Was revenge a hidden rationale for torture?

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s “torture report” has reignited national debate on “enhanced” interrogation techniques. At the heart of this debate is the question: Do these methods work to prevent terrorist attacks?

Much of the American public seems to believe they do. Since the time the CIA’s program was in force, and even now, national surveys have indicated that a majority of Americans say the use of torture is justified when it is used against suspected terrorists who may know details about future attacks. But is belief in the effectiveness of severe interrogation methods really what motivates support for those methods? Or is there a darker psychological motive?

Social psychology has long established that people are often mistaken about what drives their own viewpoints and behaviors. My research suggests that this may also hold true for attitudes toward interrogation. Although 96% of U.S. respondents surveyed say that coercive techniques should be used only to retrieve information that could prevent future harm, I have found that people are actually more likely to endorse the use of harsh interrogation if they think the target “deserves” to be punished.

Punishment can be justified in various ways, including as a utilitarian means to an end or as a retributive end in itself, and psychologists have found that retribution is a more dominant motive in punishment decisions. People want to see offenders “pay a price” for wrongful behavior, regardless of whether this leads to fewer offenses in the future. The information-gathering purpose of interrogation is entirely different from that of punishment, but support for severe interrogation may be similarly fueled by retributive impulses based on moral judgments about the person being interrogated.

For example, in one study I co-authored, a broadly representative sample of 246 American adults consistently recommended significantly more aggressive interrogation of a person they regarded as morally corrupt as compared to someone they saw as morally neutral. And this was true whether they were told that there was a 5%, 60% or 95% chance of obtaining intelligence from the detainee that could prevent future terrorist attacks.

The respondents in fact recommended significantly harsher interrogation of a target whom they judged to be immoral even when told there was no chance at all that he possessed useful knowledge. Critically, it was people’s subjective ratings of the target’s moral status, and not their belief in the effectiveness of interrogation, that drove their recommendations. Additional studies have found similar results.

The widespread rhetoric of evil and fear surrounding terrorism suspects has created a large risk that individuals who are detained for interrogation will automatically be seen as inherently bad. For example, in a “Meet the Press” interview the Sunday after the torture report was made public, former Vice President Dick Cheney described the CIA’s targets this way: “These are not American citizens, they are unlawful combatants, they are terrorists, they are people who have committed unlawful acts of war against the American people.” And that’s hardly the worst of the ways detainees have been characterized.

My research findings have serious implications: Public support for the use of severe interrogation may well have less to do with a quest for information than with a subconscious human instinct for vengeance, even though that is not the expressed purpose of interrogation.

As we as a nation consider the ramifications of the CIA’s interrogation program, we must confront the possibility that the public may unknowingly endorse harsh tactics as a proxy for punishment. Imagine how the whole conversation would change if proponents of severe interrogation were to explicitly rationalize its use on the basis of revenge. Neglecting to acknowledge the unconscious retributive impulses that motivate support for enhanced interrogation risks the American people influencing policy, and being influenced by it, for a covert reason they might otherwise reject as ethically repugnant.

Avani Mehta Sood is a social psychologist and assistant professor of law at UC Berkeley School of Law.

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