Office Hours: Dr. Kevin M. Carlsmith



Associate Professor of Psychology Kevin Carlsmith received a grant late last year from the National Science Foundation for his work on the psychology of torture and aggressive interrogation. The grant will allow Professor Carlsmith to expand on his previous work on the subject and could have broad implications on how punishment is understood from a social-psychological perspective.

As a psychology professor, Carlsmith specialized in the area of punishment. But after the media firestorm over the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, he became interested in torture from the perspective of ordinary citizens and the psychological justifications at work when authorizing torture.

“[After Abu Ghraib], we realized that our country was engaged in torture,” Carlsmith said. “What was most interesting to me was that in poll after poll more than half the country supported torture – some more than others – but that struck me as an interesting question. It’s a ticking time bomb situation in which you have to get the information right away … think [the TV show] 24. That’s the justification.”

The prevailing argument justifying torture was the “ticking time-bomb” situation where the authority faces a trade off between the torture of one person and the lives of innocent people. The utilitarian justification would be to save the most lives as possible, and thus, the torture is justified. This “Jack Bauer defense” was widely used to rationalize use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” under the Bush administration. However, Professor Carlsmith saw other forces at work.

“I just started watching people on TV and listening to ordinary people justifying punishment,” Carlsmith said. “Something else is going on there. [When discussing detainees] leaders sounded a lot like they thought the detainees were bad people. People were arguing that torture comes from utility, but their personal opinion is that [the detainees] deserve to be punished.”

Carlsmith began research by conducting surveys and drawing upon previous studies done by himself and other social psychologists. As his results emerged, he saw a clear correlation between the participants’ likelihood to torture and the perceived “immorality” of the detainee; illustrating punitive rather than utilitarian reasoning.

“If people think if the detainee is a bad guy, then they recommend torture,” Carlsmith said. “It has nothing to do with utility. Torture is the wrong word, it’s punishment. But from a strictly moral standpoint … now that I understand better about what people think about torture, suddenly their standpoint becomes moral.It’s a non-consequential perspective where you punish the evil. That’s just misperceiving a fact, and that’s easily rectifiable. It suggests that the attitudes of people that support torture really are moral, quite moral.”

After publishing a paper on his findings in 2008, Carlsmith applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation, receiving it in August of 2009.

“The grant is paying for things like a computer, national respondents to do research (essentially conducting surveys) and undergraduate students doing research and other students are doing scholarly research in related fields,” Carlsmith said.

The research capability provided by the grant will allow for a variety of samples of the population, and could influence both policy surrounding torture and how social psychology deals with punishment.

According to the grant abstract, “the experiments conducted include representative samples of U.S. citizens that permit examination of whether these findings extend from military settings to civilian settings, and whether people are consciously aware of the motives that drive their opinion …This proposal has direct theoretical implications for social psychology, but also promises to provide intellectual bridges across the disciplines of psychology, law, political science and public policy.”

Associate Professor of Psychology Spencer Kelly saw the grant as emblematic of Colgate’s unique blend of research and liberal arts.

“[Winning such a grant] would be rare at a typical liberal arts college,” Kelly said. “But because of Colgate’s core value to combine research and teaching, it is part of a culture that attracts top scholars, such as Dr. Carlsmith, to Colgate.”