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Torture is the intentional infliction of severe physical or psychological torment as an expression of cruelty, a means of intimidation, deterrent, revenge or punishment, or as a tool for the extraction of information or confessions. The common concept of torture is that torture causes pain (or a threat of pain) to the body, but it can also cause terrible effects and associated damage to the psyche. This article studies the psychological effects associated with torture, and how psychological suffering coupled with physiological pain affects the torture subject and serves the (conscious) torturer's interests.


Torture is common in situations where disparities in interpersonal power and control occur. It is a well known theme in religious, political, and military histories. It is less well known in social contexts such as domestic abuse, child abuse and elder abuse. It is just beginning to become well known in sexual contexts such as rape, pedophilia, and incest.

Torture to children, in particular, induces incredible damage because, in addition to the terrible suffering studied below, children absorb torture with little ability to limit its effects, lose childhood development opportunities forever and often encode the torturer's distortions instead. This article focuses on the psychological effects of torture in adults. It is not intended to document the unique psychological effects of torture in children.

Torture can be physical and/or psychological. Physical torture is well known, tends to be brutal, and is hard to hide. Psychological torture is less well known, and tends to be subtle and much easier to conceal. Torturers often inflict both types of torture in combination to compound the associated effects.

It is important to distinguish physical torture from psychological torture, although in practice these distinctions often become blurred. Physical torture uses well known methods to inflict pain on the body. In contrast, psychological torture is directed at the psyche with calculated violations of psychological needs, along with deep damage to psychological structures and the breakage of beliefs underpinning normal sanity. Psychological torture also includes torment not normally considered torturous, such as mock execution, violation of social/sexual taboos, and extended solitary confinement. Because psychological torture needs no physical violence to be effective, it is possible to induce severe psychological pain, suffering, and trauma with no externally visible effects. Since this article discusses the psychological effects associated with torture, it is also worthwhile to separate torture and its associated effects. Torture succeeds with some subjects and fails with others because people can choose responses to cope with it. Torture induces the most severe effects in those subjects least able to cope with it, and the least severe effects in those most able to cope with it.

Torture induces associated psychological effects on those who inflict it too. To understand the full psychological effects of torture it is essential that its impact on the torturer be studied as well. Therefore, this article discusses the psychological effects of torture on those who are tortured and on those who torture too.

The torture process to the tortured

Although torture induces both physiological and psychological effects, the psychological impact is often greater and tends to remain with the subject long after the actual activity is discontinued.

The process of torture is designed to invade and destroy the belief of the subjects in their independence as a human being, to destroy presumptions of privacy, intimacy, and inviolability assumed by the subjects, and to destroy their unspoken trust that these things can save them. Beyond merely invading the subjects' mental, physical independence on a one-to-one level, such acts can be made more damaging via public humiliation, incessant repetition, depersonalization, and sadistic glee, and, on occasion, their opposites, false public praise, insidious pandering, false personalization, and masochistic manipulation.

The CIA, in its "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983" (reprinted in the April 1997 issue of Harper's Magazine), summed up the theory of coercion thus:

"The purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist. Regression is basically a loss of autonomy, a reversion to an earlier behavioral level. As the subject regresses, his learned personality traits fall away in reverse chronological order. He begins to lose the capacity to carry out the highest creative activities, to deal with complex situations, or to cope with stressful interpersonal relationships or repeated frustrations."

Psychologically, torture often creates a state where the mind works against the best interests of the individual, due to the inducement of such emotions as shame, worthlessness, dependency, and a feeling of lacking uniqueness. Cunning torturers often induce pandered pride, specious worthiness, false favoritism, and grandiouse specialness to further fool the subject. These and other responses can lead to a mutated, fragmented, or discredited personality and belief structure. Even the subject's normal bodily needs and functions (e.g., sleep, sustenance, excretion, etc.) can be changed and made to be construed as self-degrading, animalistic, and dehumanizing.

Torture can rob the subject of the most basic modes of relating to reality, and thus can be the equivalent of cognitive death. A person's sense of self can be shattered. The tortured often have nothing familiar to hold on to: family, home, personal belongings, loved ones, language, name. They can lose their mental resilience and sense of freedom. They can feel alienated—unable to communicate, relate, attach, or empathize with others.

What is psychological stress and pain?

Psychological pain is pain caused by psychological stress and by psychological trauma, as distinct from that caused by physiological injuries and other physical syndromes. The practice of torture induces psychological pain through various acts that often involve both physiological torture and psychological torture to achieve a tactical goal.

Examples of psychological stress include: paralysing fear of death or pain, uncertainty, unfulfilled anticipation, fear for (and of) others and desire for (and of) others. But torture also creates other extreme dynamics, and can disrupt usual cognitive processes to such an extent that the subject is unable to retain the usual sense of personal boundaries, friends and enemies, love and hate, and other major human psychological dynamics.

Some well-known animal experiments performed in the 20th century show that in addition to these, the subject's own strengths and weaknesses can be enhanced by psychological stress to the point that they will enter a "grey" mental world of great suggestibility, where certain critical faculties in the brain shut down under overload. This renders them less able to judge what they believe and refute, to conduct logical argument or reject the views of interrogators, and can cause them in some cases even to side with the torturer in confusion. {{Main article: Brainwashing}}

Psychological aspects of torture to the tortured

As normal developing human beings, people internalize certain concepts needed to support their ability to face life. For example, they come to understand that there are people and authorities who will support them, they psychologically become independent and individual from their peer group (individuation), they believe they have validity purpose and "a place" simply by virtue of being a human being and that they are not simply an "object", they have many life-experiences which give them pride and self-confidence, and so on. These are a very profound platform for growth; if it is removed or damaged, a person's entire ability to know what and who they are in relationship to the world can be devastated.

Torture splinters these by guile and sheer force, using both psychological design and the impact of massive unavoidable sustained physical pain. In doing so, it shatters deep down narcissistic fantasies of uniqueness, omnipotence, invulnerability, and impenetrability which help sustain personality. Seeking an alternate means to comprehend the changed world, torture subjects grow into a fantasy of merging with an idealized and omnipotent (though not benign) other—the inflicter of agony. The twin processes of individuation and separation which sustain independent adulthood are reversed.

Beatrice Patsalides describes this transmogrification thus in "Ethics of the unspeakable: Torture survivors in psychoanalytic treatment":

"As the gap between the 'I' and the 'me' deepens, dissociation and alienation increase. The subject that, under torture, was forced into the position of pure object has lost his or her sense of interiority, intimacy, and privacy. Time is experienced now, in the present only, and perspective—that which allows for a sense of relativity—is foreclosed. Thoughts and dreams attack the mind and invade the body as if the protective skin that normally contains our thoughts, gives us space to breathe in between the thought and the thing being thought about, and separates between inside and outside, past and present, me and you, was lost."

Psychological effects of pain

Spitz observes:

"Pain is also unsharable in that it is resistant to language ... All our interior states of consciousness: emotional, perceptual, cognitive and somatic can be described as having an object in the external world ... This affirms our capacity to move beyond the boundaries of our body into the external, sharable world. This is the space in which we interact and communicate with our environment. But when we explore the interior state of physical pain we find that there is no object "out there"—no external, referential content. Pain is not of, or for, anything. Pain is. And it draws us away from the space of interaction, the sharable world, inwards. It draws us into the boundaries of our body."

Extending torture to family and friends

A common factor of psychological torture, at times the only factor, is to extend the activity to family, friends, and others for whom the subject has a deep concern (the "social body"). This further disrupts the individual's familiar expectations of their environment, their control over their circumstances, and the strength of (and ability to help and be helped by) their closest relationships and lifelong support network.

The perversion of intimacy

Torture is the ultimate act of perverted intimacy. The torturer invades the subject's body, pervades his psyche, and possesses his mind. Deprived of contact with others and starved for human interactions, the prey bonds with the predator. "Traumatic bonding," akin to Stockholm syndrome, is about hope and the search for meaning in the brutal and indifferent and nightmarish universe of the torture cell.

The abuser or user becomes the black hole at the center of the victim's surrealistic galaxy, sucking in the sufferer's universal need for solace. The subject tries to "control" his or her tormentor by becoming one with him or her (introjecting) and appealing in vain to the monster's presumably dormant humanity and empathy.

This bonding is especially strong when the torturer and the tortured form a dyad and "collaborate" in the rituals and acts of torture (for instance, when the victim is coerced into selecting the torture implements and the types of torment to be inflicted, or to be forced to choose between two evils named by the torturer).

The psychologist Shirley Spitz offers this powerful overview of the contradictory nature of torture in a seminar titled "The Psychology of Torture" (1989):

"Torture is an obscenity in that it joins what is most private with what is most public. Torture entails all the isolation and extreme solitude of privacy with none of the usual security embodied therein ... Torture entails at the same time all the self exposure of the utterly public with none of its possibilities for camaraderie or shared experience. (The presence of an all powerful other with whom to merge, without the security of the other's benign intentions.)

A further obscenity of torture is the inversion it makes of intimate human relationships. The interrogation is a form of social encounter in which the normal rules of communicating, of relating, of intimacy are manipulated. Dependency needs are elicited by the interrogator, but not so they may be met as in close relationships, but to weaken and confuse. Independence that is offered in return for "betrayal" is a lie. Silence is intentionally misinterpreted either as confirmation of information or as guilt for 'complicity.'

Forced absorption of the torturer's perspective

Torture combines complete humiliating exposure with utter devastating isolation. The final products and outcome of torture are a scarred and often shattered subject and an empty display of the fiction of power and control. It is about reprogramming the subject to succumb to an alternative exegesis of the world, proffered by the abuser or user. It is an act of deep, indelible, traumatic indoctrination. The abused or used also swallows whole and assimilates the torturer's negative view of him and often, as a result, is rendered suicidal, self-destructive, or self-defeating.

Obsessed by endless agonized ruminations, demented by pain and a continuum of sleeplessness or sleepfulness, unable to stand back and see the past, present and future in neutral perspective, the subject regresses, shedding all but the most primitive defense mechanisms: splitting, narcissism, dissociation, projective identification, introjection, and cognitive dissonance. The subject constructs an alternative world, often suffering from depersonalization and derealization, hallucinations, ideas of reference, delusions, and psychotic episodes.

Sometimes the subject comes to crave pain—very much as self-mutilators do—because it is a proof and a reminder of his or her individuated existence otherwise blurred by the incessant torture. Pain shields the sufferer from disintegration and capitulation. It preserves the veracity of his or her unthinkable and unspeakable experiences.

This dual process of the subject's alienation and addiction to anguish complements the perpetrator's view of his or her quarry as "inhuman" or "subhuman." The torturer assumes the position of the sole authority, the exclusive fount of meaning and interpretation, the source of both evil and good.

Thus, torture seems forever. The sounds, the voices, the smells, the sensations reverberate long after the episode has ended—both in nightmares and in waking moments. The subject's ability to trust other people—i.e., to assume that their motives are at least rational, if not necessarily benign—has been irrevocably undermined. Social institutions are perceived as precariously poised on the verge of an ominous, Kafkaesque mutation. Nothing is either safe, or credible anymore.

Psychological effects of torture to the tortured

Direct effects

Subjects typically oscillate between emotional numbing and highly sensitive arousal: insomnia, irritability, restlessness, and attention deficits. Recollections of the traumatic events intrude in the form of dreams, night terrors, flashbacks, and distressing associations.

Long-term coping mechanisms include the development of compulsive rituals to fend off obsessive thoughts. Other psychological consequences include cognitive impairment, reduced capacity to learn, memory disorders, sexual dysfunction, social withdrawal, inability to maintain long-term relationships, or even mere intimacy, phobias, ideas of reference and superstitions, delusions, hallucinations, psychotic microepisodes, and emotional flatness.

Depression and anxiety are very common. These are forms and manifestations of self-directed aggression. The sufferer rages at her own suffering and resulting multiple dysfunction. They feel shamed by their new disabilities and responsible, or even guilty, somehow, for their predicament and the dire consequences borne by their nearest and dearest. Their sense of self-worth and self-esteem are crippled.

Long-term effects

Torture subjects often suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their strong feelings of hate, rage, terror, guilt, shame, and sorrow are also typical of subjects of childhood abuse, domestic violence, domestic vice, rape and incest, all contexts which contain chronic torture too. They feel anxious because the perpetrator's behavior is seemingly arbitrary and unpredictable—or mechanically and inhumanly regular.

They feel guilty and disgraced because, to restore a semblance of order to their shattered world and a modicum of dominion over their chaotic life, they need to transform themselves into the cause of their own degradation and the accomplices of their tormentors.

Inevitably, in the aftermath of torture, its subjects feel helpless and powerless. This loss of control over one's life and body is manifested physically in impotence, attention deficits, and insomnia. This is often exacerbated by the disbelief many torture subjects encounter, especially if they are unable to produce scars, or other "objective" proof of their ordeal. Language cannot communicate such an intensely private experience as pain.

Social effects

Bystanders resent the tortured because the tortured make the bystanders feel guilty and ashamed for having done nothing to prevent the atrocity. The sufferers threaten their sense of security and their much-needed belief in predictability, justice, and rule of law. The sufferers, on their part, do not believe that it is possible to effectively communicate to "outsiders" what they have been through. The torture chambers are "another galaxy." This is how Auschwitz was described by the author K. Zetnik in his testimony in the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961.

Kenneth Pope, in "Torture," a chapter he wrote for the "Encyclopedia of Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of Society on Gender," quotes Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman:

"It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering."

But, more often, continued attempts to repress fearful memories result in psychosomatic illnesses (conversion). The subject wishes to forget the torture, to avoid re-experiencing the often life threatening abuse and to shield their human environment from the horrors. In conjunction with the subject's pervasive distrust, this is frequently interpreted as hypervigilance, or even paranoia. It seems that the subject can't win. Torture seems forever.

Overcoming psychological effects to the tortured

Although torture, indeed, seems forever, it is possible to transform such terrible suffering. People do take back their identities after even the most terrible tortures. People do re-member their horrible memories, people do to release their terrible rages and people do restore their original wholeness. Victimhood is a stage, not a destination.

Overcoming torture-induced trauma requires immense dedication, patience and support. Since little such support is available to torture victims today, most see no choice but to choose (unconscious) victimhood forever. One consequence is that, despite their best efforts, most victims victimize less capable people with their unconscious psychological torture (and terror) displacements and so the cycle repeats itself.

However, no torture subject needs to claim victimhood, forever, with no hope. People do overcome torture's associated psychological pain, suffering and trauma.

The torture process to the torturer

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Psychological effects of torture on torturers

It was long thought that "good" people would not torture and only "bad" ones would, under normal circumstances. However, research over the past 50 years suggests a disquieting alternative point of view, that under the right circumstances and with the appropriate encouragement and setting, most people can be encouraged to actively torture others. Author Edward Peters quotes the father of Alexander Lavranros, a defendant in the 1975 Greek torture trials thus: "We are a poor family...and now I see him in the dock as a torturer. I want to ask the court how a boy whom everyone said was 'diamond' became a torturer. Who morally destroyed my home and my family?" For more on the stages of the torture mentality by which torture becomes acceptable to its practitioners see the 'Motivation to torture' section of the Torture article.

Psychological effects of torture to torturers

French author Alec Mellor writing, in 1972, about French General Jacques Massu's use of torture in Algeria quotes a former French career soldier, now a priest, Pere Gilbert, SJ, thus:

"But let us admit for a moment that it might be possible to justify torture for the 'noble motives': have they (those who justify torture) thought for one moment of the individual who does it, that is, of the man whom, whether he wishes or not, one is going to turn into a torturer? I have received enough confidences in Algeria and in France to know into what injuries, perhaps irreparable, torture can lead the human conscience. Many young men have 'taken up the game' and have thereby passed from mental health and stability into terrifying states of decay, from which some will probably never recover."


  • Conroy, John, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
  • Glasser, William, WARNING: Psychiatry Can be Dangerous to Your Health, (?), 2004.
  • Millet, Kate, The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment, W. W. Norton, 1994.
  • Peters, Edward, Torture, Basil Blackwell, 1985.
  • Levine Peter, and Frederick, Ann, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences, North Atlantic, 1997.
  • Stover, Eric and Nightingale, Elena, The Breaking of Bodies and Minds: Torture, Psychiatric Abuse and the Health Professions, W.H. Freeman, 1985.
  • CIA, KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, July 1963
  • CIA, Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual - 1983
  • The Psychology of Torture

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