When Beliefs Lead to (Im)Moral Action: How Believing in Torture's Effectiveness Shapes the Endorsement of Its Use

Shannon C. Houck, James McFarland, Laura V. Machia, Lucian Gideon Conway

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Does believing in torture's effectiveness shape the endorsements of its use? Using a multimethod approach across six studies, we provide converging evidence that efficacy beliefs can help increase understanding of individual differences and situational influences on torture support. Studies 1a and 1b found that torture opinions contained more efficacy-based language than other types of harm and that people relied more on torture efficacy than torture's inherent morality when conveying their views. Study 2 assessed predictors of torture favorability including effectiveness and other key covariates, revealing that efficacy beliefs strongly predicted torture favorability—an association that retained its predictive validity above and beyond individual differences known to influence torture support. Mediation analyses further showed that efficacy beliefs explained key associations with torture support. Studies 3 and 4 used moral dilemmas requiring decisions about torture versus other harm. Results showed that individuals who believed harm would be effective were more likely to endorse its use; this was especially evident for torture judgments. Study 5 replicated the torture-efficacy effect while also revealing efficacy effects for other interrogation techniques, thus suggesting the effect is driven more by the instrumental objective of torture than harm or moral violations. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1315-1339
Number of pages25
JournalPolitical Psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019


  • attitudes
  • efficacy beliefs
  • harm
  • moral judgments
  • political policy
  • torture

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science and International Relations


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