What Constitutes Torture? Psychological Impediments to an Objective Evaluation of Interrogation Tactics

Posted: 24 Jul 2011

See all articles by Loran Nordgren

Loran Nordgren

Northwestern University - Department of Management & Organizations

Mary-Hunter McDonnell

The Wharton School - The University of Pennsylvania

George Loewenstein

Carnegie Mellon University - Department of Social and Decision Sciences

Date Written: July 23, 2011

Abstract

Torture is prohibited by statutes worldwide, yet the legal definition of torture is almost invariably based on an inherently subjective judgment involving pain severity. In four experiments, we demonstrate that judgments of whether specific interrogation tactics constitute torture are subject to an empathy gap: People who are experiencing even a mild version of the specific pain produced by an interrogation tactic are more likely to classify that tactic as torture or as unethical than are those who are not experiencing pain. This discrepancy could result from an overestimation of the pain of torture by people in pain, an underestimation of the pain of torture by those not in pain, or both. The fourth experiment shows that the discrepancy results from an underestimation of pain by people who are not experiencing it. Given that legal standards guiding torture are typically established by people who are not in pain, this research suggests that practices that do constitute torture are likely to not be classified as such.

Keywords: torture, empathy gaps, pain

Suggested Citation

Nordgren, Loran and McDonnell, Mary-Hunter and Loewenstein, George F., What Constitutes Torture? Psychological Impediments to an Objective Evaluation of Interrogation Tactics (July 23, 2011). Psychological Science, Vol. 22, No. 5, pp. 689-694, 2011 . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1893725

Loran Nordgren

Northwestern University - Department of Management & Organizations ( email )

Evanston, IL
United States

Mary-Hunter McDonnell (Contact Author)

The Wharton School - The University of Pennsylvania ( email )

3641 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6365
United States

George F. Loewenstein

Carnegie Mellon University - Department of Social and Decision Sciences ( email )

Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890
United States
412-268-8787 (Phone)
412-268-6938 (Fax)

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