International Law and Public Attitudes toward the Use of Torture

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Principal investigator:

Geoffrey P.R. Wallace

Rutgers University



Sample size: 6101

Field period: 4/2/2010-7/13/2010


Recent research in international relations observes that international agreements differ greatly in their level of legalization along the three dimensions of obligation, precision, and delegation. While a great deal of work has sought to explain the determinants of legalization across particular agreements or issue areas, studies investigating the effects of legalization have been hampered by selection effects at both the negotiation and ratification stages. This project uses an experiment embedded in a survey to estimate the effect of varying levels of legalization on public attitudes toward foreign policy. The study examines attitudes toward torture given national security is commonly considered to be a particular hard case for assessing the effects of international law.


Higher levels of legalization are expected to have a greater impact on an actor's preferences and behavior, though some studies suggest this could be either in a positive or negative direction. Drawing on the existing literature, the hypotheses are as follows: 1) Higher levels of obligation are expected to reduce support for torture; 2) Higher levels of precision are expected to reduce support for torture; 3) Higher levels of delegation are expected to reduce support for torture; 4) The constraining effect of higher levels of legalization is expected to be greatest for obligation, followed by delegation, and then precision.

Experimental Manipulations

All respondents were presented with a scenario where the United States had captured prisoners during a war and needed to decide whether or not to employ torture in an attempt to obtain intelligence. The experimental manipulation involved randomly allocating respondents to additional information regarding a legal commitment prohibiting the use of torture. The legal commitment varied along the three legalization dimensions, which corresponded to three binary treatments: obligation (high/low); precision (high/low); and delegation (high/low). Because existing research shows the low obligation-high delegation combination does not really exist in practice, these combinations were excluded leaving a total of 6 experimental groups.


After being presented with the scenario, respondents were asked the degree to which they agreed/disagreed with the United States using torture against prisoners based on a seven-point Likert scale.

Summary of Results

The results show that greater levels of precision and delegation are associated with a decline in support for torture, while obligation had a smaller effect that failed to achieve statistical significance. While showing that legalization affects foreign policy attitudes, the findings offer preliminary evidence that components beyond the formal level of obligation are deserving of further study.


Wallace, G. (2013). International Law and Public Attitudes toward Torture: An Experimental Study. International Organization. 61(1): 105-140.