Crossing the line: What constitutes torture?

By Tiffany Harrington

Torture. The United Nations defines it as the “infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” But how severe is severe? That judgment determines whether or not the law classifies an interrogation practice as torture.

Now, a study published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, condemns this method of classification as essentially flawed. The reason: The people estimating the severity of pain aren’t experiencing that pain—so they underestimate it.

As a result, many acts of torture are not classified—or prohibited—as torture, say authors, Loran F. Nordgren of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Mary-Hunter Morris of Harvard Law School, and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University.

The researchers were moved to undertake the study by their alarm at the Bush Administration’s defense of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as stress postures and waterboarding. In court and the media, officials minimized the psychological and physical distress caused by these techniques—and insisted they were not torture.

In this denial, the authors saw a perfect demonstration of a psychological phenomenon called the “empathy gap,” says Loewenstein: “People in one affective state”—hunger, anger, pain—“cannot appreciate or predict another one.” If you’re warm, you can’t imagine the misery of being cold; if you’re rested, doesn’t seem so bad.

To demonstrate how the empathy gap skews definitions of torture, the team ran four studies focusing on three common interrogation techniques—solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and exposure to extreme cold. In each experiment, some of the subjects endured a mild version of the pain the tactic produces. Exclusion from an online ball-toss game evinced social isolation. Sleep deprivation was approximated by a three-hour night school class. To simulate confinement in a “cold cell,” some participants performed the trials with one arm in a bucket of ice-cold water; the others’ arms rested in room-temperature water.

After these experiences, participants were asked to rate the pain severity and ethicality of the real interrogation techniques. Every study yielded the same results. Those who endured the mild pain deemed the distress of the technique more severe and less morally acceptable than those who had undergone no pain. Even a short separation from the experience of suffering wiped out its effect. Ten minutes after removing their arms from the ice water, participants judged the of extreme cold similarly to those whose arms had bathed in warm water.

“Our research suggests that, except in a rarified situation”—during actual suffering—“people are going to exhibit a systematic bias to under-appreciate the misery produced by the tactics they endorse,” says Loewenstein.

The study’s conclusion: “The legal standard for evaluating torture is psychologically untenable.”

So what can be done? First, overcompensate. “Knowing that we tend to be biased toward not counting torture as torture, we should define very liberally, very inclusively,” says Loewenstein. And don’t trust empathy. “This is an area where we can’t rely on our emotional system to guide us. We have to use our intellect.”

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

The empathy gap in bullying

Jan 05, 2011

Taunted, harassed and pushed to a deadly breaking point. Last year, stories of teen bullying brought to life the heartbreaking consequences of young lives cut short by ruthless and unchecked behavior. Recent media coverage ...

The connection between healing and sleep studied

Feb 16, 2011

There’s an Irish proverb that says, “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book,” and recent work by U of A researcher Cary Brown shows merit to this idea.

Recommended for you

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

patnclaire
3 / 5 (2) Apr 13, 2011
The UN says that torture is infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering. We can recognize that The Rack or The Thumb Screw, branding, burning are torture devices. On the other hand, prolonged standing, sleep deprivation, yelling, lying, administering heat or cold, playing Slim Whitman songs repeatedly do not constitue torture or should they? If you include mental duress then most forms of authority correction is torture. Good bye police. Good bye parents. Good bye identified bullies. Those who are in authority in the West will not condone their loss of instruments of control. Recall the Ministry of Truth.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (5) Apr 13, 2011
Rap music.
FrankHerbert
2.1 / 5 (7) Apr 13, 2011
LOL he's a racist too.
Modernmystic
2.6 / 5 (5) Apr 14, 2011
LOL he's a racist too.


So if you don't like country you're a racist?

What about Eminem?
rgwalther
1 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2011
What about Eminem?


What does candy coated chocolate drops have to do with this?
rgwalther
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 15, 2011
Rap music.


RAP has the same relationship to music that AUSCHWITZ has to housing.
ryggesogn2
2 / 5 (4) Apr 15, 2011
Low, deep base does cause a physiological response.
7Hz can set up resonances that can kill.
Sub sonic waves trigger fight/flight responses.
Wolf358
5 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2011
Torture is wrong. Why is that so hard to grasp? I promise to never torture anyone. Why can't the rest of you 7 billion monkeys do the same?
6_6
5 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2011
hospital food
ryggesogn2
1.8 / 5 (6) Apr 15, 2011
Torture is wrong. Why is that so hard to grasp? I promise to never torture anyone. Why can't the rest of you 7 billion monkeys do the same?

What IS torture? Wasn't that the question?
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Apr 15, 2011
What IS torture?
Talking to you.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Apr 15, 2011
What IS torture?
Talking to you.

You must be a masochist.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Apr 16, 2011
What IS torture?
Talking to you.

You must be a masochist.
This isn't 'talking'.
Moebius
1 / 5 (2) Apr 16, 2011
There is a simple test for torture. If someone thinks something like waterboarding isn't torture than they should be willing to have it done to themselves to prove it.

And why is torture wrong? Our one true god has promised to do it to all unbelievers, and worse than we could do to ourselves. And that's not for actually doing anything, just for not worshiping and believing.
ryggesogn2
2.1 / 5 (7) Apr 16, 2011
There is a simple test for torture. If someone thinks something like waterboarding isn't torture than they should be willing to have it done to themselves to prove it.

The people who do water boarding do experience themselves. It must not be torture.
Just as law enforcement get tazed.
FrankHerbert
2 / 5 (8) Apr 17, 2011
Yes, and there is absolutely no difference between being tortured as part of your job by people you know and trust and being abducted by a bunch of strangers and being tortured for information you most likely have no knowledge of. No difference at all.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.