Health and Medical News and Resources

General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

Crossing The Line: What Constitutes Torture?

From the 12 April 2011 Medical News Today article

Torture. The United Nations defines it as the “infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” But how severe is severe? That judgment determines whether or not the law classifies an interrogation practice as torture.

Now, a study published in an upcoming issue ofPsychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, condemns this method of classification as essentially flawed.

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The reason: The people estimating the severity of pain aren’t experiencing that pain-so they underestimate it.

As a result, many acts of torture are not classified-or prohibited-as torture, say authors, Loran F. Nordgren of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Mary-Hunter Morris of Harvard Law School, and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University.

The researchers were moved to undertake the study by their alarm at the Bush Administration’s defense of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as stresspostures and waterboarding. In court and the media, officials minimized the psychological and physical distress caused by these techniques-and insisted they were not torture.

In this denial, the authors saw a perfect demonstration of a psychological phenomenon called the “empathy gap,” says Loewenstein: “People in one affective state”-hunger, anger, pain-“cannot appreciate or predict another one.” If you’re warm, you can’t imagine the misery of being cold; if you’re rested, sleep deprivation doesn’t seem so bad…

…The study’s conclusion: “The legal standard for evaluating torture is psychologically untenable.”

So what can be done? First, overcompensate. “Knowing that we tend to be biased toward not counting torture as torture, we should define torture very liberally, very inclusively,” says Loewenstein. And don’t trust empathy. “This is an area where we can’t rely on our emotional system to guide us. We have to use our intellect.”

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April 13, 2011 - Posted by | Medical and Health Research News | ,

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