How coercion can dull our brain from feeling empathy and guilt


Empathy and guilt are, to most, innate abilities. This is because the brain is empathic. Watching someone in physical or emotional pain will result in discomfort for the observer, we have an empathic reaction. If you measure brain activity during this instance, you will find that two particular areas get activated: the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex – yes, regions usually related to our own experience of pain! Why is it that humans can still cause great extents of pain to others? How can we deal with the discomfort translated into our brains?   

Surprisingly, the empathy and guilt we feel can sometimes be reduced. For instance, when our actions are the result of somebody else’s orders.

You might be familiar with the highly controversial Milgram experiment in 1963. Where Milgram investigated the power of obedience by deceiving participants into thinking that they were harming others after following orders to. This study found that individuals will cause brutal pain to another innocent individual under the orders of an authority figure.   

Caspar and colleagues at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience wanted to take this one step further and investigate the underlying brain processes that take place when an individual undergoes such tasks. 

To do this, they recruited forty participants. At their arrival they were put into pairs and randomly assigned a role of either the “agent” or the “victim”, being informed that they would later be exchanging roles. They were then separated in two different rooms and were both attached to an MRI scanner on their hand to record their brain activity. 

The “agent” was given access to two buttons; one that administered a (real) mild shock on the victim’s hand for which they got €0.05 in return, and a second button that administered no pain and gave no money. The agent was then assigned to one of two conditions: free condition or coercion condition. In the free condition, they were free to decide which button to press. In the coercion condition, they were instructed to press the shock button. All participants participated in both conditions.

Whilst receiving the shocks, the “victim” was asked to pick a documentary to watch to get distracted from the painful stimulus. The “agent” watched the “victim” through a screen.

Source: Christian Keysers

The researchers confirmed that the participants administered more shocks under the coerced condition, and they explained that they felt less empathy and less guilt under the coerced condition. We can explain these results by looking at the MRI scans which show a clear difference between the two conditions. The empathy and guilt-related regions were far less active under the coerced condition.  

The results implied that we take less responsibility in the delivery of pain to another individual when we are ordered to do so than when deciding freely. These results are important in the understanding of how individuals commit immoral acts and how they commit to feel a lack of empathy for victims. But how and why are some individuals better able to resist than others? 

Caspar, E. A., Ioumpa, K., Keysers, C., & Gazzola, V. (2020). Obeying orders reduces vicarious brain activation towards victims’ pain. NeuroImage, 222, 117251.

Image Source: Dinamize Blog

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