It appears that people are more willing to harm others when they receive orders to do so, than when the decision is in their own hands, according to a new study published in Current Biology. This theory was already proposed in the 1960s by the psychologist Stanley Milgram.
Following the “Milgram experiments”, the team of cognitive scientists found out that people feel less responsibility for what they do when they are following orders from other people, even if they are requested to do something bad.
Findings may contribute to a legal debate that seeks to determine if people are responsible for their actions when they are following orders from an authority, said the study’s lead author Patrick Haggard, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College in London, according to Nature.
In 1963, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in order to understand the relation between obedience to authority and personal conscience. The social psychologist was inspired by the trial of a Nazi, where the accused Adolf Eichmann continuously said that he killed Jews because he was just following orders.
By that time, Milgram asked a group of people to electrocute one man if he made a mistake while learning words in pairs. It appears that experiment participants increased the level of electricity when they were ordered to do so, even when they heard the other man (an actor) shouting. However, critics said that participants could have guessed that the learner was an actor.
New experiment, similar results
Patrick Haggard wanted to continue what Milgram proposed, as a response, he organized a new experiment. A pair of women sat in front of each other with a 2-keys keyboard between them. One key did nothing, unlike the other, which sent an electricity shock to the other participant
Results would appear to show that when the keyboard controller woman was asked to press a specific key, her sense of responsibility was reduced, because they judged their actions as more passive, in comparison that when they were not requested to press a specific key, said Nature.
“It seems like your sense of responsibility is reduced whenever someone orders you to do something — whatever it is they are telling you to do,” says Haggard.
According to Professor Haggard, we need to be skeptical of people who use “I was following orders” as an excuse. It appears that many times people have a secondary motive for saying such a thing because they may think that they would not be punished. Moreover, if someone feels they are not responsible, it does not actually means that they are not responsible, he added, according to BBC.