Seeking Answers from Social and Personality Psychologists: 10 Research Questions in the Torture/Interrogation Debate

Bradley Olson

As someone trained in personality and social psychology—and now also working as a community psychologist—it’s clear to me that social and personality theory and research make essential contributions to understanding social justice issues.

I’ve long been an activist on the American Psychological Association (APA) torture issue and a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR). This led to an invitation to participate in a session chaired by Chris Crandall at the 2009 Society for Experimental Social Psychology conference in Portland, Maine. The session involved presentations of several excellent studies related to U.S. torture and interrogation. My role was to act as a discussant and to suggest what other areas, as an activist, I thought should be studied empirically.

For several decades, the horrors of WWII and the racism that led to the civil rights movement inspired the work of U.S. social and personality psychologists. As several participants mentioned at the session in Portland, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and Guantanamo can have similar influences on the discipline in the years ahead. I agree. From my perspective as an activist, here are 10 questions I would love social and personality researchers to help answer:

1. How does a nation that once publicly reviled torture come to accept it as an unfortunate necessity?

Group-oriented social psychologists have often focused on social conversion and societal change. Norm changes may reflect compliance or internalization, minority influence or polarization. But bringing the political world into the social psychological laboratory and exploring these paradigms with GWOT stimuli would advance our understanding of the national dynamics around the issue of torture.

2. How can the public be inoculated against propaganda and pro-torture political media and marketing?

Briefings from the White House, conservative cable media outlets, and each episode of “24” present social psychologists with research opportunities that can lead to policy changes and preventive interventions. Elaborations on McGuire’s inoculation theory — to prepare people for pro-torture arguments (like the ticking time bomb)—would be a good start. Such interventions could focus on protecting the American public by giving them stronger ethical and intellectual foundations against torture. Public norms on torture may be pushed to extremes through normative and informational influence. One hope is that if all the sound arguments against torture were available, torture would be less acceptable. If Americans could be encouraged to search more thoroughly for deeper and varied pools of informational influence, would they polarize against torture? One hypothesis is that we would be better off if more Americans vigorously exposed themselves to a wider variety of arguments—even those of the pro-torture side.

3. What are the distinct roles of authoritarianism, conformity, and aggression in pro-torture views?

Right-wing authoritarianism is a topic that combines personality and social psychology. Its nature and its surrounding correlates involve a fairly complex set of characteristics. Right-wing authoritarianism is somewhat different from the construct of social dominance. Social dominance is different from low openness; a high level of fear and insecurity is different from the cognitive narrowing associated with dogmatism. We might ask, for instance, when does escalation of insecurity play a role in pro-torture views? A tendency toward aggression or prejudice might be other pieces of the puzzle. How might some or all of these human characteristics moderate American views, decisions, and actions around the issue of torture? And, how do these views interact with the reasons people give for supporting torture? Research of this type might contribute to more effective ways of influencing those who might otherwise endorse or promote national uses of torture.

4. Does psychological salience impact empathy for and action to help detainees at places like Guantanamo?

Milgram’s original salience and proximity manipulations in his obedience studies still teach us much. Latane’s social impact theory also emphasized salience. Salience may be the most interesting concept in understanding torture in the Global War on Terror. The holding facility for terror suspects was placed on Guantánamo, an island located on the southeastern end of Cuba, at least partly for psychological reasons. The distant and inaccessible island reduces psychological salience, for Americans and for the rest of the world. Without salience, it’s hard to have empathy, and without empathy, it’s difficult to motivate the public around justice-oriented causes. Research could examine this issue more closely. For instance, what effect does diminished salience have on public support for torture? How might increases in salience motivate greater public resistance against pro-torture policies?

5. Why is psychological torture perceived by Americans to be more socially and legally acceptable than physical forms of torture?

It appears that the American public grossly underestimates the harm associated with psychological forms of torture compared to physical forms. Many are were convinced that techniques like sensory deprivation are more innocuous than physical techniques, whereas released detainees consistently say the opposite is true, that the psychological abuse is the most unbearable. Although ethical constraints prevent us from tackling this question directly, social psychologists may be able to devise stimulus materials and experimental designs to better understand these perceptions. Such studies could begin to understand more about our beliefs and attitudes around psychological versus physical harm. For example, is psychological harm perceived as less harmful because it’s invisible, thereby reducing natural human tendencies toward empathy?

6. How does the average American make moral decisions around torture?

Naturalistic and descriptive work on moral decision-making around torture would also be useful. Do people use some variation of Kant’s categorical imperative (e.g., what if everyone did this)? Do they apply Rawls’ veil of ignorance (e.g., putting the most vulnerable at the forefront in their minds)? The world would benefit from some experimental tests of folk theories. On the torture issue, do we apply a utilitarian equity and exchange model (e.g., weighing costs and benefits, to individuals or to society at large)? If so, do we consider costs and benefits for ourselves, for our ingroup members, or for society at large? What interventions would lead to more reasoned and ethical choices?

7. What is the relationship between American exceptionalism and ingroup favoritism? And how might such factors play a role in the torture debate?

Allport believed it was often ingroup love that initially forms prejudice—and there is no doubt that these problems can occur at a national level. Once that love becomes exclusive, an implicit fence is built—and there is always something on the other side of that fence. Is American exceptionalism a macro-level variation of ingroup favoritism? Are there unique features to exceptionalism? Does it lead Americans to believe detainees don’t deserve the protections of U.S. law or that international law is irrelevant? How does ingroup favoritism as exceptionalism contribute to the widespread acceptance of torture for non-citizens?

8. What is the psychology of bureaucracy and how does it contribute to torture-accommodating policies in organizations?

Organizational bureaucracy can epitomize the banality of evil. Many saw the APA not as consciously pro-torture, but as an association with an organizational culture that had its values in the wrong place. Its 2002 revision of Ethical Standard 1.02 seemingly usurped every other proscription in the code. Under the requirements of regulations, law, or governing authority, standards such as “Do No Harm” and “Do Not Exploit” could be ignored. Whether 1.02 was intentionally adopted to protect military psychologists or whether it was excessive moral caution in the service of guild-based interests is unclear given the current evidence. Bureaucratic features like guild-based protectionism seemed to be a primary problem for the APA, on Standard 1.02 and every other torture-related policy. Paradoxically, risk aversion imperiled the stability of the organization. How can such processes and decisions be better understood? Are they inevitable in large bureaucracies, or are effective interventions possible?

9. What non-violent dissident strategies are most effective in bringing about positive forms of social change?

The early minority influence work of Moscovici provided hope in a world of majority influence. How can we defy senseless forms of majority influence and obedience in places that support torture? What are the best strategies for the non-violent, social justice-oriented dissident? Saul Alinsky, the famous Chicago community organizer, believed verbally aggressive approaches worked best. He stated definitively: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” Gandhi’s social action required the exact opposite, arguing that “Non-cooperation is not a movement of brag, bluster, or bluff” and “Not a negative thought or action should be had against others. One may not respect another, but do not insult him.” The comparative effectiveness of such strategies could be separated in the laboratory.

10. What are the psychological dimensions of truth and reconciliation commissions compared to current U.S. trial systems?

The field of psychology and the law has brought substantial knowledge about how our traditional legal system works. But what do we now know about alternatives to this system? Can we experimentally compare truth and reconciliation approaches with more punitive methods on issues related to torture?

The global war on terror and the mainstreaming of torture and interrogation, by psychologists and others, has put social psychology at the center of another scientific and philosophical crisis. Fortunately, key advances in our understanding and potential solutions are solidly within the domain of experimental social psychology. Many people will benefit from the efforts of social and personality psychologists to address these challenging questions in their work.

PsySR Treasurer Brad Olson is Assistant Professor of Psychology at National-Louis University in Chicago and Co-Director of the Community Psychology Doctoral Program. He is also a member of the Coaltion for an Ethical Psychology. Brad can be reached at This essay originally appeared in Dialogue, the official newsletter of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology .


One Response to “Seeking Answers from Social and Personality Psychologists: 10 Research Questions in the Torture/Interrogation Debate”

  1. Elena Says:

    First of all I would like to thank you for addressing these issues. I hope my replies come of help.

    1. How does a nation that once publicly reviled torture come to accept it as an unfortunate necessity?

    The question is broad and I think the issue needs to be viewed in smaller groups and communities to understand the mechanisms involved. Small groups of people conditioned by the same influences will tend to adopt the same structures of behavior that the overall society is living under. A nation functions like cults and cults function like any hierarchic structure with a power at its center dictating the rules of the game. They both have their particular agenda and structures. To overcome the mechanisms, each individual would need to confront the “human” with the agenda and discard the inhuman from the practices it tends to justify and reproduce. That would be one aspect worth exploring much further.

    Another aspect is the fact that we are moving from the fascist- dictatorial- authoritarian forms of government towards more democratic, individualistic consciousness and centralized power is being challenged by the power of the people still weakly and in great disadvantage as Mr. Assange and Mr. Manning prove in the personal sphere but still receiving strong enough support for the cause: freedom of expression.

    If you look at the cult phenomenon you will find that, like in society, the inner circle of the guru in power tends to support his or her power through forms and regulations on how, what, where, when, why and with whom anything can take place. In regular society what ever is not regulated is outlawed. The structure of power and its hierarchies immediately condition each individual that enters the group and the gradual brainwashing and conditioning necessary for the process of adaptation and obedience begins to take place until the adepts have surrendered enough to commit suicide en masse if the guru so orders. Jonestown is only one of the many cults in which this process has taken place.

    Physical torture is only one form of torture. As we develop more consciosness, we realize more deeply that torture is everything that stunts human development in an individual as much as in society. The hierarchic conditioning of individuals to repetitive activities that don’t allow for their individual development as “creators”, that is, wherever the creativity of the human being is thwarted and limited to a repetitive job in which the individual is nothing more than “another” in the mass of people necessary for indiscriminate production, development is thwarted. From the moment individuals accept to play the role of mechanical production proper of mass production, they submit their human capacities to extreme limitations and with them their will to the hierarchic order. Maintaining such order is the role of those in power who profit and live of the status quo. The irony of the plot is that it is as inhuman and damaging for those who submit to the work as for those who live on it because the practical outcome is that neither actually develop human capacities or creativity, they limit themselves to repeating the same role more psychologically numbed in each generation consuming and working to consume without properly developing and numbed to the violence exerted on anyone threatening the status quo. Life becomes a digestive process of producing and consuming without a human aim. The intermediaries that make the system work and live on it are economically just barely more economically comfortable than those in the lower echelon so the only ones who truly profit enough to be allowed to expand their own creativity are the owners. Both the middle and the lower class become locked in the production for production game without a human objective and strongly protecting the status quo because they are instinctively dependent on it. These intermediaries who are so strongly dependent on such a status quo for their living are strongly susceptible to having the role and the capacity to implement any form of coercion necessary to maintain the status quo. Without their fear, the system would collapse and their fear is supported by their ignorance of the overall structures -the system lives on such ignorance or the unconsciousness of the whole. The military, (or the huge number of still young and “idealistic” people are easily manipulated into supporting the system like people in cults are manipulated through “idealistic” visions), has the role of maintaining the structures in place so it is no surprise the actual physical torture is deployed by them. Those who survive military life have to do so through giving their own self up so the numbness to other people’s suffering is very strong. They have themselves much suffered to be able to belong to that institution. The middle class maintains the psychological torture by “firing” the people unwilling to submit to the system and re-enacting in their lives the role of the “authority” that they represent but can never practically achieve.

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