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