Cognitive Strategies Enabling Torture

home  »  torture  »  torture cognitive strategies

3 Cognitive Strategies That Deny, Discount, & Dismiss Torture:

How Individuals, Groups, Governments, & Cultures Enable Torturers

Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP

Related Web Pages on this Site:

PLEASE NOTE: The following passage is a brief excerpt—edited for space and reformatted for the web—from a section of the chapter, "Torture," written by Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP, and published in 2001 by Academic Press. Academic Press holds the copyright. Questions about any uses involving copyright should be addressed to Academic Press.


Widespread prohibitions against torture coexist with the widespread practice of torture.

How do we—as individuals, groups, governments, and cultures—come to enable torture to continue with our inaction?

The extensive literature in this area has identified some factors that help answer this question.

Here are three common cognitive strategies for denying, discounting, dismissing, or distorting instances of torture and for turning away from effective steps to stop it and hold those responsible accountable:


1. Reflexively Dismissing All Evidence As Questionable, Incomplete, Misleading, False, Or In Some Other Way Inadequate

Denying and enabling torture require nothing more than refusing to acknowledge evidence that torture occurred or that specific individuals were involved.

Governments, groups, cultures, or individuals need only reflexively dismiss all evidence as questionable, incomplete, misleading, false, or in some other way inadequate.

Turning a blind eye to torture and those responsible for it is widely-practiced and cognitive strategies are never lacking. Among the most common:


2. Using Euphemism, Abstraction, and other Linguistic Transformations

We can hide the horrors and reality of torture with strategic use of abstraction, euphemism, and other forms of linguistic transformation.

Repeatedly in the Nuremberg trials, the most heinous forms of torture carried out by Nazi doctors, concentration camp guards, soldiers, and others were characterized dismissively by the defendants as "medical matters."

Institutions in which those with views unacceptable to the state are tortured until they renounce the views and pledge loyalty to the state may be termed "Education Camps" or "Re-education Academies."

Inflicting pain, disfigurement, and ultimately death in order to obtain information may go by such names as "depth interrogation," "directed probing," or "motivated debriefing."

Many of the names for torture that are listed in the Glossary fail to communicate any of the horrors involved, some of them sounding almost like children's games.

Analyzing in 1946 the ways that language can hide or blur atrocities, George Orwell provided the following examples: "Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets; this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the road with no more than they can carry; this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers."

A particular set of acts may be described as instances torture prohibited by international law and evidence of an enemy's evil, barbaric contempt for humanity.

The same set of acts, when performed by "our side," may be seen as necessary, reasonable, and completely justified by such factors as self-defense, saving countless lives, preserving rights and values, etc. Orwell wrote: "If one looks back over the past quarter of a century, one finds that there was hardly a single year when atrocity stories were not being reported from some part of the world.... Whether such deeds were reprehensible, or even whether they happened, was always decided according to political predilection."


3. Turning Away: "I'm not involved," "There is nothing I can do about it," "I have no authority, jurisdiction, power, or influence," "This is no concern of mine," etc.

Those who are aware of torture may come to accept its presence in their community or state by viewing it as something that is none of their business or beyond their control.

They may discuss it and even focus on it but never in ways that lead to effective action in stopping the torture and holding those involved accountable.

These cognitive techniques, by avoiding effective action, turn us into torture's passive bystanders and enablers.

The tendency of bystanders to do nothing in the face of even the most horrendous acts suffered by others became a focus of research after the slow murder of Catherine Genovese in New York City the morning of March 13, 1964. As she was returning home from work, she began walking from her car to her apartment building. A man began chasing her, caught her, and began stabbing her. She screamed. The lights began to go on in the windows of the buildings on each side of the street. The man ran but then, when nothing happened, returned to her and began stabbing her again. His attack continued and it took 45 minutes for her to die. Thirty-eight people watched this happen from their windows. Not one went outside to help. Not one called the police. No one took any action to stop the attack, to help her, or to summon aid.

One ironic finding of the subsequent research is that the more people who are present, the less likely any will take action to help.

When more people are present, each individual may feel less responsible for taking action.

There may be less sense of personal responsibility because it is easier to assume that, with so many people present, someone else is likely responding, or has more information about the situation, more knowledge about what to do, or more resources and ability.

The responsibility may seem to lie with others or -- in a blurred and diffuse way -- with the group as a whole, but not with the individual.

PLEASE NOTE: The passage above is a brief excerpt—edited for space and reformatted for the web—from a section of the chapter, "Torture," published in 2001 by Academic Press. Academic Press owns the copyright to this chapter. Questions about any uses involving copyright should be addressed to Academic Press.

Related Web Pages on this Site:


[Back to Top]