1984, Star Trek, and the Psychology of Torture

This sounds like a cheery subject, doesn’t it?

I recently read 1984 for the first time, and the first two-thirds of the book did very little for me. In the third part of the book, however, when Winston was arrested and tortured to become indoctrinated to the ways of the Party, I was much more intrigued. And what especially intrigued me was there were some similarities to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation I remembered in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard was being tortured and interrogated by a Cardassian. In case you’re wondering what a Cardassian is…

Just so we’re clear…

The Number Four

I think you’ll soon see the similarities as well. Here’s a conversation from the Star Trek episode Chain of Command, Part II:

“How many lights do you see there?”
“I see four lights.”
“No, there are five.”
“I see four lights.”

And from 1984:

O’Brien held up his left hand, its back toward Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.
“How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?”
“And if the Party says that there is not four but five – then how many?”


But of course, it doesn’t stop there for either Picard or Winston. And just so you can understand the full context of these conversations, both men are starved, naked or near naked, have been beaten or degraded, and both experience pain when they give the “incorrect” answer…

“I know nothing about Minos Korva.”
“But I’ve told you that I believe you. I didn’t ask you about Minos Korva. I asked how many lights you see.”
“There are four lights.”
“I don’t understand how you can be so mistaken.”

The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.
“How many fingers, Winston?”
The needle went up to sixty.
“How many fingers, Winston?”
“Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!”

The Psychology of an Interrogation

In the 21 hours of psychology classes I took in college, I learned a few things about how we as people are influenced, for better or for worse. When it comes to this sort of situation, where someone is trying to bring something out of a person who may be very strong and unwilling to provide such information, certain tactics are used. The idea is to transform you from who you are to someone else.

The Stanford prison experiment was a study conducted by Phillip Zimbardo that took place in 1971, where the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard proved shocking to all involved. In this experiment, normal college students who volunteered to take part in the study for some money were assigned to either be a prisoner or a prison guard, and to play out their roles in a “jail” that was at Stanford University. Just how quickly the students truly seemed to transform into their roles prisoners and prison guards, and how Zimbardo even got sucked into it himself, was shocking to me personally as a college student when I studied the incident.

Just by playing the role of a prison guard, college students grew power-hungry and beat the prisoners. Just by playing the role of a prisoner, college students grew depressed and rebellious. Things got so bad so quickly that the experiment had to be cut short… after only five days. Tactics that were used included: shock (prisoners were blindfolded and taken to their cells), humiliation (prisoners were stripped naked), and a transfer of identity (they wore prisoner uniforms, shackles on their feet, they were assigned a prisoner number, and their heads were shaved). Some of these elements can be seen in 1984 and Chain of Command. In the latter, Picard is stripped naked and is left suspended by his wrists. He is told:

“From this point on, you will enjoy no privilege of rank, no privileges of person. From now on, I will refer to you only as Human. You have no other identity!”

I saw this pattern when reading Unbroken as well, the true story of a WWII pilot who was taken to several Japanese POW camps. Prisoners were degraded from human to less-than-human, to the status of an animal or even worse. The Japanese culture is high on honor, and to lose one’s honor and dignity is the greatest insult, and that is what they did to their enemies during the war. Laura Hillenbrand wrote:

The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were torn-down men. They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it. They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended to knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized. Many felt lonely and isolated, having endured abuses that ordinary people couldn’t understand. Their dignity had been obliterated, replaced with a pervasive sense of shame and worthlessness.

A True Change in Nature

Captain Picard is offered the chance to go… but is told if he does so, his chief medical officer Beverly Crusher will be interrogated. Picard cares for Beverly very much and refuses to let this happen, so he stays. Winston does not immediately say anything to betray his lover Julia, but when he is about to be inflicted with the worst torture he can imagine, he exclaims:

“Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her! Tear her face off, strip her to the bones! Not me! Julia! Not me!”

This is what we are led to believe is the end of Winston’s indoctrination, at least until the very end of the book, which I won’t give away. But his ending is not happy. In fact, at one point after he is released, he finds himself writing:

2 + 2 = 5

…one of the things that his interrogator was trying to tell him was true if the party said so. Picard, on the other hand, as he is being released from his interrogation (as his ship the Enterprise has come to save the day) he shouts out in defiance to his interrogator:

“There… are… FOUR LIGHTS!”

Though Picard’s ending is happier, and I do believe in the end he was a much more noble man, the two are not as different as it might seem. Winston had this experience:

“Just now I held up the fingers of my hand to you. You saw five fingers. Do you remember that?”
O’Brien held up the fingers of his left hand, with the thumb concealed.
“There are five fingers there. Do you see five fingers?”
And he did see them, for a fleeting instant, before the scenery of his mind changed. He saw five fingers, and there was no deformity.

And at the end of Chain of Command, Picard has this conversation with the Enterprise’s counselor:

“What I didn’t put in the report was that at the end he gave me a choice – between a life of comfort or more torture. All I had to do was to say that I could see five lights when, in fact, there were only four.”
“You didn’t say it?”
“No! No. But I was going to. I would have told him anything. Anything at all! But more than that, I believed that I could see five lights.”

It Doesn’t Just Happen in Fiction

It’s easy to chalk all this up to these stories being fictional, that this would not happen in real life. But the Stanford prison experiment suggests otherwise. The identity of those college students were truly lost in five days’ time. It’s been seen elsewhere as well. Patty Hearst, daughter of publishing giant William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped by a guerrilla group and ended up aiding them in theft, not seemingly out of fear of what they would do to her otherwise, but from a conversion to their side. Afterwards she seemed to have a change of heart again and was fully pardoned by President Clinton.

Here’s a brief interview with one of the students involved with the Stanford prison experiment:

Needless to say, I think both 1984 and this particular episode of Star Trek did a great job of portraying how convicted men can become desperate, and how a good interrogator wears them down. It’s not fun to think about but I do find it fascinating. And it again, it makes me think of Unbroken, particularly the title. Louis Zamperini was broken, not just once but many times. But after a time, after it was all over, he was able to overcome the torture and heartache he went through, able to forgive a particular Japanese commander he had hated and had wanted to kill. From Unbroken:

On an October afternoon, Louie stepped out of an army car and stood on the lawn at 2028 Gramercy Avenue, looking at his parents’ house for the first time in more than three years. “This little home,” he said, “was worth all of it.”

To ease the load of this post a bit, here’s a cute picture of hugging kitties:

I have no idea what question to ask, but I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the subject! I’m also curious as to how you feel about more posts where I incorporate Star Trek and/or psychology into a discussion about a book. 

14 Responses to 1984, Star Trek, and the Psychology of Torture

  1. Awesome post, Amy. My husband and I watched the Chain of Command episodes this week, so I could prep myself for this discussion! And since then, we’ve been talking a little bit about the Stanford prison experiments, and another study/experiment involving torture/shocking people. I haven’t read 1984, but I’m surprised by how similar those scenes were to the Star Trek episode (or vice versa, I guess).

    On the stripping of one’s identity… I’m kind of shocked. I’ve read a few books about American slavery this past year, reading one that deals with it right now, and the similarities are striking. The slaves were basically stripped of identity (or were never “given” one to begin with). A lot of them didn’t know their own origins or parents or birth dates. They were treated like animals, and were “bred” like frigging cattle. I mean, this is akin to an aspect of torture, shown to be quite horrible in your two examples here. God, I feel dirty just *knowing* that SO MANY PEOPLE were treated this way! >_<

    Man, amazing post. Really. My heart is racing now!

    • I haven’t read much about slavery so that’s some good additional insight. It’s sad to say but it doesn’t really surprise me. It is terrible how people treat each other, treat them as less than human because they’re from another country. Glad the episodes got you and your husband talking about different studies. That’s one thing I really love about Star Trek; it points to so many real world issues.

  2. This analysis of torture is very thought provoking. I can see aspects of the lessons I just learned making it into my own novel. Not so much the actions, but the psychology of it. Thanks Amy.

    P.S. – More Star Trek is always better. 🙂

    • Thank you. I know not all my readers are Star Trek fans, but when I see a connection this strong with something else I can’t not mention it. The show had a lot if great stories.

  3. Okay, first – the Kardashian/Cardassian picture is a win! They even look alike a little.

    As for the rest of the post… wow! I know it’s there and it’s always going to be there, but torture and degradation inflicted on people (or any other living creature) never ceases to amaze me and horrify me. I’ve read a lot of articles on torture and the aftermaths and it makes me sick to just imagine what people are going through even right now. I’m only a little curious to know what a torturer thinks in moments like these.

    Anyway, anything else I say wont make much sense. But, yes, write more posts like this one! I recently started watching Star Trek and, naturally, am interested in anything related (I obsess over TV series like that.)

    • Ha ha, it’s a little creepy how they don’t actually look too dissimilar! Glad you enjoyed the post and glad that you’re getting into Star Trek! My husband really got me into it over these last few years and I’ve seen it all! There’s so much to the show so I’ll definitely find ways to incorporate more Trek into my posts. 🙂

  4. It is terrifying to see what kind of affect humans can have on the minds of other humans, and the willingness they have to inflict those effects. I’ve always found psychological thrillers and realistic horror to be the most effective because of that. And while I’m not a fan of all the “torture porn” movies being put out now, I do wish they had been done a bit better, along the lines of 1984 and that Star Trek episode. I wonder if shows and movies aren’t made like that now because too much of the audience gets restless waiting for the slow and creeping changes to take place. I think the build-up makes it all the worse (or better, depending on how you look at it). It is an awful subject to think about, I agree, but it fascinates me as well.

    I’ve read a few books about people being abducted or sold into slavery, and how they are broken down and reformed into what amounts to an animal or a pet. It’s one of the most disgusting things I can imagine to know this happens on a regular basis, and that people make a living from or enjoy doing that to others. Like Kelley said above, it makes me feel awful and dirty just knowing these situations exist, especially when most of us are unaware of them and so far removed it’s nearly impossible to do anything to help.

    • It is so disturbing what humans are capable of doing to other humans. It makes you wonder what made a person become that way, and then what’s also scary to think about is what it would take to make you that way.

      Another fascinating look at an interrogation is an episode of the show Babylon 5 called “Intersections in Real Time.” You know how most episodes of a show have an A plot and a B plot? Not this one. Literally, the whole show is about the main character getting interrogated. It’s not graphic, but it shows you the techniques they use to try to break him down. I thought it was really bold of them to make an entire episode of a show about just that, without another story line to alleviate it.

      • Yes, it really is, and sometimes I let myself think (just a little) about what people might have had to gone through that way, and what it would take to put me there. It’s very difficult to imagine when you haven’t had those experiences. It’s kind of along the same lines of being asked what you would do to protect someone you love – what would you allow yourself to turn into, to save someone you cared for? People easily say “anything” but it’s impossible to imagine all the types of torture someone could put you through, put someone else through, or the kind of person they could remake you as. And you never know how much of it you can survive, until the point you actually break. Sometimes I wonder, when those people break, do they even know it? Or are they too far gone? Have they forgotten who they used to be, what their hopes and dreams were made of, who they used to love?

        I have been told I need to watch Babylon 5. Hopefully after I get started on Star Trek (and probably watch through every episode) I can move on to that, and Battlestar Galactica / Caprica.

      • Great thoughts! Those certainly are tough questions that I hope I never have to know the answer to for myself.

        Babylon 5 is great. The creator of the show wrote most of the episodes and he had the whole story set in his mind beforehand, which I really like, because you get to see so many great story and character arcs throughout the show because of it. Unfortunately, during the fourth season he wasn’t sure if he was getting a fifth season, so the main arc in the fourth season is really rushed and then the aftermath in the fifth season just drags on too long. But overall, still really great. I still need to see Battlestar.

      • Oh that sounds fantastic! I haven’t had the pleasure of watching many shows that were planned out from the beginning and I love the type of cohesion that comes along with foresight. Going from episode to episode can be fun too but sometimes it’s too much with all the jumping around and obvious plot twists that were thrown in just to shake things up.

        Did you ever get a chance to watch Firefly? I went into it so skeptical but ended up absolutely loving it. I had to make myself ration out the episodes so the experience would last longer, and that show is one of the reasons I finally came to the realization that I LOVE SCI FI. 🙂

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