Neuroscientists Investigate Why People Can Sometimes Do Terrible Things Under Authoritarian Order

Authoritarian OrderA team of neuroscientists have announced, this week, the location of the part of the brain that reacts to receiving an order from a figure of authority in which that order dictates they inflict pain on another person.

This study expands on experiments from psychologist Stanley Milgram which were conducted during the 1960s, as a response to the Nuremberg Trials . The Milgram experiments attempted to investigate why some people are willing to inflict pain on other people, when ordered to do so by a figure of authority. The conclusion is that this willingness comes from the acceptance that we are less responsible for these actions when only following orders.

Generally, the study concludes that we feel less connected to negative consequences when we are ordered to inflict pain on another person.

According Patrick Haggard, of the University College London, the new research suggests, “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?”

Altogether, the team sought to answer the question by measuring a psychological phenomenon known as “sense of agency.” Sense of Agency is the feeling that one’s own actions have directly caused some external event. When you flip on a light switch, for example, you become aware and have an experience that the two isolated events are nearly simultaneous, even if there’s a notable lag.

He explains, “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,” noting, too, “Milgram’s interest was really focused on whether people will obey an instruction or not. But he did not really focus on what it feels like when people do follow instructions. Pressing either key on the keyboard produces a tone, and the participant’s task is to report, in milliseconds, how long they think the interval between the key-press and the tone was.”

Finally, he says that now the task will be to determine whether some people more readily have the experience of reduced agency under coercion, than others. After all, it does seem that some people will stand up to coercion, operating on a stricter moral code.

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