This could explain the famous 1960s experiment where people inflicted pain on others just because an authority figure told them to.
One of the most famous psychology experiments, conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the 1960s, showed that people would inflict pain on another person simply because they were told to do so by an authority figure. However, why it’s so easy to convince other people to do bad things remained a mystery to scientists.
Now, a study published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology provides an explanation for why people are so easily coerced. Researchers at University College London and Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium suggest that when we’re given an order, we feel less responsible for our actions despite the painful consequences they may cause.
"Maybe some basic feeling of responsibility really is reduced when we are coerced into doing something," Patrick Haggard of University College London said in a press release. "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?”
In order to answer this question, the researchers looked into a phenomenon called “sense of agency” — or the feeling that your actions have caused some external event. For example, Haggard says if you flip a light switch and a light comes on, most people experience those events as being nearly simultaneous.
In a previous study back in 2013, Haggard and his team showed that people tend to feel a reduced sense of agency when their actions produce a negative outcome instead of a positive one.
"Our result suggests that people may really experience less responsibility for negative than for positive outcomes," Haggard said in a press release. "This is not merely a retrospective justification about how well we have done: the actual experience that we have changes, even in basic aspects like its timing.”
Now, in a new study, Haggard and his team measured people’s sense of agency by exploring the changes in perception when delivering a mild electric shock to another person — either on orders or by personal choice.
When the participants made their own choice to shock another person, they were encouraged with the promise of a small financial gain. They also knew exactly what level of harm they were inflicting on their partner because the pairs of participants traded places and received the same treatment.
The study results showed that coercion led to a small but significant increase in an individual’s perceived time lapse between his or her action and the consequence in comparison to the situations where participants chose freely to inflict the same harms. Interestingly, the researchers found that coercion reduced the neural processing of the consequences of one’s own action.
"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 says.
The researchers concluded that claiming to feel less responsible for an action that was coerced could indeed correspond with a basic change in feelings of responsibility — not just an attempt to avoid social punishment for the action. So basically, the researchers are saying that it’s easy to convince others to do bad things because they actually feel less responsible for the action when following an order.
"Fortunately for society, there have always been some people who stand up to coercion," Haggard notes. He says it would be interesting to now figure out whether some people more readily experience a reduced sense of agency when they’re told to do something than others.
Next time someone asks you to do a bad thing, don’t let your mind fool you — the responsibility is still yours.