Tyler Cowen, one of my favorite economists, addresses an issue I've thought about many times: what's the best strategy for avoiding torture? He assumes that you've already been captured by someone who thinks you have valuable information and is willing to torture you, and that you'd rather spill the beans that get tortured. I think his strategy #2 might be best.

1. Break down immediately, beg for mercy, humiliate yourself, and spill the beans. (If you talk right away, will they torture you anyway? And since no further good information can be offered why should they stop?)

2. Go in acting tough, really tough. At the first sign of serious pain, start crying and switch to strategy #1.

But as a minimally trained interrogater points out about strategy #2:

This also might work. Frequently the tough demeanor types crack the fastest. However, the sudden conversion would be fishy. If I had a lot of time to work on you, I would consider, after you broke, giving you time to rebuild your defenses and see if the tough demeanor returned. If it did, that would be more convincing. That is, if you are really the tough guy type, that won't go away from one session where you broke, and would return after you had time to put yourself back together. It might go away after sustained torture over a long period, but not from one session where you broke at the first sign of serious pain.

The other problem with this strategy is that it might actually work. That is, if you are convincing, what I have learned is that I can get you to alter your behavior by inflicting serious pain. Even if all I am looking to do is extract information, I will probably torture you to the serious pain level at each session, as a sort of warm up.

There's more, and it's an interesting problem to consider.

(HT: GeekPress.)

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