Police Psychology: Does Torture Work?

Posted: March 2, 2017 in Public Information Bureau
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Police Psychology:  Does Torture Work?

by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.  ABPP

If you go on the internet there are hundreds of articles that give you a resounding “No” to this question.  They repeat the same material, the same studies and give the same reasons to say torture doesn’t even begin to work and shouldn’t be used.  In fact, you are hard pressed to even begin to find one article that says it worked once in the history of man.  That bothers me.  Why is it even considered if it hasn’t worked once in the entire history of the world?  Can’t anyone except Donald Trump say something positive about torture?

Then, you notice every article appears on sites like the NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, etc.  Now, I am not the one to complain about “fake news,” but there does seem to be some bias in the newspapers these days, and these papers are always saying “black” when our president says “white.”  So, let’s let Inside Police Psychology take a little more of a research look at answering the question “Does Torture Work?”

The first thing that needs to be asked is what is meant by “torture working.”  There is the obvious reason for torture – to get information from a captured enemy.  Many people would say this is the only reason to torture someone.  But, I assure you, there are more reasons out there.  And I don’t think they are always very politically correct.

In criminology philosophy, there are four reasons for incarceration or punition – incapacitation, retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation.  In other words, get them off the street, make them pay for their crime, keep them from doing it again, and give them options to a criminal life.   Torture serves all of these functions for people, not just trying to get information.  Sleep deprivation and causing pain to people often makes them at first get motivated to find a way out, but on a continued basis, it seems to break their spirit and make them not do much of anything.  It makes them feel helpless and hopeless, although there are some that are motivated by it.  So, I would guess torture has some “incapacitation” impact for most people.

Retribution, or paying for their crime, that is in the eye of the torturer.  Is putting them through pain going to be payment for the crime of killing others, or plotting to kill others?  Everyone must make that decision on their own.  A bigger question is “does somehow torture make the torturer feel better” or perhaps the person who lost a loved one?  That’s a tough one to consider, but again everyone must make their own decision.  Generally, talking to people who were involved in enhanced interrogations after 9-11, some who worked as part of an interrogation team had a little PTSD after a few sessions, some it didn’t seem to bother.  I am not sure how I would react.

Deterrence is a whole other issue and perhaps the one where a case could be made for torture.  The research suggests that torture as a means of social control is somewhat effective.  People do avoid situations where torture is a potential outcome, and particularly if they have seen people after a torture session, or heard a torture session.  Now, would this work or not work for our current enemies, articles are published both ways on that.  It would seem you have to consider the individual case as most evidence is anecdotal.

As far as rehabilitation, I have not read anything on the rehab effect of torture.  It seems other interrogation techniques can have some sort of rehabilitation effect, but I have not read about torture and rehabilitation.  And I looked.

Now let’s move to the idea that torture is a way to get people to talk.  It would appear most studies show that the majority of people will say anything to get the pain to stop.  They give a ton of information, but not really intelligence, as the information they give is often false.  The studies I have read say between 10 percent and 15 percent actually gave bits of useful information and that is most likely if the torturers have some confirmation of the accuracy that they can do immediately.  Now these are studies of groups of people, and sometimes group effects don’t matter as much.  It may overshadow an individual piece of evidence.  Whoever is doing the torture must understand they are not likely to get good information most of the time.

Then there is the ultimate question, would you be willing to torture someone if they held your loved one hostage and you needed to find where they were.  It is tough to think what I would do if my 10-year old daughter was held hostage.   I’d sacrifice my life and anyone else’s  life.  Studies don’t matter much when it is that personal.  This is the question that ultimately gets asked of people.  It’s hard to go with science when so much emotion is on the line.  Science must always compete with the “face validity,” or when something looks like it would work, and usually science loses that match up.

So, does torture work?  I think you could say in some areas there is some evidence, but most areas the evidence is not very good.  I am reminded by the 70’s movie Marathon Man, where a grad student, played by Dustin Hoffman, is being tortured by Laurence Olivier who is a dentist that drills Hoffman’s teeth and aggressively pulls on the nerves.  Hoffman didn’t know anything, so he couldn’t get out of it by giving information.  It was torture to even watch it. Talk about social control, I think a lot of people would have signed up for a torture free life after that movie.

So, torture may not be a good technique for intelligence gathering, but it seems to have some credence in social control.  Torture has major face validity when it is over a personal situation.  You want the bad guy to suffer.  Psychology and medicine are still experimental sciences, where you do different things until one works, then you repeat it.  Sometimes it is difficult to watch when torture fits that bill!


Site Administrator:  Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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