In the 1960s, famous psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in order to see how far people were willing to go when someone in a position of authority was instructing them. Now in a new study, neuroscientists reveal how morally corruptible we are when following orders.
A group of scientists from UCL and Université Libre de Bruxelles wanted to find out why people are so easily influenced to do the wrong thing. A well-known example of this is, of course, the Nuremberg defense, when the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann justified his wrongdoings and complicity by stating that he was only following orders.
Researcher Patrick Haggard from the University College London believes that a certain sense of responsibility may be diminished when people are forced to do something.
Their new research aims to take the Milgram experiment to a new level and explain why people do what they do when they are being coerced. They wanted to know if invoking another person’s orders is only a way to avoid facing repercussions or if there is indeed a mentality switch.
In order to find the answers they were looking for, the scientists decided to measure a factor called “the sense of agency.” This refers to the feeling that a person is in complete control of their actions, without any external drive.
They measured this phenomenon through a series of experiments, in which people were first ordered to inflict a mild shock upon a person, then to give them a financial penalty instead of a physical pain.
They were promised small financial incentives whenever the subjects made a free choice to harm others. Throughout this whole process, the participants were fully aware of the harm they were causing at a simple push of a button.
Whenever they would touch upon a key, a tone would quickly follow and the participants would have to report how long that interval seemed to them, in milliseconds. The researchers discovered that when the time period seemed longer, the participants experienced a reduced sense of responsibility for what they were doing.
As Patrick Haggard explains it, time perception speaks volumes about the experiences people have when they take certain actions and their results certainly suggest the fact that people who are used to obeying orders generally feel less responsible for the consequences of their actions.
That happens because humans manage to distance themselves from the potential outcome when they are given instructions. There’s a sort of dissociation that happens, which makes it all the more relevant to differentiate between the objective side of responsibility and the subjective feelings that come with it.
Image Source: ScientificAmerican