Obama is taking a lot of criticism for arguing that his reversal on releasing the detainee-abuse photos was motivated, in part, by his concern that doing so would "further inflame anti-American opinion and endanger American troops." Andrew Sullivan, for instance, writes that
it is important to remember that it is the abuse that inflames, not the accounting of the abuse.
That's obviously true. But I don't think we should discount the argument that a visual accounting of the abuse would further inflame. Courtesy of my friend Kevin Lewis (who writes the Boston Globe's "Uncommon Knowledge" column), there's actually a decent amount of social science research on how people react to photographic as opposed to verbal or written evidence of offensive behavior--and it suggests Obama's right.
To take one relevant study from Australia on the effect of photographic evidence on jurors:
[G]ruesome verbal evidence did not influence mock juror emotional states, and had no impact on the conviction rate. Mock jurors who saw gruesome photographs, compared with those who saw no photographs, reported experiencing significantly more intense emotional responses, including greater anger at the defendant. The conviction rate when visual evidence in the form of gruesome or neutral photographs was included was significantly higher than the conviction rate without photographic evidence.
It's obviously not a perfect parallel--anger at a defendant that leads to a conviction versus anger at a country that leads to attacks against its troops--but I don't think it's a ridiculous one, either. Alas, I can't think of any justification for Obama's contention that releasing the photos would have "a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse." That one just doesn't seem to make sense.