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Torture: Researchers Explore American Support in New Book

Tortured Logic book cover

People who oppose torture often call it immoral. Those who support it counter that, right or wrong, it is a necessary tactic against terrorism.

SPA Professor Joseph Young and University of Alabama Assistant Professor Erin Kearns, SPA/PhD ’16, examined where people get their ideas about torture, and how they can be persuaded to change them, in their new book, Tortured Logic: Why Americans Support Torture, published by Columbia University Press.

Although experts in the intelligence community say torture is not effective for getting useful information, about half of Americans surveyed believe torture can be acceptable for counterterrorism purposes. The researchers conducted a series of experiments showing that when the media depicts torture to be effective, people are more likely to approve of it.

“We hope it brings evidence-based research into the discussion about appropriate counterterrorism tools and methods,” said Young.

To put the issue in context, the researchers also interviewed experienced interrogators and professionals working in the field, who found the strategy less effective. While the book outlines the moral arguments against torture, its focus is on the forces that drive public opinion on the topic. The researchers highlight the powerful role of television on issues involving a knowledge gap among average citizens.

In their research, Young and Kearns showed viewers a variety of clips of torture scenes from the television show 24, as well as scenes of rapport-building strategies from Criminal Minds–– afterwards, they asked them questions to measure their support or disagreement.  

 “It was pretty disconcerting that when people saw the clips where torture didn’t work, they still supported it––they were even more willing to take action by signing petitions about the use of torture," said Kearns. In 2014, as an AU doctoral student, she received grants from the university to fund the series of experiments, starting with students on campus and then extending to a national sample. “It’s also troubling that showing people rapport-building scenes—an approach that experts say is more effective in real life—also increased support for torture among viewers,” Kearns added.

In a perfect world, torture would not be glorified in the media and misrepresented, for dramatic effect, as the only solution in a crisis. “Most people, because of the way it is portrayed, have a false premise of how torture operates,” said Young, who worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration to model counter-strategies to extreme terrorism.

Kearns added that the research tracks the torture narrative’s frequent divergence from reality. “I hope the book provides readers with an understanding from the expert perspective that torture not only doesn’t work, but it’s often counterproductive,” she said.

“People don’t realize how torture is used, and why––or if––it works. Because of that uncertainty, people can be swayed more than on other issues,” Young said. “We aren’t saying media should be censored but it is a call to people who make this kind of media to be thoughtful, because it really does influence people’s opinions.”