A False Consensus about Public Opinion on Torture

The new issue of PS: Political Science and Politics has a symposium on torture, and the issue has been made available to the public. Here is the issue, and here is the press release from the American Political Science Association. I thank Sarah Vogelsong at APSA, as well as Cambridge University Press.

I will focus on one article from the symposium, co-authored by Paul Gronke, Darius Rejali, Dustin Drenguis, James Hicks, Peter Miller, and Bryan Nakayama. From the opening paragraphs:

Many journalists and politicians believe that during the Bush administration, a majority of Americans supported torture if they were assured that it would prevent a terrorist attack….But this view was a misperception…we show here that a majority of Americans were opposed to torture throughout the Bush presidency…even when respondents were asked about an imminent terrorist attack, even when enhanced interrogation techniques were not called torture, and even when Americans were assured that torture would work to get crucial information. Opposition to torture remained stable and consistent during the entire Bush presidency. Even soldiers serving in Iraq opposed the use of torture in these conditions…a public majority in favor of torture did not appear until, interestingly, six months into the Obama administration.

The public opinion data from 2001-2009 is pretty unequivocal. See the paper for the requisite tables and graphs. It’s also worth noting that majorities oppose most specific methods of torture or “enhanced interrogation” even when those techniques are not labeled “torture.”

So why would politicians and journalists misread public opinion? Gronke et al write:

A recent survey we commissioned helps shine a light on this question. Psychologists describe a process of misperception—“false consensus”—whereby an individual mistakenly believes that his or her viewpoint represents the public majority…Our survey shows that this false consensus pervades the opinions of those who support torture, leading them to significantly overestimate the proportion of the public that agrees with them. Those people opposed to torture, in contrast, have remarkably accurate perceptions of the rest of the public.

And here is the graph that shows the gap between perceived and actual opinion, comparing supporters and opponents of torture.


The gap is larger for supporters of torture than for opponents, suggesting that supporters are especially prey to the false consensus effect:

Those who believe that torture is “often” justified—a mere 15% of the public—think that more than a third of the public agrees with them. The 30% who say that torture can “sometimes” be justified believe that 62% of Americans do as well, and think that another 8% “often” approve of torture.

Gronke et al. conclude:

The people who had the most accurate perception of public attitudes turned out to be the people nobody believed or supported throughout the Bush administration—the 29% who were most opposed to torture.

The article is here.

4 Responses to A False Consensus about Public Opinion on Torture

  1. public takeover July 7, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    Thanks for posting this. I wonder how prevalent this “misperception” phenomenon is–say, in tax or war questions.

  2. Chris July 8, 2010 at 8:55 am #

    The charts are poorly labeled.

    Based on the quotes, it seems that the label on the top of each of the four charts should be read as “people who themselves believed … categorized the public per the gray bars while in fact the public believed as shown in the black bars”

    So, for instance, people who thought that torture was rarely justified (bottom left chart) thought that 8% of the public thought torture was never justified (bottom bar on this chart).

  3. Anderson July 8, 2010 at 9:05 am #

    I look at your graphs and see only 30% categorically opposed to torture.

    When Americans say they’d tolerate the “rare” use of torture, ticking-bomb scenarios are likely what they have in mind. I’m not convinced that the research supports the conclusion.

    Since I’m one of the 30%, that dejects me considerably. But Obama and the Dems have decided that opposing torture makes them look weak, and so we get Bush Lite — no more torture (?), but indefinite detention w/out charges, no judicial relief for torture victims like Maher Arar, and no investigation of John Yoo et al.

  4. Batocchio July 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    Thanks. This is important stuff. I’ve been dismayed to see public opinion shift, but given the efforts of Dick and Liz Cheney, Marc Thiessen and others, it’s not entirely surprising. More troubling is the refusal of major outlets to call torture torture, or to fact-check any of the aforementioned torture apologists/proponents.