Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Torture doesn't work on Psychopaths...Sorry Batman.

Some justify the use of torture as a way to collect viable information from a utilitarian perspective: one suffers for the happiness of more. In this movie extract from The Dark Knight (2008), the Joker has valuable information about kidnaped characters. However, Batman did not work on his persuasion techniques and decides to go for a coercive physical torture.

Batman's objective is to inflict pain in order to pressure the Joker to 'give up' strategic information. The three factors leading to pain do not take place, leading to a unsuccessful interrogation:

 In an experiment conducted on 22 nurses's stations by Hofling et al., (1966), a claimed "doctor" prescribing an unusual dose of medication resulted in a "95% compliance rate". This is further strengthens the power of titles as a symbol of authority, since: the drug prescription was "transmitted by phone, in direct violation of hospital policy", "the medication itself was unauthorised", the dosage was "obviously and dangerously excessive" and the "directive was given by a man the nurses never met".

Superhero Batman could abuse such an authoritative figure during the interrogation. However his supposedly admired status is mocked by the Joker (1:10 - "To them, you're just a freak. Like me!").

Based on Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (1971), a large power disparity between groups eases abusive behaviour.

Power relations are inverted: throughout the interrogation, the Joker gives orders or advice to Batman in a charismatic and persuasive way, notably using Fait Accompli and Jigsaw techniques. (0:49 - "I don't want to kill you! What would I do without you? [...] You complete me." and 3:13 "Don't worry I'll tell you where they are. And that's the point, you will have to choose.")

Dehumanisation can be associated to “the denial of qualities associated with meaning, interest, and compassion” (Barnard, 2001), which contribute to the process of easing abusive behaviour.

Batman insults the Joker as "garbage" (1:05), but he is not offended. As such, the humiliation technique is not effective, and the Joker confidence is boosted.

As a result, it is the Joker torturing Batman - not the opposite.


Barnard, A. "The relationship between technique and dehumanization" Advancing technology, caring, and nursing (2001): 96–105.

Hofling, C. K. et al. "An Experimental Study of Nurse-Physician Relationships." Jounal of Nervous and Mental Disease 143 (1966): 171-80.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1971). "The power and pathology of imprisonment" Congressional Record. (Serial No. 15, October 25, 1971). Hearings before Subcommittee No. 3, of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, 92nd Congress, First Session on Corrections, Part II, Prisons, Prison Reform and Prisoners' Rights: California. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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