People Feel Less Moral Responsibility When They Are Following Orders

Posted: Feb 20 2016, 8:51am CST | by , in News | Latest Science News


People Feel Less Moral Responsibility When They are Following Orders
Credit: University College London

New study explains why people are so easily coerced into doing something wrong.

How can people so easily harm others without any reason? New research is getting closer to finding the answer.

Researchers at UCL and Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium suggest that when we are following orders, we actually feel less responsible for our actions and their painful consequences. In such situations, “just following orders” phrase plays out in the mind. It was the strategy employed by many Nazi defendants during criminal trails in post World War II. 

“Maybe some basic feeling of responsibly really is reduced when we are coerced into doing something,” said Patrick Haggard from 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 latest research is actually based on 1960s famous experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram in which it was showed that people can harm another person simply because someone in a position of authority told them to do so.

The new research has taken those classic experiments one step further and attempted to explain why people are so easily coerced into doing something wrong. To find the answer, researcher measured a phenomenon called “sense of agency.” It refers to awareness which makes a person feel that he is controlling his own actions. 

Researchers already knew that people feel a reduced sense of agency when their actions produce a negative instead of a positive outcome. If the result is negative, people perceive a longer lapse in time between action and its outcome. In other words, they mentally distance themselves if there is a wrong outcome of their action.

In latest study, researchers measured sense of agency through experiments. In one experiment, researchers either order or did not order people to give a mild shock to another person. In other experiments, the harm inflicted on the other person was a financial penalty instead of minor pain.

When the participants chose freely to harm other, they were encouraged along with the promise of a small financial gain. They also knew exactly what kind of harm they were inflicting on other person and it was done by pressing a key.

Every time the participant pressed a key, a tone occurred quickly after the keypress. The participants had to report in milliseconds how long they thought the interval was between the key press and the tone. The longer the perceived time, the longer, the greater the reduction in sense of responsibility. It means they feel less control over the results and consider themselves less responsible for it.

“We wanted to know what people actually felt about the action as they made it, and about the outcome. Time perception tells us something about the basic experiences people have when they act, not just about how they think they should have felt,” said Haggard.

“Our results suggest people who obey orders could actually feel less responsible for the outcomes of their action: they may not just be claiming that they feel less responsible. People appear to experience a sort of distance from the outcome of their actions when they are obeying instructions. It’s important to distinguish between how our minds generate our subjective feelings of responsibility and the objective facts of responsibility.”

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The Author

Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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