Obeying orders dulls empathy, makes decent people capable of committing violent acts

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Historians and psychologists have long pondered how seemingly decent men proved capable of committing unspeakable atrocities during times of war. Now, a new study finds that following orders dulls feelings of empathy, guilt, and compassion while inflicting pain on others.

Researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience measured brain activity in a group of participants as they hurt someone else. They discovered that empathy and guilt-related brain activity was much lower among participants when they were “ordered” to inflict pain.

The study’s authors say their work may explain how almost inconceivable war crimes and acts of genocide have occurred repeatedly throughout human history. “We wanted to understand why obeying orders impacts moral behavior so much. Why people’s willingness to perform moral transgressions is altered in coerced situations”, says Dr. Emilie Caspar, co-first author of the study, in a media release.

Empathy is not just a human condition

Normally when humans see another person hurting, they feel empathy toward that individual. This phenomenon, generally speaking, is why people don’t like hurting each other. Researchers say, simply put, most of us have a conscience.

“We can measure that empathy in the brain, because we see that regions normally involved in feeling our own pain, including the anterior insula and the rostral cingulate cortex, become active when we witness the pain of others, and the stronger that activity, the more empathy we experience, and the more we do to prevent harm to others,” explains co-senior study author Dr. Valeria Gazzola.

Empathy isn’t unique to humans either. Apes and even rodents have shown the capacity to care for their peers.

“We evaluated in this study if obeying orders to inflict pain to someone else would reduce the empathic response compared to freely deciding to inflict – or not to inflict – the same pain,” adds Prof. Christian Keysers.

For this research, participants were paired together and assigned the role of either “agent” or “victim.” During the task, agents had an MRI brain scanner placed on their heads to record neural activity.

People don’t usually cause pain by choice

The study presented agents with two buttons. The first button inflicted a real, albeit mild, electric shock to the victim and paid the agent 0.05€ each time they pressed it. The other button didn’t harm the victim at all or pay the agent upon being pushed.

Over the course of 60 rounds, researchers sometimes allowed agents to choose which button they would push. Other times researchers explicitly ordered agents to shock the victims. This whole experiment was designed to spark a moral dilemma in the agents; is it ok to make money off of someone else’s suffering?

Across the board, agents rarely shocked victims if they hadn’t been ordered to do so.

“Neuroimaging results showed that empathy-related regions were less active when obeying orders compared to acting freely. We also observed that obeying orders reduced activations in brain regions associated with the feeling of guilt”, explains co-first author Kalliopi Ioumpa.

Researchers say these findings are incredibly meaningful. Besides illustrating how powerful a force obedience can be on human actions, the results may one day help formulate a way to avoid war crimes and atrocities in the future.

“The next step will be to understand why so few people resist immoral orders. Is it because their empathy weakens when they are following orders? A better understanding of how the brain processes empathy and instructions may lead to ways to help us resist calls to commit violence in the future,” Dr. Caspar concludes.

The study is published in Neurolmage.

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