Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Torture, hypocrisy and self-denial

Boingboing links to an awesome Science Daily article on the psychological effects of torture on onlookers:
The rationale behind torture is that pain will make the guilty confess, but a new study by researchers at Harvard University finds that the pain of torture can make even the innocent seem guilty.

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.

The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, was conducted by Kurt Gray, graduate student in psychology, and Daniel M. Wegner, professor of psychology, both in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences.


"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.

This study is essential, though of course it's merely an offshoot of what people who have any idea of human nature already suspect - people create the reality that is most comfortable to them. We demonize people we need to demonize, as the alternative is to confront ourselves for misbehavior, callous treatment or shortsightedness. The use of strong torture methods in dictatorial, brutal regimes, and even in justifying more recent U.S. mistakes were strongly tied to a belief in the infallible nature of the torturer to presume guilt or innocence.


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