Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.