“I was simply obeying orders!” It’s the oldest excuse in the book, trotted out by those accused of everything from Nazi atrocities in the second world war to genocidal massacres in the Balkans and Rwanda.
Now, scientists have found that our brains genuinely lose a sense of agency over our actions when we obey orders, explaining why people can be so easily coerced. The results come from a modified version of the notorious Milgram “torture” experiments, and suggest that those who issue orders to hurt others bear a much greater responsibility than previously appreciated.
In 1963, Stanley Milgram and his colleagues at Yale University ordered participants to deliver electric shocks to another individual for failing to answer questions correctly. Unknown to them, the individual was an actor pretending to react to the punishments. A large number of people obediently delivered painful shocks if encouraged by an authority figure, despite seeing their “victims” in apparent pain and distress.
Now, in a much milder version of the experiment, Patrick Haggard of University College London and his colleagues have shown that people mentally distance themselves from their actions when obeying orders. “Our work shows that obeying an order to act produces a reduced sense of agency, compared to deciding to act for oneself,” says Haggard.
The choice is yours
The upshot, says Haggard, is that people following orders may feel a reduced sense of control at a basic level. “It’s scientifically and philosophically important because it addresses the question of individual autonomy and voluntariness,” says Haggard.
Haggard’s experiments were based on an effect discovered in earlier research – that when people do something voluntarily, they perceive the delay between their action and the outcome to be shorter than if that same outcome is not under their control. Researchers therefore believe that a longer perceived time can be used as a marker for a reduced sense of responsibility.
Haggard’s team used the same principles to test whether orders from authority figures change our sense of agency over our actions.
In the new study, pairs of participants were randomly assigned the role of “victim” or “agent”. In some cases, agents were offered the choice of taking a small amount of money from the victims or not, in others they chose whether to administer a small electric shock to the victim’s hand for a monitory reward. In one half of the experiment, agents decided for themselves whether to inflict each punishment. In the other half they were ordered to do so by an experimenter.
In all cases, agents made their choice to punish or not by pressing specific keys on a keypad. Within a second of making the choice, the agent heard a tone. The agent then estimated the time lag in milliseconds between pressing the key and hearing the tone.
Held to account
Agents consistently estimated the time lag to be shorter when they chose to punish, compared with when they were ordered to do so, suggesting they felt less sense of agency over their actions when obeying orders.
“These are clever studies with important findings,” says Stephen Reicher at the University of St Andrews, UK. “They add a new dimension to our understanding of conformity and obedience.”
Haggard says that one of the most important implications of the results is that society leaders bear more responsibility for orders to inflict harm.
“If people acting under orders can indeed feel reduced responsibility, society perhaps needs to hold people who give orders more strongly to account.”
Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.067