When You're Coerced to Act, Your Brain Responds Differently

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Stanley Milgram’s 1960s obedience experiments are some of the most famous studies in psychology. The Yale psychologist set up scenarios where authority figures asked participants to administer painful electric shocks to a stranger, purported to be another volunteer. A surprising amount of people were coerced into hurting another person, though in reality the “shocked” volunteers were paid actors who never received any shocks. The now-controversial study may, in fact, have been overblown and the results manipulated by Milgram, but it still holds a prominent place in many psychology textbooks.

A new study in the journal Current Biology, covered by BPS Research Digest, adds a new layer to how scientists understand coercive situations like the Milgram experiments. In it, cognition researchers told participants, in exchange for a higher financial reward, to push a button that would either shock another participant or impose a financial penalty on them. Sometimes the actions were coerced—ordered by an experimenter—and other times the volunteers freely chose to shock each other. (They played both roles, so everyone knew what the shocks felt like.)

The researchers found that the brain processed coerced actions differently than actions willingly undertaken. In one version of the experiment, they used a consistent sound to determine how much time the participants felt passed between coercion and action, based on a cognitive bias that causes people to perceive related events as being closer together in time. In another experiment, the researchers looked at EEG data from the participants to study their brains’ responses to the activity.

When coerced to hurt or penalize other people, participants felt that time moved slower during the experiment, but people who chose to act freely didn’t. Furthermore, in the EEG experiment, people who were coerced showed smaller brain waves related to action, indicating that the brain was not treating coerced actions like other events.

Both results indicate that people felt passive while obeying orders, and didn’t necessarily feel ownership over what they were doing. As the researchers write, “acting under coercion deeply modifies the sense of being responsible for outcomes of one’s actions.” When we obey orders, our brains naturally put some distance between the decision, the action, and what happens. This may give us more insight into the psychology of war crimes and other events where people claim they were just following orders

[h/t BPS Research Digest]