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Being tortured may make people seem guilty, study finds

Oct. 27, 2009
Courtesy Harvard University
and World Science staff

The ra­tionale be­hind tor­ture is that pain will make the guilty con­fess, but re­search­ers have found that the pain of tor­ture can make even the in­no­cent seem guilty. 

In the Har­vard Un­ivers­ity stu­dy, par­ti­ci­pants met a wom­an sup­posedly sus­pected of cheat­ing to win mon­ey. She then pre­tend­ed to be tor­tured by hav­ing her hand stuck in ice wa­ter. Mean­while study par­ti­ci­pants lis­tened over an in­ter­com. 

She nev­er con­fessed, but the more she seemed to suf­fer, the guilt­i­er she was per­ceived to be. The re­search was con­ducted by Kurt Gray, a grad­u­ate stu­dent, and Dan­iel M. Weg­ner, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy. 

“Tor­ture may not un­co­ver guilt so much as lead to its per­cep­tion,” said Gray. “It is as though peo­ple who know of the vic­tim’s pain must some­how con­vince them­selves that it was a good idea—and so come to be­lieve that the per­son who was tor­tured de­served it.” 

Not all tor­ture vic­tims seem guilty, he added. When par­ti­ci­pants in the study only lis­tened to a re­cord­ing of a pre­vi­ous tor­ture ses­sion—rather than a “live” tor­ture—they saw the vic­tim who ex­pressed more pain as less guilty. Gray ex­plains the dif­fer­ent re­sults as aris­ing from dif­fer­ent lev­els of com­plicity. 

“Those who feel com­plicit with the tor­ture have a need to jus­ti­fy the tor­ture, and so link the vic­tim’s pain to blame,” said Gray. But “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 study in­clud­ed 78 par­ti­ci­pants. Half met the wom­an who was ap­par­ently tor­tured, who was col­la­bo­rat­ing with the ex­pe­ri­menters, 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 “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, Gray said. Those who did­n’t meet her rat­ed her as more guilty when she felt less pain.

Gray sug­gests that these re­sults of­fer an ex­plana­t­ion for the de­bate swirling around tor­ture. 

“See­ing oth­ers in pain can per­pet­u­ate ide­o­log­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ences about the jus­ti­fi­a­bil­ity of tor­ture,” said Gray. “Those who in­i­tially ad­vo­cate tor­ture see those harmed as guilty, un­like those who in­i­tially re­ject tor­ture.” The find­ings shed light on the Abu Ghraib scan­dal, where pris­on guards tor­tured Ira­qi de­tainees, he added. Pris­on guards, who are close to the suf­fering of de­tainees, may see de­tainees as more guilty the more they suf­fer, un­like the more dis­tant gen­er­al pub­lic.

The research is pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Ex­peri­mental So­cial Psych­o­logy


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The rationale behind torture is that pain will make the guilty confess, but researchers have found that the pain of torture can make even the innocent seem guilty. In a Harvard University study, participants met a woman supposedly suspected of cheating to win money. She then pretended to be tortured by having her hand stuck in ice water while study participants listened over an intercom. She never confessed, but the more she seemed to suffer, the guiltier she was perceived to be. The research was conducted by Kurt Gray, a graduate student, and Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology. “Torture may not uncover guilt so much as lead to its perception,” said Gray. “It is as though people who know of the victim’s pain must somehow convince themselves that it was a good idea—and so come to believe that the person who was tortured deserved it.” Not all torture victims seem guilty, he added. When participants in the study only listened to a recording of a previous torture session—rather than taking part as witnesses of ongoing torture—they saw the victim who expressed more pain as less guilty. Gray explains the different results as arising from different levels of complicity. “Those who feel complicit with the torture have a need to justify the torture, and so link the victim’s pain to blame,” said Gray. “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 study included 78 participants. Half met the woman who was apparently tortured, who was collaborating with the experimenters, 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 “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, Gray said. Those who didn’t meet her rated her as more guilty when she felt less pain. Gray suggests that these results offer an explanation for the debate swirling around torture. “Seeing others in pain can perpetuate ideological differences about the justifiability of torture,” said Gray. “Those who initially advocate torture see those harmed as guilty, unlike those who initially reject torture and its methods.” The findings also shed light on the Abu Ghraib scandal, where prison guards tortured Iraqi detainees. Prison guards, who are close to the suffering of detainees, may see detainees as more guilty the more they suffer, unlike the more distant general public.