Feb 19, 2016 11:58 AM EST
A team of neuroscientists has pinpointed the brain’s reaction to receiving an order from an authoritative figure to inflict harm on another person.
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Published in the journal Current Biology, the new study expands on experiments a psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted in the 1960s in response to the Nuremberg Trials. Nazi defendants argued they only committed various atrocities because they were following orders.
“Maybe some basic feeling of responsibility really is reduced when we are coerced into doing something,” study lead author Patrick Haggard, of University College London, said in a press 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?”
Milgram concluded with his research that people were more willing to harm other people when ordered to do so by someone else. The new study indicated this is because people can separate themselves from the action when the initial idea comes from someone else.
“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,” Haggard told BBC News. “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.
“The interesting result is that people perceive the interval between the action and the tone as longer, in the condition where they’ve been given a coercive instruction, than in the condition where they decide for themselves what to do.”
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