Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Effectiveness framing and attitudes toward torture

A few weeks ago, I got to present some data that some students and I collected last fall semester. Our main interest was to examine how the way torture was framed could influence individuals' attitudes toward the sort of enhanced interrogation methods that usually fall under the rubric of torture.

Studying framing effects on attitudes is hardly new, although studying these effects on attitudes toward torture specifically is quite recent. A few years ago, Christian Crandall and colleagues published findings supporting the hypothesis that status quo framing would lead to more acceptance of torture than novelty framing. In essence, when torture was presented as something that had already been done by our soldiers over a long period of time, respondents showed more favorable attitudes toward torture than when torture was presented as a phenomenon unique to the War on Terror.

Our main interest for our experiment was effectiveness framing. There is some political science data (the work of Gronke and colleagues comes to mind) that suggests that Americans are rather ambivalent about the use of torture, but that they will accept its use if they believe it will prevent future terrorist attacks. It isn't much of a leap to suggest that if torture is presented as effective, respondents will show more favorable attitudes toward its use than if framed as ineffective. In our experiment, we presented participants with one of two statements that were equivalent except in terms of how torture was framed: for some participants, torture was framed as effective in leading to the location of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts, whereas for other participants, torture was framed as ineffective. Afterwards, participants completed an attitudes toward torture questionnaire, and then some demographic questions, and were debriefed and dismissed. The bottom line was that participants who read the statement suggesting torture was effective were more favorably disposed to its use than those who read the statement suggesting torture was not effective.

One implication of our findings is that we need to be good consumers of how enhanced interrogation techniques are presented in mass media outlets. In the case of the story of how information leading to Osama bin Laden was presented, a number of news media outlets presented torture as the primary factor leading to a successful mission. However, a number of other media outlets deemphasized the role of torture and emphasized instead the primary role of conventional interrogation methods in leading to a successful mission. Depending on the sorts of media outlets one was viewing or reading, one could be led to a rather different set of ideas about the role torture played in obtaining crucial information about a major terrorist leader's location.

Our own research does not, of course, address the question of whether torture is actually effective. For a run-down on various opinions on that question, one might examine the work of such writers as Alfred McCoy, who published a book on the topic of torture a few years ago.