I Feel Your Pain: The Empathy of Torture, a Guest Post by Jeff Mosenkis

Jeff Mosenkis, a freelance producer with Freakonomics Radio, holds a Ph.D. in psychology and comparative human development.

I Feel Your Pain: The Empathy of Torture

By Jeff Mosenkis

Senator John McCain re-entered the waterboarding/torture debate this month, first with an op-ed in The Washington Post, then on the Senate floor, taking issue with both the efficacy and morals of enhanced interrogation techniques, asserting that several of them are indeed torture. From McCain’s op-ed:

Much of this debate is a definitional one: whether any or all of these methods constitute torture. I believe some of them do, especially waterboarding, which is a mock execution and thus an exquisite form of torture. As such, they are prohibited by American laws and values, and I oppose them.

McCain’s anti-torture stance is well-documented and has been consistent throughout his political career. But a new study adds some scientific insight into why he feels the way he does.

In the current issue of Psychological Science, Loran F. Nordgren of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, along with his co-authors Mary-Hunter Morris of Harvard Law School, and prominent behavioral economist George Loewenstein from Carnegie-Mellon, tested if the “empathy gap” might explain differences in people’s opposition to particular interrogation techniques.


The empathy gap refers to how people who haven’t been through a painful experience have a hard time estimating just how painful it is (doctors underestimate patients’ pain; even patients underestimate how much pain they’ll experience during a future procedure). The researchers wondered if they could change people’s opinions on the morality and acceptability of an enhanced interrogation method simply by exposing them to a mild form of it.

First, they tested control groups’ opinions on acceptability and estimates of the suffering caused by three common interrogation methods: prolonged exposure to cold, solitary confinement, and sleep deprivation. They then subjected new groups to one of several mild versions of each. Students submerged one hand in a 40 degree bucket of water, stood outside without a jacket in cold weather, felt social exclusion by being subtly pushed out of a group game, and were tested under mild sleep deprivation (after a work day, MBA students were given a test at the beginning or end of a three-hour night class).

Each group that experienced the mild form of torture estimated the actual enhanced interrogation to be significantly more painful than the control group’s estimates, and were more strongly opposed to it.

The authors conclude that the current legal system for defining torture at a distance is problematic. According to Lowenstein:

Our research suggests that, except in a rarified situation, people are going to exhibit a systematic bias to under-appreciate the misery produced by the tactics they endorse.

McCain is in that rarified group, having been tortured himself. The study’s authors point out that those creating policy usually haven’t experienced the procedure, and are subject to this bias. Lowenstein recommends policy makers be aware of this and overcompensate by not using their natural instincts:

This is an area where we can’t rely on our emotional system to guide us. We have to use our intellect.



A quick search turned up no official site to back this up, but I recall reading 10-15 years ago that the RCMP (Canadian police) were deliberately exposed to pepper spray as part of their training for precisely this reason.

I did find a mention of it and a video purportedly from the RCMP.


My point is that there are countries out there that treat this as a matter of policy. The US could too if it had the will.


The real goal would be to pepper spray and tazer the politicians who make the laws.


This is interesting, and some of it seems common sense.

I wonder, incidentally, would torture victims also be empathetic towards their own torturers, if they had the chance of revenge?


Couldn't it be argued that Sen. McCain is "overcompensating by using his natural instinct"? I'm not arguing either way, but isn't a study saying that bias is a function of previous experience kind of stating the obvious?

Joshua Smart

It should be noted that the existence of a bias tells us nothing about what position we ought to take on these techniques. The bias might be away *or toward* the right position.


The police forces that do use the PIS [CS gas] in the UK require that the personnel undergoing training should themselves be sprayed with a 3% dissolved CS, during self-defense training, in order for them to be able to be authorized to carry it as personal protection equipment.


What might be a good thing to look at is to use a very specific population (members of the military who have been through S.E.R.E. training. Ask them what they think of torture. My guess is they will be divided much like the rest of the country.


How does this apply to capital punishment then, I wonder. The one taking the life obviously hasn't gone through experience before. However, being sentenced to death and living knowing the day you will most likely die is also different from how the original victim lost their life.

BUT a convicted killer can end up killed nonetheless.

Edwin Rutsch

May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

I added a link to your article in our
Empathy & Compassion Magazine


Mc Caine flip flopped on torture.His father is the Admiral that did damage control,in Israel's interest,after Israel attacked the SS Liberty (Ask the Servicemen on board about his Treason).Mc Caine graduated 5th from the bottom,of his class at the USAF Academy,in a class of nearly 900.He crashed 3 jets,prior to the crash that earned him a stay in the Hanoi Hilton.He got special treatment,because of his fathers high possition.He was given special quarters & food,due to his usefullness as a bargaining chip.
I have suffered torture,under the dark hand of his Neo Con Bush Cabal.I am a Service Connected Disabled Vet,& U.S. citizen.My torture was done in secret.I was later told,that,"We will kill you & your FAMILY,if you don't shut up" !
A beheading would have been a God send.Water Boarding,is a distraction for real torture,that would shock your conscience.Here is one example : They took a man,& raped,tortured & killed his wife,in front of him.He didn't confess anything.They tortured & killed his son in front of him.He did not confess.They raped,tortured & killed,his 5 yr old daughter in front of him.He did not confess,so they DUCT TAPED HER DEAD CORPSE TO HIM,..EYEBALL TO EYEBALL,..THEN THEY LEFT HIM TAPED TO HER DECAYING CORPSE,...EYEBALL TO EYEBALL,FOR OVER 3 DAYS,...WITH NO WATER OR FOOD ! ! !
They later learned why the man had not confessed...BECAUSE THE MAN TRULY KNEW NOTHING ! They had trusted a paid informants info,& had not checked it.The info was bogus.The snitch informant did not like the man he had falsely accused,& wanted to make some money..................I AM 'DAVID FULTON'...Search : DAVID FULTON TORTURE,& SEE MY INFO ON JESSE VENTURA'S SITES,ACLU,SODA HEAD,PEACE PINK,FACE BOOK,MY SPACE,INFO WARS,OLD THINKERS NEWS,etc,etc...