Obeying Orders Reduces Empathy According To Scientific Study - 2020

Last update April 24, 2021 at 11:19 AM

Researchers at the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience have found that obeying orders reduces empathy, according to a scientific study.


The worst atrocities that have known humanity are sometimes committed by “normal” people following orders. One often wonders how a sane person could make such immoral decisions.

A normal person who obeys orders in a compelling situation can commit crimes that they would never do on their own. One of the reasons researchers found is that they feel less guilt and empathy towards their victim.

" We wanted to understand why obeying orders affects moral behavior so much. Why is people's willingness to commit moral transgressions impaired in forced situations, ”Says Dr. Emilie Caspar, first co-author of this study.




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Experience environment


The aim of the experiment described here was to measure the level of empathy directly in the brain some participants. Any human being who witnesses a dramatic fact or the suffering of another feels an emphatic reaction.

They can witness emotional as well as physical suffering. The emphatic reaction manifests itself in the form of a desire to help and this is biologically normal.

«We can measure this empathy in the brain, as we see that the regions normally involved in feeling our own pain, including the anterior insula and rostral cingulate cortex, become active when we witness the pain of others, and more this activity is strong, the more empathy we feel and the more we do to avoid harming others Explains Dr Valeria Gazzola, co-lead author of the article.




The experiment carried out involves two types of people. The first will have the role of “agent” while the second will play the role of “victim”.

During the experiment, the agent will have two buttons in his possession, the first one that will send pain to the victim. For each pain inflicted he will have a small reward of 50 CFA francs at most. The second button will do nothing, the agent will not earn any rewards.

During the whole experience, the agent will have the freedom to inflict pain or not on his victim. For the experience to be real, he is being lied to that the pain inflicted is real. it avoids prosecution.

Now that the experiment is described, let's go to the most interesting part, that is to say the result.




Result of the experiment


The experiment lasted 60 rounds. Officers could decide to administer pain to victims as they saw fit and in another round, be ordered to administer pain.

The authors found that officers sent far more shock when ordered to do so than when they were given the freedom to do so. The neuroimaging below shows what happened in the brains of the agents in each of the situations described in the experiment.


Obeying orders would reduce empathy according to scientific study
Empathy-related brain activity when observing a victim receiving shock was reduced while obeying orders. Credit: Dr. Emilie Caspar


«Neuroimaging results showed that regions related to empathy were less active when obeying commands than when acting freely. We also observed that obedience to commands reduced activations in areas of the brain associated with feelings of guilt. », Explains Kalliopi Ioumpa, co-first author of this study.




Lesson from the participant experience


This little experiment of nothing at all proves an important truth. Men have often been able to do the worst immoral acts because they have been ordered to do so. We can also understand why the genocides were committed. This does not mean that they are excused for having carried out such acts.

«The next step will be to understand why so few people resist immoral orders. Is it because their empathy weakens when they follow orders? A better understanding of how the brain processes empathy and instruction can lead to ways to help us resist calls to commit violence in the future », Explains Dr Emilie Caspar.


sources: sciencedirect.com , https://scitechdaily.com/.




Last update April 24, 2021 at 11:19 AM




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Obeying orders would reduce empathy according to scientific study