American Torture Supporters Are Often Biased
New research from Columbia Business School reveals the selective beliefs behind torture support
NEW YORK— In the wake of recent revelations about US involvement in coercive interrogations, Americans remain split in their opinions of torture. Some view the practice as out-of-bounds, while others believe that coercive interrogations yield crucial information. For supporters of torture, the ends often justify the means. But are torture supporters predisposed to view information gained through coercion as important and necessary, regardless of its actual value in stopping attacks and preventing harm?
Newly published research by scholars at Columbia Business School suggests the answer is generally yes—but only under certain conditions.
Adding to recent analyses suggesting that “enhanced interrogation techniques” have not produced vital intelligence, Daniel Ames, a professor of business, and Alice Lee, a doctoral student, both at Columbia Business School, examined peoples’ perceptions of when, and if, torture yields useful information. The researchers found American supporters of torture were much more likely to say that information gained from torture-filled interrogations was essential to thwarting terrorist attacks, even when the impact of the information was ambiguous.
Ames and Lee also found that torture supporters saw torture as effective when practiced by the United States on enemy informants, but not when employed by a hostile force on an American captive.
“Our findings suggest that American supporters of torture are inclined to see vivid proof of torture’s effectiveness even when the results of coercion are inconclusive,” said Ames. “This tendency could lead supporters to enthusiastically champion torture as a continued course of action, sincerely believing it worked in a given case when the actual value is far from clear.”
Researching Torture Beliefs
To test whether prior support for torture skewed interpretations, Ames and Lee asked hundreds of Americans in an online survey to review a scenario featuring a thwarted al-Qaeda terrorist attack. Participants then judged the importance of information gained from a tortured informant.
Ames and Lee found that those who previously expressed support for torture were twice as likely as opposers to rate coerced information as more important than non-coerced information in the attack scenario. When the researchers looked within torture supporters’ judgments, they found a strong tendency to see information gained through torture as necessary for thwarting the attack, regardless of what information was provided by a tortured individual. Opposers of torture, on the other hand, did not show a clear bias for or against coerced information.
The researchers also asked participants for their general views of the likelihood of U.S. military personnel and al-Qaeda members revealing important information under torture. American supporters of torture thought al-Qaeda members would be far more likely than U.S. military personnel to reveal important information—but respondents who were neutral or opposed to torture showed no such difference.
In short, American supporters of torture showed a clear tendency to view specific examples of torture as effective when practiced by the United States on an enemy, but doubt its effectiveness when used by a hostile force on an American captive. Ames and Lee call this pattern of beliefs “selective efficacy.”
One Key Finding
American participants in a study indicated how likely it would be that a member of the US military and a member of al-Qaeda would reveal important information under torture. Those who had previously indicated support for torture thought al-Qaeda members would be significantly more likely to reveal information than US military personnel. Those who were neutral about, or opposed to, torture did not report significantly different likelihoods for the two kinds of captives revealing information under torture.
The research was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About Columbia Business School
Columbia Business School is the only world–class, Ivy League business school that delivers a learning experience where academic excellence meets with real–time exposure to the pulse of global business. Led by Dean Glenn Hubbard, the School’s transformative curriculum bridges academic theory with unparalleled exposure to real–world business practice, equipping students with an entrepreneurial mindset that allows them to recognize, capture, and create opportunity in any business environment. The thought leadership of the School’s faculty and staff, combined with the accomplishments of its distinguished alumni and position in the center of global business, means that the School’s efforts have an immediate, measurable impact on the forces shaping business every day. To learn more about Columbia Business School’s position at the very center of business, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researchers
Professor Ames's research focuses on social judgment and behavior. He examines how people judge themselves as well as the individuals and groups around...Read more.