Neuroscientists Discovere Why Humans are More Likely to Hurt Others After Given Orders

First Posted: Feb 19, 2016 01:58 PM EST

A new study may shed light on how some people can get others to inflict pain on people. Scientists have taken classic experiments performed in a Yale University basement and have taken them one step further to show why people are so easily coerced.

"Maybe some basic feeling of responsibility really is reduced when we are coerced into doing something," said Patrick Haggard, one of the researchers, in a news 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 this latest study, the researchers measured a phenomenon called "sense of agency." This is the feeling that one's actions have caused some external event. For example, if you flip a light switch and a light comes on, you often experience the events as being nearly simultaneous, even if there's a lag.

Researchers have already shown that people feel reduced sense of agency when their actions produce a negative versus a positive outcome. In other words, people perceive a longer lapse in time between an action and its outcome when the end result is negative.

In this study, the researchers either order people or didn't 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, they were encouraged along with the promise of a small financial gain. They also knew exactly what kind of harm they were inflicting.

The researchers found that coercion led to a small but significant increase in the perceived time interval between action and outcome in comparison to situations in which participants freely chose to inflict the same harms. Coercion also reduced the neural processing of the outcomes of one's own actions. This suggests that claims of reduced responsibility under coercion correspond to a change in basic feelings of responsibility.

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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