Experts in the intelligence community say that torture is ineffective. Yet much of the public appears unconvinced: surveys show that nearly half of Americans think that torture can be acceptable for counterterrorism purposes. In this Q&A, Erin M. Kearns and Joseph K. Young discuss their new book, Tortured Logic: Why Some Americans Support the Use of Torture in Counterterrorism, which answers the question, “Why do people persist in supporting torture—and can they be persuaded to change their minds?”
Q: How did you first decide to research public opinion on torture, and how did you settle on experiments to do so?
Erin M. Kearns and Joseph K. Young: We were reading a newspaper story about how U.S. Army General Patrick Finnegan took a trip to Hollywood to try to persuade the producers of the TV show 24 to stop showing torture as effective. General Finnegan felt this dramatic portrayal was having negative effects on troops and leading them to conclude that torture was an effective technique in the war on terror.
We thought that General Finnegan was proposing a hypothesis, and we felt we could test it. Erin had a strong background in doing experiments and proposed a lab experiment where we would show people a clip from 24 that either showed torture as effective, ineffective, or not present, thus mimicking what General Finnegan was hypothesizing about the show’s effect. We presented the first version of the paper at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting, and then Vox, CNN, and other media outlets picked up on it. Our findings from this first study also raised more questions that led us to the additional experiments in the book.
Q: What do your findings tell us about the relationship between media and policy making? About public opinion and the war on terror? Where are we now with policy about what some euphemistically call “enhanced interrogation,” and what should your findings say about overall support for the war on terror as it’s been conducted by the United States?
EMK & JKY: Studying violent things like torture is often depressing. Unfortunately, the prospects for our policy recommendations are also depressing. Based on our experimental research, we are a little more hopeful than most that we can sway people’s opinions away from torture. That is the hopeful part. If the anti-torture message is coming from an expert, if it involves torture of a person inside the United States, if it involves an American citizen, we may be able to change someone’s views away from torture.
The depressing piece is that for most people (around 75%), you can’t really sway them. And even more depressing, the people who are anti-torture can be swayed towards torture during times of external threat, like right after 9/11. So, at the times when we want people to consider the evidence against torture (because it may happen), they are least likely to receive that evidence or be swayed by it.
Q: What are some other issues that can be investigated using the methods you developed for the research in this book?
EMK & JKY: A big theme in the book is persuasion. How can people be persuaded to change their views on a topic? Based on our own research as well as that of many others, people are more easily swayed on things they don’t know a lot about. Torture policy tends to be one of these issues. Any other contentious issue, such as climate change or vaccine policies, may be amenable to persuasion given low information in society. People take cues from partisan elites (like the former president, Donald Trump), which in part explains vaccine hesitancy. Our research showing efficacy (or the opposite) could be replicated in this context. We think again that a partisan effect will remain but that showing vaccine efficacy could reduce some of this gap. The spots on TV showing former presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton getting the vaccine is consistent with effective persuasion from our experiments. If Trump would do the same thing, we think this would have a large effect on far-right partisans.
Persuasion may be trickier on views of terrorism. People tend to think they know a lot about terrorism. In reality, though, most people have inaccurate views on terrorism’s frequency, lethality, perpetrators, et cetera. So, people likely have an inflated confidence on what they know about terrorism, making persuasion more difficult. Experimental research, like what we did in this book, can certainly be applied to understanding persuasion on views of terrorism.
Erin M. Kearns is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama, and Joseph K. Young is a professor at American University with a joint appointment in the School of Public Affairs and the School of International Service.
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