Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Aug 01, 2019

The Language of Torture

by Dominik Mischkowski and Kimberly Rios
Metal Chair in a Spotlight in a Dark Black Room

The use of torture as a means of extracting information from terrorism suspects remains highly controversial. In December 2014, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation practices that provided new fuel for this debate. In 525 pages, the committee described the CIA’s inhumane interrogation techniques (such as water boarding, sleep deprivation, and ice baths) used on Al Qaeda detainees, often at secret locations known as “black sites.” The report’s conclusion that these practices provided little to no useful information to prevent future terrorism attacks was consistent with accumulating evidence that torture is largely ineffective. Nevertheless, public opinion on torture remains sharply divided, with nearly half the American public supporting its use.

One way to explain continuing support for such inhumane and ineffective practices involves the way the practices are labeled. Politicians in particular seem to have recognized the power of language to shape public opinion toward torture: While George W. Bush claimed that the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques saved countless lives, Barack Obama claimed that the severity of the techniques made them equivalent to “torture.” The use of different labels to describe exactly the same techniques suggests that Bush and Obama may have adopted these labels strategically in order to sway people’s attitudes toward them.But does this strategic labeling actually make a difference?

A substantial body of research on the effects of labeling suggests that it might. For example, people have more negative attitudes towards whistle-blowers than leakers, illegal aliens than noncitizens, and economic refugees than war refugees. These differences in attitudes offer the intriguing hypothesis that labeling inhumane interrogation techniques as “enhanced interrogation” versus “torture” may influence support for these practices.

We tested this idea in a series of 5 experiments.  Across studies, we found that labeling interrogation techniques as “torture” increased negative attitudes towards these practices in comparison to labeling the same techniques as “enhanced interrogation,” “interrogation,” or “harsh interrogation.” These effects on attitudes extended to actual behavior—signing a petition against these practices.

The effects of the labels appeared to be due to  people’s perceptions of how severe and painful the techniques were, as well as by personal feelings of distress and empathic concern for the individuals subjected to the techniques. Finally, we found these labeling effects among both liberal and conservative participants, though relabeling had a slightly bigger impact on conservative participants.  How we label these interrogation techniques can influence support for the techniques across the liberal-conservative political spectrum.

Our findings contribute to an accumulating body of evidence for the power of language in shaping political discourse around controversial topics. Whether it involves illegal aliens instead of noncitizens, enhanced interrogation instead of torture, or perhaps even the recent example of freedom gas instead of fossil fuels, unintentional or intentional relabeling may have the power to shift people’s attitudes one way or another. Such efforts may prove particularly impactful if public opinion on a topic is close to evenly divided, as it is the case for support for torture. When opinions on both sides are about equal,  even a relatively small movement in public opinion caused by such “rebranding” has the potential to substantially influence public policy, although research on this possibility is needed.  We hope that our findings stimulate more research on both the psychological and public impacts of labeling effects.  In  today’s divisive political climate, we think that this research is sorely needed.


Dr. Dominik Mischkowski is an Assistant Professor of Health Psychology and Social Psychology at Ohio University. He focusses on the social neuroscience of pain.  Dr. Kimberly Rios is an Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Ohio University and is an Associate Editor for Group Processes and Intergroup Relations.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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