Torture doesn't work, does it?
February 28, 2010 2:56 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for respected papers and books by psychologists and/or psychiatrists on the effectiveness of torture as a means to extract truthful confessions, especially in a military setting.

I personally do not believe that torture is an effective way to extract truthful confessions, but I would like some ammunition to support my view.

I am of course more than willing to read opposing views as well, if they exist, and once again, if these views are in respected papers and books by psychologists and/or psychiatrists.

I am also prepared for the idea that the truth may be uncomfortably sandwiched between the two poles.
posted by Sticherbeast to Law & Government (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It's not an academic paper, but worth reading on this subject is "Whatever It Takes" by Jane Mayer—a New Yorker article about 24 creator Joel Surnow and the politics of torture. Related quote, describing how elements of even the military brass oppose torture:
[U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick] Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. "I’d like them to stop," Finnegan said of the show’s producers. "They should do a show where torture backfires."
posted by cirripede at 3:15 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm away from my office right now, so I can't direct you to the specific psychology literature (my background is in political science) right now. One basic point: you might expand your search from psych. to history, sociology, & political science too. Torture, the consensus is, doesn't yield good information for a wide variety of factors, only some of which are psychological. Outside the field of psychology, Darius Rejali's Torture & Democracy is quite good in addressing why torture is not very effective (yet, nevertheless persists), and should lead you to other worthwhile references. (Feel free to contact me via MeFi mail if you want more specialized citations; With a little more info about what you're looking for, I might be able to steer you in the right direction).
posted by .kobayashi. at 3:24 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

There was an anecdote in Harpers Magazine a few years ago about an officer in the French Foreign Legion who fought in the Algerian Wars. He said that torture as a means of intelligence gathering was almost useless compared to other means of research. The subject merely tells the interrogator what the interrogator wants to hear, and not data which is particularly useful.

My personal theory is that torture is not really about intelligence gathering, it about expressing a power dynamic. Torture is used by small groups of individuals to re-affirm their personal insecurity about their psychological control over a larger population.

Jack Bauer is an entertaining fiction.
posted by ovvl at 4:13 PM on February 28, 2010

Best answer: I have written a lot about the use of sleep deprivation, food deprivation, stress positions, public humiliation particularly sexual humiliation, isolation and exercise to the point of exhaustion in "troubled teen" programs-- basically, the same stuff used as "coercive interrogation," short of waterboarding. Robert J. Lifton detailed the use of this stuff to produce false confessions in the classic, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism and his system remains one of the best ways of describing how it affects the mind.

It's definitely the case that people will tell you pretty much anything you want to hear after you impose this regime for long enough-- and that's why torture doesn't work. If you don't *already know* the information you are trying to get, you have no way of telling what is the people telling you what you want to hear and what is the truth. And if you do already know it, what's the point of torture? I've spoken to people who confessed to having sex with animals, to doing drugs they'd never seen and who made up bizarre stories of sexual abuse just to get out of these situations. So false confessions are very real and very easy to elicit even with "psychological' torture alone.

There's very little real research on this-- nothing controlled, that's for sure.
posted by Maias at 5:25 PM on February 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I highly recommend an article entitled "Hypothetical Torture in the War on Terrorism" by Kim Lane Schepple, 1 J. Nat’l Security L. P. 285 (2005), which discusses torture from a sociological perspective. PM me if you'd like a copy.
posted by gauche at 5:56 PM on February 28, 2010

I heard one Army officer say that torture/threat of torture is very effective in obtaining immediately-verifiable information -- who's in that house over there? -- but not very effective for data which requires more time/effort to validate.
posted by trinity8-director at 7:38 PM on February 28, 2010

Seconding .kobayashi.'s recommendation of Rejali. And I think that Jane Mayer piece is incorporated into her book, which is excellent. Like others here, I have a lot of resources, but I don't think there's a perfect piece of controlled research for you. The consensus does agree with you that it's ineffective, but there's also an important critique of substituting a utilitarian argument for a moral one.
posted by Mngo at 6:29 AM on March 1, 2010

It's not by a psychologist or psychiatrist, but I feel that Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain is required reading on this subject.
posted by jrb223 at 10:18 AM on March 1, 2010

This article and a couple of links in the comments might be of use:

posted by Sarosmith at 11:42 AM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: Sorry, here are the links:

Scientific American Mind blog

Scientific American Mind Podcast

Hope they work this time.
posted by Sarosmith at 1:25 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: Psychology it ain't, but these two game theorists have written an interesting series of easy-to-read blog posts on the subject: [1] [2] [3] [4].
posted by thijsk at 1:35 PM on March 1, 2010

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