Torture and Its Psychology: A Study Into the Mindset and Reasoning Behind Torture

Torture as a whole originates with that of the earliest civilizations we can name. It’s found among the Assyrians, the early Egyptians, Babylonians, Sumerians, and many other groups.1 As humanity spread its cities across the world, it also spread the ideals and methods of torture. It has followed us to this day and seems almost clung to the fabric of humanity like that of a nasty stain.

One must question why this is the case. Humans are the only animal who have/still participate in torture,2 perhaps that comes with sentience, but maybe the answer deals more with what makes humans unique as a whole. The human condition is like no other, and thus its intricacies must be taken into account when considering a topic as broad as this. There is no simple answer as to why one human being would commit unspeakable horrors onto another, but a slew of different and equally interesting reasons and scenarios.

The goal of this paper is not to discredit or denounce torture, but rather to analyze the psychology and rationale behind it across time. The psychology of torture is as complex as it is diverse, thus there is a wide range of reasons as to why a person would resort to its use and a variety of explanations for its spread throughout history.

What is Torture?
In order to write a full-length paper on torture it would help to first define it according to professional and publicly accepted opinion. However, one issue arises from this; torture is actually something quite difficult to define. Obviously, it has negative connotations for the victims of it, and in any one individuals mind its definition is quite clear, just not easy to put to words. Take the example waterboarding, some would say it is not a form of torture, such as current U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.3

The average person would say, without any doubt, that the use of waterboarding is a form of torture and any survivors of it would agree. Yet, the United States’ current stance on the act is that it essentially only brings ‘intense discomfort’, or in the or words of Ted Cruz, “It is vigorous interrogation”. Waterboarding, along with other forms of “interrogation” bring intense pain and discomfort, but yet might not be considered torture.

The situation is very similar to that of the United State Supreme Court case Jacobellis v. Ohio, which dealt with profanity. One line stated in this case made it particularly famous, where Justice Potter Stewart stated “I shall not today attempt to further define the kinds of material … But I know it when I see it.”4 This is very pertinent to the example of torture as well, due to the extreme amount of discord that comes with even trying to achieve a solid definition.  That is the case simply because torture has only recently been attempted to be defined, thus the international community has only begun to put to words what has skulking around in our history for thousands of years.

The United Nations helped to officially define torture in only 1984 in the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Article 1 of the Convention dictates that anything that can be officially described as “torture” inflicts severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, with the goal of gathering information, inflicting punishment, or discriminating upon a person.5

A year later, the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture was put forward to pick up where the previous convention had left off. It defines torture as an act meant to strip a person of their faculties, even if they do not include physical or mental anguish, with any purpose in mind. The convention goes on to state that in times of war, in the threat of war, or in a state of emergency (including martial law) there is no justification for the use of torture.6

Currently, these are some of the few international attempts to define the act of torture, and the first attempts to stand against it as a community. The issue with them are voluminous, as the first has many loopholes for countries, such as the United States with waterboarding, to go through, and the second has only 18 signatories, nearly all of which being Southern American states. It would best for the sake of this paper if there was a single definition that could be relied and looked back on consistently. So here presented is a clear-cut definition: torture is the act of maliciously and forcefully harming an individual mentally or physically for sadistic, informative, punitive, or discriminatory purposes.

Why Torture?
Torture to society today seems almost alien, and so does just about any justification for it. However, if we rewind only a couple hundred years we would find ourselves in an almost completely different landscape.

Why did the peoples of the past resort to torture so absolutely? Why does it still exist today? There is no single reason to name as to why individuals torture each other.

Modern examples would tell us that we simply have no choice than to resort to torture, that the act saves lives. To go to the past, we might come to the conclusion that torture is the only way that society would be kept in check, or that it was the way of the higher authority to punish wrongdoers. This doesn’t delve deep enough, however, into the why torture itself was and is still the given solution for many scenarios. There are even certain times across history where we find that torture isn’t even being used as a solution, rather just for its own sake. The closer you look at torture, the more and more individual reasons as to why people commit the act in the first place make themselves clear.

Sadism and Torture           
Sadism, as defined by Tabers Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, is the act of gaining pleasure – especially sexual pleasure – from inflicting mental or physical anguish upon others.7 The term “mental and physical anguish” comes up very often when discussing torture, and it again appears the definition of Sadism. It makes sense that torture and sadism fall in close a relationship due to the fact that there has to be some motivation towards torture.

One does not commit an act of torture without knowing why they are doing it, it’s not like blinking or any other brainless act, it is thought out deliberately and meticulously by the torturer. In the case of sadism, the torturer’s motivation is to gain pleasure from the anguish he or she is causing others. This pleasure can be sexual, and also can come more in the form of deriving power over a victim.

Essentially, the motivation for torture in the mind of a sadist is torture itself. The idea of being in complete control alone can drive depraved people, such as sadists, into torture. This can be seen all across history in a slew of different examples. A famous example being the Transylvanian ruler Vlad III, or Vlad the Impaler. The stories of Vlad’s atrocities vary in intensity depending on whether you hear them in Western or Eastern Europe, either way, they still remain to be atrocities.

Between the two interpretations of these stories, it is estimated that Vlad was responsible for the deaths of 40,000 to 100,000 people. Beginning his rule in 1456, Vlad put a system of fear and tyranny in place for his enemies, who were largely the Ottomans.  He would do many things to ensure his sovereignty and to ward off any future invaders, including sending the dismembered noses of captured soldiers back to their homeland to broadcast a message of victory. He would also skin, boil, and otherwise ensure an extremely painful death to any who would challenge him. There would also be the method of his namesake, impaling, as he did not take the act lightly. He was known for this simply because of the sheer scale of his impaling’s.

For example, he once took offense to a rather large Saxon town disobeying his authority. In 1459, he responded by having an estimated 30,000 of the towns-folk and city officials impaled alive. This wasn’t even the last time he ordered an impaling of that scale, as again he ordered another 30,000 people impaled in the city of Braşov. The man literally created so-called ‘forests’ of impaled individuals as a warning to those who would dare impose on his rule.

Portrait of Vlad “The Impaler”

However, would these facts necessarily make him a sadist? While, yes, these acts are inexcusably brutal, where is the proof that Vlad derived any pleasure from them? That’s where we begin to reach the most disgusting part of Vlad III’s history. At the height of his reign, he obviously gathered a great number of enemies, even within his own gentry. To punish specific individuals he would, on occasion, host feasts of large proportion. In these feasts, the man would force the person being punished to eat the flesh of loved ones under the threat of death while he watched.8

Vlad didn’t reach to all of these extremes because he had to, he was an established and respected king, none of this was a last resort for him keep his seat. He and other rulers who committed acts similar to his did this because they simply enjoyed it. They enjoyed knowing that they brought pain and fear to the hearts and minds of those who opposed them and even to those they ruled over.

Sadistic acts of torture are not just exclusive to the rulers of the past but are even found in our day and age. The most common, and obvious, form of this is found in serial killers. Some serial killers kill out of a sense of duty, a common example being the mercy killings of the sick and old. Others kill because they simply do not have the intelligence to decipher right or wrong, Ottis Toole being an example due to his Intelligence Quotient resting at 75 points. 9

The worst kinds of serial killers, however, are those who maim or kill for sport. The motivations for this kind of killing is purely based on achieving a pleasure of some kind, inherently making it sadistic.10

A pertinent example of a sadistic serial killer is the heinous John Wayne Gacy. Gacy was well beloved public figure and a supposed upstanding citizen. Gacy was known for dressing up as a clown named “Pogo” and attending charity events and birthday parties, which furthered his positive reputation. A well-respected business man, he owned multiple fast food chains across the area.

On paper, Gacy was an outstanding American and a warm, caring person. Behind closed doors, however, lied a much darker and twisted figure. He grew up under an abusive father and was even further alienated at school. He found early he was attracted to men but did his best to subdue and control those feelings, which made him feel furthermore confused and separated from the world. It was later found, during his trials, that Gacy may have suffered from schizophrenia or dual personalities.

His rough childhood, sexual deviancy, and later diagnosed with mental disorders all contributed to who is ultimately considered one of the most reviled serial killers of all time. Gacy was convicted twice before of the sexual assault of multiple young boys, and eventually was let off on parole. During this time, Gacy effectively built a strong social standing with those around him, while also beginning his nefarious crime spree.  By the end, it was determined he had killed 33 boys and men, raping and torturing all of which.[11]

Mental illness is the most convenient excuse in relation to torture. So many in our society today consider the act so depraved and inhuman, that those who commit it must be sadistic in some form. It just makes sense, after all, if we look at the Vlad’s or the Gacy’s of our history, clearly, they had issues that drove them to commit these monstrous acts. If they lacked these issues it would make sense that they would never dare indulge in something so heinous as torture. Yet, torture has existed for thousands upon thousands of years, implying something more about society itself.

Torture and Its Acceptance in Society
Depraved individuals all across history have committed the acts of torture, there is a larger picture that must be considered. Torture has been acknowledged and known about for centuries within various societies, and ever since its birth it has continued to grow in its techniques and methods across nearly the whole world. Society and torture seemed almost glued in a fatal dance one another, never ending, only getting more and more dangerous. This cannot be solely on the shoulders of those we consider ‘crazy’.

The thought that goes into it and scale of torture alone implies that society itself had much more to do with its proliferation than that of individuals with mental issues. There are some that would say that torture even has is its place in the very foundation of society and its creation. This theory is called the Scapegoat Theory. 12

The Scapegoat theory is very self-explanatory, once a group is formed unity is very hard to keep due to the disparity that comes with just existing within this group. Often times groups can fall apart simply due to a lack of solutions to the various issues they come across. However, when there is someone or something to blame for this disparity, suddenly the unity is amplified. Everyone is in on the solution, there’s something any and all can do to contribute to solving the problem.

People began to figure out that punishing an individual for their transgressions had a positive effect on the group as a whole, and thus became widely used. A specific example of this in history is the act of sacrifice, especially human sacrifice. People gathered to watch their sins as a society dissolve and disappear with that of the life they choose as a representative, or a scapegoat.13

Suddenly, coexisting together wasn’t that bad, if a problem arose in within a group all that had to be done as an individual had to be chosen and punished. We see this everywhere in our history, The Salem Witch Trials, The Reign of Terror, and the prosecution of Jews over time being pertinent examples.14

Here is where we begin to see the introduction of torture into society, as it was a punishment for those unlucky enough to be chosen for the role of being that very scapegoat. Lashing, crucifixion, and stoning are some early examples of how torture began to become commonplace in society. Soon, however, the human population grew and diversified across the entire globe.

Tribes stopped in their nomadic tracks and formed settlements, the settlements grew in size and in population and eventually became bustling towns, towns flourished into cities, and cities combined into kingdoms. The complexities of social hierarchies formed, and as did the authority of government. With all of this, society at its core didn’t change, it just took on a different look.

Torture didn’t fade into the black either, it grew and diversified with society. Governments needed to take control over the populous, and torture seemed one of the more efficient ways of doing so. Now the government had the power to decide who was the outsider through social hierarchies and thus controlled who was most likely to receive the predetermined punishment. With the rise of Governmental authority, torture remained as one of the go-to ways to influence and control the people, but it now needed to be changed in order to accommodate the size of rising populations. In other words, the means of exile, death, and torture had to become mechanized. Here is where we see the birth and evolution of torture on a grander scale. Torture chambers, new methods, and new technology are all a direct result of the government intervention into torture. The government, whether it was kings and queens, parliamentary rule, socialist states, or even governments like the United States, used torture to achieve control and ensure fear.

Governmental torture created a culture of oppression over the masses it ruled over. The sheer scale of it left a creeping image of the potential dangers that might be faced if they dared disobey those above them. It was far more effective than just the threat of death, simply because death is very common across history. In the far past, proper sanitation, good hygiene, and suitable medicinal care were extremely uncommon. In contrast, the disease was abundant on a wide scale.

The life of the average peasant was characterized by little food, poor water quality, low social standing, and immensely hard work. People lived in thatch huts, which were inviting to disease-spreading rodents and parasites. Few made it past infancy due to the high demands that childcare required, and those that did had to make it past the trials of everyday life.15 Take the Plague into consideration, life gets much harder. The Black Death killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe alone. Reaching Europe in the mid-1300’s, it stuck with the continent for centuries.

With no knowledgeable medical care at hand, death was almost assured to those it affected.16 In addition to all this, wars were very common all across the world; regional or international. As time moved forward, wars became more and more deadly and thus affecting more and more people.

By Medieval times, death was a part of everyday life for the common man. Thus, if the government wanted to strike fear into the minds of enemies, or their own people, the stakes had to be raised. Torture is a fate worse than death. That is beyond debate, as not only does one often times die at the end of being tortured, they do so in complete and utter agony. Whether the torture is physical or psychological, people end up wishing for death before it comes.

It was effective enough to terrify those who were ruled over, captured during war, or those who dared oppose the hierarchy and the state. The threat of death by torture or just the threat of torture alone was enough to cement the government’s place over the people. The culture of governmental fear changed as society became more advanced and furthermore civilized.

The Enlightenment, for example, gave people the knowledge and confidence to change who and what controlled how they lived. This meant that resistance to the government was far more common.17 The American Revolution and French Revolution being prevalent examples. The tyranny and ability of the government to rule over the people in ways they disapproved of began to disappear. The Enlightenment gave people the power to think, and thus the confidence to resist the government and its torture.

Yet, torture still didn’t fade completely away. With new moral standards generally appearing across the world, it was usually in poorer regions that torture was still on a grand scale. Yet, in some cases governmental tyranny even found ways to creep its way into modern society, using tricks, boldfaced lies, and sheer force. Specific examples of torture being used to claim dominance over society can be found very easily with that of the Nazi Regime.

Once the Nazi Party, or the National Socialists, claimed power in Germany they gave off a sense of strength and stability. They tried to seem like the absolute power in the world. All that they did had to be perfect, they were the hosts of the ‘master race’, they had the supposed best athletes in the world, and, of course, had the strongest and most advanced military. Nationalism was at an all-time high, the people trusted the government to represent them. Those in their society that were labeled ‘imperfect’, such as the disabled or Jews, were judged harshly and unfairly.

Soon the government began to stretch the definition of ‘imperfect’ to encompass others as well. The government escalated the matter even more by rounding up those who were considered imperfect, and those who were marked as against the regime, and began to torture or kill them in concentration camps. The people were left with little choice other than to obey or face the same fate.

Nazi human experimentation or Nazi medical experiments was a series of medical experiments on large numbers of prisoners (including children), largely Jews from across Europe, but also Romani, Sinti, ethnic Poles, Soviet POWs and disabled Germans, by Nazi Germany in its concentration camps mainly in the early 1940s, during World War II and the Holocaust.

Torture is a psychological weapon as much as it is a physical one. The government knows it, and the people are painfully fearful of it. Torture is not accepted throughout society, there are always those who will detest its use, however it still exists. The simple explanation is that the existence of torture itself is enough to keep it in existence. There will always be those who are afraid of it and those willing to use it in one way or another.

However, the future of torture is not like its past. Today, the world looks down on torture as inhumane or evil, and it would never end up in mainstream society without severe judgment and apprehension. Yet, special cases for torture may be put forward that leaves one to wonder about its legitimacy and place in the world.

Moral Justifications for Torture
Picture this scenario: a lone man has been caught by the police in a terror plot to destroy a city. The man is not in possession of any detonating device or weapon that will bring this plot to fruition, but rather he has information. The information he potentially could provide will stop the plot in its tracks and save millions of lives. The only hitch in this matter is how the police will make him surrender this information.

He is not succumbing to interrogation or threat of imprisonment. Seemingly the only solution left is to torture the man. The law formally prevents torture at its core from being used, and the moral implications are severe. However, other arguments would say it would be immoral NOT to torture him, as one life for the sake of millions is not even a discussion.18

This topic, and others like it, show another reason why torture has not died off in our society. Governments use torture in severe cases even today, claiming that it is a last resort and that no other choice is available to them. To look back a plethora of paragraphs, the topic of waterboarding and how it applies to the United States is a very pertinent.

The Patriot Act allows “enhanced interrogation techniques” to be used on terrorists and terrorism suspects under the custody of the US.19 This means that previous methods of ‘interrogation’ once barred by the Constitution, and further laws after that, are made legal in the case of terrorists. Defenders of this would say that it’s justified, as these terrorists are immoral themselves, and the information they hold could potentially save the lives of many people across the world.

Others, such as the Israeli Supreme Court, would disagree, citing this is a slippery slope. If torture is allowed in this instance, where does it end? Who’s to say who is a terrorist and who isn’t? Thus, they ruled in 1999 that, even in the case of the previously mentioned terror plot to destroy a city, torture is immoral in every instance.20

In the end, it boils down to the individual situations one finds oneself in. On one hand, if up to the Israeli Supreme court, torture is morally unjustified in its function and should be barred from use entirely. However, if a father is put into a situation where he must commit some form of torture in order to save his children, morals may go out the window. It all comes down to who is in charge, and who isn’t. There is no answer to this debate that will not result in argument immediately afterwards, as both sides have virtue and fault.

Psychologically, torture is a diverse subject with many factors going into use that can help to explain it’s formation, proliferation, and employment. It partly can be explained by those without their complete mental faculties, such as sadists. However, the sheer scale of its existence must imply that society as a whole, not just those with a lack of humanity, had more to do with tortures introduction and spread.

This introduction of torture by society, and then the adoption of it by governing bodies, helped to push torture onto the global stage. Torture began to decline as a go-to punishment as times changed, however, there are still unique cases of torture potentially being moral or necessary that have kept the act alive to this day. Torture hasn’t changed, yet now legislation and various other blocks prevent it from existing on a wide scale. We instead have changed, and thus forced torture to recede. We must question now what we want in the future, and whether we wish to see torture fade into history, or let it still follow us to into a more modern age.


[1] “History of Torture.” Tortureum, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[2] “A quote by James Anthony Froude.” Goodreads, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[3] Gass, Nick. “Cruz: Waterboarding is not torture.” POLITICO, 6 Feb. 2016, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[4] “Jacobellis v. Ohio.” LII / Legal Information Institute, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[5] “A/RES/39/46. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” United Nations, United Nations, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.


[7] Venes, Donald. Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. vol. 22th ed, F.A. Davis Company, 2013. Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. EBSCOhost,

[8] “Vlad III the Impaler.” Vlad III the Impaler – New World Encyclopedia, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[9] “Ottis Toole.”, A&E Networks Television, 9 June 2016, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[10] Schurman-Kauflin, Deborah. “Sadistic Killers.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 15 July 2013, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[11] “John Wayne Gacy.”, A&E Networks Television, 2 Aug. 2017, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[12] “Scapegoat Theory.” Scapegoat Theory definition | Psychology Glossary, Theory. Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[13] Vsauce2. “Scapegoats.” YouTube, YouTube , 13 June 2017, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[14] Christina, et al. “Scapegoating.” Prejudice And Discrimination, Experimental Group, and Statistics In Psychology – JRank Articles, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[15] “Health A millennium of health improvement .” Http://, BBC, Accessed 2017.

[16] “Plague Information and Facts.” Information and Facts | National Geographic, 3 Aug. 2017, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[17] “The Impact of Enlightenment in Europe.”, Independence Hall Association, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[18] Miller, Seumas. “Torture.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 5 May 2017, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[19] “USA and Torture: A History of Hypocrisy.” Human Rights Watch, 23 June 2015, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

[20] “Is torture ever justified?” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 22 Sept. 2007, Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

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