A new study reveals that the pain of torture can make people appear guilty even if they are not.
"Our research suggests that torture may not uncover guilt so much as lead to its perception," Kurt Gray, Harvard graduate student in psychology.
"It is as though people who know of the victim's pain must somehow convince themselves that it was a good idea-and so come to believe that the person who was tortured deserved it," Gray added.
During the study, participants met a woman suspected of cheating to win money. The woman was then "tortured" by having her hand immersed in ice water while study participants listened to the session over an intercom.
Although she never confessed to anything, but the more she suffered during the torture, the guiltier she was perceived to be.
However, not all torture victims were perceived to be guilty.
When participants in the study only listened to a recording of a previous torture session-rather than taking part as witnesses of ongoing torture-they saw the victim who expressed more pain as less guilty.
"Those who feel complicit with the torture have a need to justify the torture, and so link the victim's pain to blame," said Gray.
"On the other hand, those distant from torture have no need to justify it and so can sympathize with the suffering of the victim, linking pain to innocence," Gray added.
Researchers suggest that a stressful situation might make a guilty person confess, so participants listened for a confession over a hidden intercom as the woman accused of cheating was subjected to the sham "torture."
The confederate did not admit to cheating but reacted to having her hand submerged in ice water with either indifference or with whimpering and pleading. Participants who had met her rated her as more guilty the more she suffered. Those who did not meet her rated her as more guilty when she felt less pain.
"Seeing others in pain can perpetuate ideological differences about the justifiability of torture," said Gray.
"Those who initially advocate torture see those harmed as guilty, unlike those who initially reject torture and its methods," Gray added.
The research is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.