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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.