Every psychology class mentions Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment to determine the limits of how far people could be pushed to execute horrific orders, and it’s since been the standard for today’s experiments measuring how to awaken our inner sociopath without interfering with your normal brain function. We already know that enough money will make you reconsider the natural human aversion of harming others, especially if you don’t actually have to see the pain you inflict firsthand. But what actually goes on in the brains of those who are following orders or inducements to hurt someone? Are they suffering some internal crisis when they harm others, are they simply pushing the button with no sense of agency on their own, or is something more complicated going on? To find out, European researchers repeated Milgram’s experiment with several important modern twists. They added buttons, a tone when a button was pressed, and read the electrical activity inside the participants’ brains when they were doing their part.
Now, Milgram’s inspiration for his research were the excuses of Nazis at Nuremberg defending themselves by saying that they were simply following orders so his tests focused on how orders are delivered and the subsequent reactions, so verbal commands were a key part of the setup. In this follow-up, how orders were delivered didn’t matter, just the fact that an order was issued so the researchers played a tone after participants pressed a button they were told to press. If the subjects were making conscious decisions and sticking to them, previous research said, the tone would seem to come notably faster after they pressed the buttons than if they were simply doing something on auto-pilot. We’re not sure why this happens, but accidental events seem to be processed slower than intentional ones, which is why gauging the subject’s subjective ideas about how quickly the tone came after they performed the requested or voluntary actions was a crucial part of the experiment. Some were free to choose to apply a small electric “shock” to an anonymous victim, take away £20 from him or her, or just press a button that did nothing as the control group. Others were simply told what buttons to push by the researchers.
What they found was quite interesting. First and foremost, the group told what to do reported a longer time between pressing the button and hearing the tone, exactly as expected. This meant that taking orders made them feel less in control of their actions, the brains evaluating what just happened as an involuntary action despite requiring their agency to be carried out. Secondly, a thorough analysis of their EEG patterns showed that they processed their decisions significantly less than the control group by analyzing activity known as event-related potential, or ERP, used to determine the cognitive load of an action in response of a stimulus. In other words, ordering someone to perform a task makes them feel as if they’re not actually the ones doing it and give the task and its consequences less thought. Revealingly, the topographical maps of the neural activity show areas where you’d find the prefrontal cortex, the seat of decision-making, showing the most activation in both groups while being a lot dimmer for the experimental participants to support this notion. As scary as it sounds, it seems that our brains might just be wired to follow orders with less thought and care than making our own choices. Why? We’ll need more studies to find out, but I’d bet it has to do with us evolving as a social species rather than loners.