Psychology of torture

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Torture is the infliction of severe physical or psychological pain as an expression of cruelty, a means of intimidation, deterrent or punishment, or as a tool for the extraction of information or confessions. Although the most obvious dimension of torture is that it achieves its goal through physical pain (or threat of pain), in fact many of its most devastating effects come from the psychological effect of the extremes inflicted upon its victims.

This article studies the psychology of torture, that is, its effects psychologically, and how this psychological pain coupled with physical trauma is used to achieve the purposes of the torturer.


The torture process

Although torture is usually thought of in terms of its physical impact (pain and damage), the psychological impact is often greater and tends to remain with the victim long after the actual activity is discontinued.

The process of psychological torture is designed to invade and destroy the belief of a victim in their validity as a human being, to destroy presumptions of privacy, intimacy, and inviolability assumed by the victim, and to destroy their unspoken trust that these things can save them. Beyond merely invading the victim's mental and physical independence on a one-to-one level, such acts are made further damaging via public humiliation, incessant repetition, depersonalization, and sadistic glee.

The CIA, in its "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983" (reprinted in the April 1997 issue of Harper's Magazine), summed up the theory of coercion thusly:

"The purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist. Regression is basically a loss of autonomy, a reversion to an earlier behavioral level. As the subject regresses, his learned personality traits fall away in reverse chronological order. He begins to lose the capacity to carry out the highest creative activities, to deal with complex situations, or to cope with stressful interpersonal relationships or repeated frustrations."

Psychologically, torture often places the victim in a state where the mind works against the best interests of the individual, due to the inducement of such emotions as shame, worthlessness, dependency, and a feeling of a lack of uniqueness. These and other mental stresses can lead to a mutated, fragmented, or discredited personality and belief structure. Even the victim's normal bodily needs and functions (e.g. sleep, sustenance, excretion, etc.) can be changed and made to be construed as self-degrading, animalistic, and dehumanizing.

Torture robs the victim of the most basic modes of relating to reality and, thus, is the equivalent of cognitive death. Space and time are warped. The self ("I") is shattered. The tortured have nothing familiar to hold on to: family, home, personal belongings, loved ones, language, name. They lose their mental resilience and sense of freedom. They feel alienated — unable to communicate, relate, attach, or empathize with others.

What is psychological stress and pain

Psychological pain is pain caused by psychological stress and by emotional trauma, as distinct from that caused by physiological injuries and other physical syndromes. The practice of torture induces psychological pain through various acts that often involve both physiological pain and psychological manipulation to achieve a tactical goal.

Examples of psychological stress include: paralysing fear of death or pain, uncertainty, playing on anticipation, fear for (and of) others. But torture also creates further extremes of dynamic, and can disrupt usual cognitive processes to such an extent a victim is unable to retain the usual sense of personal boundaries, friends and enemies, love and hate, and other major human psychological dynamics.

Some well-known animal experiments performed in the 20th century show that in addition to these, a victims own strengths and weaknesses can be enhanced by psychological stress to the point that they will enter a "grey" mental world of great suggestibility, where certain critical faculties in the brain shut down under overload. This renders them less able to judge what they believe and refute, to conduct logical argument or reject the views of interrogators, and can cause them in some cases cases even to side with the interrogator and torturer in confusion. (Main article: Brainwashing)

Psychology of torture

As normal developing human beings, people internalize certain concepts needed to support their ability to face life. For example, they come to understand there are people and authorities who will support them, they psychologically become independent and individual from their peer group (individuation), they believe they have validity purpose and "a place" simply by virtue of being a human being, that they are not simply an "object", they have many life-experiences which give them pride and self-confidence, and so on. These are a very profound platform for growth; remove or damage it and a person's entire ability to know what and who they are in relationship to the world, can be devastated.

Torture splinters these by sheer force, using both psychological design and the impact of massive unavoidable sustained physical pain. In doing so, it shatters deep down narcissistic fantasies of uniqueness, omnipotence, invulnerability, and impenetrability which help sustain personality. Seeking an alternate means to comprehend the changed world, torture victims grow into a fantasy of merger with an idealized and omnipotent (though not benign) other — the inflicter of agony. The twin processes of individuation and separation which sustain independent adulthood are reversed.

Beatrice Patsalides describes this transmogrification thus in "Ethics of the unspeakable: Torture survivors in psychoanalytic treatment":

"As the gap between the 'I' and the 'me' deepens, dissociation and alienation increase. The subject that, under torture, was forced into the position of pure object has lost his or her sense of interiority, intimacy, and privacy. Time is experienced now, in the present only, and perspective — that which allows for a sense of relativity — is foreclosed. Thoughts and dreams attack the mind and invade the body as if the protective skin that normally contains our thoughts, gives us space to breathe in between the thought and the thing being thought about, and separates between inside and outside, past and present, me and you, was lost."

Psychology of pain

Spitz observes that:

"Pain is also unsharable in that it is resistant to language ... All our interior states of consciousness: emotional, perceptual, cognitive and somatic can be described as having an object in the external world ... This affirms our capacity to move beyond the boundaries of our body into the external, sharable world. This is the space in which we interact and communicate with our environment. But when we explore the interior state of physical pain we find that there is no object "out there" – no external, referential content. Pain is not of, or for, anything. Pain is. And it draws us away from the space of interaction, the sharable world, inwards. It draws us into the boundaries of our body."

Extending torture to family and friends

A common factor of psychological torture, at times the only factor, is to extend the activity to family, friends, and others for whom the victim has a deep concern (the "social body"). This further disrupts the individual's familiar expectations of their environment, their control over their circumstances, and the strength of (and ability to help and be helped by) their closest relationships and lifelong support network.

The perversion of intimacy

Torture is the ultimate act of perverted intimacy. The torturer invades the victim's body, pervades his psyche, and possesses his mind. Deprived of contact with others and starved for human interactions, the prey bonds with the predator. "Traumatic bonding", akin to the Stockholm syndrome, is about hope and the search for meaning in the brutal and indifferent and nightmarish universe of the torture cell.

The abuser becomes the black hole at the center of the victim's surrealistic galaxy, sucking in the sufferer's universal need for solace. The victim tries to "control" his tormentor by becoming one with him (introjecting him) and appealing in vain to the monster's presumably dormant humanity and empathy.

This bonding is especially strong when the torturer and the tortured form a dyad and "collaborate" in the rituals and acts of torture (for instance, when the victim is coerced into selecting the torture implements and the types of torment to be inflicted, or to be forced to choose between two evils named by the torturer).

The psychologist Shirley Spitz offers this powerful overview of the contradictory nature of torture in a seminar titled "The Psychology of Torture" (1989):

"Torture is an obscenity in that it joins what is most private with what is most public. Torture entails all the isolation and extreme solitude of privacy with none of the usual security embodied therein ... Torture entails at the same time all the self exposure of the utterly public with none of its possibilities for camaraderie or shared experience. (The presence of an all powerful other with whom to merge, without the security of the other's benign intentions.)

A further obscenity of torture is the inversion it makes of intimate human relationships. The interrogation is a form of social encounter in which the normal rules of communicating, of relating, of intimacy are manipulated. Dependency needs are elicited by the interrogator, but not so they may be met as in close relationships, but to weaken and confuse. Independence that is offered in return for "betrayal" is a lie. Silence is intentionally misinterpreted either as confirmation of information or as guilt for 'complicity'.

Forced absorption of the torturer's perspective

Torture combines complete humiliating exposure with utter devastating isolation. The final products and outcome of torture are a scarred and often shattered victim and an empty display of the fiction of power. It is about reprogramming the victim to succumb to an alternative exegesis of the world, proffered by the abuser. It is an act of deep, indelible, traumatic indoctrination. The abused also swallows whole and assimilates the torturer's negative view of him and often, as a result, is rendered suicidal, self-destructive, or self-defeating.

Obsessed by endless agonized ruminations, demented by pain and a continuum of sleeplessness, unable to stand back and see the past present and future in neutral perspective, the victim regresses, shedding all but the most primitive defense mechanisms: splitting, narcissism, dissociation, projective identification, introjection, and cognitive dissonance. The victim constructs an alternative world, often suffering from depersonalization and derealization, hallucinations, ideas of reference, delusions, and psychotic episodes.

Sometimes the victim comes to crave pain — very much as self-mutilators do — because it is a proof and a reminder of his individuated existence otherwise blurred by the incessant torture. Pain shields the sufferer from disintegration and capitulation. It preserves the veracity of his unthinkable and unspeakable experiences.

This dual process of the victim's alienation and addiction to anguish complements the perpetrator's view of his quarry as "inhuman", or "subhuman". The torturer assumes the position of the sole authority, the exclusive fount of meaning and interpretation, the source of both evil and good.

Thus, torture has no cutoff date. The sounds, the voices, the smells, the sensations reverberate long after the episode has ended — both in nightmares and in waking moments. The victim's ability to trust other people — i.e., to assume that their motives are at least rational, if not necessarily benign — has been irrevocably undermined. Social institutions are perceived as precariously poised on the verge of an ominous, Kafkaesque mutation. Nothing is either safe, or credible anymore.

Psychological results of torture

Victims typically oscillate between emotional numbing and highly sensitive arousal: insomnia, irritability, restlessness, and attention deficits. Recollections of the traumatic events intrude in the form of dreams, night terrors, flashbacks, and distressing associations.

Long term coping mechanisms include the development of compulsive rituals to fend off obsessive thoughts. Other psychological consequences include cognitive impairment, reduced capacity to learn, memory disorders, sexual dysfunction, social withdrawal, inability to maintain long-term relationships, or even mere intimacy, phobias, ideas of reference and superstitions, delusions, hallucinations, psychotic microepisodes, and emotional flatness.

Depression and anxiety are very common. These are forms and manifestations of self-directed aggression. The sufferer rages at his own victimhood and resulting multiple dysfunction. He feels shamed by his new disabilities and responsible, or even guilty, somehow, for his predicament and the dire consequences borne by his nearest and dearest. His sense of self-worth and self-esteem are crippled.

Torture trauma and survival

In summary, torture victims suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their strong feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame are also typical of victims of childhood abuse, domestic violence, and rape. They feel anxious because the perpetrator's behavior is seemingly arbitrary and unpredictable — or mechanically and inhumanly regular.

They feel guilty and disgraced because, to restore a semblance of order to their shattered world and a modicum of dominion over their chaotic life, they need to transform themselves into the cause of their own degradation and the accomplices of their tormentors.

Inevitably, in the aftermath of torture, its victims feel helpless and powerless. This loss of control over one's life and body is manifested physically in impotence, attention deficits, and insomnia. This is often exacerbated by the disbelief many torture victims encounter, especially if they are unable to produce scars, or other "objective" proof of their ordeal. Language cannot communicate such an intensely private experience as pain.

Bystanders resent the tortured because they make them feel guilty and ashamed for having done nothing to prevent the atrocity. The victims threaten their sense of security and their much-needed belief in predictability, justice, and rule of law. The victims, on their part, do not believe that it is possible to effectively communicate to "outsiders" what they have been through. The torture chambers are "another galaxy". This is how Auschwitz was described by the author K. Zetnik in his testimony in the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961.

Kenneth Pope in "Torture", a chapter he wrote for the "Encyclopedia of Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of Society on Gender", quotes Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman:

"It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering."

But, more often, continued attempts to repress fearful memories result in psychosomatic illnesses (conversion). The victim wishes to forget the torture, to avoid re-experiencing the often life threatening abuse and to shield his human environment from the horrors. In conjunction with the victim's pervasive distrust, this is frequently interpreted as hypervigilance, or even paranoia. It seems that the victims can't win. Torture is forever...


  • CIA, KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, July 1963
  • CIA, Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual - 1983

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