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[Understanding] The Psychology of Torture

In the academic world of psychology, it is widely accepted that the inhumane acts perpetrated by torturers are primarily the result of powerful external influences on the individual psyche- in other words, the individual is not innately inhumane, but specific circumstances inevitably educe inhumane behavior. Many of these powerful external influences, however, are fundamental elements for the solidity and success of government institutions. Thus, it becomes somewhat clearer why horrific acts of torture can occur within strongly established institutions.

Psychology of Torturing Institutions

First and foremost, governmental institutions (i.e. the military) are founded on the notion of a strict hierarchy: there is a chain of command that operates on the concept of blind obedience to a superior commander and an overall ideology. When the superior claims that insubordination of any command will jeopardize lives or disparage an ideology, it makes sense that an inferior officer would go to great lengths to carry out a command even at the expense of his civilian principles. This pressure is coupled by inadequate training of officers by the institutions in such areas as lawful interrogation- as is the case in the U.S.- to ensure complete compliance (“Enduring Abuse” 90).

Furthermore, an institution installs an individual in a large, homogeneous group by requiring uniforms and standardized codes of conduct resulting in de-individuation, which consequently diminishes the likelihood of rebellion and increases predisposition to inhumane or “evil” activity (as demonstrated by Dr. Zimbardo’s “De-Individuation Study”). Both concepts of hierarchy and de-individuation facilitate the individuals strong desire to conform since conformity elicits praise from superiors, satisfaction in the idea of upholding a certain “moral” code (however immoral one must act to do so), and feelings of acceptance among peers (Zimbardo 4/9/1999). In general, institutions use torture to “increase the illusion of the invulnerability of the regime” (Spitz 5/17/1989); hence, not only do torturing institutions exercise psychological control over their constituents, but torture itself is used for the institution to psychologically bully the rest of the world.

Physical and Mental Effects of Torture

The physical effects of torture vary according to the type of torture employed and it can be difficult to gather concrete data on the issue because many torture victims suppress certain forms of torture in their memory; however, generally all types of torture leave reminders of the torture in the victim in the form of continual pain, scars and deformities. The physical effects usually fall into structural or functional effects and are similar to those left by assaults or traffic accidents (Basoglu 39).
Strapping as a form of torture includes any type of fixation with rope, straps, handcuffs, etc, and may leave pressure injuries. However, most often strapping causes nerve injuries, such as loss of sensory and motor functions. Clinical exams have also revealed problems with the movement of muscles, tendons, vessels and nerve sheaths underneath the affected area (Basoglu 45). The mentioned structures appear to be fused together with “irregular bundles of connective tissue” preventing them from moving normally; however, massage treatment can re-establish normal movement (45).

Effects of electrical torture via electrodes, mobile electrodes (ex. shock baton) and fixed electrodes (ex. iron bed) are more similar to those caused by blunt blows. Although some changes do occur in the victim’s skin after electrical torture, most of the damage occurs to the muscles fibers, which is often revealed when “myoglobin is liberate in blood and urine after electrical accidents as a sign of change to the muscle fibers” (Basoglu 45). The change in muscle consistency is due to the firm, fibrous tissue that grows from injuries, and is treated with training, like blunt traumas.
Scars are some of the most visible effects of torture, and can result from cuts, burns and corrosions with acids. Scars have more of a psychological effect than a physical one because they are constant reminder of the torture that the victim underwent. However, scars near joints can present very physical problems since they can impair the normal function of the joints. Severe scarring near joints is treated with physiotherapy and massage, and can be supplemented with ultrasound (Basoglu 46).
Another type of torture that is treated with physiotherapy is torture in the form of forced position. This type of torture includes exposure to kicks, blows and punches while fixed or suspended, coercion into carrying heavy objects and into staying in an incorrect position for a long time, or confinement in a very small space (Basoglu 47). This type of torture mostly always results in the spine being bent forward, and is due to the overstretching of stabilizing ligaments.

A fifth type of torture is sexual torture and has been described as “direct maltreatment of the genitals and the anal region in the form of homo- or heterosexual rape” (Basoglu 50). The effects of this type of torture are usually structural and functional disturbances, and present themselves as lower lumbar pain, difficulty standing or lying, pain in the pelvic area, menstrual disturbances, urination and defecation problems, and sexual problems (Basoglu 50). It is especially important to correct problems with the pelvic joint because is one of the buffers that lie between the feet and brain, protecting the brain from the force of the body colliding with the ground (Basoglu 51). If a victim has been submitted to both torture of the pelvic joint and falanga (torture to the soles of the feet) then medical treatment is vital because the other body part buffering the brain, the feet, have also been irreparably damaged.

The mental effects of torture are less concrete than the physical ones, and human response to different types of stress appear to overlap (Basoglu 57). Most survivors are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); however, its usefulness is questionable because the criteria for the condition exclude a ‘changed identity or personality,’ does not allow a sufficient length of time between the occurrence of the trauma and the onset of symptoms, and does not account for chronic trauma (Basoglu 58). There is also a possible relationship with torture and other mental disorders, such as depression, paranoia and anxiety. Some of the categories that have emerged in an attempt to standardize the mental effects of torture include: anxiety symptoms, behavior, cognition/memory/attention, energy, form and amount of thought, speech, mood/affect disturbance, occupational and social impairment, perceptual disturbance, personality traits, physical signs and symptoms, sleep disturbances and sexual dysfunction (Basoglu 60). Studies have also shown that the mental effects of torture can extend to the children and spouse of the victim. A study of 75 Chilean children of torture victims living in Denmark showed that more than one third suffered anxiety, insomnia, nightmares and where hypersensitive to noise (Basoglu 64).

Torture Recovery

Recovery from the effects of torture can be a long and difficult process. Overcoming physical brutality can be hard enough, but even long after the actual events have occurred, victims of torture must deal with the trauma of psychological brutality as well. Long after the physical wounds heal, the psychological trauma persists. Even with professional help, recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can take decades and even after recovery seems to be in the past, relapses remain common (Allen online discussion).

Many people must attempt to heal on their own but therapy can be very effective and in recent years several centers have opened throughout the world to help people overcome the lingering psychological trauma. These include the Medical Foundation for the Care of the Victims of Torture in London and the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT).

The Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture was started by a group of physicians and psychologists in 1995. This center’s “approach to working with survivors regards them as having resources and assets which have enabled them to survive their victimization; thus the aim of treatment is to enhance their re-empowerment.” This model program uses a culturally sensitive approach that involves individual, family, and group psychotherapy in addition to “a strong focus on symptom reduction, assistance with social difficulties and networking with community organizations.” The goal of this process is to help move the survivor to progress through necessary stages of recovery “from the sense of unpredictable danger to reliable safety, from dissociated trauma to acknowledged memory, and from stigmatized isolation to restored social connection.” Services through similar organizations and general mental health professionals utilize a variety of psychotherapeutic techniques including cognitive-behavioral therapy, pharmacotherapy, and testimony to facilitate what must be a very personalized process of recovery (Turner 298-300). Unfortunately, the great majority of people are left to attempt these difficult stages of recovery on their own (Turner 301).

Some groups emphasize the need for justice against perpetrators to enable a full recovery. Organizations such as the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), based in San Francisco, aim to do just this by using litigation to advance “the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress.” CJA attempts to integrate these forms of healing by pioneering “a survivor-centered approach to the quest for justice that combines legal representation with medical and psycho-social services to both empower and heal torture survivors and their communities.”

Even beyond the psychological challenges to the victim, society as a whole must take part in reflection and healing in order to overcome the dark shadow cast by torture committed under the command of one’s own government. This type of recovery requires a much broader approach.


Allen, S online discussion. June 15, 2006. http://www.amnestyusa.org/askamnesty/live/display.php?topic=65

Basoglu, Metin. Torture and its consequences : current treatment approaches. Cambridge ; New York, NY, USA : Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. http://www.survivorsoftorture.org

Burnett, A and M Peel. Asylum seekers and refugees in Britain: the health of survivors of torture and organised violence. BMJ 2001;322;606-609.

The Center for Justice and Accountability. http://www.cja.org/

Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture. http://www.ccvt.org/

“Enduring Abuse: Torture and Cruel Treatment by the United States at Home and Abroad.” A shadow report by the American Civil Liberties Union prepared for the United Nations Committee Against Torture. April 2006. http://www.aclu.org/safefree/torture/torture_report.pdf

Kinkead, LD and D Romboy. Path to recovery: Trauma and torture leave scars on body and mind. Deseret Morning News. April 13, 2005. http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,600125446,00.html

Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. http://www.torturecare.org.uk/

Saul, J. Working with Survivors of Torture and Political Violence in New York City. Zeitschrift fur Politische Psychologie, Jg. 7, 1999, Nr. 1+2, S. 221 – 232.

Spitz, Shirley. “The Psychology of Torture.” Seminar No. 3, 1989. South Africa: May 17, 1989. http://www.csvr.org.za/papers/papspitz.htm

Turner, Stuart. Psychiatric help for survivors of torture. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2000), vol. 6, pp. 295–303.

Zimbardo, Philip. “Transforming People Into Perpetrators of Evil.” 1999 Holocaust Lectures: March 9, 1999. http://www.sonoma.edu/users/g/goodman/zimbardo.htm#obed

Comments (2)


Nice post, it seems torture is part of our society but is it a fundamental part of human nature?


Does therapy really work for tortured people. Is the process very long?

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