Have you heard of the “Milgram experiments” in the 1960s, where subjects willingly hurt and electrically shock a stranger once told by an authority figure?
A modified and greatly milder Milgram was recently conducted and showed that humans lose a sense of agency or ownership over their actions when obeying orders, which explains why they can easily be coerced into doing something.
And this feeling of less responsibility over their actions applies when people are told to do something good or bad.
In the 1963 Yale University study led by Stanley Milgram, subjects were ordered to deliver electric shocks to another who failed to provide the right answers. The individual, unknown to them, was an actor who pretended to respond to the punishment. A huge number of subjects obediently gave delivered shocks amid an authority figure's encouragement — despite seeing the "victim" squirm in pain.
Now, the modified experiment, conducted by University College London researchers, reflected the subjects' mental distance from their actions when obeying orders.
"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 UCL professor and senior study author Patrick Haggard.
Results showed that when the subjects freely chose the action in coercive orders, there was a longer interval between the action and tone, which is produced when subjects gave their partner an electric shock by pressing a key.
The subjects were required to report in milliseconds how long they thought the interval was between the key-press and the tone. The interval — which was actually from 200 to 500 to 800 milliseconds — allowed the team to measure the participants' sense of agency and, therefore, responsibility over their actions' outcome.
The longer the perceived time, the greater the reduction in sense of responsibility. This meant that the subjects felt less control over the results of their actions when they were told to act versus when they decided for themselves.
Haggard said that their research veers away from most previous ones, which simply asked people if they felt responsible.
"[T]hat's a little bit tricky, because people tend to report what they think they should say," he explained in an interview.
First author Dr. Emilie Caspar added that this distance from feeling responsible for what one does is quite telling. "Perhaps [this] explains why so many people appeared to obey coercive orders, in Milgram's experiments."
The earlier experiments gained notoriety in the wake of the Nuremberg trials, which presented claims of Nazi defendants that they merely followed orders.
The team believes that the findings could have great social relevance, such as in warfare or acts of national defense, and may lead social groups to better manage the distribution of responsibility between those who give and receive orders.
"It’s a topic where psychology and politics become quite close," added Haggard.
The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.