‘I was only following orders’ has been used to excuse a host of human atrocities.
But now researchers believe heeding commands from authority figures actually reduces brain activity involved with empathy and guilt.
Scientists in the Netherlands measured brain activity on test subjects who were given the chance to administer an electroshock on another person.
They found that when the subjects were directed to administer a shock, there was reduced activity in certain parts of the brain than if they were given the choice whether or not to.
This may explain why people are able to commit immoral acts under coercion, according to their report, published in NeuroImage.
Previous studies have shown people have less trouble inflicting pain under orders, but the underlying brain mechanisms haven’t been well understood.
‘We can measure that empathy in the brain, because we see that regions normally involved in feeling our own pain,’ said neurologist Valeria Gazzola, one of the paper’s authors.
Specific sections of the brain, notably the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and anterior insula (AI), become active when we witness other people’s discomfort.
‘The stronger that activity, the more empathy we experience, and the more we do to prevent harm to others,’ Gazzola said.
Empathy, along with the fear of reprisal, is what is believed to inhibit us from inflicting harm.
Humans are not the only animals known to express empathy, though. Lab rats have been observed freeing other rodents from cages.
Rhesus monkeys will go hungry rather than receive a reward for shocking another monkey.
Empathic behavior has also been observed in mice, dogs and even elephants.
When we see others in distress, ‘we map their pain onto our own pain system,’ the report read. Mirror neurons in monkeys have been shown to fire both when they both execute and observe an action.
In the experiment, researchers paired off 40 participants and designated one as an ‘agent’ and the other the ‘victim.’
Agents were presented with two buttons: One triggered a mildly painful shock on the victim’s hand. If the agent pressed it, they’d be given a small monetary reward.
The other button had no shock and no payout.
The agents were placed in an MRI that recorded their brain activity during 60 rounds of the experiment.
In some rounds, agents were ordered to either shock or not shock the victim. In other rounds, they were given a choice.
Halfway through the experiment, the participants switched roles.
Two participants were rejected for disobeying instructions: One never administered shocks, even when ordered to, and the other shocked their victim even when directed not to.
The remaining agents sent more shocks to victims when they were instructed than when they decided to on their own and the empathy-related regions of their brains were less active when they were told to shock their victim.
‘We also observed that obeying orders reduced activations in brain regions associated with the feeling of guilt,’ said co-author Kalliopi Ioumpa.
Their theory is that following orders allows humans to perform immoral acts by reducing the response that would force us to vicariously feel our victim’s pain.
Understanding what makes us ignore the empathic response under coercion could help prevent people from responding to calls to commit violence and atrocities in the future.