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What Is Torture? We Know It (Only) When We Feel It

• April 12, 2011 • 4:42 PM

What constitutes torture? New research finds the answer varies with the level of pain one is currently feeling.

The definition of torture has become somewhat fuzzy in the post-9/11 world. According to the United Nations 1984 Convention on Torture, which was ratified by more than 150 nations, the practice of torture involves “the infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” In other words, whether or not a specific technique constitutes torture is determined by the level of pain it produces.

But how good are we at estimating the amount of agony a particular action will produce? Newly published research suggests the answer is: not good at all. According to a research team led by Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, people habitually underestimate how severe interrogation-induced pain will be — unless they are experiencing some mild version of it themselves.

“Our research suggests that the legal standard for evaluating torture is psychologically untenable,” the researchers write in the journal Psychological Science. “People cannot appreciate the severity of interrogation practices they themselves are not experiencing — a psychological constraint that, in effect, encourages torture.”

Nordgren and his colleagues describe four experiments that lead them to this conclusion. In each case, participants who were experiencing (or had just experienced) a mild dose of the torture methods in question were more likely to describe it as unethical.

The first experiment featured 88 undergraduates, some of whom were manipulated to feel a sense of social exclusion. (They played an online ball-toss game, which was rigged in such a way they would seldom receive the ball.) Sixty-three percent of those participants opposed the use of prolonged solitary confinement, compared to 33 percent of those who received the ball more often and 36 percent of those who didn’t play the game.

To study attitudes toward sleep deprivation, the researchers conducted a field test using 109 part-time students taking night classes toward their MBA. Most arrived at class following a full day of work. The researchers tested half of them when the class began at 6 p.m. — a point at which they felt relatively fresh — and the other half at 9 p.m., when they were far more fatigued.

In the experiment, participants reacted to news of an interrogation session in which a suspect was deprived of sleep for 48 hours. The fatigued 9 p.m. group judged the technique to be both more painful and more unethical compared to their better-rested classmates.

In the third experiment, 73 students were asked to judge the acceptability of a technique in which a detainee is kept in a near-freezing room for up to five hours at a time with little clothing. One-third answered the questionnaire while holding their arm in a bucket of ice water. Another third did so while holding their arm in warm water. The final third also had their arm in ice water, but waited 10 minutes before filling out the questionnaire.

Those experiencing painful cold in the moment were more likely to judge the technique as torture than those in the other two groups — including the one which had experienced the frigid water just minutes earlier. Their increased empathy for someone who was feeling cold apparently evaporated during the 10-minute gap.

Clearly, the participants who were feeling pain were less inclined to inflict similar pain on others. But were their estimates of the pain these torture methods produce truly more accurate?

The fourth and final experiment suggests they were. Of necessity, it focused on a less-severe method of interrogation.

“Participants read about a private school that forced misbehaving students to stand outside in the cold without a jacket on for up to three minutes,” the researchers write. “Participants then evaluated this practice while holding their hand in nearly freezing water, holding their hand in room-temperature water, or standing in the cold for three minutes without a jacket.”

Those with their hand in cold water and those who were actually standing in the cold “did not differ in pain-severity ratings.” This suggests the hand-immersion technique successfully replicated the level of pain elicited by the interrogation technique.

Altogether, the study “underscores the point that people need to actively experience pain in order to appreciate torture’s severity,” the researchers write. Since this is seldom, if ever, the case, they add, “our results suggest that such policies are misinformed by a systematic tendency to underestimate the pain produced by interrogation practices.”

“Given that legal standards guiding torture are typically established by people who are not in pain,” they add, “this research suggests that practices that do constitute torture are likely not to be classified as such.”

Meanwhile, the Daily Beast is reporting on a new study by the American Red Cross, which finds almost 60 percent of American teenagers feel techniques such as water-boarding or sleep deprivation are sometimes acceptable.

It’s easy to reassure ourselves, and evade moral responsibility, by believing such methods as sleep deprivation and exposure to excessive heat or cold (techniques supported by 66 and 40 percent of American public, respectively, in a 2004 poll) don’t produce enough pain to constitute torture.

But Nordgren’s research suggests this belief is the product of self-delusion. The truth, after all, hurts. So does torture.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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