Thursday, November 17, 2016

Interrogational Torture: Or How Good Guys Get Bad Information with Ugly Methods


This research aimed to provide insight on an important problem: the effectiveness of interrogational torture in revealing clear and accurate information to the state.  There is little consensus among policy makers, academics, or even interrogators on whether interrogational torture works. This article examines whether torture is effective in revealing reliable information and at what cost in terms of frequency and intensity of the torture employed, even under limited conditions and with certain restrictions in place. Due to the absence of any reliable and systematic data from either the field or laboratory on the effectiveness of torture, Schiemann investigates the question theoretically by employing the tools of game theory.

Game theory allows Schiemann to build an analytical model of restricted, limited interrogational torture incorporating realistic elements and corresponding to what one might call the pragmatically normative view of interrogational torture: that “limited” or “restrained” torture is unfortunately necessary in limited cases. This allows Schiemann to compare the outcomes of the analytical model with the criteria defining the normative model of interrogational torture’s proponents. The model’s outcomes substitute for empirical data that we will likely never have to assess torture’s effectiveness.

In the first section, Schiemann outlines his normative model of pragmatic interrogational torture.  The point of this model is to first identify constraints on the use of torture in interrogations, and second, the anticipated consequences of employing interrogational torture, including the expected reliability of the information gathered and the degree to which torture is employed.  Together, they define how torture should work on the pragmatic view.  The second section develops two variants of an analytical model of interrogational torture that is consistent with both the constraints of the normative model and other real-world features of interrogational torture to see how torture would work.  Obviously, if data was actually available one could assess how torture does work. The third section presents the results of the analytical model and compares them to the predictions of the normative model, with the goal being to see if the outcomes of the analytical model support or undermine the normative model. Finally, Schiemann concludes in the last section by discussing some implications for state-sanctioned interrogational torture.

The Game

In Schiemann’s model, there are three players in the game, depicted in Figure 1: nature, a detainee, and an interrogator for the state.  The nature player is game theoretic convention for modeling uncertainty about other players in the game, in this case about the characteristics of the detainee and the characteristics of the interrogator.  The interrogator is uncertain whether the detainee is knowledgeable and weak, knowledgeable and strong, or possesses no information (innocent).  The knowledgeable and weak detainee is willing to give up information in exchange for not being tortured, while the knowledgeable and strong detainee prefers to suffer torture rather than give up information.  The innocent detainee has no valuable information to divulge.  The uncertainty about exactly which detainee is actually facing the interrogator is captured by the first move of the game, by nature, dividing it into three branches.


Schiemann concludes that the outcomes of the analytical model provide little support for the pragmatic defense of interrogational torture.  The outcome predicted by the pragmatic defenders of interrogational torture – valuable information extracted by (the threat of) torture from a knowledgeable detainee but no torture to innocent detainees – does not occur in equilibrium.  For torture to ever generate valuable information, the state must be willing to torture innocent detainees.  Furthermore, this “ever generate” is not the same as “reliably generate,” despite coming at the cost of torturing innocents.  An outcome resulting in valuable information is possible, but the conditions supporting it are empirically unlikely.  They require a knowledgeable detainee to believe the promise he will not be tortured if he divulges information and an interrogator to be very confident the detainee has told all he knows.  Moreover, even when these conditions are met, interrogational torture fails to satisfy the necessary reliability condition.


The question of whether interrogational torture is effective in providing valuable information to the state is ultimately an empirical question that cannot be conclusively decided by a game theoretic (or any other) model. However, formal models can be helpful tools for probing reality. Examining if – in reality – interrogational torture actually provides the state with vital information they could otherwise not get – and at what human cost – is a pressing moral question of our time. The debate over this question implies that this reality needs probing, and the probing Schiemann offers here suggests that torture games have no winners.


Schiemann, J. W. (2012). Interrogational torture or how good guys get bad information with ugly methods. Political Research Quarterly65 (1), 3-19.


  1. Hank, I read through your review a number of times to truly assess what was being said and I still think I am coming up with a misunderstanding (not because your written narrative is unclear, but rather I think the methodologies used are using skewing results).

    Can you defend this statement from the text, "for torture to ever generate valuable information, the state must be willing to torture innocent detainees," and further explain how the model supports such thinking?


    1. Tom, your confusion is quite understandable. Game theory is extremely complex, especially for those of us (myself included) that have had little exposure to it before.

      I would not say the methodology is "skewing results" as you say, but producing an estimate of the reliability of information obtained from torture methods. This estimate is clearly stated in the article as being the result of an intellectual exercise of game theory, which is necessary because "the empirical fragmentary to allow for precise, validated causal claims" (Rejali 2007, p.7).

      The statement you mentioned in your comment "for torture to ever generate valuable information..." stems from one of a series of propositions in the study, Proposition 3 specifically, which states,"For interrogational torture to generate valuable information, innocent detainees must be tortured for telling the truth" (Schiemann 2012, p. 14).

      These propositions all follow from the results of the game as it flows through different scenarios. For Proposition 3, the logic behind it is that unless the interrogator tortures after failing to receive information, the weak detainee has an incentive not to reveal information. It is only the threat of torture after "information" (a variable in the model) that compels the weak detainee to tell the truth. If the detainee playing "information" is innocent, this means torturing an innocent for telling the truth.

      I hope this addresses your concerns.

  2. Hank, I found this article very interesting. What I got out of it was that it's almost like theoretically playing roulette. One chamber is empty, one chamber has a false charge, and the third chamber has a real charge. Between predictability and reality it is almost impossible to assess torture because you don't know who you have or what they know. Therefore your likely to torture someone that is innocent and must acknowledge and be open to the risk if you seek to use torture. In so I answered Tom's question for you from my understand. What I want to know is because of the structure of chance why even use it in the first place if the research points that reliability is unlikely and that you also run the risk of hurting someone that is innocent? It's kind of like the law of inevitability when it comes to the use of torture, and inevitability that is unreliable unless you pluck the lucky card. I realize my question is broad, vague, and extremely controversial and difficult to answer.

    1. Roland, you have an excellent question that I think will be extremely well suited for the discussion in class today. The very point of this study was to compare the results of the game theory model to the results of models proponents of torture claim make it valid. Clearly there is little consensus as to the effectiveness of torture and the reliability of information obtained in this manner.

      Is it ever justified? I think that question delves toward the philosophical area of morality. Apparently there are those who indeed feel it is worth it and will continue to implement torture methods to extract information. That is why it is imperative to study this subject through the means available to us, because we cannot do something as destructive as this to human beings on the mere inclination or intuition that it works, with little to no supporting evidence.