Torture – does it work?

Handcuffed hands of a prisoner behind the bars of a prison with orange clothes - Crispy desaturated dramatic filtered look

Professor Laurence Alison is Director of the Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology within the University’s Applied Psychology Group:

“President Trump made an interesting comment in a recent interview about torture with regard to a question he asked the US intelligence services.  He stated ‘As recently as 24 hours ago and I asked them the question Does it work? Does torture work and the answer was ‘yes absolutely.’

This is intriguing because if it is the case it demands that the evidence be seen. Even since the 16th Century when Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General was drowning witches no evidence has been produced that shows such techniques work.

Sliding scale

However, ‘does it work’ is a good question because one might argue that answering yes to that may trump (pardon the pun) any other reason to hold back. There seems to me a sliding scale of questions of importance and I would argue that answering yes to any or most of the below, might, under extraordinary circumstances, legitimize torture:

Does it work?
Does it make us seem stronger in the eyes of the enemy?
If we torture does it put people off joining terrorist groups?
Does it make terrorists less committed to the cause?

However, the answer to all the above is still ‘No’.

So then we might ask, “Even if the answer to all of the above is ‘No’ does it make the interrogators and individuals involved in torture feel better (i.e., does it just feel good?) However, the answer to even that is no, with increasing evidence that committing morally transgressive acts are deeply damaging to those that commit them.

During the War on Terror, the CIA’s operations subjected hundreds of suspected terrorists to harsh interrogation techniques, which were often criticised as constituting torture. Now, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the operation has made it clearer than ever that the CIA used many forms of “enhanced interrogation” to elicit information – very harsh methods indeed that simply did not yield the intended results.

As a leaked State Department memo put it, the report “tells a story of which no American is proud”.


Although these techniques have been given the newspeak-ish euphemism “enhanced interrogation”, they are consciously meant as a powerful assault on the basic conditions necessary for mental survival, specifically by overloading the subject’s homeostatic system.

Homeostasis is the body’s ability to adjust in response to external changes in order to maintain a stable internal equilibrium. The objective of an extreme assault on a human system is to stop the individual from adjusting in time, or at all.

For example, we are built to respond to various complex stimuli throughout the course of any given day, and when the arousal system is subjected to severe sensory deprivation over long periods, it seeks to readjust.

If the deprivation is intense and persistent, the arousal system seeks to fill the gap. And in the process, it can fill the void created with psychotic symptoms: hallucinations, paranoia, hearing voices and a loss of a sense of a cohesive or continuous sense of self.

Several other methods are directed at overload rather than deprivation, such as threats, “feral treatment” (treating people like animals), pharmacological manipulation, and humiliation. These can induce similar psychological effects, and may result in severe short, medium and even long-term symptoms, including loss of memory and a damaged ability to learn, reason or make decisions.

In fact, such techniques can damage brain structures such as the hippocampus (one of the first regions to suffer in Alzheimer’s disease) and lead to the loss of brain mass by inhibiting the regeneration of brain cells.

So both from an ethical standpoint and going on the evidence of myriad studies of trauma, enhanced interrogations are both unlikely to work and manifestly objectionable. The psychologists involved in this work should clearly have known it was an incredibly dangerous path to tread.

Connection, not correction

If you really want to stage an effective interrogation, the literature points in entirely the opposite direction – and so does orthodox law enforcement practice.

In the US (as in many other countries), rapport is considered a vital part of police interrogation. Psychological research has long shown that building rapport with witnesses increases the amount of accurate information generated. We know that rapport enhances cooperation during interviews, and elicits more accurate information.

In our own work, based on hundreds of hours of observation of field interviews, we found that interrogators that used approaches more akin to methods used in therapy were more effective at both decreasing detainee disengagement (including “no comment” interviews) and eliciting useful information and evidence.

We found that where non-judgemental acceptance, empathy and autonomy were present, alongside the ability to fluidly adapt to the detainee’s topics and shifts in what they were prepared to talk about (or not talk about), reflective listening and attentiveness were by far the most successful approach.

In fact, interrogators who resisted the (perhaps natural) urge to try and change or challenge the detainee’s behaviours and beliefs engaged more with their suspects and got more information from them.

Dismal failure

Our work on rapport is nothing new. More than 200 clinical trials, efficacy reviews, and meta-analyses have found more humane approaches to be effective in the treatment of a range of health problems once treated with harsh and coercive methods – issues as diverse as chronic mental disorder, cardiovascular rehabilitation, problem gambling, and substance use disorders.

In all those arenas, the original notion was that the “problem” needed to be dealt with through rational/persuasive and manipulative means that might persuade, coerce or control individuals “out” of their errant, criminal and destructive ways – essentially to bully them into compliance.

A fundamental point stands: despite the ethical sanctions, the evidence is that enhanced interrogations just don’t work, and that rapport-based methods do. So, it would be very interesting to see who in the intelligence community has evidence to the contrary.”

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