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Ohio University study: Language matters when discussing support of interrogation techniques

A new study by Ohio University faculty members showed that people are less supportive of practices to extract information from terrorist suspects when these practices are framed as “torture” rather than “enhanced interrogation.”

The study, titled “Shaping Responses to Torture: What You Call It Matters” was conducted by Associate Professor and Director of Experimental Training Kimberly Rios and Visiting Assistant Professor Dominik Mischkowski.

While the researchers both have background in psychology, Rios focuses on attitudes while Mischkowski focuses on pain.

“We both were struck by how accepted these seemingly ineffective methods in the U.S. still were,” Mischkowski said. “Also, we wondered whether the labelling of these practices (torture vs. enhanced interrogation) would make a difference in how people view these practices.”

The study consisted of five different experiments. In all five experiments the two different populations, politically liberal and conservative, had more negative responses to the phrase “torture” compared to “enhanced interrogation” even when the descriptions of the phrases were exactly the same.

Three of the studies were completed in 2014 in the weeks following the release of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's 525-page report containing details on how terrorism suspects were treated by the CIA. Studies four and five were conducted two years later.

In the first of the studies the 293 participants were randomly assigned to read one of two articles, titled either “Enhanced Interrogation of Terrorism Suspects” or “Torture of Terrorism Suspects.” After reading the article, participants answered five questions about their attitudes toward the practices, referred to as “torture” or “enhanced interrogation” to match the assigned headline. Next the participants were asked if they would like to sign a petition to lessen the severity of “torture” or “enhanced interrogation.”

In the second and third studies (consisting of 297 and 316 individuals, respectively), participants read the same description as in the first study, again with randomly-assigned headlines, and answered the same five attitudes questions. These studies differed from the first study in that the participants were also asked to rank how severe they thought the practices were and then how distressed they themselves felt when they were asked about torture or enhanced interrogation, respectively.

The fourth study was similar to the first three but was done with a nationally representative sample of 1,050 participants. The fifth study was conducted, with a sample of 1,223, to see if the results would be replicated even when other names for the practices were used. In this study, participants were exposed to one of four (rather than just two) labels: “torture,” “enhanced interrogation,” “interrogation,” or “harsh interrogation” were also substituted in. All five experiments came to the same conclusion that people react more negatively to identical practices when these practices are framed as “torture,” rather than “enhanced interrogation.” The “interrogation” and “harsh interrogation” phrases produced similar effects to “enhanced interrogation,” suggesting that people are particularly averse to the “torture” label. Furthermore, both conservatives and liberals showed the effect.

“When calling torture practices ‘torture’ instead of ‘enhanced interrogation,’ as the Bush administration relabeled these practices, support for these practices decreases, people perceive these practices as more severe, feel more empathy on behalf of the person undergoing torture, feel more distressed when thinking about the treatment, and are more willing to sign a petition opposing these practices,” Mischkowski said.

These findings are significant as Americans are evenly divided on whether or not they support torture of terrorism suspects. This research suggests that simple changes in how these practices are framed have the potential to sway support one way or the other.