Torture in a Just World

If the world is just, only the guilty are tortured. So believers in a just world are more likely to think that the people who are tortured are guilty. Perhaps especially so if they experience the torture closely and so feel a greater need to overcome cognitive dissonance. On the other hand, those farther away from the experience of torture may feel less need to justify it and they may be more likely to identify the tortured as victims. The theory of moral typecasting suggests that victims are also more likely to be seen as innocents (a la Jesus).

The theory is tested in a lab setting by Gray and Wegner. Experimental subjects are told that “Carol”, really a confederate, may have lied about a dice roll and that stress often encourages people to admit guilt. Subjects then listen to a torture session as Carol’s hand is plunged into a bucket of ice water for 80s. Subjects are then asked how likely is it that the torture victim was lying (1 to 5 with 5 being extremely likely). There are two intervention variables: 1) some of the subjects meet the torture victim before she is tortured, this is the close condition and some do not (distance condition) and 2) in some torture sessions the victim evinces pain (pain) and in others not (no pain). The key figure is shown below:

torturegraphThe most striking result is that in the close condition, the evincing of pain was associated with an increased judgment of guilt, consistent with torture causing cognitive dissonance which is relieved by a judgment of guilt (restoring the just world). But in the distance condition, the evincing of pain was associated with a decreased judgement of guilt, consistent with pain increasing the identification of the tortured as a victim and therefore innocent (a la moral typecasting).

Closeness in the experiment was reasonably literal but may also be interpreted in terms of identification with the torturer. If the church is doing the torturing then the especially religious may be more likely to think the tortured are guilty. If the state is doing the torturing then the especially patriotic (close to their country) may be more likely to think that the tortured/killed/jailed/abused are guilty. That part is fairly obvious but note the second less obvious implication–the worse the victim is treated the more the religious/patriotic will believe the victim is guilty.

The theory has interesting lessons for entrepreneurs of social change. Suppose you want to change a policy such as prisoner abuse (e.g. Abu Ghraib) or no-knock police raids or the war on drugs or even tax policy. Convincing people that the abuse is grave may increase their belief that the victim is guilty. Instead, you want to do one of two things. Among the patriotic you may want to sell the problem as a minor problem that We Can Fix – making them feel good about both the we and the fixing. Or, you may want to create distance – The problem is bad and THEY are the cause. People in the North, for example, became more concerned about slavery once the US became us and them.

I think research in moral reasoning is important because understanding why good people do evil things is more important than understanding why evil people do evil things.


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