“in¬flic¬tion of se¬vere phys¬i¬cal or men¬tal pain or suf¬fer¬ing.”

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.”


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