Loyola University Maryland

Emerging Scholars

Katherine Lunsford

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Torture By Any Other Name:  A Prospective Study On the Relation Between the Use of Euphemisms and Support of Torture

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Torture is a universally illegal practice but is currently being practiced in many countries, including the United States, Israel, and France (Amnesty International, 2010). Torture has been defined in general terms (WMO, 1975; United Nations, 1984); however, there are no current definitions that include an operational definition to specify acts of torture (Suedfeld, 2007). The lack of an operational definition has resulted in an increase in the use of euphemisms for torture among politicians to absolve responsibility when prisoners and detainees are inhumanely treated (Bandura, 1999), and it poses a potential problem for the psychological community. The APA has touted the benefits of psychologists being present during interrogations, yet the APA condemns psychologists being in the presence of, or participating in, the torture of prisoners and detainees (Carter & Abeles, 2009). Unfortunately, this requires psychologists to question if techniques used in interrogations have evolved into torture, and if the techniques are considered “torture” if they are described by a euphemism (e.g., “enhanced interrogation; Dorfman, 2004). Previous research has demonstrated that status quo framing increases the support of torture (Crandall, Eidelman, Skitka, & Morgan, 2008). Individuals with higher levels of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) are associated with increased support of war (Eckstein Jackson & Gaertner, 2010) and increased levels of extrinsic religiosity (Altemeyer, 1981, 1988; Rubinstein, 2006), but research has not addressed the relation between the use of euphemisms for torture and individuals’ levels of support for torture.

The prospective study will examine a possible relation between euphemisms for torture (e.g., “refined interrogation techniques”) and differences in individuals’ levels of support for torture.  The study will also measure individuals’ levels of RWA and religiosity, and examine possible interactions between RWA, religiosity, and the support of torture. 100 Participants from the United States Military Academy at West Point and Loyola University-Maryland undergraduates will be randomly assigned to two groups- euphemism group and torture group. Each group will first complete questionnaires to gather basic demographic information and measure the individual levels of RWA, using the RWA Scale (Altemeyer 1981, 1988) and extrinsic religiosity, using the Religious Orientation Scale-Revised (Gorsuch & McPherson, 1989), and then will read a list of 15 hypothetical scenarios between a guard and a prisoner. The 15 scenarios will be manipulated, such that participants in the Torture group will read 15 scenarios describing the hypothetical interaction between guard and prisoner as torture (e.g., The guard tortures the prisoner by refusing to let the prisoner use the restroom for 24 hours), and participants in the Euphemism group will read the same 15 scenarios with a euphemism for torture (e.g., The guard uses refined interrogation techniques with the prisoner by refusing to let the prisoner use the restroom for 24 hours). After each scenario, participants will take a short survey, created by Crandall, Eidelman, Skitka, & Morgan (2008),  rating their level of support for the techniques used in the scenario.

The proposed study will test the following hypotheses: (1) there will be a relation between the use of euphemistic language and support of torture, such that the use of euphemistic language will causally increase the support of torture, (2) there will be a relation between military status (military or civilians) and support of torture, such that higher levels of support of torture will be associated with individuals in the military compared to levels of support of torture associated with civilians, (3) there will be a relation between levels of RWA and support of torture, such that as levels of RWA increase, the support of torture will increase, and (4) there will be a relation between levels of religiosity and justification of torture, such that as levels of religiosity increase, the justification of torture will increase.


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Crandall, C. S., Eidelman, S., Skitka, L. J., & Morgan, G. S. (2008). Status quo framing increases support for torture. Social Influence, 1, 1-10. doi: 40.1080/15534510802124397

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Eckstein Jackson, L., & Gaertner, L. (2010). Mechanisms of moral disengagement and their differential use by right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation in support of war. Aggressive Behavior, 36, 238-250. doi: 10.1002/ab.20344           

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