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Commanding or being a simple intermediary

Research group Keysers
Publication year 2022
Published in eNeuro
Authors E.A. Caspar, Kalliopi Ioumpa, Irene Arnaldo, Lorenzo De Angelis, V. Gazzola, Christian Keysers

Psychology and neuroscience research have shown that fractioning operations between several individuals along a hierarchical chain allows diffusing responsibility between components of the chain, which has the potential to disinhibit antisocial actions. Here, we present two studies, one using fMRI (Study 1) and one using EEG (Study 2), designed to help understand how commanding or being in an intermediary position impacts the sense of agency and empathy for pain. In the age of military drones, we also explored whether commanding a human or robot agent influences these measures. This was done within a single behavioral paradigm in which participants could freely decide whether or not to send painful shocks to another participant in exchange for money. In Study 1, fMRI reveals that activation in social cognition and empathy-related brain regions was equally low when witnessing a victim receive a painful shock while participants were either commander or simple intermediary transmitting an order, compared to being the agent directly delivering the shock. In Study 2, results indicated that the sense of agency did not differ between commanders and intermediary, no matter if the executing agent was a robot or a human. However, we observed that the neural response over P3 was higher when the executing agent was a robot compared to a human. Source reconstruction of the EEG signal revealed that this effect was mediated by areas including the insula and ACC. Results are discussed regarding the interplay between the sense of agency and empathy for pain for decision-making.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTIn hierarchical situations, one person decides and orders, and another person executes. In the present study, we use MRI and EEG in order to investigate the neuro-cognitive processes altered in hierarchical chains in order to explain how being in the position of commander or in the position of intermediary impacts moral behaviors. Results showed that in the two positions, empathy for the pain of others is altered compared to being the agent directly delivering the shock. The sense of agency does not differ between commanders and intermediaries. These results show how powerful hierarchical situations can facilitate the commission of actions that harm others, as agency and empathy are split across multiple individuals.

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