Flash Polls, Misc, Politics, Social Issues, Topline Results

Students both Support and Oppose America’s use of “Enhanced Interrogation” Techniques

Credit: Marshall Ramsey/Creators Syndicate
Credit: Marshall Ramsey/Creators Syndicate

In December of 2014, the United States Senate Intelligence Committee released The Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. This report totaled 6300 pages, with an executive summary that reached 500 pages. With torture, or as the United States government has called it “enhanced interrogation,” back in the news, PackPoll surveyed almost 900 NC State undergraduates on March 17-18 to measure their support for enhanced interrogation of people suspected of working for ISIS. Depending on how the question is asked, students overwhelming support it, or overwhelmingly oppose it.

The polling community is divided about how to ask about “enhanced/harsh interrogation” or “torture.” The AP uses “harsh interrogation techniques” in its polls, while Pew uses “torture.” For the PackPoll, the term enhanced interrogation technique was used. But we also asked students if ISIS members could use these techniques. And we changed the order of when these questions were asked, and sometimes spelled out specific examples of practices called “enhanced techniques.” Afterwards, we also asked about the morality of “torture.”

The survey attempted to explore two potential factors that might shape opinions about enhanced interrogation techniques. The first is question order; does asking about approval for “members of ISIS using enhanced interrogation techniques on people suspected of working for the U.S. government” before asking a corresponding question about U.S. government agents using enhanced interrogation techniques on suspected members of ISIS reduce support for the U.S. doing this? We thought it would, due to a recognized cognitive dissonance in lack of support for one (ISIS) and not the other (the U.S.). Below are the results:

Enhanced Interrogation Order Effect
Table 1. Enhanced Interrogation Order Effect

As expected, the vast majority of students disapprove of ISIS using torture against the United States military, but support increase by about 5% when ISIS is asked about after the U.S. However, the largest swing occurs, as expected, in the support for US enhanced interrogation. This swing can be seen visually in the graph below.

Effect of Order on Approval of US Enhanced Interrogation
Figure 1. Effect of Order on Approval of US Enhanced Interrogation

As Figure 1 shows, putting the question about ISIS enhanced interrogation techniques first creates about a 13-point swing in approval. When the question about approval for US enhanced interrogation comes first, a slim majority approve of enhanced interrogation, with 51% approving and 49% disapproving. With the question about ISIS posed first, however, disapproval increases to 63% while approval plummets to 37%.

This swing suggests that many people often do not think about the flip side of enhanced interrogation, namely that others might do it to us. When U.S. enhanced interrogation is framed by ISIS enhanced interrogation, approval for these practices are much lower. This may be because, when confronted with the other side of the equation, people would rather the United States not stoop to that level. Or perhaps this is because people recognize that it is not fair to hold the two sides of combat to different standards, and that if they don’t support ISIS torturing U.S. agents than it is more difficult to support U.S. agents torturing members of ISIS. Either way, this frame has a strong negative effect on approval for U.S. enhanced interrogation practices.

Support for these techniques is even more strongly affected by providing a literal description of these techniques. Respondents were randomly assigned one of two versions of the question about the U.S. using enhanced interrogation techniques. One merely asked, “do you approve or disapprove of U.S. government agents using enhanced interrogation techniques on people suspected of being members of ISIS,” but the other included the following information: “These techniques include waterboarding, forcing the person to stay awake for 7 straight days shackled and wearing a diaper, locking the person in a box the size of a small dog crate, and slamming a person into a wall and hitting their face and stomach.” On the surface, these two questions are the same—it is difficult to be unaware of what techniques are actually being used in a so-called “enhanced interrogation”—but they yielded very different results.

Enhanced Interrogation Description Effect
Table 2. Enhanced Interrogation Description Effect

When given a description, approval for enhanced interrogation dropped 24 points, from 56% to 32%. That shift goes from a majority approval to two-thirds disapproval. Respondents, when confronted with the reality of what enhanced interrogation meant, overwhelmingly disapproved of U.S. enhanced interrogation. When this question came before being asked about ISIS enhanced interrogation, there was also an increase in disapproval of ISIS using enhanced interrogation.

Framing enhanced interrogation with a description of some techniques that fall under that banner, however, did not significantly affect perceptions about the morality of torture, although majorities indicated they thought torture is immoral, inconsistent with American values, and shouldn’t be used if another method is available

Below are the results of these three questions, split to also show the minimal differences between those given a description of enhanced interrogation techniques and those not given that description.

Immoral Description Effect
Table 3. Immoral Description Effect
American Values Description Effect
Table 4. American Values Description Effect
Other Means Description Effect
Table 5. Other Means Description Effect

There is only a slight uptick in negative perceptions of torture amongst those given a description of enhanced interrogation techniques. Overall, 79.5% of respondents agree that torturing people is immoral, 68% agree that torture is inconsistent with American values, and 84.2% agree that the American government should not use torture if we think there may be another way to obtain the information.

On the other hand, respondents’ partisanship has a large effect on attitudes. Republicans are much more likely to approve of US enhanced interrogation practices/torture than Democrats or Independents.

Immoral Party Lines
Table 6. Immoral – Party Lines
American Values Party Lines
Table 7. American Values – Party Lines
Other Means Party Lines
Table 8. Other Means – Party Lines


NOTE ON METHODOLOGY: This survey included split-ballots, with sample sizes as low as 417. This decrease in n results in an increase in margin of sampling error. While sampling error is a potential issue present in this survey, it is not the only source of survey error. This survey could face survey error from response, measurement error, and other types of survey error.

Click on the link below to download a PDF of the results from this flash poll, and the SPSS file for the data. Feel free to email us if you have any questions.

Spring 2015 Torture Flash Poll (Topline Report and Data)

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