Does Torture Work?

Donald Trump has said he would be open to bringing back torture because he “absolutely” believes it works, claiming that “people at the highest level of intelligence” have confirmed to him that torture does work.

But this seems to directly contradict the latest psychological research into what professional interrogators themselves really believe to be effective methods.

Also, the authors of a recent study on this subject point out that with the advent of DNA testing in criminal circumstances in the USA, the number of acknowledged wrongful convictions has ‘sky-rocketed’ with a substantial minority—about 20%—of these DNA-based and other miscarriages of justice originating from coercive police interrogations producing  false confessions.

Rapport-Based Interrogations

Surveying professional interrogators in the USA and other countries reveals that ‘rapport-based’ interrogation techniques are viewed as generally the most effective, not torture.

Rapport-based techniques include finding common ground with the detainee, demonstrating kindness and respect and meeting their basic needs for example, food and water.

Psychologists Allison Redlich, Christopher Kelly and Jeanee Miller recently published a study where 152 military and federal-level interrogators from the USA were surveyed. The study, published in the  academic journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, examined the views of professional interrogators on the effectiveness of grilling methods.

The issue isn’t just that you want people to ‘talk,’ which seems to be a fundamental driver with some interrogators, perhaps even Donald Trump, but you want them to talk reliably. False information  sends you off on a wild goose chase, ties up valuable resources and leads to even more disastrous consequences. The Iraq war could be seen as one gigantic example of the kind of disaster arising from false intelligence.

The authors of the study point out that the FBI’s top stated priorities are terrorism and counter-intelligence. So, recruiting professional interrogators from the FBI/High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) and active interrogators at Fort Huachuca, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the Marine Corps Interrogator Translator Teams Association  and the FBI training facility at Quantico, the authors believed the findings of their study would be generalizable to human intelligence practices of the US military and federal agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency.

The respondents involved in the survey included the FBI, active duty military or reserves, state or local police, military criminal investigation, Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The study, entitled,  “The Who, What and Why of Human Intelligence Gathering: Self-Reported Measures of Interrogation Methods,” found that rapport and relationship building techniques were reported to be the most effective regardless of the interrogation goal.

In contrast, confrontation techniques were utilized the least often and viewed as the least effective by these interrogation professionals.

But Donald Trump and his supporters might argue that is all well and good, but suppose you need to extract information rapidly because of some acute emergency or crisis where deaths will be averted but only if information is obtained quickly without the luxury of time for ‘rapport building’?

High Value Detainees

In a study entitled, “Interviewing High Value Detainees: Securing Cooperation and Disclosures,” also published in the academic journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, detainees were 14 times more likely to disclose information early in an interview when practitioners utilized rapport-building compared with when rapport was not used.

Sixty-four people from five countries comprising 34 law enforcement practitioners experienced in conducting interviews with high value detainees and 30 people who had been questioned following their detention for alleged terror related activities were interviewed by psychologists from Charles Sturt University, Australia, and Middlesex University, UK.

The authors, Jane Goodman-Delahunty, Natalie Martschuk and Mandeep Dhami, concluded that coercive interrogation strategies had no impact on detainee cooperation or information disclosure. Rather, their research confirms that rapport-building efforts were associated with disclosure. In fact, the more efforts interrogators made to build rapport with the suspect (e.g., showing liking, concern and humor), the greater the amount of information was disclosed by the suspect. Rapport-building efforts also resulted in faster disclosure. Interrogating suspects in a comfortable physical setting also increased disclosure and the authors argue this result is possibly because the setting helps foster a relationship.

But even if you are personally against torture and therefore appalled by this new turn in US policy, perhaps the assured populist that is Donald Trump is yet again correctly taking the temperature of the population over the ‘prissy’ media?

Although various polls differ in their precise findings, generally speaking, there is a rough consensus that only one third of Americans say that they think the Government should use torture against suspected terrorists. This figure is quoted in a recent psychology study published in the Journal of Applied Security Research.

So maybe this recent torture statement is a public relations gaffe by Donald Gaffe?

This recent study quoting the national poll data was conducted by Shannon Houck and Lucian Gideon Conway from Syracuse University and the University of Montana.

This study explored people’s attitude to torture in the classic ‘ticking time bomb’ predicament. In this scenario, there is supposedly a bomb set to detonate in a populated city, causing catastrophic loss of innocent lives. The precise location of these explosives is unknown, but authorities have captured the terrorist who planted them. The bomber refuses to divulge any information. Participants in this kind of research must decide whether or not torturing is justified under these circumstances.

This study, entitled,  “What People Think About Torture: Torture is Inherently Bad … Unless it Can Save Someone I Love,” found that relatively fewer people were willing to support torture against a suspect if the innocent lives at stake were distant strangers compared with if the innocents were close loved ones.

The authors of this study conclude that we often assume that liberals oppose torture: Yet these results suggest that, while they do oppose it at higher levels than do conservatives, both groups are equally affected by the personal closeness of the victim. This research found that the acceptableness of torture changes when someone they love is involved.

When participants felt personally close to the victim in the scenario, more than 80% of them endorsed the use of torture.

Maybe Donald Trump is a shrewd amateur psychologist after all, adept at interrogating the minds of his electorate.

Does Torture Work?

Dr. Raj Persaud & Dr. Peter Bruggen

Dr. Raj Persaud & Dr. Peter Bruggen are regular contributors to Psych Central Professional. Dr. Rajendra Persaud, also known as Raj Persaud, is a leading consultant psychiatrist, broadcaster and author of popular books about psychiatry. He is well known for raising public awareness of psychiatric and mental health issues in the general media. He has published five popular books and has received numerous awards. The Times recently placed him as one of the Top Twenty Mental Health Gurus in the world.

Dr. Peter Bruggen was part of the UK Royal College of Psychiatrist's Podcast Editor Team, with Dr. Persaud. From 1969 to 1994 he was a consultant psychiatrist at Hill End Adolescent Unit, St Albans. He was also a consultant psychiatrist from 1969-90 at the Tavistock Clinic. His work has featured family therapy at the death bed, working with families in the community rather than admitting adolescents to hospital, and staff relationships. Dr. Bruggen has also written three books, including Surviving Adolescence and Helping Families (both with Charles O'Brien), and Who Cares? True Stories of the NHS Reforms, for which he conducted face-to-face interviews with one-hundred people.


APA Reference
Dr. Peter Bruggen, D. (2019). Does Torture Work?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 10, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 25 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 25 Sep 2019
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