Torture makes you seem guilty

A Harvard psych study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows that when people are present during torture, they gradually come to believe the torture victim is guilty as a way of assuaging their consciences for their complicity in torture:
Participants in the study met a woman suspected of cheating to win money. The woman was then "tortured" by having her hand immersed in ice water while study participants listened to the session over an intercom. She never confessed to anything, but the more she suffered during the torture, the guiltier she was perceived to be...

"Our research suggests that torture may not uncover guilt so much as lead to its perception," says Gray. "It is as though people who know of the victim's pain must somehow convince themselves that it was a good idea -- and so come to believe that the person who was tortured deserved it."

Not all torture victims appear guilty, however. When participants in the study only listened to a recording of a previous torture session -- rather than taking part as witnesses of ongoing torture -- they saw the victim who expressed more pain as less guilty. Gray explains the different results as arising from different levels of complicity.

"Those who feel complicit with the torture have a need to justify the torture, and so link the victim's pain to blame," says Gray. "On the other hand, those distant from torture have no need to justify it and so can sympathize with the suffering of the victim, linking pain to innocence."

Pain Of Torture Can Make Innocent Seem Guilty


  1. I wonder what the reactions of the tortured tell them.

    Wailing in agony and claiming innocence, calling your captors monsters, begging for mercy, challenging them, or even pretending to know what they want and mocking them that you’ll never tell. These are all different emotional reactions to pain and confrontation but I wonder how they’d be interpreted in a study like this.

  2. it would seem that the same applies if scaled up to war.
    those participating can justify it to themselves, whilst those not can’t

  3. It is not a matter of conscience. The worst sin, bar none, is being unable to defend oneself. The torture victim is by definition guilty of being defenseless.

  4. It’s a nice application of things we have already known for quite some time. Blaming the victim is not only relevant in regard to torture, but also in other aspects of warfare – and cognitive dissonance seems to be the most effective way to make people do such things.

    The interesting question, I think, is: Considering this result (even innocent people seem guilty after torture) and considering the fact that people under torture tend to tell you what you want to hear (regardless of it being true or not) – shouldn’t that render torture completely ineffective? Shouldn’t the military have stopped using it long ago, even apart from moral reasoning?

    1. You are assuming here (ostensibly, at least) that the purpose of torture is information gathering. Yes, it is obvious that torture is ineffective to this end, and one would think the practice would have been abandoned.

      If, however, the purpose of torture is not information gathering, then the continued employment of it would be less irrational. Perhaps the purpose of torture is to send a message. Fuck with us and will fucking kill your family and torture you. This would likely fall under the heading “terrorism.”

      Often, the top pleads incompetence. I don’t by it. It seems like there would be intelligent, capable people who would be interested in occupying the top spots of power, and that they would have a selective advantage over the fools.

      I’m more inclined to believe that they’re liars than that they’re fools.

      1. “It seems like there would be intelligent, capable people who would be interested in occupying the top spots of power, and that they would have a selective advantage over the fools.”

        Only to the extent that skill at political manipulation, ambition, “electiblity,” and whatever other traits are selected for (singlemindedness?) correlate with intelligence, competence, and wisdom in other areas.

  5. @4 Yenzo: Torture is still effective when it can yield useful information from guilty people. (Not that that’s a good reason to do it.) The problem is telling the guilty from the innocent and the good info from the bad.

    If John Wanamaker were a soldier he might have said, “Half the torture I perform is ineffective. The problem is I don’t know which half.”

  6. I wonder if the sound of someone trying to function while in pain also innately sounds like someone struggling to convince you of a lie.

  7. Nowhere is this bias more apparent than in the debates about what to do with the people we’ve imprisoned at Gitmo and other secret prisons. Even Obama has bought into the ridiculous notion that there is a class of terrorism suspect that is “too dangerous to be given a trial.”

  8. There’s probably some overlap between the body language of a woman being “tortured” by sticking her hand in icewater and somebody who actually feels guilty. We pick up on a lot of that stuff subconciously after all.

  9. Wow, this could explain those “died of natural causes” interrogation deaths in Iraq, the ones where the interrogator gets madder and madder as the high-value subject of beatings and near-suffocations simply smiles the nearer he gets to martyrdom. We’ve known for some time that, yes indeed, if your heart stops, you die of natural causes. Now that we can explain the torturer’s emotional self-defense mechanisms, those causes just seem more and more natural, don’t they?

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