Study finds that humans are surprisingly cruel under orders

A new study shows that human beings can inflict more pain when they have to follow orders than when they choose freely. Is this a sign that Nuremberg’s post-WWII trial plea “I was following orders”, was valid? Or are we truly in control of our actions, no matter what others tell us? According to peer-reviewed journal Current Biology, researchers from the Universite de Bruxelles (Belgium) and the University College London (UCL), we are less accountable for what we do when we obey orders. Scientists explained that we do not feel more responsible for our actions if we have to follow coercive orders. The experimenter instructed the agent to either take money (financial damage group) or deliver pain (physical harm group). The agent was observed by the experimenter who stood directly next to her and looked up at her the entire time. Image: cell.com. We all are responsible for the actions of others in society. In almost all societies around the globe, everyone is responsible. Sometimes, however, the defendant claims a reduced level of responsibility due to merely obeying orders. Because there’s a clear motivation to avoid punishment, most people are skeptical about such pleas. It is hard to imagine how they might feel responsible if they were not caught or not subjected to possible punishment. Many scientific studies have examined how willing or able people are to comply with coercive orders. The most notable of these was the Milgram Experiment. This experiment, which Stanley Milgram, Yale University psychologist, wrote in 1963,. Milgram Experiment measured the willingness of participants to follow orders from an authority figure. Surprisingly, the experiment showed that participants were willing to follow orders, even though they weren’t wanting to, even when it meant causing injury or distress. Participants can decide whether to apply an electric shock, financial punishment, or no penalty. While the experimenter is not present, he or she does not look at them. Milgram didn’t investigate coercion. The experience of being coerced. Senior author of the latest study, Professor Patrick Haggard (UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience), and his colleagues began to research this experiment. Two study participants took it upon themselves to place a financial sanction on one another in an experiment. A penalty was imposed on one person and the other received a small reward. Another experiment involved two people giving each other shocks. They were each given a small financial reward for each shock they gave. Each participant was allowed to use the shock-administrating device at a dose that was comfortable for them. However, each person’s threshold of pain could not be exceeded. The devices could inflict severe pain but not cause death or injury to the victim. Participants could decide whether to shock the victim or give them a penalty. The experimenter (person conducting the trial) may give a coercive directive to participants, informing them to either administer a punishment or shock the other party. Adolf Eichmann, pronounced [1906 is on trial in 1962,. He was accused of overseeing the logistics for the mass extermination of Jews from ghettos in East Europe and to death camps during World War II. According to him, he was performing his duties ‘under order’. In 1962. he was executed. (Image from Wikipedia) The participant could hear the tone after pressing the key. It would be at random delays of 200, 500, or 800 ms. This occurred simultaneously with the tone in the cases that involved a financial penalty or shock. Each trial required that participants estimate how long it took for their actions to be detected by the tone. Perceived control of the time between the tone and action. The perception of the time gap between tone and action was used to measure a participant’s sense of control and responsibility. The researchers found that participants perceived the gap between keypressing and tone as being shorter than those who were passively pressed down on keys. This confirms previous findings and shows that smaller intervals can be used to indicate a sense of control. Professor Haggard and his colleagues discovered that an action with coercion causes a shorter interval between tone and action than when it was chosen freely. This suggests that people have less control over their actions when given instructions than when they make decisions on their own. After the experiment, participants were explicitly asked about their feelings of responsibility. Although the circumstances of the experiment had a strong impact on how the participants felt about control, they were equally comfortable with trials that resulted in harm to the others. Recordings of brain activity related to processing of outcomes showed that participants who were under coercion had less success than those with free choice. Professor Haggard stated that we are less accountable for the outcomes of actions when given orders. “When people are asked explicitly about their responsibility they will tend to tell you what is most true. It was important to find out how people felt about their actions and the results. We also wanted to see how people felt about them as individuals. When they follow instructions, people seem to feel a distance from what happens. “It is important to differentiate between the subjective emotions of responsibility and the facts about responsibility. However, feeling less responsible doesn’t mean you’re not responsible and should be held accountable by society. Society must deal with objective facts about what an individual does.” Researchers believe that their research may be more relevant in real life. First author Dr Emilie Cassipar stated: “There are many circumstances where people follow orders. In fact, sometimes society requires that people comply with an order to do something unfavorable.” Consider a soldier being ordered to kill an enemy for the defense of his country. “Our research shows that some people may not be responsible for their actions.” Milgram’s experiment showed that many people obeyed coercive commands. These findings may have practical consequences.”

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