Last month the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” News outlets have raised a number of disturbing takeaways from the report’s 500+ page summary, including the gritty details of torture, the failure of many of these practices to get results, and the $81 million paid out to the advisors who helped design them. We typically think of torture as either a barbaric practice or a necessary, if extreme, evil in some limited cases. But while the public wonders whether it actually works, research shows this question doesn’t really decide whether an organization will turn to torture in the first place.

Torture only works because of a highly developed social relationship where the perpetrator can perceive the victim’s pain, but continue with the practice. Randall Collins argues this makes it an extreme way to symbolize human social boundaries—who is in with the powerful community and who is not. This relationship maintains dominance, regardless of whether it gets information.
When torture hits the news, leaders care more about managing the public response than ending this social relationship. Analysis of the Senate Armed Services Committee meetings after Abu Ghraib came to light in 2004 shows how leaders interpreted widespread torture as “isolated incidents.” Experimental surveys of Iraqi judges found they were more likely to give lenient sentences in hypothetical cases of Coalition torture if they felt secure from future crime and protected by police.
All this points to a broader claim about the “dark side of organizations:” their misbehavior is often routine. When the public finds out, organizations are often more concerned with making sure the routine isn’t destroyed by being labeled as a widespread mistake, misconduct, or disaster. Instead, they admit to individual wrongdoing—like isolated incidents of torture that didn’t work—to avoid bigger questions about why torture happens in the first place.