© Copyright 2018 Josh Purse

To Torture Or Not To Torture...

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

A Tale of Two Cultures: Information Extraction Via Torture Vs. Empathy

(Interrogator’s name has been changed to Dr. Benjamin Doright to protect information revealed in the case study)

With movies such as Zero Dark Thirty and television shows like 24, questions regarding the efficacy and ethics of modern interrogation techniques have surfaced. This case study addresses the psychological and sociological aspects involved in Dr. Benjamin Doright’s strategies for training interrogators used in the Middle East. Dr. Doright demonstrates that there are clear alternatives to “enhanced interrogation” techniques, often described as torture, that are more aligned with professional ethical standards seen in psychology. Furthermore, it has been shown that taking a cultural approach to the pursuit of information leads to much more accurate information. The more ethically appropriate techniques used by Dr. Doright will also be juxtaposed with the “enhanced” methods in regard to their standing with APA ethical principles.


Having grown up in the Middle East, Dr. Benjamin Doright not only spoke fluent Arabic, he was also very familiar with the cultural elements present in their attitudes, relationships, and values (Koocher & Keith-Spiegel, 2008). As an interrogation trainer, Dr. Doright focused his training strategies heavily on psychological and sociological principles to build a rapport with detainees to earn their cooperation. He insisted that understanding Arab cultural values, and their differences from Western values, was key to building that rapport.

In our Western society, we often hear of the information extracted from waterboarding, starvation, forced feedings, extreme temperatures, and obnoxious noises played for hours on end. Often times, these methodologies are even glorified in film and television. In the movie Zero Dark Thirty, “enhanced interrogation methods” were credited for obtaining the information that led to the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden (Von Tunzelmann, 2013). Senator John McCain, who was tortured himself as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam (McCain, 2008), and CIA director Leon Panetta both stated explicitly that the information leading to bin Laden’s discovery was not extracted from enhanced interrogation (Von Tunzelmann, 2013). In fact, it has been discovered that quite often torture leads to false information as the detainee will do or say anything to make the agony stop (Abramowitz, 2015).


Benjamin Doright and this whole vignette revolve around cultural issues. Dr. Doright developed an interrogation program that followed ethical principles and standards based upon the culture and social norms of Middle Eastern men. It is the understanding of the customs, language, and social structure that made Dr. Doright’s techniques successful.

Rapport building is the essence of Dr. Doright’s philosophy. Through mutual respect, background knowledge, and appearing empathetic (Koocher & Keith-Spiegel, 2008) he created an atmosphere where Arab males felt more comfortable telling their story (spilling information). He further encouraged others, trainees, to learn about Middle Eastern culture to better understand how detainees think, feel, and view themselves (Koocher & Keith-Spiegel, 2008). If it weren’t for Dr. Doright’s experience with Arab culture, he wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. In fact, this vignette provides a clear example of how important culture can be in understanding another’s point of view, not to mention figuring out an enemy.

Contrast Dr. Doright’s interrogation program with that used on suspected terrorist detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Where Dr. Doright used his knowledge of Arab culture to build a bond with detainees in order to gain their trust, “enhanced interrogation” methods performed elsewhere were used to strip cultural identity as well as human dignity. Without examining the differences further, it’s obvious multiple ethical principles and standards were already broken.


This lesson in cultural appreciation teaches future psychologists the importance of understanding our clients. It’s much easier, more productive, and beneficial to sympathize with clients if we discern their feelings and motivations. It would probably be foolish for a psychologist to instruct a subservient woman, due to cultural norms, to exert more authority. Or to tell a child to dress against his customs. Only a deep appreciation and knowledge of how someone else views their situation or role will allow a psychologist to have a better empathetic approach to helping the client. And that understanding begins with cultural and social identity.

Supported and Unsupported

Using a supported model to form an ethical strategy is a favored approach since the methods, standards, principles, and guidelines have been highly debated among professionals, used in practice, studied, and researched. For instance, if Dr. Doright comes across an ethical problem in his training program, he can look for guidance and direction in many time-tested ways, as demonstrated by the eight-step decision-making model discussed below. After consulting with trusted colleagues or reviewing similar case studies, he can implement new aspects and techniques into his interrogation training, making sure they adhere to his desired ethical approach.

Falling back on an unsupported model could lead to ethical lapses in training and even more so in practice. When guidelines are absent, people revert to what they believe to be the best solutions. This is evident in the design of the torture program developed by psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who used psychological principles to inflict harm rather than following guidelines to create an ethical interrogation program (Ackerman, 2015). Whether or not Dr. Doright used a supported model in developing his ethical strategy, he clearly maintained an ethical approach by focusing on cultural respect.

Contemporary Problems

Clearly, torture goes against every ethical principle established in the APA’s Code of Ethics. Why then is torture glorified and touted as a viable method? If it’s obviously unethical and doesn’t often produce reliable information, why do 53% of Americans polled agree that torture can sometimes be justified and 71% of Republicans feel it may have some merit (compared to 45% Democrats) (Lyte, 2014)? As we see ethical breakdowns across many industries, perhaps that’s the culture the Western world has come to value.

Ethical Issues

By far, the central issue to this vignette is the proper, culturally respectful approach Dr. Doright taught interrogators to use on Arab detainees versus that of the “enhanced interrogation” methods developed and implemented by psychologists Mitchell and Jessen. Where Dr. Doright proposed using sound psychological techniques that reflect the values of most ethical codes, it could be argued through much evidence that Mitchell and Jessen took no precautions whatsoever to protect the inherent rights and dignity of detainees. Furthermore, whether it was acknowledged or not, most stakeholders were harmed by the torture techniques besides just the suspected terrorists. Society as a whole has been harmed by the lack of ethical oversight involved in “enhanced interrogation.”

Ethical Strategy

Before discussing how the eight-step ethical decision-making model can be used to guide any ethical dilemmas in this case study vignette, the eight steps should be presented. Following are the eight steps as proposed by authors Koocher and Keith-Spiegel (2008):

  1. Determine whether the matter truly involves ethics

  2. Consult guidelines already available that might apply as a possible mechanism for resolution

  3. Pause to consider, as best as possible, all factors that might influence the decision you will make

  4. Consult with a trusted colleague

  5. Evaluate the rights, responsibilities, and vulnerabilities of all affected parties

  6. Generate alternative decisions

  7. Enumerate the consequences of making each decision

  8. Make the decision

This method, supported by the APA’s Code of Ethics, first examines whether or not the issue at hand needs to be examined through an ethical lens. Clearly, Benjamin Doright has much to consider. Being that there are multiple relationships involved, there are various viewpoints to be evaluated, some of which might be in conflict with the others. For instance, respect for detainees’ rights and dignity (APA (2010) Code of Ethics Principle E) could be in opposition to the government’s need to extract information. Or, if an interrogator is improperly trained and ethical lapses occur, there could be an international impact.

In the construction of Dr. Doright’s interrogation techniques and training, it seems he would have most benefitted from a continuous loop of steps three, five, and seven of the eight-step model. After carefully considering which variables are intertwined with the training and all stakeholders, Dr. Doright should then evaluate how each aspect affects the rights, responsibilities, and vulnerabilities of all involved. If possible to ascertain, all consequences should be listed and assessed for their potential impact. Then, the process can be repeated to pause again and consider any new information revealed by the last attempt. Should a sticking point arise, step six would be beneficial to throw into the loop so that new ideas and solutions can be generated and considered.

Opposing Ethical Strategy

Unfortunately, the best example of an alternative unsupported model is the one which was developed by Mitchell and Jessen and used in places like Guantanamo Bay (Ackerman, 2015). It was believed that causing tremendous pain, suffering, stress, and more would promote detainees to give up vital information. Therefore, the program revolved around theories to create more mental and physical anguish, accepting on its face the premise that torture actually works.

The alternative model used in Guantanamo Bay is a perfect example of how accepting traditions, dogmatic beliefs, and authoritative instructions can directly lead to unethical consequences. Many people around the world believe their ethnicity to be superior to others. Likewise, some people consider certain attitudes and attributes to be inherent in a cultural makeup. Creating any type of model based upon a faulty premise is giving unspoken approval to disparate treatment and therefore unethical in its application. Acknowledging cultural differences doesn’t mean comparing them against one’s own culture. This is where prejudices enter. Acknowledging cultural differences means learning the value those customs, traditions, and social orientations have upon the group. Any supported ethical model would incorporate steps focusing on empathy through understanding, and reflection to imagine any negative ethical consequences.

Multicultural Competence Issues

As Americans, we understand our rugged individualism and self-reliance. As the notable WWII interrogator Sherwin F. Moran so aptly demonstrated in his techniques, understanding the culture of your nemesis is key to extracting information (Budiansky, 2005). Factors such as shame, religion, familial relationships, collectivist views, empathy, and mutual respect go much further in obtaining usable intelligence than torture (Koocher & Keith-Spiegel, 2008; Budiansky, 2005), despite what is shown on television. It’s no coincidence that these are the same factors dealt with in psychology pertaining to ethics. Both Dr. Doright and Moran’s approaches to questioning detainees could be summed up with the familiar axiom, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Ethical Principles

When it comes to integrity, Dr. Doright performed at a seemingly high level. He apparently never violated any ethical principles himself, other than perhaps looking the other way, but there is no known evidence of this. His integrity is contrasted with that of other interrogators who clearly used subterfuge, fraud, and harm to extract information. Trust is an essential element in obtaining information. It seems quite obvious that other interrogators practicing enhanced interrogation didn’t care about trust as a value in the slightest. It appears as if they actually used a prisoner’s distrust of them as a tool.

The principle of justice might just be the biggest casualty in torturing captives. Where Benjamin Doright demonstrates more sensitive, respectful approaches, other interrogators threw justice out the window. It is difficult to see how any precautions were taken to ensure the protection of detainees or to evaluate competence levels of interrogators. Fairness and equal treatment suffered tremendously without the techniques and training provided by Dr. Doright.

Dr. Doright promoted dignity as a huge factor in extracting information. Understanding cultural differences, customs, language, and so on, showed a deep level of respect and welfare for those under his watch. Again, this is the polar opposite of other techniques which were designed to strip all dignity away. It’s difficult to find a single right upheld by the enhanced interrogation techniques. Prisoners were stripped of food, clothes, oxygen, light, warmth, and in some cases, their lives (Ackerman, 2015). While Dr. Doright instructs the proper way to preserve respect and proper treatment, alternative methods were created to deprive those very things.

Of the ten standards in the Code of Ethics, a case could probably be made for each and every one. However, there are four that stand out as directly pertaining to this vignette. Resolving ethical conflicts, competence, human relations, and education and training standards can be contrasted between Dr. Doright’s methods and those performed by other less ethical interrogators.

It could be argued that the whole premise of Dr. Doright’s methods and training were to minimize ethical conflicts while at the same time extracting the most amount of information. On the other hand, the alternative interrogation techniques used by others not only violated people’s rights (arguably inalienable rights), the methods also violated numerous laws and international human rights treaties. This is an obvious abrogation of the first subsection of the ethical conflicts standard, “Misuse of psychologists’ work” (APA, 2010). Where Dr. Doright practiced and taught sound psychological ethical principles, others did what they could to avoid resolving these ethical issues.

Competence involves knowing the limitations of one’s abilities and working within those boundaries. Professionalism is a large part of being competent. This means that a person has to understand himself, his motivations, and his ability to properly work with and treat others. Again, Benjamin Doright displays all these traits in designing and teaching interrogation techniques. His unique perspective involving Arab culture, language, and society allows him to be a perfectly competent psychologist in the implementation of his methods. It seems the other, less ethically inclined interrogators lacked in competence. Their motives were not to reach an understanding with suspected terrorists or feel culturally connected, but instead to instill fear. This creates harm and is completely antithetical to the standards in the Code of Ethics. If someone is against the ethical guidelines set forth by the American Psychological Association, it’s difficult to conceive how that person would be considered competent.

By far, the biggest violation of ethical standards when discussing enhanced interrogation, is in regards to human relations. Dr. Doright understood well that people are similar in that they want respect, dignity, and their motivations to be acknowledged. Even terrorists want to tell their side of the story. Cultural appreciation and understanding go far in developing a relationship, even between a prisoner and interrogator. Being human is the weakness that Dr. Doright exploited to extract information. Most everyone wants to be understood. Other than the fact they’re movies, this is one of the reasons we see criminals spilling their secrets. What good is doing something if no one knows it was you? The opposite techniques were used by others, attempting to exploit pain and suffering. These interrogators seemed to have used the human relations standard as a checklist of items to break. Do no harm was literally the opposite of their torture mantra.

Finally, education and training ensure that the most competent psychologists are performing in their highly skilled disciplines. As for interrogation, Dr. Doright was obviously a credible instructor, knowing the customs and language of his detainees, and using that knowledge to train others to extract information through understanding as opposed to fear. Had his methods been upheld throughout all interrogations, our Middle Eastern wars may have a different look to them. If he has any fault in the implementation of interrogation techniques, it’s that he didn’t design them in a way to oversee and minimize unethical behavior. However, that decision probably has little to do with him. Instead, we now know that psychologists Mitchell and Jessen held the reigns in developing a torture program, and they were incredibly successful in teaching their methods to soldiers who weren’t even psychologists trained in ethical behavior (Ackerman, 2015).

There are many ethical aspects to analyze and discuss with this case study, particularly those concerning cultural understanding and respect, humane treatment, dignity, and oversight. Not only does torture destroy all ethical codes and standards, but it also demonstrates what a lack of proper instruction and supervision can become. Harm to those under another’s care reflects on more than just the primary characters. Be it at a mental institution, a private practice, a business, or the military, as in this vignette, a black mark on any act reflects upon all those involved.

Culture and Social Orientation

The differences between any two cultures can breed contempt through misunderstanding. Legends, folklore, and religions are often filled with tales and parables of culture clashes and the ensuing damage. Many of these same stories try to relay ethical warnings to avoid the pitfalls cultural differences can breed. If one wasn’t keen on heeding these centuries-old cautionary tales, he could always look to the APA’s ethical principles for guidance. It’s easy to see how each of the general ethical principles could pertain to Dr. Doright’s cultural approach to interrogation, but the last principle, respect for people’s rights and dignity, is by far the most appropriate to this study. Where our modern methods often turn to violence and intimidation in violation of people’s rights and dignity, Dr. Doright teaches that embracing the cultural differences in his subjects leads to enhanced dignity while maintaining their rights. Respect and understanding leads to more information than pain and suffering. Not to mention, the true strength of a person is the ability to resist violence even when being provoked. One has to give respect in order to earn it, and that often goes much further than any type of force.

Diversity and Equality

Using an ethical strategy that revolves around pausing to consider possible outcomes and effects, evaluating the rights of those involved, and enumerating the consequences of implementing the plan would have eliminated most of the unethical treatment involved in our interrogation facilities. This culturally sensitive method, promoted and taught by Benjamin Doright, respects the diversity among each person (detainee) and even though they might be considered prisoners of war, they were treated with equal respect.

Dr. Doright’s instruction and methods were based upon treating captives as humans that require many of the same needs and desires as everyone else. Rather than exploiting differences in customs and views, Dr. Doright understood the diversity between himself, the interrogators, and the detainees, and that is precisely what made his techniques incredibly successful in addition to being ethical. Equal respect for different cultures breeds understanding and less hate, which often leads to more answers whether it’s extracting terroristic plans or discovering the roots of animosity.

Controversial Issues

In light of how fragile and sensitive interrogation techniques can be, it is of the utmost importance to remain ethical. After all, the human rights violations promoted at Guantanamo Bay have been cited as one of the greatest tools in recruiting new terrorists (RT, 2013). In our neglect to remain ethical, the U.S. has developed a torture program to extract vital information to fight terrorism, yet that same program is an incredibly useful tool to breed new terrorists. This right here should serve as a perfect example for the need to follow ethical guidelines in any situation. Where one relationship may be fulfilled exactly as intended, it may also create new harmful relationships when proper respect, empathy, and cultural appreciation are ignored.

Issues of Multicultural Competence

Much like the strategy addresses issues with changing multiple-role relationships, it does the same for issues of multicultural competence. The original methods used by Dr. Doright provide quite an adequate framework for human, ethical, and respectful treatment of prisoners, but as with any situation, the use and outcomes of these methods can change. If so, the continuous reflection and modification of practices involved in the ethical strategy is supposed to act as a fail-safe.

Cultural sensitivity and understanding is the key to successful interrogations. However, if some aspect isn’t producing the desired results or effects, it must be revisited, according to the ethical strategy, to ponder new approaches. Again, this isn’t a downside to the strategy, but a way to allow for needed changes in addition to being a proper self-monitoring system.


It’s difficult to imagine improving upon Dr. Doright’s interrogation training methods as they encompass sound ethical principles from start to finish. His instruction and techniques promote respect, dignity, cultural understanding and appreciation, and adherence to human rights. The ethical strategy discussed throughout this paper, based on the eight-step ethical decision-making model, takes Dr. Doright’s approach to interrogation and adds careful reflection and evaluation of methods to the mix to discover possible negative consequences and act to minimize them before they cause harm. Human psychology, especially dealing with cultural differences, continues to reveal the disparity among societies. Using Dr. Doright’s methods, combined with the ability to properly reflect and change aspects as warranted, would go much further in extracting vital information than using the culturally insensitive and disrespectful system implemented by psychologists like Mitchell and Jessen.



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Ackerman, S. (2015, October 13). CIA torture survivors sue psychologists who designed infamous program. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/13/cia-torture-survivors-sue-psychologists-aclu

American Psychological Association (APA). (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct.

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Von Tunzelmann, A. (2013, January 25). Zero Dark Thirty's torture scenes are controversial and historically dubious. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2013/jan/25/zero-dark-thirty-reel-history