Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Torture motivation

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Torture motivation:
What motivates the use of torture?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Torture device known as the rack

Torture refers to the deliberate act of inflicting pain or suffering on a powerless individual. The horrific act of torture has many uses, carried out by many users. This may include military personnel, serial killers, cultural use, or film. Those who carry out torture usually do so for a purpose, such as for: punishment, interrogation, sadomasochism/sadism, or coercion.

There is a long history of torture since the beginning of ancient times, and right up until the 21st century (Figure 1). The history of torture has been much of a rollercoaster ride, which has seen several abolishments and resurgences. Ultimately, torture is illegal as outlined in Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations Convention against Torture, Geneva Conventions of 1949, Protocol I and II (see history section in Torture).

So why was torture used and why does it continue to be used? This chapter, first, provides examples of the types of torture. Then it explores the motives of torture and the psychological theories to explain it. Lastly, this chapter will discuss the effectiveness of torture and possible alternatives.

Focus questions:

  • What are the motives for torture and the psychological theories to explain it?
  • Can torture be justified and humanely used for the greater good?

Types of torture[edit | edit source]

A few examples of different types of torture:

Motives[edit | edit source]

This book chapter explores four motives for torture use, which research has identified as the most primary and predominant. These primary motives include punishment, interrogation and confession, sexual gratification, and power and control. These terms can be referred to as "uses" used by "users". However, it is important to note that these four main motives do not cover all areas of torture motivation, but are the most prevalent within current literature. Furthermore, each motive will be followed by psychological theory in an attempt to explain its use.

Punishment[edit | edit source]

In this section, torture can be explained as a method to deter - which takes advantage of the punishment component of torture.

Firstly, similar to modern-day punishment such as imprisonment, torture was used as a tool for deterrence, which mostly took the form of public executions. This display of pain and death was a way for the user to convey an indirect message - "if you commit a crime, this is the price you will pay". However, while torture as deterrence is not as prominent in society today, it was commonplace during Medieval times. According to Sarisky (2015), public hangings provided a sense of security for society, in which the government was removing any social threats or danger. Although, many citizens were in an uproar over the lack of justice many were served, in which many criminals found themselves at one end of the rope after committing a petty crime such as stealing. For this reason, the public torture method shifted to behind closed doors and slowly reduced in use as society initiated more civilised approach to law and order (Sarisky, 2015).

This motive to deter crime with crime begs the question of its effectiveness. It is a common assumption to think that if there is a severe punishment for a crime, then that crime will be less likely to be carried out. For example, one may hear people say "if the consequence of stealing was imprisonment, no one would try to steal". This kind of approach is more a myth and is not supported by much empirical research. The idea behind deterrence assumes that individuals are rational, therefore, the majority of irrational crimes, do not meet the requirements for deterrence to occur (Schönteich, 2002). Consider the crime of assault, in most cases, it is an act of anger or spite that displays no premeditation. Therefore, without premeditation, there is no rationalism, and so these acts are quite resistant to deterrence. On the other hand, crimes that require premeditation and planning, such as robbing a bank, have the potential to be deterred.


Fun fact

The modern-day expression "gala day" is translated from Anglo-Saxon "gallows day" (gallows meaning the framework structure that the assumed criminals were hanged) (Rayes et al., 2011).

Protection motivation theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Protection motivation theory model

To help explain why torture may be used as punishment for deterrence, protection motivation theory (PMT) can be examined. This theory considers two factors: threat appraisal and coping appraisal (Figure 2). As previously mentioned, rationality is core to deterrence, and this psychological theory assumes that individuals appraise and freely choose how they respond to situations. PMT outlines three core factors of appraisal: perceived severity of the threat, the perceived probability of the occurrence, and the efficacy of the recommended preventative behaviour (Herath & Rao, 2009). Rogers (1983) would later include perceived self-efficacy in the theory. This can be looked at from two perspectives: users and targets. For example, users would need to decide on the severity of the punishment and consider the chances of deterrence occurring.

Another example considers the victim of the punishment. As a theory of rationality, it assumes individuals decide on their own actions and behaviours. In this sense, an individual would consider the following before committing a crime: the severity of the punishment, the chances of the individual getting away with the crime, and the reward if the crime is successful. However, as mentioned briefly (and discussed later on) torture use has shown to be ineffective in many ways. Summarised, motivation for torture use is an extreme approach to gain compliance of a desired behaviour or deterrence from an aversive behaviour.

Interrogation and confession[edit | edit source]

The main users of torture for Interrogation and confession utilise techniques of torture to obtain confessions, data, or information that will further a criminal case or operation. Even after its outlawing, torture continues to be used. Following the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush launched the military campaign War on terror, which sparked an international military initiative to target terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and the Taliban. President Bush went on to euphemise the authorised torture of detainees concerning the 9/11 attacks as "enhanced interrogation techniques", in the hopes of portraying torture as more civilised and humane (Chwastiak, 2015).

However, much research has concluded that this motive for torture is mostly ineffective in obtaining reliable and truthful information. The available evidence is held by those who have had first-hand experience (including military, FBI, and trained interrogators) - many of which claim that torture is indeed an ineffective technique (Janoff-Bulman, 2007). Surviving victims of torture also share similar accounts of ineffectiveness, in which victims will say anything to delay or stop the pain, even if the information is false or misleading (Costanzo & Gerrity, 2009). Due to the inability to conduct experimental research (ethical issues), the most trustworthy evidence is these first-hand accounts. Therefore, if the justification of torture is considered based on its ineffectiveness, many would say it cannot be justified.

Test yourself on the following dilemma: ticking time bomb scenario

“so susceptible to pain that they will tell any lie rather than suffer it” - Jurist Ulpian on torture (Peters, 1996)

Maslow's hierarchy of needs[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Probably one of the most prominent aims of torture can be related to Maslow's needs, such as depriving those of their basic needs such as food and water in the hopes of coercing a confession. Maslow describes deficiency needs as those that arise from deprivation, and are the main drivers for action when unfulfilled (McLeod, 2007). Those who use torture to interrogate utilise this idea, in which many users expose their victims to extreme cold, deprive them of food and sleep for days. This can be seen as an attempt to coerce a confession by removing Maslow's level one physiological needs (eg food, water, warmth, sleep - see Figure 3), where a torturer may benefit from longer deprivation of a victim, as Maslow describes an increase in motivation to satisfy needs as time goes on (McLeod, 2007). Therefore, longer deprivation of needs may increase a target's motivation to cooperate. However, it is important to acknowledge the issue of whether a confession is legitimate or not.

Sexual gratification[edit | edit source]

Another motive for torture is that of sexual gratification, specifically relating to sexual-sadistic killers or hedonistic-lust killers. These killers kill to satisfy sexual urges - who derive sexual pleasure from watching one being tortured and killed (Miller, 2014). For example, Josephine Otero (11), who was one of Rader's (see case study below) first kills, was found hanged in the basement only dressed in socks and a sweatshirt, with noticeable evidence of torture (Gibson, 2006). To add to the cruelty, police concluded that young Josephine was hung just enough so that her feet could not touch the ground. Similarly to Rader, lust killers inflict pain to achieve and maintain an orgasm - arguably to compensate for an inability to reach climax in normal sexual experiences (Murray, 2017). Hedonistic-lust killers will first use the technique of dehumanisation to reduce their victim to an object (Castle & Hensley, 2002). Once the victim is objectified, the killer has minimised any guilt that may result after their next acts - to torture, rape, or kill. Therefore, in many cases, torture is used by the perpetrator to satisfy their sexual urges and fantasies - hence, hedonistic-lust motivation.

There is also a similar concept known as sadomasochism - considered to be the opposite of sadism. Sadomasochism once frowned upon as a pathological disorder, has recently gained respect as accepted sexual deviance (Grossman, 2012). Similarly to sadism, sadomasochism also involves painful and humiliating acts but instead is deemed a consensual act of love and intimacy. So summarised, both terms share similar acts of inflicting pain and suffering, but the motive behind each is different - one as the intent to kill, and one as the intent to love (see forensic classification in sadomasochism for more).


Case study
Magnifying-glass.svg

Dennis (BTK) Rader

Rader is one of the most prolific serial killers in history and is a prime example of a sexual-sadistic killer. Rader announced himself as "BTK - bind them, torture them, kill them", after an array of eerie letters to the media. A father, a husband, and a killer of 10 victims, used torture to satisfy his sexual urges and fantasies. Rader was apprehended in 2005 and was sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms in prison.

source: https://theneurobiologyofbecomingaserialkiller.wordpress.com/2019/12/11/dennis-rader-the-bind-torture-kill-murderer/

"The victims are tie up-most have been women-phone cut-bring some bondage mater sadistic tendencies-no struggle, outside the death spot-witness except the Vain’s Kids. They were very lucky; a phone call save them. I was going to tape the boys and put plastics bag over there head like I did Joseph and Shirley. And then hang the girl. God-oh God what a beautiful sexual relief that would been. Josephine, when I hung her really turn me on; her pleading for mercy then the rope took whole, she helpless; staring at me with wide terror filled eyes the rope getting tighter-tighter." - sample from BTK letter (Murray, 2017)

Freud's psychoanalytic theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Sigmund Freud - a pioneer in psychoanalytic theory

If there is one figure in history who has captured sexual deviance in psychological theory, it is Sigmund Freud (Figure 4). Freud's work can be unpacked to support the question as to what motivates torture use - in regards to sadism and masochism (S&M). Freud (1953) highlighted the element of aggressiveness rooted deep within S&M, in which this sexual deviance is mainly biologically male-driven, and are not only to satisfy sexual urges but also contain an element of displacement. For example, a sadist may displace (or redirect) their own frustrations and anger onto others, while a masochist takes on a role of subjugation to relieve stress or guilt (Grossman, 2012). Freud further described masochism as an inversion of sadism, whereas sadism is primary and masochism is secondary - both were claimed as important by Freud in overcoming the resistance of a sexual object to ensure sexual needs were satisfied (Grimwade, 2011). However, there has been much controversy surrounding this idea, especially from a feminist point of view, which argues against Freud's proposal that sexual deviance is a drive that needs to be satisfied, and instead is a way for men to justify the oppression of women (McKibbin et al., 2008). A proposal that in today's society would argue that the physical torture of rape is instinctual. Freud introduced the world to many theories strongly based on sexual deviance, some of which are still considered, and some that have been ignored. However, it is important to consider Freudian theory when examining torture and its motive for sexual gratification.

Power and control[edit | edit source]

This last motive explains torture as a weapon to gain power and control (P&C) over others. In particular, psychopaths are the personification of P&C; they have no regard for the wellbeing of others, and will manipulate, control, and assert power over those to get what they want. Psychopaths also exhibit traits of narcissism, grandiosity, and anti-social personality disorder. This nature perspective infers that personality plays a major role in motivating the use of torture - specifically corporate psychopaths. Although a large percentage of psychopaths are criminals, there is a percentage that are not, and these individuals often hold high-power jobs (such as CEOs). These individuals can use their charm and charisma to work their way to the top and exert P&C, which they strive to hold. These psychopaths often use psychological torture, which can include mind games, bullying, manipulation, deception, harassment, and blackmailing (Mathieu et al., 2015).

On the other side of the spectrum, there is external motivation (such as situational attribution) for torture via P&C, besides the previously mentioned internal motivation. The famous Stanford Prison Experiment brought to light a phenomenon where those who are not cruel become cruel once given superficial power that corrupts their behaviour - and most possibly inflict pain onto others. Zimbardo who ran the controversial experiment, termed this phenomenon The Lucifer Effect. Zimbardo et al. (1999) argued that it is the power of the situation rather than disposition that motivates an individual's behavioural change. This he used to explain the guards' motivation to humiliate, depersonalise, and torture the prisoners.

"The most obvious expressions of psychopathy—but by no means the only ones—involve flagrant criminal violation of society’s rules. Not surprisingly, many psychopaths are criminals, but many others remain out of prison, using their charm and chameleon-like abilities to cut a wide swath through society and leaving a wake of ruined lives behind them." - Hare (1999) (Mathieu et al., 2015)

McClelland's needs theory - the need for power[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. McClelland's theory of three fundamental needs

This sub-section explores the psychological theory behind the motivation for P&C. David McClelland's (1987) need theory, looks closely at three fundamental needs of achievement, affiliation, and power in the context of managerial or organisational psychology (Figure 5). In particular, need for power (nPow) can be examined to understand one motive of torture used.

McClelland (1987) describes a high nPow as a personality trait, in which an individual seeks to hold a position of power over others, much like the earlier mentioned corporate psychopath. Although McClelland (1987) outlines the positive benefits linked to nPow, such as strong and successful leadership, many who hold large amounts of power usually use deceitfulness and bullying to get to the top and then use this power to maintain that position by any means (for example, bullying, harassment, blackmail). While also containing a psychological aspect, nPow contains an element of physical abuse too, as demonstrated in the earlier example of the Stanford Prison Experiment. At first, all participants are equal, but once divided into their roles where one (guards) represents power and authority, the guards quickly learn that this power can be used to hurt and control the prisoners (Zimbardo et al., 1999). This experiment alone demonstrates the relationship between power and torture, in which power can be obtained and maintained with the use of torture (the corporate psychopath), and torture in itself as a source of power and authority (the role of the guard in the SPE).

Effectiveness[edit | edit source]

This chapter thus far has explored why individuals may be motivated to use torture, but this raises the question - is it effective enough to allow a user to achieve their desired end goal? This section only focuses on interrogation motive, as it has the most research literature surrounding effectiveness.

Is torture effective or not?[edit | edit source]

It has long been known and supported that torture is not only unethical but also ineffective as an interrogation technique (Lowth, 2017). Lowth (2017) states torture only goes as far as to obtain a confession, but the coerced information is most often false or misleading. Neuropsychology can help explain the underlying reasons as to why torture is mostly ineffective.

The ineffectiveness of torture revolves around experiences of extreme stress, which impair memory and the mind. O'Mara (2018) supports this notion, who found that torture tactics to extract confessions inhibit an individual's ability to recall information, let alone truthful information - that is, torture does the opposite, and instead impairs interrogation (Koh & Shue, 2016). For example, O'Mara explains that waterboarding causes a loss of blood flow to the brain's rostral area that can severely impair cognition, and slow the brain's process in retrieving and recalling information (Koh & Shue, 2016). O'Mara (2018) also explains the atrophied hippocampus caused by chronic cortisol release in the body.

Although the above research provides evidence of ineffectiveness, the study of torture faces many limitations in the experimental field due to its ethical reasons.

Alternatives to torture[edit | edit source]

Torture seems to fail in all scientific and practical aspects - from ethical to moral to reliable and replicable. So perhaps adopting a whole new approach by building rapport and establishing trust is a way forward in extracting accurate information. As O'Mara (2018) states:

[A]s a matter of normal good practice, detainees should be treated with the maximum amount of respect, not exposed to deliberate or degrading treatment, and permitted, within the demands of security, to exercise some degree of choice or control over the conditions of their capacity concerning nourishment, freedom of association, exercise, and cognitive stimulation. The cultural practices surrounding interrogation should become one of shared problem solving - changing the expectations of the detainees so that they become participants in the process, rather than attempting to resist the process (259-261).

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 Which of McClelland's needs are associated with torture motivation?

affiliation
control
power
achievement

2 Which psychological theory was Sigmund Freud most famous for?

humanistic
behaviourism
cognitive
psychoanalytic


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Overall, torture use is motivated by four main factors: punishment, interrogation and confession, sexual gratification, and power and control. These motives can be explained by psychological theories, such as protection motivation theory, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Freud's psychoanalytic theory, and McClelland's need for power theory. Protection motivation theory explains the deterrence aspect of punishment; Maslow's needs demonstrates why interrogation techniques aim to deprive individuals of basic needs; Sigmund Freud's stances on sexual deviance help to understand torture use as sexual gratification, and McClelland's need for power theory can explain why torture is a tool for power and control.

In terms of justifying torture, the reader is encouraged to come to their own conclusion after reviewing the literature. However, the literature points to evidence of ineffectiveness, but this is limited due to the ethical issues surrounding torture in an experimental setting. Therefore, future directions for research should focus on finding an ethical and moral approach to studying torture in a practical sense.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Castle, T., & Hensley, C. (2002). Serial killers with military experience: Applying learning theory to serial murder. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 46(4), 453-465. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306624x02464007

Chwastiak, M. (2015). Torture as normal work: The Bush administration, the Central Intelligence Agency and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. Organization, 22(4), 493-511. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350508415572506

Costanzo, M. A., & Gerrity, E. (2009). The effects and effectiveness of using torture as an interrogation device: Using research to inform the policy debate. Social Issues and Policy Review, 3(1), 179-210. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-2409.2009.01014.x

Freud, S. (1953). Three essays on the theory of sexuality (1905). In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, Volume VII (1901-1905): A case of hysteria, three essays on sexuality and other works (pp. 123-246). https://doi.org/10.1037/e417472005-189

Gibson, D. C. (2006). BTK Strangler versus Wichita police department: The significance of serial murder media relations. Public Relations Review, 32(1), 58-65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2005.10.007

Grimwade, R. (2011). Between the quills: Schopenhauer and freud on sadism and masochism. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 92(1), 149-169. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-8315.2010.00378.x

Grossman, S. (2012). The psychology of sadomasochism. Senior Projects Spring 2012, 177. https://digitalcommons.bard.edu/senproj_s2012/177

Herath, T., & Rao, H. R. (2009). Protection motivation and deterrence: a framework for security policy compliance in organisations. European Journal of Information Systems, 18(2), 106-125. https://doi.org/10.1057/ejis.2009.6

Homant, R. J., & Witkowski, M. J. (2011). Support for coercive interrogation among college students: Torture and the ticking bomb scenario. Journal of Applied Security Research, 6(2), 135-157. https://doi.org/10.1080/19361610.2011.552002

Janoff-Bulman, R. (2007). Erroneous assumptions: Popular belief in the effectiveness of torture interrogation. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 13(4), 429-435. https://doi.org/10.1080/10781910701665766

Koh, H. H., & Shue, H. (2016). Why torture doesn't work: The neuroscience of interrogation. Political Psychology, 37, 753-757. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12357

Lowth, M. (2017). Does torture work? Donald Trump and the CIA. British Journal of General Practice, 67(656), 126-126. https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp17x689701

Mathieu, C., Neumann, C., Babiak, P., & Hare, R. D. (2015). Corporate psychopathy and the full-range leadership model. Assessment, 22(3), 267-278. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191114545490

McClelland, D. C. (1987). Human motivation. CUP Archive. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781139878289

McKibbin, W. F., Shackelford, T. K., Goetz, A. T., & Starratt, V. G. (2008). Why do men rape? An evolutionary psychological perspective. Review of General Psychology, 12(1), 86-97. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.12.1.86

McLeod, S. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Simply psychology, 1(1-18). https://canadacollege.edu/dreamers/docs/Maslows-Hierarchy-of-Needs.pdf

Miller, L. (2014). Serial killers: I. Subtypes, patterns, and motives. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19(1), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2013.11.002

Murray, J. L. (2017). The role of sexual, sadistic, and misogynistic fantasy in mass and serial killing. Deviant behavior, 38(7), 735-743. https://doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2016.1197669

O’Mara, S. (2018). The captive brain: Torture and the neuroscience of humane interrogation. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 111(2), 73-78. https://doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hcx252

Rayes, M., Mittal, M., Rengachary, S. S., & Mittal, S. (2011). Hangman's fracture: a historical and biomechanical perspective: Historical vignette. Journal of neurosurgery: Spine, 14(2), 198-208. https://doi.org/10.3171/2010.10.spine09805

Sarisky, K. (2015). History and controversies of capital punishment. In: Recuperado. https://www.csustan.edu/sites/default/files/honors/documents/KSarisky.pdf

Schönteich, M. (2002). Does capital punishment deter? African Security Studies, 11(2), 89-92. https://doi.org/10.1080/10246029.2002.9628135

Zimbardo, P. G., Maslach, C., & Haney, C. (1999). Reflections on the Stanford prison experiment: Genesis, transformations, consequences. In Obedience to authority (pp. 207-252). Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781410602022-15

External links[edit | edit source]