Sandeep and I are writing a paper on torture.  We are trying to understand the mechanics and effectiveness of torture viewed purely as a mechanism for extracting information from the unwilling.  A major theme we are finding is that torture is complicated by numerous commitment problems.  We have blogged about these before.  Here is Sandeep’s first post on torture which got this whole project started.

A big problem is that torture takes time and when the victim has resisted repeated torture it becomes more and more likely that he actually has no information to give.  At this point the torturer has a hard time credibly commiting to continue the torture because in all likelihood he is torturing an innocent victim.  This feeds back into the early stages of the torture because it increases the temptation for the truly informed victim to resist torture and pretend to be uninformed.

In light of this it is possible to say something about the benefits of adopting more and more severe forms of torture, waterboarding say.   A naive presumption is that a technology which delivers suffering at a faster pace would circumvent the problem because it makes it harder to resist temptation for long enough.

But this logic is backwards.  Indeed, if it were true that more severe torture induced the informed to reveal their information early, then this would only hasten the time at which the torture ceases because the torturer becomes convinced that his heretofore silent victim is in fact innocent.  So credible torture requires that those who resist the now more severe torture must find compensation in the form of less information revealed in the future.  In the end the informed victim is no worse off and this means that the torturer is no better off.

Once you account for that what you are left with is that there is more suffering inflicted on the uninformed who has no alternative but to resist.  And this only makes it more difficult to continue torturing once the victim has demonstrated he is innocent. That is, the original commitment problem is only made worse.