By Joshua Barajas
In a 1962 letter, as a last-ditch effort for clemency, Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann wrote that he and other low-level officers were “forced to serve as mere instruments,” shifting the responsibility for the deaths of millions of Jews to his superiors. The “just following orders” defense, made famous in the post-WWII Nuremberg trials, featured heavily in Eichmann’s court hearings.
But that same year Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, conducted a series of famous experiments that tested whether “ordinary” folks would inflict harm on another person after following orders from an authoritative figure. Shockingly, the results suggested any human was capable of a heart of darkness.
Milgram’s research tackled whether a person could be coerced into behaving heinously, but new research released Thursday offers one explanation as to why.
“In particular, acting under orders caused participants to perceive a distance from outcomes that they themselves caused,” said study co-author Patrick Haggard, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, in an email.
In other words, people actually feel disconnected from their actions when they comply with orders, even though they’re the ones committing the act.
The study, published in the journal Current Biology, described this distance as people experiencing their actions more as “passive movements than fully voluntary actions” when they follow orders.
Picture: Dame Laura Knight [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons