What constitutes torture? Psychological impediments to an objective evaluation of enhanced interrogation tactics

Loran F. Nordgren, Mary Hunter Morris McDonnell, George Loewenstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations

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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)689-694
Number of pages6
JournalPsychological Science
Volume22
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - May 2011

Keywords

  • empathy gaps
  • pain
  • torture

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)

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