In this amazeballs study just out in Current Biology, Emilie Caspar, Julia Christensen, Axel Cleeremans & Patrick Haggard (collaboration between ULB/Brussels & UCL/London), show that when coerced into harming others, people effectively experience less agency then when they do it voluntarily (using the well-documented fact that a stronger sense of agency about an action relates to a subjective perception of a shorter time between your action and its outcome). Awesome stuff, Befehl its Befehl, and rightly so because we feel not just less responsible, we experience our actions as being less causal!
It’s very hot at the moment, leading to nice digest versions in Nature, Scientific American (MIND), and on the IFLS website. (Also of interest to the consciousness course is a very recent more general overview of consciousness, free will and intentionality by Caspar & Cleeremans.)
The basis for the Current Biology experiment is the infamous Milgram obedience experiment, conducted in the early 60’s in an attempt to show that people would not just follow orders and hurt fellow human beings (WW2 had only been over 15 years). People were required to train a subject in a memory task. Every time the other (a confederate) got it wrong, they were to administer an electric shock. To his horror, Milgram saw that most people, at simple request of the experimenter, would continue until lethal shock level. This was the first illustration that anyone could be brought to do atrocious things to others.
Caspar et al. wanted to know to what degree people saw their actions as not their own, experienced less self-agency. Their study relies on the intentional binding effect (on which Patrick Haggard has worked a lot), which is the well-established finding that a stronger sense of agency about an action relates to a subjective perception of a shorter time between your action and its outcome, and the reverse for a weaker sense of agency. In other words, the impression (some would say illusion) of free will, of voluntarily doing something relates to how close we perceive our actions to be to an effect in the world.
As it turns out, when people are told to administer a shock, they effectively perceive the interval between action and outcome to be longer than when they chose to administer the shock. In other words, when someone orders me to do something, at a very basic level I experience my actions less to be my own! As such, yes, when someone tells us to do an atrocious thing, we experience less as an agent with free will to our own actions.