Study: you feel less guilty about causing pain when following orders

The question isn't new: why is it that seemingly normal people are capable of committing terrible acts when told to do so? Instances of such actions are as old as time and span all sorts of situations — wars, abusive mentor/mentee relationships, and even experiments. Various studies have sought the answer, but commonly set their focus on the 'if' question — if someone will do it and their subjective feelings about the actions. A new study, though, focuses on the 'why,' and its findings are disconcerting.

You've probably heard of Dr. Milgram's experiments, particularly the one where volunteers are ordered to give progressively more severe shocks to someone in a nearby room who (acting the part) resists the situation and appears to be suffering greatly because of the volunteer's actions. To further stress the severity of the situation, the switches on the shocking machine were marked by voltage all the way up to "450 – Danger, Severe Shock."

The result? All the volunteers proceeded to shock the subject, when commanded, up to the level of 300 volts (though the shocks didn't really happen, the volunteer believed they did). Furthermore, 65-percent of the volunteers proceeded all the way to the highest level, 450 volts.

The experiment had been a startling one, and has inspired numerous discussions and experiments since.

In this latest case, a team of researchers created a similar experiment, but with a twist — they measured the volunteer's perception of how much time passed between the command to shock and the actual shock, and their same perception when the shock was delivered through their own decision rather than because of a command.

The team found that volunteers perceived a greater duration between the command to shock and the actual shock than when the volunteer made their own decision to administer an electric jolt. This lag in perception is believed to indicate a thought process where the volunteer — the one administering the shocks — views the actions as something they have merely done rather than something they brought about. Essentially, the participant feels more distant from the action when commanded to do it, and likely therefore less culpable about the result.

When someone feels less responsible — "I was just following orders." — the lessening of guilt enables them to continue committing painful actions.

According to the study:

Interestingly, coercion also reduced the neural processing of the outcomes of one's own action. Thus, people who obey orders may subjectively experience their actions as closer to passive movements than fully voluntary actions. Our results highlight the complex relation between the brain mechanisms that generate the subjective experience of voluntary actions and social constructs, such as responsibility.