A new study has just proven that following orders makes you less responsible, by analyzing the Nuremberg Defense. It appears that a scientific basis was found for the previously mentioned phenomenon, and thus people who are following orders to go through cruel actions are more likely to feel less responsible. However, one question remains: Why are some people easily coerced into doing immoral things?
Back in 1962, one of the people who caused the Holocaust named Adolf Eichmann wrote a letter in which he explained that both he and the officers under his command were forced to serve as instruments for others. By doing this he attempted to escape his fate after being held accountable for the mass murder of millions of Jews. Unfortunately for him, this testimony was not enough to spare him from hanging in Israel. This has been since known as the Nuremberg Defense, a strategy used by many Nazi defendants during the criminal trials that took place after the Second World War.
However, his plea did not go unobserved by everyone. Numerous psychologists and neuroscientists have conducted studies and experiments to determine and understand whether his claim was valid or not. The first one to do so was Stanley Milgram, who organized a couple of trials to show that individuals can harm others only by following others, without any other influences. The conclusion was that normal people can be capable of inhumane actions if they are convinced to do so by the authorities.
The newest study on the matter is based on the work of Milgram from 1962. Université Libre de Bruxelles and UCL scientists focused on the “sense of agency”, a phenomenon linked to the awareness of being in control of one’s own behavior and actions. They conducted several tests involving the measurement of this “sense of agency” in each individual who took part to the experiment. These tests included orders such as causing harm by giving mild shocks to other people.
Of course no one was actually harmed during the study. All the participants had to do was press a button that enabled a tone. Furthermore, they had to tell the scientists the length of the time between the pressing of the button and the tone. This has pointed out that people who perceived more time between the two actions had a lower sense of responsibility.
According to University College scientist Patrick Haggard, people experience a distance from their own actions when they are obeying others. Following orders makes you less responsible because someone is acting through you, but this still does not make you less guilty of the acts you commit.
Image Source: Harvard Law School Library