When it comes to convincing good people to do bad things, it is quite easy and now, a new study has provided new evidence that might help to explain why it is so.
According to the new work by researchers at University College London and Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, when someone gives us an order, we actually feel less responsible for our actions and their painful consequences.
Patrick Haggard said, “Maybe some basic feeling of responsibility really is reduced when we are coerced into doing something. People often claim reduced responsibility because they were ‘only obeying orders.’ But are they just saying that to avoid punishment or do orders really change the basic experience of responsibility?”
Haggard and his colleagues sought to answer this question by measuring a phenomenon called “sense of agency.” This is the feeling that one’s actions have caused some external event. For instance, Haggard explained that if you flip a light switch and a light comes on, you often experience those events as being nearly simultaneous, even if there’s a lag.
Haggard’s team has already shown that people feel reduced sense of agency when their actions produce a negative versus a positive outcome. In other words, people literally perceive a longer lapse in time between an action (in this case, press and its outcome when the end result is negative compared to when it is positive.
The researchers report that coercion led to a small but significant increase in the perceived time interval between action and outcome in comparison to situations in which participants freely chose to inflict the same harms. Interestingly, coercion also reduced the neural processing of the outcomes of one’s own action. The researchers concluded that claims of reduced responsibility under coercion could indeed correspond to a change in basic feelings of responsibility–not just attempts to avoid social punishment.
Haggard says it would now be interesting to find out whether some people more readily experience a reduced sense of agency under coercion than others. “Fortunately for society, there have always been some people who stand up to coercion,” he says.
The study appears in Cell Press journal Current Biology.