots of innocent people, is it a necessary evil? Well, there’s some psychological research on the subject that can help us answer this question.

Torture can be defined in many ways but it is always intentional and concerns inflicting psychological and/or physical pain to gain information, a confession or simply to punish. There must exist an asymmetrical relationship of power – a dependence and vulnerability where victims realise that they are at the mercy of their tormentors.

Torture has a long history, and despite being prohibited worldwide (in 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations inserted the prohibition against torture in the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the use of torture appears to be increasing worldwide. The reason for this is unclear, but the current threat from international terrorism is severe or high in many countries. So, when dealing with those who threaten our security and who appear committed to withholding information, the pressure to get results is significant.

The most commonly cited reason for justifying torture is the hypothetical “ticking time bomb” scenario. Here, a terrorist knows where a bomb is concealed, and when it will go off. If the bomb goes off, then thousands of people will be killed and injured. So torture in such a circumstance is argued as appropriate because the ends justify the means. On the face of it this is a compelling argument. Indeed, even those who are against torture might be persuaded to waver.

Fact and fiction

But we have to ask ourselves a series of questions. For starters, if our terrorist does know the information we are seeking (the individual may not), will torturing that person really make him or her talk? Finding out is not as simple as it may sound. For obvious reasons, observing torture being carried out and testing whether it works is not legally possible – in the real world or in the laboratory. Rightly, there are ethical codes of conduct that prohibit psychologists’ involvement in torture. The evidence that torture works appears to be anecdotal. Recently, a classified CIA report, which cited eight real cases of torture as evidence that the technique had thwarted plots and led to the capture of terrorists, was branded inaccurate and speculative by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

But the effects of pain, stress, and coercive behaviour on our ability to think and make decisions are well known. In fact, the published science is very clear – extreme stress and pain (physical and psychological) can bring about false memories, reduce our ability to remember information and seriously affect our decision-making and memory performance in general. Recent research has found stressful interrogations and isolation brought about false memories in upwards of 80% of trained military personnel.

In fact, criminal justice research on false confessions provides irrefutable evidence that even less coercive techniques than torture have brought about verifiable false confessions – and continue to do so. The Reid technique, a method of questioning suspects to try to assess their credibility, is one such example. The technique, banned in some countries, is accusatory, psychologically manipulative, assumes guilt and prevents denials. Yet we know that the more aggressive the interrogation method the higher the probability of eliciting false confessions. Recent, and historical examples of miscarriages of justice as a result of aggressive, manipulative interrogation methods are easy to find.

Psychologists and governments have been working together for a number of years to develop science-based, non-coercive interrogation methods for persuading detainees to reveal information. One example is the US High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which develops new interrogation techniques and supports scientific testing of existing ones. The UK government also supports similar research.

Alternatives to torture

I am one one of many researchers who develops non-coercive, science-based intelligence interviewing methods. But what are they and how do you go about it?

A starting point is that we always have to accept that, even if a person knows the information we are seeking, we may never be able to “make” him or her reveal it. Even if we torture, some information may be offered, but it might be false, simply to stop the suffering.

Much of our knowledge comes from laboratory experiments and research in the criminal justice system, where the stakes are high, but not necessarily as high as for terrorists. We do know that aggressive behaviour does not help, but effective rapport building, and the way in which questions are presented and framed can bring about cooperation and persuasion.

A non-judgemental mindset on the part of the interrogator, and the use of psychologically-based methods such as framing questions to manage the mental distress that typically comes about when we try and change a person’s attitude also helps bring about cooperation. Other effective techniques are managing the context and displaying empathetic behaviour associated with understanding the information holder’s perspective. In this way, we can maximise the chances that information might be revealed.

Framing involves presenting questions differently in an attempt to get a desired answer. For example, I can ask “was anyone else was there with you?”, or I could say, “who else was there with you?”. An even better option would be “I appreciate this is very difficult for you, but I need to know who was there with you. Others who have fully explained what has happened, and who was there, have agreed with me that this was the right thing to do. Would you agree?”

Indeed, all things considered, the available science simply does not support the argument that torture is effective. What’s more, new research shows it isn’t just a case of avoiding being nasty – actually being fair and nice may be a far superior way of getting information out of people.

Psychological research has impacted on real world practice in the past. The PEACE investigative interviewing model – an acronym that spells out the stages to follow in an information gathering interview – was introduced in the early 1990s and was driven by research investigating miscarriages of justice. It is now used in a number of countries.

Changing hearts and minds is challenging. But, if we start by considering interrogations more like a game of chess against a very able opponent, rather than a fight, governments and policymakers might begin to understand the importance of brains over brawn.

The Conversation

Coral Dando, Professor of Psychology, University of Westminster

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Wochit Politics: “McCain Will Not Allow Trump To Use Waterboarding”

5 Responses

  1. I’m sorry but what’s the point of this article and why is it legitimizing the ‘does torture work?’ debate as though the question has not already been definitively answered in infinite iterations since the issue first came to light and as though the Senate Torture Report did not answer the question with a definitive “NO!”? The question is not whether or not torture works, but why is anyone still advocating it as a useful means of interrogation, what is their ulterior agenda, and what is the ‘damage’ they’re exhibiting [as in; ‘What is your damage??]? Has the author slept through the last decade?

    • Ali H answered your question.

      Like global warming denial and health insurance denial and police violence, torture is assumed to be loved by conservatives out of ignorance. I propose, instead, that all that is sadism. “The purpose of torture is torture,” as Orwell said. It is not an optimized act of information extraction. It is an optimized act of terror against people you do not wish to have any rights or power at all. Why optimized? Not because it will make your victims silent forever, but because your own masters are using it to seduce and addict you into support. They grant you the privilege to unleash the inner beast that is inside of all of us, against those who are not granted that privilege.

      To be “conservative” in America today is not genuinely to go back to the past as they claim, but to use that excuse to bring back any doctrine or even revise it to put yourself on top of others, man over woman, White over Black, Christian over others, etc. even if that means putting certain people over yourself more than ever seen in our real past. The rulers beat you, you beat the lower castes, you feel good enough to keep the system going and the lower castes fear you too much to fight back.

      The purpose of torture is torture. The purpose of inequality is inequality. Sadism is another currency, another market, which enough of us will accept instead of our fair share of profits and decent living conditions.

  2. I think the author of the article, and the others who have responded thus far, are missing the greater point of torture.

    The purpose of torture is to make people say what you want them to say.

    Now, I think it is still important to post articles on how torture doesn’t work. That helps, I believe, to reassure the community of like-minded people, and to reaffirm this concept in our minds, especially when the message is delivered by credible experts in the field.

    Sadism may well be a part of torture, but I really do think that sadism is personal, a (sick) relationship that exists between the person being tortured and the torturer. It is difficult for me to credit that pro-torture people really receive a lot of personal gratification just from the knowledge that torture is being practiced. I may be wrong about that, but I hope I’m right.

    Still, I hold that the primary purpose of torture is and has always been to force people to say what you want them to say. Torture is very old, and when practiced by a state or other organized group, is always a political tool. You break your enemies, you break anybody you managed to get your hands on whether they started out as an enemy or not, and you force a confession from them. This lends credibility to your side, reinforces your ideology, reaffirms your message in the minds of your group. As long as you and the bulk of your group are willing to engage in complete, raving sociopathy, torture is really a win-win political tool.

    A couple of books that shaped my view on this include The Manipulation of Human Behavior by Biderman, and The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual, by Kirsch.

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