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A neuroscience approach to investigating how hierarchy influences moral behaviour

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - AGENT (A neuroscience approach to investigating how hierarchy influences moral behaviour)

Reporting period: 2017-12-01 to 2019-11-30

• What is the problem/issue being addressed?

You may probably have heard about the famous Stanley Milgram’s experiments conducted in the 60’-70’. To remember, in his seminal experiment (1963), Milgram invited two volunteers to take part in an experiment designed to assess the effect of punishment on learning. One was ‘randomly’ assigned to be the teacher and the other one was assigned to be the learner. In reality, the learner was always a confederate of the experimenter. The teacher was asked to administrate a paired-associate learning task to the learner, consisting of reading a series of word pairs, and then reading the first word of the pair along with four words. Later, the learner had to indicate which of the four word had originally been paired with the first word. If the learner was wrong, the teacher had to administer an electric shock, which increased in intensity. There were 30 levels of different shock intensities displayed on the shock generator. Each level was clearly labelled with the voltage intensity, ranging from 15 (‘slight shock’) to 450 volts (‘severe danger’ and ‘XXX’). Milgram’s main question was to know when people would choose to stop the experiment rather than continuing to put someone’s else life in danger.

No one had predicted the results. Sixty-five percent of the participants administered the maximum voltage intensity (‘XXX’), in spite of the fact that they could hear the screams and pleas of the learner who begged for the experiment to stop. Importantly, none of these participants asked to stop before 300 volts of shock intensity.

These results raised important questions that would become famous: Why did the participants obey? Why would ordinary people administer painful (and deadly) electric shocks to another volunteer that they had just met a few minutes before? In future experiments, Stanley Milgram (1974) explored the social conditions under which coercion exerts an influence on human behaviour. However, none of them success to address the central question of how coercion influences moral behaviour.

• Why is it important for society?

All known human societies hold individuals responsible for their own actions. This social fact in turn presupposes an important psychological fact: people should be aware of their actions and their outcomes, and should thus directly experience their own responsibility. Nevertheless, people sometimes claim reduced responsibility because they were “only obeying orders” (e.g. The Nuremberg Trials, 1945-1946). This defence is rightly viewed with scepticism, because the defendant has a clear motive of avoiding punishment or blame. On the other hand, early experimental studies such as the ones of Stanley Milgram suggested the power of coercion, by noting that most people will comply with coercive orders to inflict seemingly painful electric shocks on another person. Understanding what guides the decision of individuals to perform morally acceptable or inacceptable actions has strong implications for the society.

• What are the overall objectives?

In the present research project, we explore this question by investigating how coercion influences the sense of agency, that is, the subjective feeling that one is the author of her own actions and of their consequences (closely link to the feeling of responsibility), and our capacity to feel what other feel (empathy). Watching someone else’s pain indeed elicits an affective reaction in the observer, namely an empathic response, which is observable by various techniques such as MRI or EEG. We assume that the interaction between the feeling of agency and empathy could be one of the core mechanisms to explain what guides the decisions of individuals to perform (im)moral actions.
To implement this project, we will use experimental conditions in which participants are openly involved (= real social situation) and do not only have to judge false scenarios involving agency and responsibility, a method frequently used (= imagined social situation). Our dependent variables will systematically include: 1 – behavioural and implicit measures of the sense of agency, responsibility, and moral decisions, and 2 – psychophysiological and neuronal responses of empathy. The use of those different dependent variables in each experiment will allow to integrate into our model the interactions between those variables within different experimental scenarios, to better understand what guides the decisions of individuals to perform morally acceptable or inacceptable actions.

In the paradigm that we will use, two volunteers (the ‘agent’ and the ‘victim’) take turns to administer electrical shocks to each other, and receive a small financial benefit. The shocks will be set to a level that was painful but tolerable. In one condition, participants will freely choose on each trial whether to administer the shock by pressing one key on the keyboard, or to not administer it, by pressing another key (free-choice condition). In another condition, an experimenter gives a coercive instruction to the participant, telling them that they must press one key to administer the shock before some trials, or must press the other key, and not administer any shock, on other trials (coercive condition). While doing the task, we will record brain activity (associated with sense of agency and empathy for pain) and behavioural measures (to measure implicitly the sense of agency) of the agents. Furthermore, we will also test participants who will be assigned to the role of the one who is giving the orders to an agent. This situation allows to study to what extent the relation between sense of agency and empathy is direct or indirect. A direct perspective would predict that acting (SoA) is a necessary condition for observing a modification in empathic response between the free and coercing condition, while an indirect perspective would suggest that a change in empathy can be observed even if the commander does not directly cause the shock.
Past historical events and experimental research have shown complying with the orders from an authority has a strong impact on people’s behaviour. However, the mechanisms underlying how obeying orders influences moral behaviours remain largely unknown. In our project, we observed that even if participants knew that the shock intensity delivered to the ‘victim’ was exactly the same during coercive and free-choice conditions, they rated the shocks as less painful in the coercive condition. MRI results further indicated that obeying orders reduced activity associated with witnessing the shocks to the victim in the ACC, insula/IFG, amygdala, TPJ and striatum (including the caudate and the putamen) in comparison with being free to decide. These brain regions have been associated with vicarious activations when individuals witness the pain of someone else. We also observed that participants felt less responsible in the coercive than in the free-choice condition, suggesting that this reduction of neural response associated with empathy could be linked to a reduction of felt responsibility. These results highlight that obeying orders has a measurable influence on how people perceive and process others’ pain. This may help explain how people’s willingness to perform moral transgressions is altered in coercive situations.
Graphical representation of the main set up in the coercive condition