April 25, 2016

Coercion decreases the responsibility we feel for the consequences of our behavior

Stanley Milgram did some experiments in the '60s in which he had participants give electric shocks to other participants. The shocks weren't real but the participants did not know that and a surprising percentage of them agreed to deliver the shocks (read more). A new study by Casper et al. (2016) shows that the brain processes information about an action which people were coerced to do differently than a voluntary action. When people are coerced into an action electro-physiological recordings show they experience more distance between the behavior and the consequences of the behavior. They perceive a weaker link between their behavior and the consequences of that behavior. Due to this the person tends to feel less responsible for those consequences.

Coercion Changes the Sense of Agency in the Human Brain
Casper et al. (2016)

Summary: People may deny responsibility for negative consequences of their actions by claiming that they were “only obeying orders.” The “Nuremberg defense” offers one extreme example, though it is often dismissed as merely an attempt to avoid responsibility. Milgram’s classic laboratory studies reported widespread obedience to an instruction to harm, suggesting that social coercion may alter mechanisms of voluntary agency, and hence abolish the normal experience of being in control of one’s own actions. However, Milgram’s and other studies relied on dissembling and on explicit measures of agency, which are known to be biased by social norms. Here, we combined coercive instructions to administer harm to a co-participant, with implicit measures of sense of agency, based on perceived compression of time intervals between voluntary actions and their outcomes, and with electrophysiological recordings. In two experiments, an experimenter ordered a volunteer to make a key-press action that caused either financial penalty or demonstrably painful electric shock to their co-participant, thereby increasing their own financial gain. Coercion increased the perceived interval between action and outcome, relative to a situation where participants freely chose to inflict the same harms. Interestingly, coercion also reduced the neural processing of the outcomes of one’s own action. Thus, people who obey orders may subjectively experience their actions as closer to passive movements than fully voluntary actions. Our results highlight the complex relation between the brain mechanisms that generate the subjective experience of voluntary actions and social constructs, such as responsibility.

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