UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 4 | Apr.
Torturing the Taliban not the Answer
Theyll talk but it may not be the truth
By Erica Smishek
The U.S. governments recent capture of Khalid Shaikh
Mohammed, the operational head of al-Qaeda, and its continued
pursuit of terrorists have provoked an international debate
on torture. If nothing else works, should torture be used
to obtain information that could prevent future terrorist
Not according to UBC Psychology Prof. John Yuille.
This is a political, social, philosophical issue. Im
just opposed to it, he says. What we know from
the history of the use of torture is yes, you can get good
information you might not otherwise get but youll also
get a lot of bad information and its so difficult to
tease it apart.
For example, we know there werent any witches
in the 16th century but that didnt stop the witch prickers
and other torturers from getting all kinds of people to confess
to being witches.
In the case of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, he says, treating
them with a great deal of respect, and thereby violating the
expectations these terrorists have of Americans, might actually
have better results.
As a specialist in forensic psychology, Yuille has spent years
researching interviewing techniques. He developed the Step-Wise
Interviewing Protocol for victims of child abuse, designed
to maximize accurate information from the child, minimize
contamination of that information and provide a safe, non-threatening
environment for the child. Step-Wise is the standard used
in British Columbia and is also used in other Canadian provinces,
some American states and other countries.
Its an attempt to provide a framework for people
interviewing children so that theyll do the right thing,
and maybe more importantly, not do the wrong thing,
In cases of child sexual abuse, where there is rarely other
evidence (medical evidence, other witnesses), the statement
of the child is often all that the investigator has. The quality
of that statement, therefore, is critical.
Yuille joined the UBC Dept. of Psychology as an assistant
professor in 1968 and helped create UBCs graduate program
in forensic psychology. Now a part-time faculty member, he
teaches, conducts research and oversees the work of graduate
students. He also serves as a consultant to law enforcement,
child protection agencies, prosecutors and defence lawyers
and has testified as an expert in various courts.
In the early 1980s, Yuille began field studies of eyewitness
memory in actual crimes, the first research of its kind ever
done. Previously most research on memory had been conducted
in a lab setting, with students pretending to
be witnesses to a crime they had seen on video or in a staged
Yuilles research focuses on memory -- that of victims,
witnesses and suspects - as well as the effect of trauma on
memory. It has taken him and his team to Vancouvers
Downtown Eastside to interview prostitutes and to B.C.s
correctional institutions to interview men convicted of acts
of extreme violence.
The part of human nature that Im most curious
about is the evil, problematic, violent side of us,
There are a lot of crimes I can empathize with. I
can see myself stealing in the right circumstances or the
wrong circumstances. But there are certain things related
to violence, to sadism, to sexual exploitation, to the use
of children, the abuse of children that are still a puzzle
Because the people who do that are so fundamentally
different than I am, I want to understand them better and
I want to find ways of finding them earlier and successfully
lessening the likelihood theyll repeat it.
His lab, for example, is currently conducting survey research
on sexual fantasies and personality characteristics to determine
the base rate and types of sexual fantasies (normal, deviant,
violent, etc.) in the general population. Base rates are necessary
to distinguish those who eventually engage in sexual violence
and those who merely fantasize about it.
The study grew from a Colorado murder case for which Yuille
was a consultant. A womans body was found naked, with
no evidence of sexual assault, but with parts of her body,
including a nipple, removed. The only suspect was a 14-year-old
boy who lived near where the body was found and had kept scrapbooks
of drawings and writings detailing his violent sexual fantasies.
The case went unsolved for 20 years until a detective on the
verge of retirement re-opened the case and got a conviction
against the original suspect.
Yuille also conducts training workshops on interviewing,
credibility assessment and memory for law enforcement officials
and child protection agencies. As a member of the U.S.-based
Institute of Analytic Interviewing (IAI), he has helped the
group develop a program for educating law enforcement officials
around the world in the techniques of interviewing.
Its what used to be called interrogation,
he explains. We dont use that term anymore. It
carries with it the notion that the purpose of the interview
is to get that person to confess, which we think is the wrong
We think the attitude ought to be youre going
to create the circumstances in which someone who wants to
confess will, but you dont want to coerce someone.
The IAI has also assisted the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. in counter-terrorism
training. In conjunction with member Paul Ekman, a psychologist
at the University of California, San Francisco, IAI is also
researching ways people can read others thoughts by
looking at their faces.
As Yuille speaks, one gets the sense of the limitless potential
of -- and the endless fascination with -- forensic psychology.
Its funny. This is a field of great popular interest
but after awhile you get so inured at working with this that
you sometimes forget that talking about slicing off body parts
is upsetting or disturbing.