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Curr Biol. 2016 Mar 7;26(5):585-92. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.067. Epub 2016 Feb 18.

Coercion Changes the Sense of Agency in the Human Brain.

Author information

1
Consciousness, Cognition, and Computation Group (CO3), Center for Research in Cognition and Neurosciences (CRCN), ULB Neuroscience Institute (UNI), Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Avenue F.D. Roosevelt 50, CP191, 1050 Brussels, Belgium; Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London (UCL), Queen Square 17, London WC1N 3AR, UK.
2
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London (UCL), Queen Square 17, London WC1N 3AR, UK.
3
Consciousness, Cognition, and Computation Group (CO3), Center for Research in Cognition and Neurosciences (CRCN), ULB Neuroscience Institute (UNI), Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Avenue F.D. Roosevelt 50, CP191, 1050 Brussels, Belgium.
4
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London (UCL), Queen Square 17, London WC1N 3AR, UK. Electronic address: p.haggard@ucl.ac.uk.

Abstract

People may deny responsibility for negative consequences of their actions by claiming that they were "only obeying orders." The "Nuremberg defense" offers one extreme example, though it is often dismissed as merely an attempt to avoid responsibility. Milgram's classic laboratory studies reported widespread obedience to an instruction to harm, suggesting that social coercion may alter mechanisms of voluntary agency, and hence abolish the normal experience of being in control of one's own actions. However, Milgram's and other studies relied on dissembling and on explicit measures of agency, which are known to be biased by social norms. Here, we combined coercive instructions to administer harm to a co-participant, with implicit measures of sense of agency, based on perceived compression of time intervals between voluntary actions and their outcomes, and with electrophysiological recordings. In two experiments, an experimenter ordered a volunteer to make a key-press action that caused either financial penalty or demonstrably painful electric shock to their co-participant, thereby increasing their own financial gain. Coercion increased the perceived interval between action and outcome, relative to a situation where participants freely chose to inflict the same harms. Interestingly, coercion also reduced the neural processing of the outcomes of one's own action. Thus, people who obey orders may subjectively experience their actions as closer to passive movements than fully voluntary actions. Our results highlight the complex relation between the brain mechanisms that generate the subjective experience of voluntary actions and social constructs, such as responsibility.

PMID:
26898470
PMCID:
PMC4791480
DOI:
10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.067
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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