Study: Psychological torture causes just as much trauma as physical torture

Here’s a fascinating — and politically controversial — study: A researcher has found that psychological torture is often just as likely to traumatize its subjects as physical torture.

This stands, of course, in direct contrast to the legal arguments of both the UN and the US government — both of which claim that “cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment” is not as bad as physical torture. The Justice Department’s Dec. 30, 2004 memorandum cited the United Nations Convention Against Torture to argued that interrogation techniques such as forced standing, hooding, the use of loud noises and sleep deprivation would not constitute torture unless they caused “prolonged mental harm.”

However, Metin Basoglu, a psychiatrist and a specialist in trauma studies at King’s College London, discovered that this distinction is irrelevant for torture subjects. In a fascinating survey of 279 survivors of torture in former Yugoslavia, Basoglu’s team asked the survivors to rate the “distress rating” of the techniques to which they’d been subjected, on a scale of one to five, increasing in severity. For those who had experienced physical torture — electrocution, burning, beating — the mean distress was 3.2 to 3.8. And when it came to psychological torture? The ratings for 16 of the 33 psychological techniques were in precisely the same range. Those who experienced sham executions or the fondling of genitals and threats of rape rated their distress at 3.6 to 3.7. (A nice big table comparing the torture methods is here — and the entire paper is online free here.)

Granted, there are lots of problems with this sort of study. First off, the torture had taken place an average of eight years ago, so people’s recall may have drifted. And the data aren’t very clean, because there’s no control group. Mind you, that’s the classic problem with studying torture: To get really good data, you’d have to take two groups of people which are basically the same, physically and psychologically, and then subject half of them to torture to see how they differ. It’s ethically untenable. In this context, Basoglu’s experiment is one of the best anyone has yet devised to compare the effects of various forms of torture. Another unique facet of this experiment: Every subject had been tortured both physically and psychologically, so presumably they were in a good position to compare the distress caused by each.

What’s also interesting is, as Basoglu found, the torturee’s level of control over their torture greatly affected how traumatic the experience became. It might sound absurd to talk about a torture subject having “control” over the experience, but if you put a hood over the subject’s heads, or bind them tightly with rope, it can remove their ability to anticipate the onset of pain, and, Basoglu argues, makes it much worse. It didn’t surprise me much to hear this, since it’s becoming well-known in psychological literature that everyday annoying situations over which you have little control — such as loud construction noise outside your house, or the crappy boss you work for — can produce cosmic levels of stress. This may also explain why Donald Rumsfeld was so puzzled to find that Guantanamo Bay interrogators limited their use of coercive standing to four hours. (“I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?” Rumsfeld scrawled on a Pentagon memo.) The experience of standing voluntarily is obviously vastly different from being forced to do so.

Basoglu’s conclusion is as deadpan as it is politically incendiary:

Ill treatment during captivity, such as psychological manipulations, humiliating treatment, and forced stress positions, does not seem to be substantially different from physical torture in terms of the severity of mental suffering they cause, the underlying mechanism of traumatic stress, and their long-term psychological outcome. Thus, these procedures do amount to torture, thereby lending support to their prohibition by international law.

I’ll be interested to see what impact, if any, this work has on the current debate over torture.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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