"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


It’s not torture if it’s happening to someone else? Studies probe our hidden biases

April 14, 2011
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Tor­ture. The Un­ited Na­t­ions de­fines it as the “in­flic­tion of se­vere phys­i­cal or men­tal pain or suf­fer­ing.” 

But how se­vere is se­vere?

New re­search sug­gests that when we’re suf­fer­ing some­thing even mildly akin to a dis­rep­u­ta­ble in­ter­roga­t­ion tac­tic, we’re sud­denly more apt to call it tor­ture. Thus le­gal­is­tic def­i­ni­tions are in­ad­e­quate, the sci­en­tists say, especially since the people writ­ing such guide­lines are not usually being tor­tured.

“If you’re warm, you can’t im­ag­ine the mis­ery of be­ing cold; if you’re rested, sleep de­priva­t­ion does­n’t seem so bad,” said George Loe­wen­stein of Car­ne­gie Mel­lon Un­ivers­ity in Pitts­burgh, Penn., a co-author of a re­port on the find­ings. “Peo­ple in one af­fec­tive state,” such as hun­ger, an­ger or pain, “can­not ap­pre­ci­ate or pre­dict an­oth­er one.”

A hand­cuff left be­hind in what the U.S. mil­i­tary has said is an al Qaeda in Iraq tor­ture cell in Zam­braniyah, Iraq, March 10, 2008. Guid­ed bombs dropped by an Air Force B-1B Lanc­er de­stroyed the whole fa­cil­i­ty, U.S. of­fi­cials said. (Pho­to by Mas­ter Sgt. An­dy Dun­away, USAF)

That may help ex­plain why def­i­ni­tions of tor­ture are dis­turb­ingly slip­pery, Lowen­stein and col­la­bo­ra­tors said. The idea for their re­search, they added, orig­i­nat­ed when the sec­ond Bush Ad­min­istra­t­ion in the Un­ited States gave it­self per­mis­sion to com­mit acts widely con­sid­ered tor­ture by simply de­ny­ing they were tor­ture.

The new find­ings are to ap­pear in the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

The scientists ran four stud­ies fo­cus­ing on three com­mon in­ter­roga­t­ion tech­niques: sol­i­tary con­fine­ment, sleep de­priva­t­ion, and ex­po­sure to ex­treme cold. In each ex­pe­ri­ment, some of the study par­ti­ci­pants 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 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, the re­search­ers said: 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 suf­fer­ing wiped out the ef­fect, the sci­en­tists added. Ten min­utes af­ter re­mov­ing their arms from the ice wa­ter, par­ti­ci­pants judged the pain 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,” said Loewen­stein.

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

What can be done? First, Loewen­stein said, over­com­pen­sate. “Know­ing that we tend to be bi­ased to­ward not count­ing tor­ture as tor­ture, we should de­fine tor­ture very lib­er­al­ly, very in­clu­sive­ly,” he ad­vised. More­o­ver, “this is an ar­ea where we can’t rely on our emo­tion­al sys­tem to guide us. We have to use our in­tel­lect.”

* * *

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Torture. The United Nations defines it as the “infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” But how severe is severe? New research suggests that when we’re suffering something even mildly akin to a disreputable interrogation tactic, we’re suddenly much more apt to call it torture. Thus legalistic definitions are inadequate, scientists say. “If you’re warm, you can’t imagine the misery of being cold; if you’re rested, sleep deprivation doesn’t seem so bad,” said George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., a co-author of a report on the findings. “People in one affective state,” such as hunger, anger or pain, “cannot appreciate or predict another one.” That may help explain why definitions of torture are disturbingly slippery, Lowenstein and collaborators said. The idea for their research, they added, originated when the second Bush Administration in the United States gave itself permission to commit acts widely considered torture by simply denying they were torture. The new findings are to appear in the research journal Psychological Science. The investigators ran four studies focusing on three common interrogation techniques: solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and exposure to extreme cold. In each experiment, some of the study participants 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 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, the researchers said: 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 suffering wiped out its effect, the scientists added. Ten minutes after removing their arms from the ice water, participants judged the pain 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,” said Loewenstein. The study’s conclusion: “The legal standard for evaluating torture is psychologically untenable.” What can be done? First, Loewenstein said, overcompensate. “Knowing that we tend to be biased toward not counting torture as torture, we should define torture very liberally, very inclusively,” he advised. Moreover, “this is an area where we can’t rely on our emotional system to guide us. We have to use our intellect.”