People’s support for torture in "ticking time bomb scenarios" is influenced by their desire for retribution

In the wake of a report published yesterday into the CIA’s use of torture, many people are shocked and appalled. Yet one defence of the practice remains popular – “the ticking time bomb scenario”.

This is the idea that torture is justified if a suspect knows the location of bomb in a public place, and many lives would be saved if he or she were coerced into telling authorities the location in time for it to be deactivated. The new Senate Intelligence Committee report describes how the ticking time bomb scenario was in fact used by the CIA to defend its use of torture or “enhanced interrogation”.

The ticking time bomb scenario is usually presented as a “utilitarian” argument for the moral good of torture in certain circumstances, when one person’s suffering is preferable to the deaths of many. Some commenters have gone as far as claiming that most people endorse torture in the ticking bomb situation.

A new study puts this to the test. Joseph Spino and Denise Cummins surveyed hundreds of people online asking them for their views about the acceptability and appropriateness of torturing a suspect in variations of the classic ticking bomb scenario. In particular the researchers were interested in whether people’s views vary according to changes in the “hidden assumptions” with which the scenario is loaded.

The researchers found that people’s endorsement of torturing a suspect is reduced when they are told that torture is likely to be ineffective (which, by the way, is true), and when they are told other interrogative methods are available. The researchers also found that people’s support for torture increased when they were told the suspect was a terrorist, or that the suspect was guilty of actually planting the bomb. People’s increased support in this context was not because they thought the suspect was more likely to hold information about the bomb. This suggests that the participants’ endorsement of torture was based on retribution, rather than being a cool utilitarian judgment.

Spino and Cummins said their results show that people’s support for torture in the ticking time bomb situation depends on a “highly idealised” and “highly unrealistic” set of assumptions being met. Moreover, their finding that people’s support for torture is influenced by the identity and the culpability of the suspect shows that the practice is often endorsed as a form of punishment, not as a way to extract information. Taken altogether the researchers conclude their findings “cast serious doubt on the use of ticking time bomb scenarios as an argument for legalized torture”.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Spino, J., & Cummins, D. (2014). The Ticking Time Bomb: When the Use of Torture Is and Is Not Endorsed Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 5 (4), 543-563 DOI: 10.1007/s13164-014-0199-y

–Further reading–
Torturing the brain. On the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating ‘enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques’ (pdf)
The British Psychological Society’s response to the new Senate report.
Psychologist magazine news story on the Senate report.
The psychology of violent extremism – digested

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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