Christian Keysers, Ph.D.

Christian Keysers Ph.D.

The Empathic Brain

Why Obeying Orders Can Make Us Do Terrible Things

New brain study shows how obeying orders can dull our empathy.

Posted Aug 19, 2020

War atrocities are sometimes committed by ‘normal’ people because they obeyed orders. Researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam measured brain activity while participants inflict pain, and found that obeying orders reduced empathy- and guilt-related brain activity for the inflicted pain. This may explain why people more readily commit immoral acts under coercion. 

The Nuremberg trials are full of cases in which humans commit atrocious crimes but show disturbingly little guilt – because they just ‘follow orders’. Are they fundamentally different from us, or do we all have it in us to dull our conscience when we follow orders? 

Most people are averse to harming others. In an elegant study published in PNAS in 2014, Molly Crockett gave people a chance to pay money to reduce shocks to themselves or to an anonymous other. Most actually paid more to reduce the pain of others than they paid to reduce their own pain. One of the reasons why the pain of others is so aversive to us is that our brain is empathic. If you measure brain activity while people observe the pain of someone else, you consistently find that the observer activates their insula and anterior cingulate cortex – regions normally activated when they feel pain on their own body – as if the observer were in pain themselves. The brain transforms the witnessed pain of someone else into the witness’ own pain. Together with moral ideals, this empathic brain activity is thought to be part of what keeps us from harming our fellow humans. 

So what happens when any of us follow orders? In an experiment we just published in the journal NeuroImage, we had people participate in pairs. Participant A went into the fMRI scanner to measure brain activity, while participant B went in front of a camera, with electrodes connected to their hand. Participant A could now decide whether to give, or not to give, little shocks to participant B, knowing that for each shock to B, A would get 5 cents. The shocks were unpleasant, but tolerable, and A could see B’s hand twitch each time they gave B a shock. The key manipulation was that in 60 trials, A was free to choose whether to give shocks or not, while in the other 60 trials, A heard the experimenter order them to give a shock on half the trials and not to give a shock on the other half. 

Christian Keysers
Empathy related brain activity while observing a victim receive a shock was reduced while obeying orders
Source: Christian Keysers

The results were quite striking. The vast majority of participants never disobeyed an order to deliver a shock, and gave the full 30 shocks they were ordered to give. In contrast, on trials in which they were free to choose, they only delivered 23 shocks on average, deciding not to give shocks on more trials than they decided to give shocks. When asked how guilty they felt about delivering shocks, they reported feeling less guilty when following orders than when freely deciding to deliver a shock. So orders increase the willingness to inflict pain, and reduce the feeling of guilt. Using fMRI, we looked specifically at how strongly A would activate their own pain system (including the insula and anterior cingulate cortex) while witnessing the shocks they inflict on B. This activity was clearly reduced when following orders.  

These results help us understand the terrifying mystery of war atrocities. We are all empathic beings who normally suffer when we harm other people. But if we obey the orders of others, this empathy is reduced. Our conscience is dulled, and the brakes on our violence are weakened. 

References

Caspar EA, Ioumpa K, Keysers C, Gazzola V. Obeying orders reduces vicarious brain activation towards victims' pain [published online ahead of print]. Neuroimage. 2020;117251. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.117251

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