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Why obeying orders can make us do terrible things

War atrocities are sometimes committed by ‘normal’ people obeying orders. Researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience measured brain activity while participants inflicted pain and found that obeying orders reduced empathy and guilt related brain activity for the inflicted pain. This may explain why people are able to commit immoral acts under coercion.

Many examples in the history of mankind have shown that when people obey orders from an authority, they are able to perform atrocious acts towards others. All the genocides that mankind has known, generally referred to as crimes of obedience, have shown that having a part of the population complying with orders to exterminate other human beings led to the loss of countless lives, cultures and civilizations. “We wanted to understand why obeying orders impacts moral behavior so much. Why people’s willingness to perform moral transgressions is altered in coerced situations”, says Dr Emilie Caspar, co-first author of the present study.

Feeling the pain

When humans witness another person experiencing pain, be it emotional or physical, they have an empathic reaction, and this is thought to be what makes us averse to harming others. “We can measure that empathy in the brain, because we see that regions normally involved in feeling our own pain, including the anterior insula and the rostral cingulate cortex, become active when we witness the pain of others, and the stronger that activity, the more empathy we experience, and the more we do to prevent harm to others”, explains Dr Valeria Gazzola, co-senior author of the paper. This process is deeply ingrained in our biology and shared by other mammals, such as rodents or apes. “We evaluated in this study if obeying orders to inflict pain to someone else would reduce the empathic response compared to freely deciding to inflict – or not to inflict – the same pain”, reports prof. Christian Keysers, the other co-senior author of the present study.

In the study published in NeuroImage, the authors used pairs of participants, with one being assigned the role of ‘agent’ and the other the role of ‘victim’. Agents were placed in an MRI scanner to record their brain activity during the task. They were told that they had two buttons; one triggering the administration of a real, mildly painful, shock on the victim’s hand in exchange for +0.05€, and another triggering no shock and no money. Over the course of 60 rounds, agents were either free to choose to administer – or not – this shock to the victim, or they received orders from the experimenter to inflict – or not – the same shock. This task was designed to involve a difficult moral decision for agents: increasing one’s own monetary gain by causing pain to another person or not.

Reduced activations

The authors observed that agents sent more shocks to victims when they were coercively instructed than when they freely decided. “Neuroimaging results showed that empathy-related regions were less active when obeying orders compared to acting freely. We also observed that obeying orders reduced activations in brain regions associated with the feeling of guilt”, explains Kalliopi Ioumpa, co-first author of the present study.

The observation that obeying an order to inflict pain reduced activation in empathy and guilt related brain regions explains, at least partly, why people can commit highly immoral acts towards others under coercion. These results have huge implications in terms of understanding the power that obedience has over human behavior and offer new insights into the possibility of preventing mass-atrocities committed because of a lack of empathy for victims. “The next step will be to understand why so few people resist immoral orders. Is it because their empathy weakens when they are following orders? A better understanding of how the brain processes empathy and instructions may lead to ways to help us resist calls to commit violence in the future”, says Dr Emilie Caspar.

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Keysers Group

While we watch a movie, we share the experiences of the actors we observe: our heart for instance starts beating faster while we see an actor slip from the roof of a tall building. Why?

Specific brain areas are involved when we perform certain actions or have certain emotions or sensations. Interestingly, some of these areas are also recruited when we simply observe someone else performing similar actions, having similar sensations or having similar emotions. These areas called ‘shared circuits’ transform what we see into what we would have done or felt in the same situation. With such brain areas, understanding other people is not an effort of explicit thought but becomes an intuitive sharing of their emotions, sensations and actions.

Christian Keysers‘ lab focuses on providing increasingly detailed insights into how exactly the brain achieves this remarkable feat of empathy. For this aim, the lab combines powerful methods to non-invasively image brain activity in humans, with an unprecedented ability to record and influence brain activity at neural levels in rodents. You can get an impression for the labs spirit in these short movies:

 

In addition, the lab explores why some people seem to show very reduced empathy, for instance in patient groups that suffer from impairments in social cognition, including autism and psychopathy. You can get an impression for that work from the following episode with Morgan Freeman:

Cover The Empathic Brain

 

Read more about our research in Christian Keysers’s book The Empathic Brain.

Available at Amazon US, EU, UK in English, or as translations into Dutch (Het empathische brein), German (Unser Empathisches Gehirn), Turkish or Japanese.

 

Or what Christian Keysers present the lab at the Marie Curie Action’s 20th Anniversary in Brussels

 

Social Brain Lab

Befitting our interest in social cognition, my lab and that of Valeria Gazzola create a joint, strongly collaborative cluster of expertise on the neural basis of social cognition that we call the Social Brain Lab.

Student projects

If you are interested in applying for an internship in the Social Brain Lab please follow the instructions in this document. This also applies to literature thesis projects.

Funding

ERC European Commission FP7

NWOMarieCurie

The Keysers lab studies fundamental issues in social neuroscience. To do so, we are entirely dependent on public funding. We are enormously thankful to the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO) and the European Commission for being dedicated patrons of such frontier science. Without the Talent Scheme of NWO that has supported our work through VENI, VIDI and VICI grants, and without the European Commission that has supported us through the ERC and several Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, we would have been unable to tackle the mysteries of our social nature. In addition, the Dutch Government has helped us deeply through the  National Initiative for Brain and Cognition.

FACILITIES

The social brain lab is equipped to integrate research in humans and rodents. For this purpose it has the following equipment.

HUMAN RESEARCH:

Human Equipment at SBL
Human Equipment at SBL
  • 3T philips scanner at the Spinoza Center (10m away, click here for details)
  • 7T philips scanner at the Spinoza Center (10m away, click here for details)
  • 130Ch ActiChamp EEG system (that can be split in two 64Ch systems for hyperscanning)
  • Magstim Rapid TMS system with neuronavigation
  • 8Ch Soterix tDCS system

RODENT RESEARCH

  • housing facilities for mice and rats
  • 64Ch Neuralynx Electrophysiology system for freely moving rodents with silicon probes or tetrodes
  • Neurolabware two-photon laser scanning microscope with Phenosys VR system
  • DM2 fascilities for viral transfections
  • Ethovision system for behavioral analysis

DATA ANALYSIS

  • 40 Core, 2TB RAM shared ram supercomputer

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Gazzola Group

When we see a little girl falling from her bike, why do most of us instinctively run to help and comfort her?

Years of research show that one of the reasons why we help other people is because their suffering activates brain regions that are also active when we ourselves are hurt. The pain of the child with her bleeding knee becomes our own pain. Helping the girl now becomes a way to sooth what is now our pain. A similar contagion happens for other emotions as well: we rejoice with our friend when we watch her crossing the finish line of her first marathon.
In some circumstances the decision to help is less readily made, but requires a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of the action we decide to take. For instance, if you are late for an important job interview, and you see the mother also running toward the child, you might decide to keep on going instead. This is because you have quickly calculated the benefits for the other against the costs for yourself, and found that the costs of helping (high probability of not getting the coveted new job) in this case are higher than the benefits to the other (comforting a child you do not know while her mom will soon arrive).

Some of the core questions my lab currently investigates are: What areas of the brain cause us to act prosocially? How does the brain weigh the benefits to self and the cost to others? How do we learn the consequences our actions have on others? When we hit someone he will likely be in pain. How does this make us learn that hitting people is bad? Why do psychopathic individuals fail to acquire these moral sentiments? Does the activation of our own pain brain regions while witnessing the other wince in pain play a critical role in that learning?

In order to answer these questions, we synergize brain imaging tools such as 3T and 7T fMRI and EEG, and neuro-modulation tools, such as TMS and tDCS.

 

 

Social Brain Lab

Befitting our interest in social cognition, my lab and that of Christian Keysers create a joint, strongly collaborative cluster of expertise on the neural basis of social cognition that we call the Social Brain Lab.

STUDENT PROJECTS

If you are interested in applying for an internship in the Social Brain Lab please follow the instructions in this document. This also applies to literature thesis projects.

Funding

The Gazzola lab is generously financed by the Dutch Science Foundation’s Innovational Research Incentives Scheme (VIDI), the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, and the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología of Mexico.

 

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