Imagine that you work for a government agency and you are trying to get information from a suspected terrorist. As part of your interrogation you lock the detainee in a “cold cell.” A cold cell is a room where the temperature is near freezing, and the procedure is to keep the detainee there for up to five hours, with little or no clothing.
Now try to get inside your suspect’s mind and body. What is he feeling? How much pain is he in, physically and psychologically? Does such an interrogation technique seem okay to you? When does his pain cross the line into immoral and illegal torture?
The cold cell scenario is from a recent psychological study of torture, deliberately made to resemble the “enhanced interrogation techniques” instituted by the Bush administration following 9/11. When these methods—including sleep deprivation and simulated drowning and isolation—came to public attention with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004, they sparked fierce debate about these difficult psychological questions, especially the core one: How much pain is too much pain? Although President Obama banned some of the harshest forms of interrogation in 2009, the new policies have left the psychological questions unanswered.
A team of psychological scientists has been looking for answers. Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University, working with Mary-Hunter Morris of Harvard Law School and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon, wanted to explore a well known psychological phenomenon called the “empathy gap” as it relates to torture. Normally, it’s very difficult—perhaps impossible—to experience someone else’s visceral states. If we’re warm, it’s hard to shiver for someone else; if we’re rested, it takes an extraordinary act of imagination to feel the exhaustion of someone who is sleep-deprived. If this is true, the researchers wondered, how can anyone hope to write an ethical and humane policy on torture without having experienced some significant pain?
In order to investigate these issues, Nordgren and his colleagues inflicted some pain. In the cold cell experiment, for example, they asked volunteers to actively imagine being the interrogator in that situation, and to fill out a questionnaire. But some of the volunteers were instructed to submerge one arm in a bucket of ice water and to keep it there while they answered the questions. The water was about 40 degrees F, so quite painful for most people. Others also submerged an arm in the ice water, but removed it ten minutes beforehand, while still others—the controls—filled out the questionnaire with one arm in water at room temperature.
The questionnaire asked them to rate the severity of the pain experienced by the imaginary detainee in the cold cell. It also asked them to categorize the interrogation technique as mere questioning; acceptable interrogation; oppressive interrogation; or torture, unacceptable under any circumstances.
The results were clear and consistent with what the empathy gap would predict. As described in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who were experiencing pain at that moment judged the cold cell experience as more painful than any of the others did, and they were also more likely to label the interrogation as unacceptable “torture.” Particularly striking was the finding that those volunteers who had experienced prior pain—even though it was just ten minutes prior—did not share in these judgments. They were indistinguishable from the controls—challenging the notion that people with past experiences of pain are in a better position to make ethical judgments. This is important, because government interrogators are often exposed to enhanced interrogation during their training, but it appears that the memories of this pain fade away—along with empathy and ethical qualms.
This was just one of four similar experiments that the scientists conducted. Others focused on sleep deprivation and solitary confinement, and in each case some of the volunteers were given a mild version of the specific pain inflicted during interrogation. And in each case, those in pain perceived the imaginary detainees’ pain as more severe—and were more opposed to that particular form of interrogation on ethical grounds.
A fair question is whether this discrepancy—in empathy and ethical judgment—resulted from an underestimation of pain by those not in pain, or an overestimation by those in pain. The researchers ran a version of the experiment to address this question, and verified that it’s the inability to feel another’s pain that causes the gap. It’s apparently not possible to really imagine the full force of someone else’s pain. The scientists conclude that judgments made in a state of pain are more fully informed—and therefore more valid—than those made in the absence of pain.
This has clear policy implications, not just for Americans but around the globe, where these controversial practices are widely used. The empathy gap, for both physical and psychological pain, undermines human ability to objectively evaluate harsh methods of interrogation. And since legal standards regulating interrogation and torture are typically written by people who are not in pain, it’s very likely that some practices that are in fact torture are not being prohibited as such. Indeed, this systematic tendency to underestimate pain has the effect of encouraging torture. In short, the legal standard for evaluating torture is psychologically invalid.
Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, explores irrational human judgment and decision making. Excerpts from his two blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in Scientific American Mind and The Huffington Post.