Caspar, E. Christensen, J.F., Cleeremans, A., & Haggard, P. (2016). Coercion changes the sense of agency in the human brain. Current Biology, 26, 1-8.
People may deny responsibility for negative conse- quences of their actions by claiming that they were ‘‘only obeying orders.’’ The ‘‘Nuremberg defense’’ of- fers one extreme example, though it is often dis- missed as merely an attempt to avoid responsibility. Milgram’s classic laboratory studies reported wide- spread obedience to an instruction to harm, suggest- ing 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 admin- ister harm to a co-participant, with implicit measures of sense of agency, based on perceived compres- sion 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 partici- pants freely chose to inflict the same harms. Interest- ingly, coercion also reduced the neural processing of the outcomes of one’s own action. Thus, people who obey orders may subjectively experience their ac- tions 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 ac- tions and social constructs, such as responsibility.