Torture and the commitment problem

Sandeep Baliga*, Jeffrey C. Ely

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


We study torture as a mechanism for extracting information from a suspect who may or may not be informed. We show that a standard rationale for torture generates two commitment problems. First, the principal would benefit from a commitment to torture a suspect he knows to be innocent. Secondly, the principal would benefit from a commitment to limit the amount of torture faced by the guilty. We analyse a dynamic model of torture in which the credibility of these threats and promises is endogenous. We show that these commitment problems dramatically reduce the value of torture and can even render it completely ineffective. We use our model to address questions such as the effect of enhanced interrogation techniques, rights against indefinite detention, and delegation of torture to specialists.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberrdv057
Pages (from-to)1406-1439
Number of pages34
JournalReview of Economic Studies
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016


  • Commitment
  • Ratchet effect
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Waterboarding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Economics and Econometrics


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