Shane O'Mara D.Phil.

The Interrogated Brain

Human Information Gathering: How Can We Proceed?

The behavioural and brain sciences, if allowed to, can transform interrogation.

Posted Apr 11, 2016

//], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: DarwinPeacock, Maklaan [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

As is by now well-known, the American Psychological Association (APA) acted in concert with the US Department of Defence (DoD) to allow psychologists to participate as health professionals in the coercive interrogations of so-called ‘high-value detainees’ (although many were no such thing). A subsequent investigation led by Attorney David H. Hoffman had an electric effect, with high-ranking APA officials resigning, retiring or being fired. The APA investigation originally arose as a result of allegations made in James Risen’s important book ‘Pay Any Price’1, which provided many previously unknown details on the relationship between the APA and DoD.

[part 1; part 2; book]

As I wrote in the Times Higher Education in November 20152:

“The APA report is a remarkable document, and a fantastic read. What struck me forcibly on reading it was the way APA officials seemed to be entranced and bewitched by the fact that a major, powerful and wealthy entity of the state was paying very close attention to what they did and said. And they loved it! And it was a disaster for them. In truth, my book should have been written 10 or 12 years ago by a high-level task force constituted by the APA. It’s not as if the knowledge was not available – albeit often hidden behind the paywalls blocking access to the APA’s own journals! There are also a few standout individuals who attempted to do the right thing, despite the cards being stacked against them. Jean-Maria Arrigo in particular has been rightly hailed as a human rights heroine for her efforts.”

Subsequent Developments

A major debate has occurred within the APA regarding its participation in national security interrogations, and the present position appears to be that the APA will not participate in such interrogations. The DoD has requested that the APA reconsider its position3. It is entirely understandable that having been burned so badly that the APA has adopted a position of non-involvement. There are a great many ethical and moral issues, in addition to legal and oversight issues, that need resolving before psychologists could contemplate participating in such interrogations, especially in what would be an adversarial role.

Among other things, the adversarial role would be that of leading, advising, and assisting in the interrogation of detainees and others, with the possibility that the information so gathered might be used against the detainee in a legal process. Of course, the contrary position might arise: that the psychologist might determine that the detainee has in fact no case to answer, and should be released. This potentially adversarial role is something new for psychology: it is at the core of the legal profession and policing, for example, but it is not something psychologists have typically been involved in. It is not surprising that the DoD would ask the APA to reconsider its position, given the importance of psychologists within the DoD.

Here, I elaborate a position representing an alternative way forward for both parties which I’ve presented previously4, 5. The basic argument is this: the behavioural and brain sciences have the potential to transform forensic, policing, judicial, and intelligence practices, and thereby enhance operational effectiveness. And they have the capacity to do so in a way that is humane, ethical, and which cleaves to the importance of bowing to empirical reality as a guide to thought and action in these very important and difficult areas of human behaviour. We have seen glimmers of this already: eyewitness testimony in court is now subject to a variety of procedural and evidential rules, given the extreme malleability of such testimony. The ease of elicitation of confession to crimes – irrespective of their accuracy, reliability, truth or veridicality – should prompt similar changes where confession evidence is concerned. The role of the interrogator needs to be completely redefined5 – and their role in the overall chain of information gathering needs to be both high status and prioritised at an institutional level. (See my book, Why Torture Doesn't Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation for an elaboration of these and many more issues.)

Human Information Consulting needs to be High Status and Prioritised

The evidence of the Senate Torture Report is clear: low-status, low-ranking individuals with little to no interrogational experience or training, with markedly low-levels of self-awareness, poor impulse control, high levels of aggression, and little by way transpersonal psychological or situational awareness were often assigned to the supposedly signally important task of debriefing detainees. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that no meaningful political priority was given to the signal importance of understanding human behaviour in intelligence, forensic or related contexts. Furthermore, the hard-won knowledge of interrogation obtained by the FBI was set to one side. A clear signal of priority and urgency then and now would be and would have been the creation of ‘Operational Brain and Behavioural Sciences’ Directorates within intelligence, legal, border and policing agencies, whose leaders or directors would be of the highest status and at the executive level in terms of institutional organisation. This situation has now changed to some degree with the formation of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group – HIG6, 7, 8 – which funds academic research in ethical, humane and non-coercive interrogation, and which provides interrogation support in certain cases. The HIG research programme is most welcome, but the big science, long-term, large-scale funded integrated interdisciplinary research and training programmes (of the type funded by the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health) have not yet been created. Neither have large-scale changes in organisational structures to support this new mission been discussed (publicly, at least).

As I argued in the two previous posts, creating a new interdisciplinary science of human information gathering (that is, of interrogation and interviewing, but also including analysis) is entirely possible and necessary. This new science should have a central role within policing, intelligence and other agencies. The phrase 'interrogator' has many (perhaps too many) negative connotations – I suggest that interrogators be renamed as ‘Human Information Consultants’, to signal their much broader remit than that of simply interrogation.

How Should Human Information Consulting Be Institutionalised?

The foremost requirement is that interrogators and related specialisms are placed within high-status operational behavioural and brain science directorates that report to the highest level of institutional management. In turn, this allows direct reporting to policy makers and to government. Such directorates must have a strong ethical and moral code utterly repudiating coercive interrogation and torture as immoral, illegal and contrary to good investigative practice. Further, such directorates must sustain both strong research programmes and be invested in the conduct of research that enhances the quality of non-coercive intelligence gathering.

How Should Human Information Consultants Be Trained?

Minimal standards of training, education and apprenticeship need to be mandated for would-be Human Information Consultants. These standards should approach the level of training required for clinical interviewing by professional psychiatrists or psychologists in clinical psychological or clinical psychiatric settings5. Trainees should be exposed during the course of training to the great variety and extremes of behaviour that are manifest in these and other settings; they will need training to allow them to become independent interrogators or interviewers in their own right. The personal characteristics of the interrogator are also vital: selection for training needs to focus on candidates who are personally mature, and can show sensitivity and acuity in interactions with the interviewee; who are culturally-aware, are comfortable with personal reflection and expressing self-doubt; who can engage in perspective-taking, and are sensitive to the boundaries of their own capacities and knowledge. Such interrogators will have to be willing undergo regular professional development, and be able discard aspects of their interrogational practice when the data show them to be invalid or inappropriate. There is also a considerable agenda regarding the dynamics of human interaction to be pursued, presented in part in the previous post9.

The Future

There is a considerable and substantial challenge in getting the science, ethics and practice in line. It will require political, scientific and practitioner change, and will present a considerable challenge to current cultural practices and norms. Rising to these challenges will increase operational effectiveness, eliminate prisoner abuse and torment, and ensure that veridical and actionable information gathering occurs. The question of how to conduct interrogations, who should do them, what training they need, what the focus of interrogation and interviewing should be, is actually a behavioural and brain sciences problem. Empirical evidence located within the theoretical framework of the brain and behavioural sciences, dispassionately analysed and presented, should be at the heart of policymaking regarding interrogation practice and intelligence work – not ideological suppositions, or barely suppressed desires for retributive punishment to be exacted against detainees. Law enforcement agencies need to be restructured to recognise that veridical human intelligence and information gathering and analysis is at the operational heart of what they do. The central argument here is that the science, ethics and practice of interrogation and interviewing are converging on a recurring theme: that ‘interrogation is for professionals, and torture is for amateurs’. This message cannot be repeated enough – especially to those who knowledge of interrogation is derived principally from the fictions of the entertainment industry10.

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My book, Why Torture Doesn’t Work - The Neuroscience of Interrogation, is available via Amazon (published by Harvard University Press, Nov, 2015)


1 James Risen ‘Pay Any Price’.

2 Interview in the Times Higher Education in November 2015 

3 See this document trail, for example

4 Shane O'Mara, Foreign Affairs, 2016-01-15

5 Shane O’Mara, Why Torture Doesn’t Work, Harvard University Press

6 HIG 

7 FBI  

8 FBI Symposium  

9 Shane O'Mara, How should we interrogate the brain 

10 See Porter et al for an elaboration of a similar argument who focus in particular on focus on ‘advising police on interrogation or other investigative strategies, evaluating the credibility of suspect statements, and consulting with emergency response teams in hostage-taking or barricade situations’.

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My book, Why Torture Doesn’t Work - The Neuroscience of Interrogation, is available via Amazon (published by Harvard University Press, Nov, 2015)


An Irish Examiner Best Book of 2015

A Times Higher Education Book of the Week, 2015

Instead of simply providing utilitarian arguments, [O’Mara] argues that there is no evidence from psychology or neuroscience for many of the specious justifications of torture as an information-gathering tool. Providing an abundance of gruesome detail, O’Mara marshals vast, useful information about the effects of such practices on the brain and the body. (Lasana T. Harris Nature 2015-11-05)

Does torture actually work? To be sure, it can compel people to confess to crimes and to repudiate their religious and political beliefs. But there is a world of difference between compelling someone to speak and compelling them to tell the truth… Yet the assumption underlying the ticking time bomb defense is that abusive questioning reliably causes people to reveal truthful information that they would otherwise refuse to disclose. Few scholars have scrutinized this assumption―and none with the rigor, depth, and clarity of Shane O’Mara in his excellent book, Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation… Invoking the relevant science, he shows that torture undermines the very neurocognitive mechanisms requisite for recalling veridical information from memory. (Richard McNally Science 2015-10-16)

If the aim of the torturers is to extract information, they should read O’Mara’s book and adopt gentler methods. CIA and the rest of you, read and note. Neuroscience says your methods don’t work. (Steven Rose Times Higher Education 2015-11-26)