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Why nobody feels responsible for a war crime

Humans often suspend their own morality when following orders. Brain scans are revealing why our natural instincts are so easy to override.


The trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann in 1961 inspired psychologist Stanley Milgram to investigate why people carry out orders they know to be wrong. In his most famous experiment, test subjects were encouraged to administer what they believed were powerful electric shocks to an actor behind a screen. Most continued to do so when prompted by the experimenter, despite the pleas of the unseen victim. “Why are there so many people who will follow orders, and why does this drastically change their moral behaviour?” asks Emilie Caspar, project leader of AGENT. The social neuroscientist hypothesises that brain activity could shed some light on why people are able to carry out actions they know to be wrong, if instructed to do so by an authority figure. Backed by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, she looked at two regions of the brain, one involved in the sense of agency and responsibility, and the other in empathy. “When you feel pain, it activates brain regions, and when you witness someone in pain it activates similar regions,” says Caspar. “Your brain processes their pain.” She hypothesised that receiving orders from a third party reduces this empathetic response, making us more willing to inflict pain on others. The experiments she carried out at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam were modelled on Milgram’s studies, but overcome its ethical issues. Over the course of 60 rounds, participants were able to choose whether or not to deliver a painful electric shock to another volunteer. The aggressor earned 5 cents for every shock they chose to inflict. “I was sure nobody would deliver a shock for 5 cents,” says Caspar, “and in fact they do it a lot.” This was followed by a second experimental condition, in which the instructor gave orders to either deliver or not deliver a shock in each of the 60 rounds. As this was happening, Caspar and her team monitored brain activity in the person delivering the shocks, using fMRI and EEG equipment. She says there was a clear difference seen in brain activity when people obey orders to deliver a shock, and when they can make their own decision to do so. The results will be published soon in the academic press. Caspar says funding from the EU was crucial in helping her access the expertise and equipment she needed to develop her theory. She has since travelled to Rwanda to investigate whether the 1994 genocide has shaped people’s attitudes to inflicting pain on others. Her results make for grim reading. Of 800 people Caspar has tested around the world, she says, only 16 refused to follow orders. “Most human atrocities come from obedience to authority,” says Caspar. “Why are there so few who can resist?” While it’s hard to find something positive in her outcomes, Caspar says that a better understanding of how the brain processes empathy and instructions may reveal ways to help us resist calls to violence in the future.


AGENT, moral, hierarchy, neuroscience, empathy, scan, human, fMRI, Milgram, war, crime

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