New 'Milgram' Study Shows That People Feel Less Responsibility When Following Orders
A new study shows that humans seem to lose ownership of their actions when following orders, which could explain why people are easily coerced.
The study showed that people tended to feel less responsible over their actions when they were told to do something good or bad, writes Tech Times.
A series of "Milgram experiments" were conducted in 1963, where subjects willingly hurt and electrically shock a stranger after being directed to by an authority figure.
In the Yale University study led by Stanley Milgram, the subjects were directed to administer electric shocks to another person who had provided incorrect answers to a number of questions. Unknown to the subject, the individual was actually an actor who had been hired to pretend to respond to the electric shock punishment. A large number of the subjects dutifully carried out the order to shock the victim -- despite witnessing the victim's response to the pain.
The current study, which was a slightly modified version of the 1963 version, was carried out by researchers from the University College London and showed that the subjects seemed to mentally distance themselves from their actions when asked to carry out an order.
"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," UCL professor and senior study author Patrick Haggard, said in a press release.
The subjects were asked to report in milliseconds their perception of the interval between a key being pressed and the following tone, which was between 200 to 500 to 800 milliseconds. The researchers used the interval to measure the participants' sense of control and their sense of responsibility over the outcome of their actions.
The results showed that when subjects freely chose to follow the order, there was a longer interval between the action and tone. The tone was produced when the subjects gave their partner an electric shock.
Participants who perceived a greater amount of time between the action and tone also felt a greater reduction in the sense of responsibility. The subjects also felt less control over the results of their actions when they were told what to do, rather than making their own decisions about their actions.
Haggard said that their research methods were different from other similar studies, which had participants verbally whether 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 distancing themselves from feeling responsible is telling.
"Perhaps [this] explains why so many people appeared to obey coercive orders, in Milgram's experiments," he said.
The Milgram experiments gained notoriety following the Nuremberg trials, in which Nazi defendents claimed that they had only acted on orders.
The team believes that the findings be greatly socially relevant in acts of warfare or national defense to ensure that responsibility is evenly distributed between those giving and following orders.
"It's a topic where psychology and politics become quite close," added Haggard.
The study was published in the journal Current Biology.