Psychology and Torture

Psychology and Torture

Psychology and Torture

Science, technology, and life.
April 20 2009 6:13 AM

Psychology and Torture

When you need to torture a detainee, make sure you send in the right kind of expert: a psychologist.

In Saturday's Washington Post , Joby Warrick and Peter Finn report that the latest batch of Bush administration torture memos "show a steady stream of psychologists, physicians and other health officials who both kept detainees alive and actively participated in designing the interrogation program and monitoring its implementation." In particular:

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


An Aug. 1, 2002, memo said the CIA relied on its "on-site psychologists" for help in designing an interrogation program for Abu Zubaida and ultimately came up with a list of 10 methods drawn from a U.S. military training program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE. That program, used to help prepare pilots to endure torture in the event they are captured, is loosely based on techniques that were used by the Communist Chinese to torture American prisoners of war. ... The CIA psychologists had personal experience with SERE and helped convince CIA officials that harsh tactics would coerce confessions from Abu Zubaida without inflicting permanent harm.

Note the reversal of purpose. SERE was developed to study torture methods so that our pilots could withstand them. But we came to understand these methods so well, and were so impressed by their efficacy, that we began applying them to our own detainees. Torture as a science led to torture as a technology. This often happens with expertise: We acquire it for one purpose but soon adapt it to another. In this case, the opposite purpose.

Warrick and Finn continue:

Waterboarding was touted as particularly useful because it was "reported to be almost 100 percent effective in producing cooperation," the memo said. The agency then used a psychological assessment of Abu Zubaida to find his vulnerable points. One of them, it turns out, was a severe aversion to bugs. "He appears to have a fear of insects," states the memo, which describes a plan to place a caterpillar or similar creature inside a tiny wooden crate in which Abu Zubaida was confined. CIA officials say the plan was never carried out.


Again, notice how easily expertise is turned upside down. Clinical psychology is customized to the patient. A therapist doesn't settle for general principles; she explores your particular fears. The point is to help you. But identifying fears is a skill, and it can just as easily be turned against you.

Interrogators were also told they could " exploit the detainee's fear of being seen naked " by women, according to the Post' s Jeffrey Smith. Whatever you fear, we'll supply.

Most of the uproar over the torture memos focuses on the violence they condoned. But the purpose of interrogative torture isn't violence. It's cooperation. Cooperation is a mental act. I could slam your head against a wall, but that might get messy, and it might end up being difficult to explain to the Red Cross. I'd rather bypass your body and go straight to the organ that's refusing to cooperate: your brain. That's where the psychologist comes in. He tells me how to inflict unbearable anguish on you without requiring violence, or at least without leaving visible scars.

Even where violence is concerned, the targeted channel is psychological. Here's former CIA Director Michael Hayden explaining yesterday on Fox News Sunday why he opposed the release of the torture memos:

What we have described for our enemies in the midst of a war are the outer limits that any American would ever go to in terms of interrogating an al-Qaida terrorist. That's very valuable information. Now, it doesn't mean we would always go to those outer limits, but it describes the box within which Americans will not go beyond. To me, that's very useful for our enemies, even if, as a policy matter, this president at this time had decided not to use one, any, or all of those techniques.

In other words, the CIA wants detainees to live in terror of what we might do to them. Physically, we may have policies that bar us from hurting or maiming them in this or that way. But psychologically, we mustn't let them know this. We want to build a landscape of possible horrors in their imagination that's worse than the real thing.

Torture is mental. That's why the CIA used psychologists—and why investigations of the Bush torture program must go beyond the violence we actually applied.