‘I was only following orders’ has been used to excuse a host of human atrocities.
But now researchers believe heeding commands from authority figures actually reduces brain activity involved with empathy and guilt.
Scientists in the Netherlands measured brain activity on test subjects who were given the chance to administer an electroshock on another person.
They found that when the subjects were directed to administer a shock, there was reduced activity in certain parts of the brain than if they were given the choice whether or not to.
Scientists measured brain activity on subjects who were given the chance to administer a shock to another person. Their hope is to understand why people are able to commit immoral acts under coercion
This may explain why people are able to commit immoral acts under coercion, according to their report, published in NeuroImage.
Previous studies have shown people have less trouble inflicting pain under orders, but the underlying brain mechanisms haven’t been well understood.
‘We can measure that empathy in the brain, because we see that regions normally involved in feeling our own pain,’ said neurologist Valeria Gazzola, one of the paper’s authors.
Specific sections of the brain, notably the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and anterior insula (AI), become active when we witness other people’s discomfort.
In some rounds, ‘agents’ were ordered to either shock or not shock their victim. In other rounds, they were given a choice. Agents were placed in an MRI that recorded their brain activity.
‘The stronger that activity, the more empathy we experience, and the more we do to prevent harm to others,’ Gazzola said.
Empathy, along with the fear of reprisal, is what is believed to inhibit us from inflicting harm.
Humans are not the only animals known to express empathy, though. Lab rats have been observed freeing other rodents from cages.
Rhesus monkeys will go hungry rather than receive a reward for shocking another monkey.
Section of the brain that register pain become active when we feel empathy, says neurologist Valeria Gazzola, including the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and anterior insula (AI). ‘The stronger that activity, the more empathy we experience, and the more we do to prevent harm to others,’ Gazzola said
Empathic behavior has also been observed in mice, dogs and even elephants.
When we see others in distress, ‘we map their pain onto our own pain system,’ the report read. Mirror neurons in monkeys have been shown to fire both when they both execute and observe an action.
In the experiment, researchers paired off 40 participants and designated one as an ‘agent’ and the other the ‘victim.’
Agents were presented with two buttons: One triggered a mildly painful shock on the victim’s hand. If the agent pressed it, they’d be given a small monetary reward.
Imaging from the experiment found less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and anterior insula when participants were ordered to shock their victim, indicating less of an empathic response
The other button had no shock and no payout.
The agents were placed in an MRI that recorded their brain activity during 60 rounds of the experiment.
In some rounds, agents were ordered to either shock or not shock the victim. In other rounds, they were given a choice.
Halfway through the experiment, the participants switched roles.
Agents were less likely to press the button and shock their victim if they were given a choice. One participant never administered shocks, even when ordered to, and another shocked their victim even when directed not to. Both were excluded from the results
Two participants were rejected for disobeying instructions: One never administered shocks, even when ordered to, and the other shocked their victim even when directed not to.
The remaining agents sent more shocks to victims when they were instructed than when they decided to on their own and the empathy-related regions of their brains were less active when they were told to shock their victim.
‘We also observed that obeying orders reduced activations in brain regions associated with the feeling of guilt,’ said co-author Kalliopi Ioumpa.
Their theory is that following orders allows humans to perform immoral acts by reducing the response that would force us to vicariously feel our victim’s pain.
Understanding what makes us ignore the empathic response under coercion could help prevent people from responding to calls to commit violence and atrocities in the future.
WOULD YOU KNOW HOW TO SPOT A PSYCHOPATH?
Psychopaths display different traits depending on their disorder.
Common signs include superficial charm, a grandiose notion of self-worth, the need for stimulation and impulsiveness, pathological lying, the ability to manipulate others and a lack of remorse and empathy.
But despite the popular association, not all psychopaths become killers.
Experts claim people usually find psychopaths intriguing, but can’t put their finger on why.
This is down to incongruous behaviour because psychopaths tend to do a lot of acting to deceive, or mimic normal reactions, sometimes changing their views and reactions quickly.
For example, Self-professed psychopath Jacob Wells said that upon meeting someone, he tries to become ‘the most interesting person they know’ and presumably adopts suitable interests and responses to do this.
His response also gives away another common trait – a grandiose notion of self-worth – in that he can be the most interesting person in the room.
Psychopaths occasionally tend to exhibit unconvincing emotional responses, with slip-ups including tone of voice or body language.
This may be because they are unable to understand emotions such as fear and love, but can mimic them.
Psychopaths display different traits depending on their disorder, but common signs include superficial charm and the ability to manipulate others. Despite the popular association, not all psychopaths become killers (stock image)
Generally psychopaths’ ’emotions’ are shallow and short-lived and there is a manipulative ulterior motive to showing them.
For example, Mr Wells said he offers to do favours and tells false secrets to people to gain their complete trust.
He also displays insincere charm – another trait associated with psychopaths.
He says: ‘I keep secrets, and tell them fake secrets to further gain their trust, and once they trust me enough, I ask for favours, reminding them of the favours I did them. I can get literally anything from them, which is incredibly useful.’
Psychopaths typically display an incredible ability to manipulate others and sometimes take pleasure in doing so.
Psychopaths often have an air of superiority about them, perhaps shown by Mr Wells’ belief he can spot other psychopaths
Even expert Dr Hare, who came up with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) used as a diagnostic tool to determine where someone lies on the psychopathy spectrum, warns that anyone can be duped during a short interaction with a psychopath.