A Better Way Than Torture to Obtain Information: Acting Friendly

Friendly methods get information from suspects faster and more reliably, oh and they don’t violate human rights

torture chamber
A torture chamber at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis

Most of the information that the CIA obtained from the torture of terror suspects, the report released last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded, could have been obtained in other ways. And, in fact, studies show that a much more humane method of interrogation actually works.

As Olga Khazan for The Atlantic puts it, to obtain information from suspects, "Pretend to be their friends."

One study, released earlier this year, interviewed 34 interrogators from countries including Australia, Indonesia and Norway. The researchers also interviewed 30 detainees who had been terror suspects. Both groups were mostly men; there was one woman in each group. And they were completely separate groups of people—the interrogators had not been the ones questioning the detainees, according to the Research Digest blog of The British Psychological Society. 

One in five of the detainees reported experiencing methods constituting torture in their interrogations. But the researchers found that when the interrogation included a "rapport-building approach," a transfer of information was 14 times more likely to happen early in the process. In that apporach, interrogators might have expressed concern, indicated that they liked the detainee and used humor. A comfortable setting for the interrogation also made it more likely that people would disclose the sought-for information.

The researchers wrote in their report, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, that coercive techniques—which include torture and accusations of specific crimes—were "counterproductive." 

In an interview with PRI, a former U.S Army interrogator relates his own experience "bonding" with terror suspects during his work in Iraq from 2009 to 2010. Joyce Hackel, PRI’s reporter, relates that the methods the interrogator used were not at all like the CIA’s torture or the abuses that happened at Abu Gharib:

Andrew says he saw none of that with his unit, and, in fact, when detainees weren't dealt with harshly, they got confused. "We use techniques that manipulate people, but we don't physically or psychologically harm them," he says. Instead the interrogator might talk about the detainee's family and offer tea.

"They see that this isn't the big, bad American facade that they were led to believe," he says. "It changes their perspective, and almost turns their mindset against their organization, and they're thinking, 'Why would they lie to me?' And then they're more willing to actually share secrets with us." 

After bonding with one Iraqi over the television series "24," Andrew got the man to recant false information and deliver the correct story.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.