The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dramatic depictions of torture increase support for it

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is on the move trying to stop a terrorist attack in an episode of “24.” (Credit: Daniel Smith/FOX)
Placeholder while article actions load

This week’s release of the Senate Torture Report has reignited a decade-long debate about appropriate techniques in interrogations. The report found limited evidence that torture elicited actionable intelligence. Given this lack of efficacy and the controversy surrounding the morality of these techniques, it might make sense that people oppose such practices.

What the data show, however, is that a surprising portion of the American public still supports torture. According to Pew Research Center and Associated Press surveys, the percentage of Americans who think that torture could be justified to gain information about terrorism is even recently on the rise. Why?

Since 9/11, television and movie scenes showing torture have increased dramatically, as seen in shows like 24.” A Parents Television Council analysis found 110 scenes of torture on prime time from 1995 to 2001. Between 2002 and 2005, that number ballooned to over 600 scenes, and “24” accounted for over 60 of these.

Pop culture depictions generally show torture to be effective at eliciting actionable intelligence, often in a ticking time bomb scenario that fails to reflect reality. Similarly, public opinion polls ask about support for torture under the presumption that it works.

What impact does framing torture as effective have on public perceptions? In a recent study, we found that it increases the public’s support of torture.

We recruited student participants who were first asked their opinion about support for torture and then randomly assigned to one of three groups.  The first group saw a clip from “24” in which torture elicited actionable intelligence that subverted an attack.  The second group saw a clip from “24” in which torture was ineffective at eliciting such intelligence.  The third group saw a clip from “24” in which the interrogation did not include torture, and it was not clear if this was effective.

In all three groups, participants were asked to answer questions and watch videos about issues, such as the Keystone pipeline and legalizing marijuana, to obscure the purpose of the study.

After watching the videos, participants were again asked about their level of support for torture. We also gave participants the opportunity to sign a petition in support of torture or one in opposition to torture that would be sent to Congress.

Participants who saw the clip depicting effective torture both had a higher level of support for torture and were more likely to sign a petition supporting it than people who saw the interrogation that did not include torture.

Participants who saw the clip depicting ineffective torture were not much affected.  For instance, they did not become less supportive of torture.  They supported torture as much as those who watched the clip of the interrogation that did not use torture.  However, they were no less likely to sign a petition in line with their beliefs as were participants who saw torture working.

Our findings support the notion that dramatic depictions of effective torture can increase the public’s support for torture. There is also a more striking implication.  The Senate report argues that torture was largely ineffective at eliciting actionable intelligence. But showing people evidence that torture was ineffective did not make them support it any less.

More details are in our study here.

Erin Kearns is a Ph.D. student at American University. Joseph Young is Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs and School of International Service at American University.