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Efficacy of Short-Term Physical Torture for Extracting Accurate Answers: a laboratory study

Jonathan Swift (a),* Robert Irish (b), Davis Winshitter (b)

(a)  Yale Department of Psychology, PO Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520-8205

(b) Texas A&M University Department of Neuroscience, 2200 Campbell St, Commerce, TX 75428

Received 20 June 2016; accepted 8 November 2016


The electorate is once more engaged in a debate regarding the morality of physical torture of human beings. The vast majority agree that physical torture is immoral if it is not effective for producing the effect it is intended to produce. However, intensive literature search reveals no peer-reviewed studies providing data regarding the efficacy of torture. Only contradictory, anecdotal evidence has been published. The purpose of this series of studies is to determine whether and under what conditions physical torture is effective to extract information the subjects are motivated to keep secret.

Specifically, in this first of the series of studies, we hypothesized that infliction of neural pain, coupled with inducement of fear of physical injury proportional to the pain inflicted, would result in college-age male subjects divulging embarrassing personal secrets within hours of application of these stressors. To test this, we exposed fifty-nine male students enrolled in an introductory psychology course to increasing levels of neural pain appearing to arise from the genital area, for up to three successive sessions of one, two, and three hours.

The students were immobilized and hooded with apparatus that both induced the pain and measured their brains’ electrical activity. However, the students were misinformed that the apparatus was only a brain monitor, and that the increasing pain they experienced arose from increasing physical damage to their genital areas. They were further misinformed that the sessions would terminate only upon revelation of a pre-selected personal secret that would be publicized on social media.

Twelve of the subjects revealed their pre-recorded secrets during the first, one-hour, session. An additional twenty-four subjects revealed their secrets during the second, two-hour session. Two more subjects revealed their secrets in the third hour of the last, three-hour session. Twenty-one subjects endured all three sessions without revealing their secrets.

Figure five shows the peak electroencephalography readings per hour for each subject during his entire participation in the study. Figure Six highlights electrical activity during the entire thirty minutes prior to revealing the pre-recorded secret, for each subject who did reveal his secret. Figure seven shows the cortisol readings of each subject at the end of each session in which they participated.

These results suggest that the efficacy of short-term physical torture is highly variable among individuals with comparable levels of motivation, but effective to force revelation of true data in the majority of subjects. These results also suggest that subjects for whom infliction of physical pain is likely to result in disclosure of true data in the short term, will disclose true data almost immediately. If subjects do not disclose true data within a few short sessions, alternative methods to extract information should be tried.

Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Torture; misinformation; motivation; stress; ethics.


NOTE: This study abstract is fictional. No graduate students were harmed during its preparation. If enough readers request further details, the entire study will be published.