In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram famously conducted experiments in a Yale University basement showing that people will apparently inflict pain on another person simply because someone in a position of authority told them to. Now, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biologyon Feb. 18, 2016 have taken those classic experiments one step further, providing new evidence that might help to explain why people are so easily coerced.
According to the new work by researchers at University College London and Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, when someone gives us an order, we actually feel less responsible for our actions and their painful consequences.
“Maybe some basic feeling of responsibility really is reduced when we are coerced into doing something,” says Patrick Haggard of University College London. “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?”
Haggard and his colleagues sought to answer this question by measuring a phenomenon called “sense of agency.” This is the feeling that one’s actions have caused some external event. For instance, Haggard has explained, if you flip a light switch and a light comes on, you often experience those events as being nearly simultaneous, even if there’s a lag.