Torturing a suspect because he or she has knowledge of an imminent attack, and believing that torture is the unique method to best draw out that information, has more to do with feelings of retribution than the cool-headed utilitarian calculus normally supposed.

This "ticking-time bomb" scenario has been used in the last few days by CIA officials to justify the violent interrogation techniques the agency employed shortly following the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.

But according to a paper published last August in "The Review of Psychology and Philosophy," what seems like a simple inequality (many lives are greater than one life) has more to do with feelings of anger and retribution. 

For the study, researchers asked individuals about when they felt torture was hypothetically acceptable, altering hidden assumptions contained in the questions. When people think torture is unlikely to be effective, for example, they tend to oppose it. They also oppose torture when other interrogation techniques are presented as equally likely to succeed. 

Perhaps the finding with the most implication is this: when people were told the suspect was a terrorist, or was directly responsible for planting the hypothetical bomb, their tolerance for torture dramatically increased.

"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."

That people are more likely to support torture independent of whether the necessary information is extracted successfully suggests that violent interrogation is seen more as a form of punishment than as a way to get information. The study also highlights how the "ticking time bomb" scenario is highly idealized, more the stuff of television drama than real life.

To be sure, the kinds of actions taken by the CIA fall short of practices taken by foreign governments in the past, at least in terms of physical pain. But seemingly mild tactics like isolation, i.e. sensory deprivation, are inhumane says Dr. Marvin Zuckerman because they breakdown how the brain functions:

Read more at the British Psychological Society

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