When We Follow Orders To Hurt Someone, We Feel Their Pain Less Than If We Hurt Them Freely

By Emma Young

It’s one of the best-known and also controversial experiments in psychology: in 1963, Stanley Milgram reported that, when instructed, many people are surprisingly willing to deliver apparently dangerous electrical shocks to others. For some researchers, this — along with follow-up studies by the team — reveals how acting “under orders” can undermine our moral compass.

Milgram’s interpretation of his findings, and the methods, too, have been criticised. However, the results have largely been replicated in experiments run in the US, Poland, and elsewhere. And in 2016, a brain-scanning study revealed that when we perform an act under coercion vs freely, our brain processes it more like a passive action rather than a voluntary one.

Now a new study, from a group that specialises in the neuroscience of empathy, takes this further: Emilie Caspar at the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and colleagues report in NeuroImage that when we follow orders to hurt someone, there is reduced activity in brain networks involved in our ability to feel another’s pain. What’s more, this leads us to perceive pain that we inflict as being less severe. This process could, then, help to explain the dark side of obedience.

Most of the 40 participants recruited for the new work were women, and their average age was about 25. None knew each other before arriving at the lab, where they were studied in gender-matched pairs. Within each pair, one person was randomly chosen to first be the “agent”, and the other the “victim” (they would later switch roles). The agent was taken to an MRI scanner in one room, while the victim was seated in another, electrodes attached to their hand. While in the scanner, the agent could see a live video of the victim’s hand, so they could observe the (genuine) impact of their actions.

The task itself was split into four blocks of 30 trials each. During two of the blocks, the agent was told “you can decide” whether or not to press a button to inflict a mildly painful electrical shock to the victim. During the other two blocks, half the time they were given the instruction “Shock”, and half the time “No Shock”. Each shock the agent gave was “rewarded” with €0.05.

The team found that, on average, people were less likely to administer a shock when it was up to them. (Still, the number of shocks was not negligible: an average of 23 out of the 60 “you decide” trials vs 30 of the 60 instructed trials. Statistically, there’s a significant difference between the two figures, but there clearly isn’t a chasm.)

Caspar and her colleagues used the brain imaging data to look closely at three distinct patterns of activity: the “vicarious pain signature” (associated with feeling other people’s pain); the “neurologic pain signature” (associated with experiencing pain directly) and the “interpersonal guilt signature” (observable when we feel guilt over a harmful impact on another person). The team found that when someone was obeying orders to administer a shock, rather than choosing to do so, both the vicarious pain signature and the interpersonal guilt signature were less intense.

Tallying with the brain imaging results, the participants reported feeling less bad, and less sorry, about inflicting pain when acting under orders — and they reported that these shocks looked less severe on the video. As the researchers note, this was despite the fact that the participants had been told the shocks would always be of the same intensity. “Obeying orders has such a strong influence on the perception of pain felt by others that it even impacts perceptual reports of observed shock intensity,” the researchers write.

All in all, the results imply that when we’re acting under orders to hurt someone, we don’t find it as personally unpleasant as when we hurt someone freely. Part of the reason we normally don’t hurt other people is because we’d feel at least some of their pain ourselves, but when obeying orders this vicarious response is reduced — so we’re more likely to harm them.

The team argues that a sense of responsibility and/or agency (feeling that we are the author of our own actions) is key: when these are reduced, so too is our empathy for pain that we inflict, with potentially dire results. The results “highlight how obeying an order relaxes our aversion against harming others, despite still being the author of the action that led to the pain,” they write.

But why might this happen? Is there something more fundamental going on?

Remember that in this study — as in other similar studies — the participants were acting under the clear orders of an authority figure with an electric shock machine at their disposal. As for all living things, our prime directives are to survive and thrive. Imagine in the real world being ordered by someone in authority to harm another person. You might recognise (even unconsciously) that your choice is either to obey, or disobey and risk being hurt yourself — either physically, or in terms of your career. An evolved ability to dial down your empathy for someone else’s pain in such a situation could be of benefit to you.

Obeying orders reduces vicarious brain activation towards victims’ pain

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest