Janice Tibbetts | Canwest News Service
OTTAWA — The pain of torture can make even the innocent seem guilty, according to new research that concludes witnesses justify feelings of complicity by convincing themselves that victims deserved what they got.
Participants in a Harvard University study met a woman suspected of cheating in a gambling game to win money. She was then supposedly “tortured” by having her hand repeatedly submerged in ice water for 80 seconds at a time while study participants listened over an intercom.
The woman never confessed, but the more she whimpered, the guiltier she was perceived to be, said Calgarian Kurt Gray, lead researcher in the Canadian-funded study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Gray explained that people feel uncomfortable when they witness others suffering and they relieve their guilt by convincing themselves that those in pain deserve it.
“Those who feel complicit with the torture have a need to justify the torture, and so link the victim’s pain to blame,” said Gray, a doctoral student who co-authored the study with Prof. Daniel Wegner.
He described torture as a “double whammy” because he said it not only elicits false confessions, but also makes people seem guilty when they’re not.
“You think torture is helping you find the truth, but what it’s really doing is making the truth,” Gray said.
The researchers divided their 82 campus recruits into two groups:those who listened to the “torture” after the fact, as they might while tuning into a radio show; and those who met the torture victim and then listened via intercom in an adjoining room while the torment occurred, similar to a prison staffer.
The participants who were closest to the torture were significantly more likely to believe the victim — “Carole” — was guilty, while the more distant participants were more apt to say she was innocent.
“These divergent effects help to explain the torture debate,” said the study. “For those closely involved with its administration, torture can be a self-justifying system, as those who are harmed appear guilty and, therefore, deserving of harm.
“For the distant public, the pain of torture victims leads to the inference of innocence and harming innocents is generally believed to be unacceptable.”
The authors note, however, that many members of the public support torture and many close to torture reject its methods.
They surmise that there are other motives at play, including desire for retribution or power.
Gray said his study was motivated by high-profile cases of torture in recent years, including reports of incidents at the U.S. military unit at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Canadian Omar Khadr has been imprisoned for seven years.
The study’s authors said in a news release that the findings shed light on the Abu Ghraib scandal, where U.S. guards at the Baghdad prison tortured and abused Iraqi detainees.
“Prison guards, who are close to the suffering of detainees, see detainees as more guilty the more they suffer, unlike the more distant general public.”
On a scale of one to five — with five being that the victim was extremely likely to be a cheater — the participants closest to the torture rated her a three on average while the more distant participants gave her a two.
“There’s reason to believe that the effect would be substantially more powerful if people were actually complicit with torture,”said Gray, who described the difference between his two groups as “significant.”
The study was funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the U.S.-based Institute for Humane Studies.
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