It’s perhaps rather clear that the allure of following orders is less responsibility, especially when that particular command is to harm another human being. The issue has been long debated, and likely one that will be discussed for as long as war exists. So, basically, forever.
- Researchers re-tested Milgram’s experiment on the “Nuremberg Defense”
- The method was used by Nazis trying to absolve themselves of the responsibility of their actions during WWII by stating they were commanded to commit cruel acts
- The study found that there is a disconnect between consequences and responsibility when ordered
Researchers studied the basis of the “Nuremberg Defense”, a method that was used by Nazis following their cruel acts after World War II in the Nuremberg Trials. In essence, the officers tried to shift the blame of their horrific actions to their superiors, claiming that they were “forced to serve as mere instruments”. Thus, they denied responsibility of their actions by stating that the fault was at the hands of the men who commanded them.
This did not prove to be an adequate defense technique for the Nazis in 1962, and the matter remained debated due to an experiment conducted in the same year. Psychologist from Yale University, Stanley Milgram, performed an experiment to see if there was any psychological basis to the “Nuremberg Defense”. His goal was to see if ordinary people were capable of cruel acts when commanded by a person of authority.
The experiment implied asking people to shock a complete stranger while watching the effects of their action unfold. The “victims” were, in fact, actors only pretending to suffer the pain inflicted by the shocks. However, Milgram found that every human was capable of performing such acts of inhumanity when they felt as if they were coerced into doing it. As long as there was someone of authority commanding them, they would shock the other person.
Thus, his study proved some validity to the “Nuremberg Defense” the Nazis unsuccessfully used.
A new study from the University College London (UCL) found that there is indeed a sense of coercion in humans when given orders. However, a very important thing to note is it not enough to stop them from disobeying nor is it enough to deny responsibility over their actions. The researchers conducted a similar experiment,
though modified the method a little from Milgram’s.
They named one of the flaws in his study that participants were asked if they feel responsible for causing pain in another. That is “a little tricky”, according to lead author of the UCL study, Dr. Patrick Haggard. It’s because sometimes people report what they think they should say instead of how they actually felt. That is why their experiment differs, because they assessed the time it took for the participants to actually make the decision and their perception of it.
According to Dr. Haggard, “time perception tells us something about the basic experiences people have when they act”, not just how they think they should feel.
They tested their perception of how much time there was between the action and the consequences. The research was similarly conducted with one “agent” who was told to shock the “victim” while the two were face to face, so the effects could be witnessed.
When given the order, the subjects perceived that it took them longer to commit the act than when they chose by themselves. Dr. Haggard claimed that this is an interesting proof that coercion does have an impact on the brain and how it perceives responsibility. By being given an order, the brain took less time to process the action. However, perception said differently.
In essence, even though the shocks were delivered at the same intervals, the participants judged that it took them longer to do so when being ordered. Their sense of responsibility was “genuinely reduced”. There is a sense of disconnect between their actions and the responsibility they perceived they have.
The study poses as an interesting point where psychology and politics meet, especially in times of war. It could aid in better distributing the blame between those who give orders and those who receive them. However, it should be noted, as Dr. Haggard mentioned, that just because we don’t feel responsible does not mean we are not.
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