In a famous Yale experiment conducted in the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram proved that people would obediently inflict pain on someone else simply because an authority figure ordered it.
In a new study, researchers at University College London and Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium have taken this classic experiment one step further, offering new evidence that might help us understand why people are so easily coerced into doing things they feel are wrong.
According to their findings, when someone gives us an order, we feel less responsible for our actions and their painful consequences.
“Maybe some basic feeling of responsibility really is reduced when we are coerced into doing something,” said researcher Dr. Patrick Haggard of University College London. “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?”
The team set out 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.
The researchers have found that people tend to feel a lowered sense of agency when their actions result in a negative outcome versus a positive outcome. In other words, people literally perceive a longer time lapse between an action (in this case, pressing a computer key) and its outcome when the end result is negative compared to when it is positive.
In the new study, the researchers measured sense of agency by testing for any changes in perception when a participant delivered a mild electric shock to another person, either on orders or by their own choice. In other experiments, the harm inflicted on the other person was a financial penalty instead of a minor pain.
When the subjects chose freely, they were encouraged along with the promise of a small financial gain. Participants were grouped into pairs who traded places with one another, so each person knew exactly what type of harm they were inflicting on the other. For example, those who received shocks or suffered financial losses during one session, were asked to deliver them in another session.
The findings show that coercion led to a small but significant increase in the perceived time interval between action and outcome compared to free-choice scenarios.
Coercion also led to reduced neural processing of the outcomes of one’s own action. The researchers suggest 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.
“When you feel a sense of agency — you feel responsible for an outcome — you get changes in experience of time where what you do and the outcome you produce seem closer together,” Haggard said.
Haggard added 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.
Their findings are published in the journal Current Biology.