Milgram Revisited: How Coercion Affects the Mind

By K. N. Smith | February 18, 2016 6:11 pm

Looking down on the defendants’ dock during the Nuremberg trials began in 1945. (Credit: The National Archives)

In the wake of World War II, Nazi war criminals protested that they had been “only following orders,” which became known as the infamous Nuremberg defense.

For decades sociologists, psychologists, and legal scholars have debated whether the defense was just a lame excuse or a valid legal strategy. Now, a team of psychologists says that coercion has a real effect on how the brain perceives the consequences of behavior. The study doesn’t dismiss the heinous crimes committed by Adolf Eichmann and low-level officers; however, carrying out orders, researchers discovered, makes people feel passive and less in control, reducing the sense of connection between actions and their consequences.

To arrive at their conclusion, researchers put a new spin on a classic — ethically dubious — experiment.

Milgram’s Experiment

In 1961, a Yale University psychologist named Stanley Milgram launched an experiment that would become one of the most famous – and the most unsettling – in the history of psychology. Every time a student in an adjacent room got the answers to a memory task wrong, the volunteers were told to give them an electric shock.

The shocks started out small but increased in 15-volt increments. From the adjacent room, the volunteers could hear sounds of pain, desperate pounding on the wall and loud pleas to stop. Eventually, all that filled the room was ominous silence. When the volunteers tried to stop, the experimenter pressured them to keep going and assured the volunteers that he would take responsibility for whatever happened.

Two-thirds of the volunteers (26 out of 40) followed orders all the way to the end — a 450-volt shock. Later, the volunteers discovered that the “learner” was actually a paid actor and there were no real shocks. However, the implication of the experiment was disturbingly real: People would do things under orders that would normally horrify them.

Sense of Agency

In the decades since Milgram’s experiment, other experiments around the world have produced the same result, but no one has been able to explain why people so readily follow orders. What we don’t yet understand, says lead author Emilie Caspar of Université Libre de Bruxelles and her colleagues, is exactly what people are experiencing in their own minds when they’re ordered to do something distasteful.

At the center of that experience is what psychologists call a “sense of agency”, or feeling that you’re in control of your actions and that your behaviors have an immediate impact on other events. It’s the kind of subjective experience that’s vital to understanding human behavior, but very difficult to actually study in a lab.

“Sense of agency is hard to measure. If you ask people explicitly to judge their responsibility, they may respond in a way that they think reflects best on them, rather than reporting the basic experience of action and outcome,” says co-author Patrick Haggard, a psychologist at University College London. To leap this hurdle, Caspar and her colleagues took an indirect approach.

Actions and Consequences

When people feel a sense of agency, the outcomes of their actions seem to happen instantaneously, but when people feel less responsible, they perceive a lag between their actions and whatever happens next. That means that researchers could use the perceived time between events as a sign of whether people felt responsible for their behavior.

In Caspar’s experiment, one partner could choose to press a computer key in order to receive a small amount of money, but at the cost of taking money from the other person or giving them a small electric shock. If they chose not to harm their partner for financial gain, they could press a different key. Either way, a tone would sound a short time after the key press.


Other times, the volunteers had no choice; an experimenter stood beside the partner at the keyboard, watching them as she told them whether to harm their partners. Participants who were acting on orders perceived more time between their action and the result, which indicated that they felt a diminished sense of agency in the face of authority.


“These results suggest that voluntary actions made under coercion are experienced in some ways as if they were passive,” they wrote. The volunteers were experiencing a real change in their feelings of agency and responsibility, not just making a convenient excuse.

According to EEG readings during another round of tests, following orders appeared to put a damper on brain activity involved in processing the outcome of one’s actions. “Coercive instructions appear to induce a passive mode of processing in the brain compared to free choice between alternatives,” Caspar and her colleagues wrote. Researchers published their findings Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Revisiting the Nuremberg Defense

The finding may have important implications for the legal system, but the issue of personal responsibility under orders is still complicated.

“Science can sometimes clarify how our minds and brains work, but society as a whole must choose, through its law, the rules by which we should live,” says Haggard. “On the other hand, our laws need to align with the realities of human cognitive capacity and human experience. That’s the reason why, for example, people are held responsible for voluntary acts, but not for involuntary movements such as a sneeze or a muscle spasm.”

But as Caspar and her colleagues wrote, “Clearly, society needs protection from harm, irrespective of whether the perpetrators experienced agency at the time of the act, or not.”

In the future, the researchers say they would like to study whether some people are more susceptible than others to losing their sense of agency under coercion.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology
  • Rita O’Gorman

    This explains why so many victims of sexual abuse by priest permitted the
    the assault and not only went along but kept it a secret as well.

    • JAFischer

      ‘Following orders’ doesn’t work in those cases. Abusers prefer those who can’t/won’t fight back and seek them out. The victims come to feel they deserve the abuse (whether psychological, physical, or sexual), including the belief the abuser has the right to inflict it. Some may even come to believe that others will call them liars, especially if the abuser has a position of trust in the family or community (or the victim has — fairly or not — gotten a reputation for lying).

  • Danny Miles

    this has implication for those who control the drones which kill people. ( innocent people )

    • cgosling

      Drones are designed to save innocent lives rather than the past carpet bombing and indescriminant bombing. Those who operate drones try their best to be accurate and never intend to kill innocents. Most drone missions are cancelled because targets are mixed or hidden in civilian populations. In my mind, this is nothing like doing intentional harm to innocent persons. A better comparison is the US torture program which proved to be useless and inhumane. Those who were involved in this official program, sincerely believed they were working for the safety of the nation. But as we know now, toture does not work. Those who participated in torture will still justify their actions by claiming they did not know it did not work. Or they will claim the Neurenburg defense, just following orders. It is interesting to note that the buck stops with Adolf Hitler, who we can excuse as insane drug addict in today’s legal system. The poor fellow just needed mental treatment. Sarcasm of course.

      • Danny Miles

        that is not the information I have seen. Check out Feedspot. They are a reliable source.

  • OWilson

    There are many reasons why people act in apparent contradiction to their expressed beliefs.

    Sure, some would do terrible things to fellow humans if they were threatened with dire consequences, but also if they were promised reward. Also, if they achieved wealth, power, or enhanced reputation among their peers.

    A couple of philosophical questions we used to ask ourselves when we were kids, are still relevant today.

    Namely: If you could press a button and an anonymous person would die in the third world, and you would win millions of dollars and nobody would be the wiser, would you do it?

    An updated version might well be, the cliche, if you could torture a terrorist to reveal the whereabouts of your kidnapped family and let them go safely, would you do it?

    The answers reveal a lot about the human condition.

  • Doug Nusbaum

    “…but no one has been able to explain why people so readily follow orders. ”

    Actually, about 7 years ago I wrote a paper that does just that.. No one has yet pointed out one part of my paper where the logic is wrong, or the premises are wrong. There is a line in 1984 where the interrogator tells Winston Smith”, the protagonist that if you want to see the future of humanity, imagine a boot stamping on a face forever.

    Search the two words orwells boot, and my 6000 word article will, after paid links, almost always be #1 on all search engines. Been there for 7 years, usually under the name factotum666 I lay out the argument that evolution, which is never wrong by definition, works in such as way as to make groups of people obedient to authority, and, after about age 25, by which time they have had children, unable or unwilling to learn new stuff from any source other than an authority that they recognize.


    See also “the wisdom the the psychopath”, and pragmatist.

    • OWilson

      When people stop thinking for themselves, and defer the important stuff to “authority” (that’s the guy down the road, by the way) that’s when all hell breaks loose, because they have lost their ability, or will, to reason.

      The sad part is they would have us do the same!

      • Doug Nusbaum

        We agree. The problem, as I see it, is that this is how evolution made us. Almost by definition evolution is never wrong though she is always unnatural — that is, evolution is forever creating things that have never existed in nature before.

        She has now created something that is self aware and can act to change how she acts. As an Ashkanaze Jew I am a sample of a product of about 2000 +/- 500 ears of eugenics. 2500 by Jews themselves selecting from the top, plus 1500 by goyem removing the bottom 10%.

        Now we need to figure out how to make human cultures more networked and less authoritarian. A lot less.

        • OWilson

          While I am an atheist, I understand the role of religion in played in the civilizing of humans.

          Religion provided shared values and a codified system of morals, family, adultery, age of consent, respect for private property, essential to large populations living in close proximity.

          When societies renounce their religious base, they are left with no shared values or shared morality, and society begins to splinter and disintegrate, it’s everybody for themselves, and an opportunity for unscrupulous politicians to fill the moral vacuum.

          Religions, like democracy, aren’t perfect, but, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “they are better than the alternative”, godless anarchy.

    • Maia

      Not true for all people or all cultures.

      • Doug Nusbaum

        I keep thinking that in formus like this, people will not be so ignorant, or with so low an IQ as to think that evolution works the same way on all members of a species or group. In fact, such a notion is, on its face, absurd. Clearly it could not work the same on all members or else there would not be winners and loosers.

        Or are you claiming that some biological systems are impervious to the workings of evolution? Or maybe you are claiming that in biological systems that the normal distribution of traits is false?

        Or maybe you think that if one were to say that women are shorter than men, that a response of this is not true for all women, that this is somehow a brilliant insight?

        You did not read my article did you?

  • Bobby Leo

    The Nazis were experts on this subject…for certain…what a freaking nightmare that period was…

  • Maia

    Why are we not equally curious about studying the people who say NO to following orders to deliver harm to others. One third of Milgram’s subjects did just that.

    • Danny Miles

      very good point

  • Danny Miles

    so, if our conditioning becomes almost unchallengeable by age 25, and we cease trusting other sources… what does this say about the coming generation of young people who will accept the usage of robots, to kill people, because someone “in power” says it is necessary. And, in this ridiculous unending “war on Terror” where anybody, anywhere, can be a target. It “should” be intolerable.

    • Maia

      Important comment! And I agree, this is a real threat. But I also feel that the idea that our conditioning is practically invincible by 25…is itself incorrect. If, for just one example, a third of people (as in the Milgram experiment) somehow retain a capacity to see through the ambient conditioning, and say no to it, that’s actually good news. People used to refer to “the still small voice” of conscience. What do we call that now? It has many names, the meme is vague in post-modernism, but I think the reality is that a fairly large number of people have always refused to go along (either openly or underground) and that that is the case now, and likely in any future we may still have before us. Of course, I could be wrong… Do we humans have an instinct to survive that is more than individual, more than national? Do we have the capacity to identify with others simply because they are human? With other forms of life? With life itself? That’s the direction we need to move in. What do you think?

      • Danny Miles

        Conscience…. Hmnn, when I was young I slaughtered animals by the hundreds. I was taught by my grandfather that they were varmints, pests, and needed killing as they were a threat. My “conscience” did not override that teaching, even when I was confronted with the smelly and gruesome blood and guts, or the agony of the creature. I have not killed anything since 1989, and now I feel immense regret. The event which made me stop killing was supernatural. I have not had anything that powerful before or since, nor do I think it is easily available. Therefor, I doubt that conditioning can be easily changed. We do have an instinct to kill. Thanatos… and it is well and fully rampant in todays world.

        • Maia

          I respect your experience, but mine has been quite different. Some people have that great reluctance to harm right from the beginning, as children, and it lasts throughout life. Others have waking-up experiences, like Aldo Leopold and yourself. A Buddhist teacher of mine tells a similar story of realizing decades later what he did was beyond cruel.
          Yes, we have the instinct to kills, but we also have an instinct to ally ourselves with life of all kinds. Biophilia, Wilson calls it. In some of us, the biophilia is strong from the start and gets stronger and broader. Some have awakenings. Others never wake up and stay captive to thanatophilia…But remember that 1/3 of subjects who said NO! You are very right that conditioning is “easily” changed. It is a life’s work. But it has been and is being done.
          When you say “supernatural” I am not sure what you mean. The Buddhist teacher I mentioned had a vision in which the animals appeared to him and asked him to feel what he had done, in his body directly. He wept and asked their forgiveness. Would you consider that “supernatural”? Leopold (a hunter all his life) looked into a wolf’s eyes, a wolf he had shot, and full realization of what he had done came over him: he never hunted again.

          • Danny Miles

            yes, my experience was very much like what Aldo Leopold experienced. I guess my hope is for the few. I despair for the masses.

  • Chris

    One of the more important concepts in this article for business types is Sense of Agency. I discovered the power of that idea as a 19 year old who was promoted to supervisor of a very young crew in a large high growth industrial setting. I got no training at all, but realized that my best bet was to encourage my crew to compete together against other crews and that would give us the best chance to keep higher level management out of our area. It worked really well with our crew out producing the others. But the best learning came after my first week of vacation when I returned to work only to be assigned a new crew, this time I was assigned the rag muffins that were believed to be lazy trouble makers. This was done partly because my immediate superior was very worried that his best supervisors might favor one of us in some way. I only had one way of doing things, so with proper Sense of Agency we were all celebrating our own success against the other crews. This time senior management was visiting our crew to understand how we were out performing the other crews. They didn’t like what they saw. We didn’t seem to be “under control”, yet everyone was working hard and producing great results. After another 6 months another vacation gave me another ostensibly worse crew (on paper). My new crew had 4 union stewards who were considered trouble makers. Well, this turned out to be my best crew! They loved the autonomy and lack of micro management and loved to brag about their great productivity. Although we were number one in productivity and safety my immediate boss gave me a terrible performance review and although it was overturned by his boss, I realized that I could not really win in that environment. It turned out the be a good thing because it caused me to return to University with renewed sense of vigor. Sense of Agency was the most powerful management lesson I think I learned in a long and successful senior management role. Thanks for an interesting article Kiona!

    • OWilson

      You are a natural leader, my friend.

      And, with that common sense attitude, good results are inevitable.

      I have been brought in to low morale, failing projects, and successfully completed the mission, where at first you have to fight the doubting negativity, “It can’t be done”, which is why they hired me in the first place.

      As you re-organize and re-direct the resources, and trust the more positive members of the group some will never sign on and are moved out.

      Then as the project takes shape folks buy in, and by the end of the project, they are all taking credit for it, and telling everybody, they “always knew it could be done”.

      The downside to project management consulting, is the human nature of the folks who hired you feeling a little embarrassed that they could not do this suddenly “obviously simple” stuff themselves.

      That is a little annoying and takes a little diplomacy and the consistent belief that you can achieve anything, if you don’t mind who gets the credit!


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