The Science is Clear, Torture Doesn’t Work

By Nathaniel Scharping and Carl Engelking | January 27, 2017 5:59 pm


Whether it’s the classic “good cop, bad cop” scenario played out in countless TV dramas or the psychological mind games that make True Detective‘s Rust Cohle such a chillingly effective detective, interrogators ply their trade with a range of shrewd tricks.

This is to say nothing of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that caused a controversy in 2009 after documents revealed that CIA had waterboarded, physically abused and humiliated prisoners in the wake of 9/11. After all, it is an international crime. 

Enhanced interrogation cropped back into the national discourse this week as President Donald Trump considered ramping up enhanced interrogation techniques and bringing back secret prisons. However, on Friday, Trump said Defense Secretary James Mattis was authorized to override him on torture and intel-gathering methods. 

Though such methods may seem effective, research has cast doubt on the veracity of claims made under duress, even during normal interrogations. 

A confession is the end game to most interrogation sessions, “enhanced” or not, and intelligence researchers and psychologists have dug into what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a glimpse at what science has to say regarding the efficacy of various interrogation methods. 

Torture Not Scientifically Proven

As with confessions offered in the stressful environment of an interrogation room, the information gained from torture may not necessarily be reliable. As neuroscientist Shane O’Mara writes in a 2009 paper, the more likely scenario is that torture subjects will simply lie to make their torment end.

His paper followed the discovery that the CIA had been using techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation and physical abuse to coerce prisoners into divulging information. Their thinking seemed to be seriously misguided, he says, based on the assumption that torture subjects will always tell the truth when under duress — a line of thinking he terms “folk psychology.”

In fact, the stress caused by torture is likely to impair regions of the brain associated with memory, according to O’Mara, making it even more likely that subjects will lie or parrot information picked up from their captors. In other words, interrogators may unintentionally plant false memories in their stressed targets.  To a prisoner being tortured, the logic is simple — talking makes the torment end — and the cost-benefit analysis of saying something, anything, is easy to work out.

Planting False Confessions

It might be easier to extract a false confession than you think. Investigators needn’t rely on medieval torture methods either — multiple studies have shown that simply accusing someone of a crime and claiming that evidence of their wrongdoing exists is enough to get even innocent people to change their minds.

A 1996 study asked participants to type words into a keyboard, but if they hit the Alt key, it would crash. After a minute, the computer crashed of its own accord, and participants were told that they must have been responsible. When pressed, a significant number of people confessed to their imaginary crime, and an even greater number did so when an accomplice claimed that they had seen them do it.

Another study from 2005 backed those findings up by showing that participants in a study accused of cheating on a series of logic problems by giving answers to an accomplice offered a false confession almost half of the time when told that their wrongdoing wasn’t that bad, and the interrogator offered to cut them a deal.

Act Like You Know You It Ends

The Reid technique is used as a basis for most police interrogations. It was developed over four decades ago by John Reid, a former police officer and polygraph expert. Instead of intimidation and physical threats, the process relies on an initial non-accusatory interview and progresses to a formal interrogation. The technique emphasizes the use of non-verbal cues to assess a suspect’s guilt or innocence, a method that may not work in all situations.

The Reid technique has been praised for its success at eliciting confessions from criminals, but has also drawn criticism for seeming to assume that a subject is guilty, which could lead to false confessions. Other hallmarks of the technique, such as offering a rationale for a subject’s actions, minimizing the impact of the crime and presenting false evidence have been shown to increase the rate of false confessions as well.

Be The Nice Guy? 

In the hit Amazon show, The Man in the High Castle, Obergruppenführer John Smith is a ruthless enforcer for the Nazi regime, but, counterintuitively, you find yourself actually liking the guy as the show progresses. Perhaps that’s because Smith often resorts to the same intel-gathering tactics used by real-life World War II Nazi interrogator Hanns Scharff, who solicited information with kindness, empathy and hospitality. What?

During the war, Scharff interviewed roughly 500 American and British pilots who were highly trained in keeping secrets from the enemy. Rather than slamming fists on a table or resorting to electrodes, Scharff would instead go on strolls with pilots through the countryside, offer them baked goods and strike up friendly conversations. And it paid off, as Eric Horowitz writes in Pacific Standard:

“So when the interrogator erroneously suggested that a chemical shortage was responsible for American tracer bullets leaving white rather than red smoke, the pilot quickly corrected him with the information German commanders sought. No, there was no chemical shortage; the white smoke was supposed to signal to pilots that they would soon be out of ammunition.”

Of the 500 pilots Scharff interviewed, he failed to get the information he desired out of just 20. Not surprisingly, his method—called the Scharff technique—was a point of focus for the FBI’s High-Value Interrogation Group, a task force of federal agents who interrogate high-profile detainees. And the science supports its efficacy.

The Scharff method consists of five basic tenets: employ a friendly demeanor, don’t press for information, in place of questions present statements for the captive to either prove or disprove, ignore new information, and—most importantly—pretend you’re a know-it-all.

To test its efficacy, researchers in 2016 interviewed participants who were given mock plans for a terrorist attack and asked about the details. In a series of three experiments, they used the Scharff method with some of the plotters, and the direct approach—pointed questions—with others. The Scharff method technique yielded more “new information and led sources to underestimate how much new information they revealed.” The technique also left plotters confused about the motives of the interrogators, keeping them off balance. These findings were reflected in results from similar studies conducted in 2013 and 2014.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    Required is Room 101. If you’re enemy is devout Muslim, you bring in a pig, slaughter it, and force-feed its hot blood. In the the name of economy, it would be parallel subject processing re the Philippine Insurrection. Studies are an excuse for failure. Use history.

    • OWilson

      I always said this Isis nonsense would be over in a couple of weeks if we ground up the captured enemy, even the dead ones, ground up their carcasses, and fed them publicly to the pigs.

      A two fer! :)

  • John C

    Hey, whatever works. But spare me the moralizing about inhumane “torture” from people who have no complaint about Obama blasting terror suspects and any unsuspecting nearby civilians with drone missles before capture, trial and conviction.

  • OWilson

    I continue to be dismayed and cynical about the state of politicized science.

    Today’s “studies”, seem to be undertaken by neophyte high schoolers or undergrads who have no feeling for the nature of the subject of their “study”.

    Either that or the level of journalism reporting on them leaves a lot to be desired.

    Here we have so -called expertise opining on the efficacy of torture, but seem to take their examples either from old movies, TV, or anecdotal material from opponents who are politically opposed to the technique.

    They seem to have the completely wrong impression of how it actually works.

    For example “false confessions” can easily be controlled for, in fact it is one of the main considerations in the technique. You randomly use questions who’s answers you have verified independently, interspersed with the question you are seeking answers to. The subject, not being aware that you have most of the answers, will either confirm or lie about the information you are seeking if he tries to give you a false confession.

    As for killing them with kindness, you might get a slip of the tongue, like the tracer bullet anecdote above, but kindness will not get them to give up the location of their family bomb making home containing their kin and blood brothers who could be eliminated by a drone or worse, by a very near miss!

    • John C

      So, if one of our military people is captured by ISIS and treated nicely he’ll start giving up secrets that betray his comrades and country?

      • OWilson

        It probably worked with McCain.

        He didn’t want to go home when it was his turn :)

        • Mike Richardson

          Wow, just wow. I might not agree with the guy’s politics, but I’ d never make light of a veteran’s service, especially one who suffered as a prisoner of war. But I guess we can’ t all be as brave as you, right?

          • OWilson

            The job of any soldier is not to surrender, or get captured!

            He had no choice in his suffering!

            With me so far?

            Once captured he is expected to do all he can to return to his unit, or his own side at his earliest opportunity. Escape is encouraged.

            But McCain chose not to go home, when it was his turn.

            That can be seen in two ways.

            To some it is “brave” to some it means he got special treatment (he was called the Crown Prince, by his fellow prisoner) and means he should not be trusted.

            He used the “bravery” bit to get on the public political gravy train, but he has fought to keep classified documents from Viet Nam that pertained to those POW’s who were left behind.

            MIA and POW families have tried in vain to get that information released, but the Commission set up to deal with the issue was chaired by McCain and Kerry.

            Why the fight against transparency, after the war?

            What does Pulitzer Prizewinning Vietnam war correspondent Sydney Schanberg have to say?:

            “John McCain, who has risen to political prominence on his image as a Vietnam POW war hero, has, inexplicably, worked very hard to hide from the public stunning information about American prisoners in Vietnam who, unlike him, didn’t return home. Throughout his Senate career, McCain has quietly sponsored and pushed into federal law a set of prohibitions that keep the most revealing information about these men buried as classified documents. Thus the war hero who people would logically imagine as a determined crusader for the interests of POWs and their families became instead the strange champion of hiding the evidence and closing the books”.

            He also used his “bravery” record shamelessly during the previous campaigns. Real war heroes do not do that!

            Truth is he collaborated with the enemy and sign a war criminal confession.

            Then he got involved in corruption as a member of the Keating Five.

            Now he is a turncoat to his political party, and his own President.

            I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go completely “over to the other side”, and get a good deal from the Dems for doing so.

            He may be a hero to you, but to me he is just another amoral politiical opportunist turncoat.

            I wouldn’t trust him with my cat! :)

            Here’s Salon:

            “In virtually any other country, the general population would have long considered him as discredited a politician (as Iraq’s leadership).

            But in the increasingly short-term collective memory of the United States, he is essentially safe, aided and abetted by forever subservient mainstream media. They are, quite perversely, always eager to give failure a positive platform.

          • Mike Richardson

            “Now he is a turncoat to his political party, and his own President”. — Why do I get the feeling that this is what bothers you the most? Being an unyielding partisan who puts party and the cult of personality of a malignant narcissist above love of their country is not exactly a profile in courage, either. But you don’t think McCain’s “own President” has insulted the sacrifices of real heroes? During the campaign, when presented a Purple Heart medal by a veteran, Trump remarked that he “always wanted” a Purple Heart – but not enough that he didn’t get draft deferments for college and for a minor orthopedic condition that he bravely overcame to play sports in college. Now there’s risking life and limb for country. Or how about his insulting the Khan family, whose son died for our country–but Trump made great sacrifices by building tall buildings and creating jobs (apparently confusing self-congratulation for accomplishment with the notion of sacrifice). And finally, what about his comments directed at McCain (but insulting to all POWs) that he preferred war heroes who weren’t captured? McCain the man may be far from perfect, but the President to whom you seem to think he owes unquestioning loyalty is much so much furth

          • OWilson

            Clinton “loathed” the military, and Obama, held a Rose Garden Ceremony for the family of deserter Bergdhal, who his National Security Adviser told the nation “had served with honor and distinction.

            He couldn’t even pronounce “corpsemen” :)

            Trump got more military votes than Clinton.

            What’s your point?

          • Mike Richardson

            “Clinton ‘loathed’ the military, and I couldn’t trust him around my daughter.” – – considering his many inappropriate comments and rather cringe-inducing public displays of affection involving Ivanka, Trump probably shouldn’t be trusted around his own daughter, much less anyone else’s. But you wouldn’t be applying a double standard again, would you?

            Now if Trump got more military votes, there’s likely a fair amount of buyers’ remorse among servicemembers, as there is among many who voted for him. Now at 53% disapproval, and only two weeks into his presidency! That’s a record, man, and really shows how his popularity is suffering as a result of his poor decisions. And why not? Trump’s first anti-terrorist operation didn’t go as well as Obama’s takedown of Bin Laden, and tragically resulted in the death of a Navy Seal and collateral damage including several women and children. Exactly how much military expertise is required to see that as a clear failure? A Commander-in-Chief who needlessly wastes the lives of servicemembers and looks for conflict without cause isn’t likely to continue enjoying the support of the military, or the public at large. Sad!

            And back to the topic of this post, Trump insisted on torture as a means of obtaining information from suspected terrorists, but got pushback from the intelligence community (which he also has insulted). Apparently the CIA also acknowledges that torture frequently results in bad intelligence. Morally or practically, it’s a bad deal for this country to follow the bombastic threats of torture from a man who has demostrated through his actions and words a consistent lack of respect for the military and intelligence agencies working to keep America safe.

          • OWilson

            The premise of your “on topic” statement is flawed as usual..

            “Trump insisted on torture as a means of obtaining information from suspected terrorists”

            Do you have a cite for this statement, or are you blowing smoke out of your (armpit), as usual? :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Yeah, I think it’s probably more demented, radical, and depraved to actually agree with Howard Stern that your daughter is a great “piece of @$$”; to remark that you would date your daughter ” if she weren’t married, and my daughter” (the parental relationship apparently being of lesser importance based on order of notation); to reply to the question of “what do you have in common with your daughter” by stating “sex”; or to seemingly grope your daughter during public appearances, than to draw an inference that such behavior is inappropriate. Maybe you see that differently than most people, but at the very least you are again applying a double standard with regards to being offended by such inferences directed at conservatives while gleefully repeating similar innuendo and accusation (often with much less evidence) at anyone on the left.

            As to Trump supporting torture–you really are making this just too easy:
            During an interview with George Stephanopoulos on February 7, 2016, Trump was asked whether he “would authorize torture,” and responded that “I would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding.”

            The following week, during a campaign event in South Carolina, Trump stated that he wanted to reinstate waterboarding and other techniques that are “so much worse,” and ” much stronger. “. He also stated, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work–torture works.” He added, “Okay, folks? Torture — you know, half these guy [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works. Okay.” — Washington Post, February 17, 2016. (Not blowing smoke from any orifices, just providing you with some non-“alternative facts”).

            Following inauguration, he has since deferred to the opinions of some intelligence experts who have pointed out how counterproductive that policy would be, while still making it clear that he personally disagrees with these expert opinions.

            It’s possible someone here is suffering from deranged delusions, but my money would be on the guy in frank denial of reality who can’t seem to apply a consistent standard of appropriate behavior. At least, though, he seems to have developed a good sense of when he’s lost an argument and should make a quick retreat. Getting to be a rather common pattern, lately. :)

          • OWilson

            A failed last word.

            Trump is President.

            He is NOT “insisting on torture!”

            You are quoting old campaign rhetoric of a politician.

            As for your obsession with a conversation on a famously profane comedy show show, or the so called public pictures that show the President “groping” his daughter.

            Well, (I promised to be civilized) let’s just say you should see someone about it! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Okay, maybe you don’t have the sense to know when you’ve lost an argument and are just embarassing yourself further. So you lied about that whole “last word” thing. Big surprise. You’re also lying when you accuse me of “lie and libel,” ( classic case of projection) since I did in fact provide direct quotes and source citation to back up my assertion that Trump stated he wanted to institute methods of interrogation that constitute torture under the Geneva Convention. Yes, it is illegal, but that doesn’t change the fact that he said he was for it. Your claim that it didn’t count because he was a candidate at the time is a feat of prevarication that would impress Bill Clinton himself — now why would you take such an effort to imitate someone for whom you constantly express disdain? Also, public opinion is really irrelevant to a determination of the propriety of torture — in the not too distant past, the majority of Southern whites favored segregation and weren’t particularly bothered by lynchings. Going further back to the Spanish Inquisition and the Dark Ages, you’d likely find a majority of common folks agreeing with the clergy that torture was a good way to reveal heretics and witches. Sometimes the majority isn’t so moral after all.

            I also provided documented examples of Trump’s behavior that most people would consider inappropriate. If you wish to infer anything more, that is on you. And if you’re trying to insinuate anything about me for pointing out a politician’s misbehavior, be aware that applying a common standard to yourself would need to take into account your frequent references to Bill Clinton’s alleged trips to–what did you call it?–“Lolita Island. ” Now I’m really not in favor of those kind of ad hominem attacks myself, as they really are pointless, but you should not want to pursue that line of argument, since I also dislike double standards.

            As for my having the last word, I have no control over whether or not you compulsively seek out additional humiliation by posting hysterical rants and insults in response to factual argument. However, you are simply another poster, not a moderator, and likewise have no say in my decision to reply to your nonsense, or to simply let it stand on its own as an example of irrational and ideologically rigid behavior. Considering that example, you really shouldn’t cast aspersions on my parenting, as I’m at least teaching critical thinking, and the importance of objective facts over any ideology. It sure beats manufacturing fake outrage and insulting someone when the facts clearly don’t support your argument. :)

          • OWilson

            Your recent accusations that I am “stalking” you and “threatening” the moderators, and inferring that the President of the United States of America, desires an incestuous relationship with his daughter, and is “groping” her in public, is not just wrong, It is sick,!

            It IS a lie and libelous!

            That puerile detritus will not be left sitting around a science blog without a response from me, last word, or not!

          • Mike Richardson

            Well, you were probing for information to narrow down my geographic location, despite being told to desist, which could be considered stalking, if you’re so eager to rehash some of your past erratic behavior. And though your vague pronouncements of people getting what’s coming to them wasn’t enough to alarm the specific moderator to whom you refer, didn’t he just recently have to tell you that you were “on thin ice” with one of your rather extreme comments? Hardly the first time, either, right? I mean, how many times have moderators on these Discover blogs had to issue warnings about your comments and behavior? I think I got one for a “below the belt” comment I directed at you one time, but I apologized, learned my lesson, and never went there again. But you’ve got to be in the double digits now, at the rate you’ve been going. Yeah, I really don’t think you’re in much of a position to criticize, though I realize hypocrisy doesn’t actually bother you.

            Now pointing out that Trump’s behaved in a manner that most folks would consider inappropriate is not the same thing as declaring that he’s actually committed incest– you’re the one who keeps taking it to that level. And by trying to put words in my mouth, you aren’t just practicing your favorite arguing technique of attacking straw men — you’re actually coming much closer to libel than anything I’ve said. But I can understand your desire to do that as a means of distracting away from the fact that you got owned on the issue of Trump’s support of torture. And you want to know what’s so funny about this?–from what you posted on this topic, you and I are actually in complete agreement about torture being illegal and immoral! Yet for some reason, you felt compelled to embarrass yourself arguing in his defense when I proved my assertion that he wanted to torture terrorism suspects–which is in direct opposition to your stated beliefs on the matter! Are you trying to prove that partisanship is more important to you than principles? Because if so, let me congratulate on doing an outstanding job! 😁

          • OWilson

            Have a nice day! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Actually, you are the one fixated on using the word incest, which I never did, to describe my assessment of Trump’s behavior. But since you’re so adamant about making that pronouncement, then declaring me “sick,” I’ll just have to apply the same standard to some of your past comments. By your standard, since making observations about inappropriate behavior by a politician ( or supposedly implying even worse) is sick, then when you repeat with great relish the allegations of former President Clinton visiting an island where men were reportedly having sex with underage girls, you must also be quite sick. Looks like you might need some therapy yourself, according to the line of argument you’ve unwisely pursued. Like I said, I really don’t like double standards, and I’m a big believer in reciprocity.

            I also like trying to remain at least somewhat on topic, so let’s return again to the subject of torture. You know, that thing Trump apparently is in favor of making part of our intelligence gathering, though he’s at least been forced to relent by somewhat wiser experts managing our intelligence agencies. You still haven’t been able to refute his deplorable stand on that issue with any facts of your own, you know. But, since you’re done, I guess I shouldn’t be expecting anything on that front. Anyway, thanks at least in small part to your humorous antics here, I have had a nice day! Have a good one yourself!

          • rrocklin

            Owen is party above country. Whatever mental gymnastics it takes to hate the democrats and embrace the republicans.

          • Mike Richardson

            Yep, I’ve seen that proven time and again here. :(

      • Jenny H

        No. I didn’t read this. Torture frequently results in misinformation.

    • Jenny H

      Don’t despair. “Discover” has become a ‘popular’ magazine for non-scientists :-)

  • LEK56

    Hurry, tell Trump.

    • Uncle Al

      Hurry, tell ISIS.

  • alqpr

    Anyone distressed by the amount of distrust of real science in the world today need only look at the overstated (and actually false) headline in this bit of “science” journalism to find an explanation.

    • Christopher Donaghue

      I have been saying this for ages: the word “science” has been greatly abused. The Demarcation Problem should once again be a major issue, and one taught in schools from a young age. PSYCHOLOGY IS NOT SCIENCE! Psychology is pseudoscience. Same with sociology and many other fields. That is not to say that they cannot yield useful and informative results, but rather than one must necessarily place much less faith therein.

      • Brett Gibson

        I got paid 104000 bucks in 2016 by freelancing on-line a­n­d I was able to do it by wor­king part time f­o­r several hours each day. I followed an earning opportunity I was introduced by this company i found online and I am so amazed that i earned so much money. It’s very newbie friendly and I’m so grateful that i discovered this. This is what i do…FACEBOOK.COM/Jobs-from-home-for-US-UK-Cananda-Australia-and-New-Zealand-251232438633700/app/208195102528120/

        • applecreeker

          Your ads are torture, they don’t work either.

        • Christopher Donaghue

          does this kind of marketing even work? I guess some people must be dumb enough to fall for it, considering how prevalent this kind of advertisement is.


        I’ve earned 104 thousand bucks in last 12 months by freelancing online a­n­d I did it by work­ing part time f­o­r several hrs every day. I used a money making model I found online and I am so thrilled that i was able to make so much extra income. It’s so beginner friendly and I’m so grateful that i discovered this. Here is what i do… VIEWS41.COM

  • Mike Richardson

    I never actually thought I’d see anyone in their right mind defending torture, or deliberately killing innocent family members of suspected terrorists. On second thought, I still haven’ t seen anyone in their rght mind doing that.

    • OWilson

      Don’t be so desperate to jump the shark! :)

      I said “if” that was done, it would rapidly end the conflict. It’s a theoretical argument. It would never be employed.

      Read it carefully.!

      It was meant to show the asymmetry of a battle where one side has no limits, and the other side cannot lower themselves to that level.

      And explain why the problem is so difficult to resolve in our favor, because nobody including me, will ever advocate that as policy.

  • Carl Kruse

    Here’s to the notion that torture might not be effective spreading.

    Carl Kruse


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar