Expert Commentary

Does torture work? The research says, “No”

As the Trump administration considers torturing suspected militants, the question of whether it helps elicit information or discourage insurgents is again important to policymakers, journalists, scholars and the public.

During the George W. Bush administration, the CIA employed what it called “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainees around the world. This included waterboarding (simulated drowning), sleep deprivation to the point of hallucination, beatings, sexual humiliation, and threats to hurt a detainee’s children or rape a detainee’s mother. Barack Obama banned torture when he assumed office, though his tenure was dogged by allegations that abuse continued, if not in American prisons then in allied countries’ facilities. A 2014 Senate report declared these methods “not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.”

As the Donald Trump administration considers torturing suspected militants, the question of whether it helps elicit information or discourage insurgents is again important to policymakers, journalists, scholars and the public.

Below we highlight studies that look specifically at the effectiveness of torture and its consequences — for example, receiving potentially unreliable information, possibly losing international prestige, risking retaliation and the emotional toll on victims and torturers. We did not include discourses on morality or interpretations of international law.



“Ethically Investigating Torture Efficacy: A New Methodology to Test the Influence of Physical Pain on Decision-Making Processes in Experimental Interrogation Scenarios.”
Houck, Shannon C.; Conway, Lucian Gideon III. Journal of Applied Security Research, 2015. doi: 10.1080/19361610.2015.1069636.

Abstract: “Torture’s effectiveness is a frequently debated yet under-researched topic. This article describes a new experimental method to ethically investigate one component of torture: The influence of physical pain on people’s decisions to reveal secret or false information. In particular, participants played a game that was designed to be a proxy of an interrogation scenario. As part of the game, participants were instructed to keep specific information hidden from an opponent while their hand was submerged in varying temperatures of ice water (a cold pressor test that causes pain). Further, their opponent (actually a confederate) verbally pressured them to reveal the information. Participants could choose to give false information to their opponent, true information, or a combination of both. Results suggested the potential usefulness of this method to examine the effectiveness of using pain for information retrieval in a scenario similar to interrogation: Analyses revealed that participants were more likely to reveal false information when exposed to the cold pressor test, and this effect became more pronounced as manipulated water temperatures became colder (from 10 degrees to 5 degrees to 1 degree). This study offers a methodological advance on a challenging topic to research, and can inform our understanding of the efficacy of physical pain as an information retrieval tool.”


“Interrogational Torture: Or How Good Guys Get Bad Information with Ugly Methods.”
 Schiemann, John W. Political Research Quarterly, 2012. doi: 10.1177/1065912911430670.

Abstract: Debate about the sources of intelligence leading to bin Laden’s location has revived the question as to whether interrogational torture is effective. Answering this question is a necessary—if not sufficient—condition for any justification of interrogational torture. Given the impossibility of approaching the question empirically, I address it theoretically, asking whether the use of torture to extract information satisfies reasonable expectations about reliability of information as well as normative constraints on the frequency and intensity of torture. I find that although information from interrogational torture is unreliable, it is likely to be used frequently and harshly.


“The Effects and Effectiveness of Using Torture as an Interrogation Device: Using Research to Inform the Policy Debate”
Costanzo, Mark A.; Gerrity, Ellen. Social Issues and Policy Review, 2009. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-2409.2009.01014.

Abstract: “Governments sometimes characterize torture as an indispensable interrogation tool for gathering strategic intelligence. In this article, we review the relevant social scientific research on the effectiveness, impact, and causes of torture. First, we summarize research on false confessions and examine the relevance of that research for torture-based interrogations. Next, we review research on the mental health consequences of torture for survivors and perpetrators. Finally, we explore the social-psychological conditions that promote acts of cruelty (such as those seen at Abu Ghraib) and examine the arguments typically offered to justify the use of torture. We argue that any hypothesized benefits from the use of torture must be weighed against the substantial proven costs of torture. These costs include the unreliable information extracted through interrogations using torture, the mental and emotional toll on victims and torturers, loss of international stature and credibility, and the risk of retaliation against soldiers and civilians.”


“Erroneous Assumptions: Popular Belief in the Effectiveness of Torture Interrogation”
Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie. Journal of Peace Psychology, 2007. doi: 10.1080/10781910701665766.

Abstract: “People generally believe that torture is effective despite strong counterclaims by experienced military interrogators and intelligence experts. This article challenges us to reexamine some of our basic assumptions about torture by presenting four psychological factors — primarily errors and biases in human judgment — that help account for this mistaken popular belief.”


“International Law, Constitutional Law, and Public Support for Torture”
Versteeg, Mila; Chilton, Adam S. Research and Politics, 2016.

Abstract: “The human rights movement has spent considerable energy developing and promoting the adoption of both international and domestic legal prohibitions against torture. Empirical scholarship testing the effectiveness of these prohibitions using observational data, however, has produced mixed results. In this paper, we explore one possible mechanism through which these prohibitions may be effective: dampening public support for torture. Specifically, we conducted a survey experiment to explore the impact of international and constitutional law on public support for torture. We found that a bare majority of respondents in our control group support the use of torture, and that presenting respondents with arguments that this practice violates international law or constitutional law did not produce a statistically significant decrease in support. These findings are consistent with prior research suggesting, even in democracies, that legal prohibitions on torture have been ineffective.”


“What Stops the Torture?”
Conrad, Courtenay Ryals; Moore, Will H. American Journal of Political Science, 2010. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00441.x.

Abstract: “States whose agents engage in torture in a given year have a 93 percent chance of continuing to torture in the following year. What leads governments to stop the use of torture? We focus on the principal–agent relationship between the executive and the individuals responsible for supervising and interrogating state prisoners. We argue that some liberal democratic institutions change the probability that leaders support the creation of institutions that discourage jailers and interrogators from engaging in torture, thus increasing the probability of a state terminating its use of torture. These relationships are strongly conditioned by the presence of violent dissent; states rarely terminate the use of torture when they face a threat. Once campaigns of violent dissent stop, however, states with popular suffrage and a free press are considerably more likely to terminate their use of torture. Also given the end of violent dissent, the greater the number of veto points in government, the lower the likelihood that a state terminates its use of torture.”


“The (In)Effectiveness of Torture for Combating Insurgence”
Sullivan, Christopher Michael. Journal of Peace Research, 2014. doi: 10.1177/0022343313520023.

Abstract: “It is commonly believed that torture is an effective tool for combating an insurgent threat. Yet while torture is practiced in nearly all counterinsurgency campaigns, the evidence documenting torture’s effects remains severely limited. This study provides the first micro-level statistical analysis of torture’s relation to subsequent killings committed by insurgent and counterinsurgent forces. The theoretical arguments contend that torture is ineffective for reducing killings perpetrated by insurgents both because it fails to reduce insurgent capacities for violence and because it can increase the incentives for insurgents to commit future killings. The theory also links torture to other forms of state violence. Specifically, engaging in torture is expected to be associated with increased killings perpetrated by counterinsurgents. Monthly municipal-level data on political violence are used to analyze torture committed by counterinsurgents during the Guatemalan civil war (1977–94). Using a matched-sample, difference-in-difference identification strategy and data compiled from 22 different press and NGO sources as well as thousands of interviews, the study estimates how torture is related to short-term changes in killings perpetrated by both insurgents and counterinsurgents. Killings by counterinsurgents are shown to increase significantly following torture. However, torture appears to have no robust correlation with subsequent killings by insurgents. Based on this evidence the study concludes that torture is ineffective for reducing insurgent perpetrated killings.”


“The ‘Game’ of Torture”
Wantchekon, Leonard; Healy, Andrew. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 1999.

Abstract: “The authors explain the prevalence of torture by modeling its institutional structure as a game of incomplete information involving the state, the torturer, and the victim. Once the state endorses torture as a mechanism for extracting information, its will is carried out with positive probability. This is because (a) even a ‘soft’ and ‘sensitive’ state agent might torture the victim to test his or her ability to resist and (b) a weak victim might hold out momentarily to find out whether the torturer is sensitive or ‘sadistic.’ When the state uses torture to intimidate political opposition, all types of torturers will behave sadistically. As a result, torture becomes more widespread and more cruel. The authors explain why a ‘culture’ of individual resistance is the only effective solution to torture.”


“The Failure of Constitutional Torture Prohibitions”
Versteeg, Mila; Chilton, Adam S. The Journal of Legal Studies, 2015. doi: 10.1086/684298.

Abstract: “The prohibition of torture is one of the most emblematic norms of the modern human rights movement, and its prevalence in national constitutions has increased steeply in the past three decades. Yet little is known about whether constitutional torture prohibitions actually reduce torture. In this article, we explore the relationship between constitutional torture prohibitions and torture practices by utilizing new data that correct for biases in previous measures of torture and a recently developed method that mitigates selection bias by incorporating information about countries’ constitutional commitments into our research design. Using these new data and this new method, as well as more conventional data sources and methods, we find no evidence that constitutional torture prohibitions have reduced rates of torture in a statistically significant or substantively meaningful way.”


“Behind This Mortal Bone: The (In)Effectiveness of Torture”
Bell, J. Indiana Law Journal, 2008.

Abstract: “This essay addresses the theoretical debate on torture in an empirical way. It urges that as part of our evaluation of the merits of torture, we take a shrewd look at the quality of information brutal interrogations produce. The essay identifies widespread belief in what the author identifies as the ‘torture myth’ — the idea that torture is the most effective interrogation practice. In reality, in addition to its oft-acknowledged moral and legal problems, the use of torture carries with it a host of practical problems which seriously blunt its effectiveness. This essay demonstrates that contrary to the myth, torture and the closely related practice, torture ‘lite’ do not always produce the desired information and, in the cases in which it does, these practices may not produce it in a timely fashion. In the end, the essay concludes, any marginal benefit the practice offers is low because traditional techniques of interrogation may be as good, and possibly even better at producing valuable intelligence.”


Other resources:

  • Journalist Christopher Hitchens submitted himself to waterboarding in 2008. He describes the experience, which was captured on video, here.
  • In early 2017, the Pew Research Center found the American public split over whether torture should be used to combat terrorism.

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