system 1 and system 2

The ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ Scenario Is Brilliant Psychological Manipulation

A torture-y scene from 24, a show that is not real life.

Yesterday, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic wrote a very depressing blog post about how the United States may, with the election of Donald Trump, be on the verge of re-adopting torture. As Friedersdorf pointed out, Donald Trump has openly stated that he thinks the country needs to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” to deal with detainees suspected of involvement in terrorism, and while a loud chorus of voices from across the political spectrum is outspoken in their opposition to torture, Trump is also “being urged by people with ties to the CIA to bring back waterboarding.”

In defending acts many people find to be morally abhorrent, torture apologists frequently point to the so-called ticking-time-bomb scenario: A terrorist has been captured and is in possession of vital information to prevent a bomb going off in a major population center, killing and injuring untold scores. The only way to get him to give up the information, the thinking goes, is by torturing him. Isn’t it the only moral choice?

As Friedersdorf rightly points out, this is not a scenario that comes up in real life. “There is no known instance of torture preventing a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack, though the practice has been perpetrated throughout human history,” he writes. “One needn’t summon any particular degree of insight or wisdom to see that if the Trump administration chooses to torture, it will inevitably be used in the absence of a ticking time bomb, on prisoners with no information that would save city blocks from WMDs. That’s precisely what happened during the Bush administration. For a veteran of the Bush-era CIA to invoke ticking time bombs is misdirection.”

It’s interesting that so many years after Bush, we are still arguing over ticking time bombs. Way back in 2007, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer wrote a fascinating and disturbing piece about the influential politics of 24, at the time a hit show, and its co-creator and executive producer Joel Surnow. She also explained the dark history of the ticking-time-bomb conceit:

The show’s appeal, however, lies less in its violence than in its giddily literal rendering of a classic thriller trope: the “ticking time bomb” plot. Each hour-long episode represents an hour in the life of the characters, and every minute that passes onscreen brings the United States a minute closer to doomsday. (Surnow came up with this concept, which he calls the show’s “trick.”) As many as half a dozen interlocking stories unfold simultaneously—frequently on a split screen—and a digital clock appears before and after every commercial break, marking each second with an ominous clang. The result is a riveting sensation of narrative velocity.

Bob Cochran, who created the show with Surnow, admitted, “Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.” According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and the author of the forthcoming book “Torture and Democracy,” the conceit of the ticking time bomb first appeared in Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel “Les Centurions,” written during the brutal French occupation of Algeria. The book’s hero, after beating a female Arab dissident into submission, uncovers an imminent plot to explode bombs all over Algeria and must race against the clock to stop it. Rejali, who has examined the available records of the conflict, told me that the story has no basis in fact. In his view, the story line of “Les Centurions” provided French liberals a more palatable rationale for torture than the racist explanations supplied by others (such as the notion that the Algerians, inherently simpleminded, understood only brute force). Lartéguy’s scenario exploited an insecurity shared by many liberal societies—that their enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.

Given that the ticking time bomb was captivating audiences in 1960 and 2007 and, apparently, still is in 2016, there’s little reason to think this trope is going anywhere. Why is it so persistent? A few common human heuristics, or mental shortcuts, can help explain. One of them is the availability heuristic, which states, in effect, that the easier it is for us to conjure an example of something, the more that example will sway our thinking or decision-making. If it’s very easy for you to think of examples of plane crashes, you will likely overestimate their frequency. In ticking-time-bomb scenarios, the scenarios raised by pro-torture advocates — entire city blocks going up in smoke — are so vivid that they emotionally hijack people, likely affecting their ability to accurately gauge the likelihood of these scenarios taking place. Along those same lines, humans are known to be loss averse — all else being equal, we focus more on potential losses than potential gains; they’re more salient to us and do more to nudge our decision-making. The possibilities of people being tortured unjustly, or of torture policies simply violating values we hold dear, often just don’t pack the same emotional wallop as those visions of terrorist devastation.

Overall, what’s striking about the ticking-time-bomb example is how potent a tool it is for shifting people from so-called System 2 thinking — cool, rational, calculating costs and benefits — to System 1 thinking, which is more characterized by gut impulses and knee-jerk reactions. This model, first proposed by the pioneering Israeli psychologist Danny Kahneman and laid out wonderfully in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, is an oversimplification of human cognition, of course, but it’s quite useful nonetheless, especially in a situation like this one.

From a System-2 perspective, it’s easier to focus on the long-term effects of enacting a torture regime, on the near-inevitability of innocent people getting tortured given, well, the entire known history of torture, on the sheer unlikelihood of one of those 24-style scenarios actually taking place. From a System-1 perspective, it’s all panic, it’s all, Oh my God we are all going to die we need to do WHATEVER WE CAN to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. There’s an underlying lesson here: Whether the subject is torture or anything else, if someone is trying very hard to make you afraid, stop to ask yourself if they’re trying to knock you into System-1 thinking and make a decision that you may, in the cold light of System-2 thinking, come to regret dearly.

The ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ Is Psychological Manipulation