From the Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) and the Project on Law and Mind Sciences (PLMS) at Harvard Law School, here is an remarkable presentation, titled “Psychological Studies of the Guilty Mind,” by Dan Wegner, one of the most thoughtful and influential social psychologists in the business.
* * *
Vodpod videos no longer available.
* * *
To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here.
The rationale behind torture is that pain will make the guilty confess, but a new study by researchers at Harvard University finds that the pain of torture can make even the innocent seem guilty.
Participants in the study met a woman suspected of cheating to win money. The woman was then “tortured” by having her hand immersed in ice water while study participants listened to the session over an intercom. She never confessed to anything, but the more she suffered during the torture, the guiltier she was perceived to be.
The research, published in the “Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,” was conducted by Kurt Gray, graduate student in psychology, and Daniel M. Wegner, professor of psychology, both in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“Our research suggests that torture may not uncover guilt so much as lead to its perception,” says Gray. “It is as though people who know of the victim’s pain must somehow convince themselves that it was a good idea—and so come to believe that the person who was tortured deserved it.”
Not all torture victims appear guilty, however. When participants in the study only listened to a recording of a previous torture session—rather than taking part as witnesses of ongoing torture—they saw the victim who expressed more pain as less guilty. Gray explains the different results as arising from different levels of complicity.
“Those who feel complicit with the torture have a need to justify the torture, and so link the victim’s pain to blame,” says Gray. “On the other hand, those distant from torture have no need to justify it and so can sympathize with the suffering of the victim, linking pain to innocence.”
The study included 78 participants: half met the woman who was apparently tortured (actually a confederate of the experimenters who was, of course, not harmed at all), and half did not. Participants were told that the study was about moral behavior, and that the woman may have cheated by taking more money than she deserved. The experimenter suggested that a stressful situation might make a guilty person confess, so participants listened for a confession over a hidden intercom as she was subjected to the sham “torture.”
The confederate did not admit to cheating but reacted to having her hand submerged in ice water with either indifference or with whimpering and pleading. Participants who had met her rated her as more guilty the more she suffered. Those who did not meet her rated her as more guilty when she felt less pain.
Gray suggests that these results offer an explanation for the debate swirling around torture.
“Seeing others in pain can perpetuate ideological differences about the justifiability of torture,” says Gray. “Those who initially advocate torture see those harmed as guilty, unlike those who initially reject torture and its methods.”
The findings also shed light on the Abu Ghraib scandal, where prison guards tortured Iraqi detainees. Prison guards, who are close to the suffering of detainees, see detainees as more guilty the more they suffer, unlike the more distant general public.
The case is still open on whether torture actually makes victims more likely to tell the truth. This research suggests instead that the mere fact that someone was tortured leads observers to think that the truth was found.
On Tuesday, September 8, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Professor Daniel Wegner on “Psychological Studies of the Guilty Mind.” The event will take place in Pound 108 at Harvard Law School, from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. (and lunch will be served – first come, first served).
SALMS is a student organization working in conjunction with the Project on Law and Mind Sciences to bring to legal academia (in this case, specifically, the Harvard Law School community) the ground-breaking mind sciences research that has profound implications for law and legal theory. SALMS has a very exciting schedule of events planned for the fall semester. Additional upcoming speakers include Fiery Cushman, Andrew Papachristos, Goutam Jois, Mahzarin Banaji, and Stephen Pinker.
From Harvard University, “Pain Hurts More if the Person Hurting You Means It”:
Researchers at Harvard University have discovered that our experience of pain depends on whether we think someone caused the pain intentionally. In their study, participants who believed they were getting an electrical shock from another person on purpose, rather than accidentally, rated the very same shock as more painful. Participants seemed to get used to shocks that were delivered unintentionally, but those given on purpose had a fresh sting every time.
The research, published in the current issue of Psychological Science, was led by Kurt Gray, a graduate student in psychology, along with Daniel Wegner, professor of psychology.
It has long been known that our own mental states can alter the experience of pain, but these findings suggest that our perceptions of the mental states of others can also influence how we feel pain.
“This study shows that even if two harmful events are physically identical, the one delivered with the intention to hurt actually hurts more,” says Gray. “Compare a slap from a friend as she tries to save us from a mosquito versus the same slap from a jilted lover. The first we shrug off instantly, while the second stings our cheek for the rest of the night.”
The study’s authors suggest that intended and unintended harm cause different amounts of pain because they differ in meaning.
“From decoding language to understanding gestures, the mind distills meaning from our social environment,” says Gray. “An intended harm has a very different meaning than an accidental harm.”
The study included 48 participants who were paired up with a partner who could administer to them either an audible tone or an electric shock. In the intentional condition, participants were shocked when their partner chose the shock option. In the unintentional condition, participants were shocked when their partner chose the tone option. Thus, in this condition, they only received a shock when their partner did not intend them to receive one. The computer display ensured that participants both knew their partner’s choice and that a shock would be coming, to ensure the shock was not more surprising in the unintentional condition.
Despite identical shock voltage between conditions, those in the intentional condition rated the shocks as significantly more painful. Furthermore, those in the unintentional condition habituated to the pain, rating them as decreasingly painful, while those in the intentional condition continued to feel the full sting of pain.
Gray suggests that it may be evolutionarily adaptive for this difference in meaning to be represented as different amounts of pain.
“The more something hurts, the more likely we are to take notice and stop whatever is hurting us,” he says. “If it’s an accidental harm, chances are it’s a one-time thing, and there’s no need to do anything about it. If it’s an intentional harm, however, it may be the first of many, so it’s good to take notice and do something about it. It makes sense that our bodies and brains might amplify our experience of pain when we know that the pain could signal threats to our survival.”
These findings speak to how people experience pain and negative life events. If negative events are seen as intended, they may hurt more. This helps to explain why torture is so excruciating – not only are torture techniques themselves exceptionally painful, but it’s the thought that counts–and makes torture hurt more than mere pain.
On the other hand, if negative events are seen as unintended, they may hurt less. This may explain, in part, why people in abusive relationships sometimes continue to stay in them. By rationalizing that an abusive partner did not intend harm, some victims may reduce their experience of pain, which could make them less likely to leave the relationship and escape the abuse.
* * *
You can download a copy of the fascinating paper, Gray, K., & Wegner, D. M. (2009). The sting of intentional pain. Psychological Science, 19, 1260-1262, here.