Torture and Cognitive Dissonance

When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?

—JM Keynes

A couple of recent, unrelated articles caught my eye. The New Scientist carried a review of ‘Why Torture doesn’t work’, a forthcoming book by Shane O’Mara, an academic at Trinity, Dublin. The scientific answer is that torture doesn’t work, in the sense of getting at ‘truth’, for people will say anything in an attempt to end their torment. People will falsely confess, something that’s “alarmingly easy to produce”. Torture is euphemistically referred to as ‘enhanced interrogation’ by the US federal authorities. The police also use methods of ‘enhanced’ interrogation.

The second article was in the New Statesman (here) and was about cognitive dissonance, the mental tension resulting from the mismatch between new evidence and a pre-constructed ‘reality’. The article describes a convicted rapist and murderer. Years later, DNA testing showed that his DNA didn’t match what was found at the crime scene. At an appeal, the prosecutors introduced the presence of an hitherto unknown and unidentified further man who had raped the child, who the convict then came across, raped using a condom (thus leaving no DNA) and murdered. This remarkable theory has become so common that’s it now known to defence lawyers as the “unindicted co-ejaculator”. It’s also very apparent that the authorities are reluctant to confirm that DNA has been recovered from the scene, and reluctant to permit testing. Even today, one of the original investigators still believes in the guilt of the falsely convicted man. (The article also notes the calls for an ‘innocence commission’; and the UK’s Criminal Cases Review Commission and the ‘Birmingham Six’ and the ‘Guildford Four’; in both of which coercive methods of interrogation had been used.) Despite new evidence, new facts, investigators and prosecutors can be very reluctant to discard their theories.

The trial of Stephen Ward (and here) involved the coercive interrogation of witnesses such as Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler; the police were ordered to find evidence of criminality on Ward’s part—rather than the usual way of policing then, finding evidence of crime and looking for a perpetrator, for Stephen Ward was the sort of unreliable person who might damage or unseat the government.

Surely not in Ireland? I wrote previously about the murder of Patricia Curran and how an entirely innocent man was convicted of her murder. This man had been intensively interrogated by Chief Superintendent Capstick who was convinced of his guilt and who extracted a ‘confession’.

The tragedy that is the ‘Kerry Babies’ is more recent; the surrounding investigation was later the subject of a Tribunal (in the UK, an Inquiry). A dead baby was found on a Kerry beach; he had been stabbed multiple times. The Gardaí trawled the county looking for the mother; a young, unmarried woman, Joanne Hayes, became a suspect. She had previously given birth to a child whose father, Jeremiah (Jeb) Locke, was a married man, and though she had apparently been pregnant, there was no sight of a second child. She and her immediate family were interrogated and confessed to the murder of the baby boy. They retracted their confessions soon after. In a confused series of events, the young woman also described delivering a baby at her home, concealing the birth.

The Gardaí then discovered the body of this second baby at the young woman’s home. They seem to have decided that the woman had given birth to twins, and disposed of both of the infants. However, the baby found on the beach had Landsteiner blood group A; both the Joanne and Jeb, who didn’t deny paternity, were blood group O. In other words, the baby on the beach wasn’t the offspring of the Jeb Locke and the Joanne Hayes. Well, you might think so.

You might also have thought that the simple explanation of this was that two women had given birth, one having concealed the baby at home, and the other, alone or with an accomplice, had murdered the boy found on the beach. The Gardaí thought otherwise; Joanne Hayes had indeed given birth to twins, but these had been fathered by two different men. This is known asheteropaternal superfecundation. Superfecundation, where separate acts of intercourse give rise to multiple, fertilised ova is well known in animals. It’s more difficult to be certain in humans where multiple births are much less common. It can be seen in fraternal, non-identical or dizygotic twins where two different ova have been fertilised; identical, monozygotic twins develop from one fertilised ovum. Perhaps 2% of non-identical twins are the result of superfecundation; twins occur in roughly 1.25% of pregnancies. There were just over 64,000 live births recorded in Ireland in 1984; thus about 400 sets of twins (i.e. 800 babies), either monozygotic or dizygotic; at a maximum, 10 babies could have been a result of superfecundation. Which is all a long-winded way of saying that yes, superfecundation occurs, but is rare. The Tribunal also wondered if blood groups could change after immersion in the sea, in what seems like a desperate attempt to confirm the superfecundation theory. It was only late in the day that an expert indicated that as Joanne did not have anti-A antibodies in her blood, she could not have been the mother of the baby on the beach.

Nell McCafferty has written a feminist account of what happened here. She describes how the Tribunal was composed entirely of men; and how one of these, a married man, during the Tribunal proceedings took to his bed in a Tralee hotel a woman who wasn’t his wife. DNA testing wasn’t available in 1984; Joanne Hayes has subsequently called for it, to confirm her innocence, as has one of the original investigating officers (here), for he still believes that the superfecundation theory is correct. To date, DNA testing hasn’t been done.

Which brings me back to where I started; coercive interrogation of people doesn’t work; people will say anything at all so that their ordeal will end. They might well say what is true, but equally they will agree with any suggestion, however outrageous. Confessions extracted under such conditions must be regarded as very suspect; but then, whose word do you take for the ‘conditions’? The word of the torturers or their victims?

Likewise, when the authorities are convinced of the correctness of their suspicions, what does it take to change this? New and better evidence, no matter how persuasive, may well have no effect. Once we know something to be true, it seems that no amount of ‘evidence’ will cause us to deflect from our beliefs. Do the authorities still condone the use of “enhanced interrogation”? Or do they also have cognitive dissonance?

  • Reader

    Korhomme: I wrote previously about the murder of Patricia Curran and how an entirely innocent man was convicted of her murder. This man had been intensively interrogated by Chief Superintendent Capstick who was convinced of his guilt and who extracted a ‘confession’.
    I thought that the point about the Patricia Curran case is that those who believe that the convicted man was innocent (and you didn’t convince me); tend to believe that he was deliberately sacrificed in a cover-up rather than accidentally convicted by over-zealous interrogation.
    Aren’t you falling between two stools, here?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Your words are “deliberately sacrificed” and “accidentally convicted”. It seems that you’ve missed the point of OP. It’s the contradictory nature of cognitive dissonance which could be defined as holding 2 opposing views simultaneously. It also goes beyond mere face-saving.
    Was Dreyfus accidentally convicted, deliberately scapegoated, intentionally sacrificed on the altar of the state’s prestige or just an easy target as an (Jewish) outsider? Many anti-Dreyfusards could have reasoned that all 4 were simultaneously acceptable to them because that fits in with their ‘truth’ or need for certainty.
    Parallel sentiments could be discerned in securing a conviction in the Patricia Curran case. Capstick’s staunch confidence in Hay Gordon’s guilt, whether misguided or not, could possibly be seen as part of a wider frame that may have been too unsettling for him to consider let alone challenge.

  • Korhomme

    I was making a different point here; DCI Capstick seems to have been convinced of Iain Hay Gordon’s guilt even before interviewing him. (Gordon had been interviewed by the RUC, with no further action then taken.) There was no clear evidence to lead him to this conclusion. During his interview of Gordon he threatened to tell Gordon’s parents that he, Gordon, was homosexual – again the evidence for this was skimpy. Capstick seems to have planted the story in Gordon’s head that he, Gordon. must have had a ‘blackout’. The ‘confession’ was the only evidence against Gordon; Capstick never seems to have considered any alternative.

    Patricia’s family certainly knew more than they let on; but they didn’t ‘finger’ Gordon, nor did they attempt to refute his confession.

  • Reader

    Ben De Hellenbacque: It seems that you’ve missed the point of OP.
    Well, actually, I think that the Curran case didn’t advance the thesis at all, it’s a distraction. That’s hardly my fault.
    I’ll go into the third option between “deliberately sacrificed” and “accidentally convicted” in my reply to Korhomme.
    As for Cognitive Dissonance – well obviously it exists. The stress levels seen in any thread on Slugger amply illustrate that fact.

  • Reader

    Your belief that Capstick truly thought that Gordon was guilty at least rules out some of the sillier conspiracy theories. Thank goodness for that. It’s your statement that Gordon was innocent that attracted my attention.
    I outlined my own theory on the original thread – it explains the strange features of the case without insisting on there being a conspiracy to protect the guilty at the expense of the innocent. The only really strange feature of my theory is that it allows that the convicted man was actually guilty. In this context, it suggests that Capstick was over zealously following his (entirely accurate) instincts. Just like any TV detective would.
    So no aspect of this case is an illustration of cognitive dissonance.

  • Korhomme

    It’s the contradictory nature of cognitive dissonance which could be defined as holding 2 opposing views simultaneously.

    A more usual definition of cognitive dissonance would be continuing to hold onto a theory or belief when new facts clearly show it to be wrong. Who today believes that the Earth is the centre of the solar system, and that the sun and planets revolve around it? If you did so believe, this would be cognitive dissonance.

    The psychiatrist Richard Asher (Jane’s father) described a related phenomenon; the ‘crime of Procrustes’ is where you only take evidence which boosts your case, while ignoring evidence which contradicts your case.

  • Korhomme

    Reader; I cannot find your theory in the comments to my original article about Patricia Curran.

    (Several comments have been deleted.)

  • babyface finlayson

    “If you did so believe, this would be cognitive dissonance.”

    Only, surely, if you are experiencing some conflict due to being confronted with new or contradictory evidence.
    If you are not experiencing any difficulty then there would be no dissonance as you are simply in denial. Or psychotic.

  • Korhomme

    There is no conflict in cognitive dissonance. You hold onto your pet theory even when facts and evidence show it cannot be correct, because you know it to be true.

    Look at the Kerry Babies; the Guards continued to believe that there was only one mother when blood groups strongly suggested that there were two; they produced this ludicrous idea of superfecundation to explain the twins. Even the absence of anti-A could not change the mind of one.

    The Guards seem to have had a particular mental image of women; if a woman could have had a baby out of wedlock, she was ‘just the sort of person’ who would be free with her favours, and could therefore have been impregnated by two men within a short time. (And from where did this view of women come?)

  • babyface finlayson


    Most definitions refer to the dissonance producing discomfort.

    “Dissonance produces discomfort and, correspondingly, there will arise pressures to reduce or eliminate the dissonance. Attempts to reduce dissonance represent the observable manifestations that dissonance exists.” Festinger.

    Makes sense to me

  • Korhomme

    Yes, OK; I think we are using slightly different definitions of ‘conflict’.

  • Reader

    Sorry for the delay in my reply. My theory was that Gordon did the murder in the bedroom, and the family covered up that embarrassment by tampering with the scene. Massively.
    Faced with that mess, the police did what they could.
    It explains the strange features of the case without requiring a conspiracy to sacrifice an innocent man to protect a murderer.

  • Korhomme

    I see, thanks. We agree that it was an ‘inside job’ with a cover up. The first conspiracy was the cover up; the second conspiracy wasn’t to implicate Iain Hay Gordon, but when he ‘confessed’ to arrange the trial so that he would not be executed.

    I only used the Patricia Curran murder because it was local and because I felt it fitted into the categories of ‘torture’ and ‘cognitive dissonance’. The ‘torture’ wasn’t physical, rather it was mental – the coercive ‘interview’ of Iain Hay Gordon by Capstick. This wasn’t a fact-finding interview, rather it was used to extract a confession from Gordon.

    Also, the cognitive dissonance is not only Capstick’s mental view of Gordon, but also the view of the RUC in general; they could not or would not see the murder as an ‘inside job’, so therefore it must have been done by an outsider.

  • Korhomme

    Hetero-paternal super-fecundation is known to be rare, twins with two different fathers. It was a major feature of the ‘Kerry Babies’ case. There’s a report in today’s Guardian of such twins from Vietnam. The report says that “Only seven cases of bi-paternal twins had been reported in the world as of 2011.”