If an instruction contradicts our moral concepts, we experience an inner conflict: Should we obey or stand by our own values? Researchers have now tested what we feel and who we blame when we follow the request. To do this, they asked test subjects to grind live beetles in a coffee grinder. If they emphasized the personal responsibility of the participants, they refused more often. However, subjects who felt obliged to follow the instructions also saw responsibility as their own.
In 1974, the American psychologist Stanley Milgram caused a stir with an experiment: He instructed test subjects to give other people electric shocks as part of a scientific study. In fact, many subjects were willing to deliver electric shocks up to potentially lethal levels. The test subjects did not know that those who appeared to be shocked were actors who did not actually receive the electric shocks. The experiment has sparked numerous discussions on the subject of trusting authority and obedience. A common theory is that the obedient subjects do not place the responsibility for their immoral action on themselves, but on the one who instructed them to do so.
Rigged coffee grinder
A team led by Felix Götz from the University of Regensburg has now tested this thesis in a modified obedience experiment. To do this, the researchers told their subjects that the study was about examining the feelings of destruction. Under this pretext, they instructed the subjects to first grind coffee beans, then a folded paper crane, and finally live flour beetles in a coffee grinder. The latter is contrary to ethical and moral principles for many people because it involves killing animals unnecessarily and likely causing them suffering. A control group received the same instructions, but also received the information that it was up to them to decide whether or not to follow the request.
After each destruction task, test subjects completed a short questionnaire about their current feelings of power, joy, and excitement. In another experiment with a new group of test subjects, the researchers also measured the participants’ skin conductance as a measure of their emotional arousal and also asked them how responsible they felt for their behavior. Only after the experiments were completed did they explain to the test subjects that the coffee grinder had been manipulated in such a way that the beetles were not really harmed. All beetles were released into the wild after the experiments were completed.
Obedience with guilt
“In our first experiment, 22 of 23 subjects followed the experimenter’s request to kill the beetles,” reports the research team. “On the other hand, in the control group, whose freedom of choice was emphasized, there were only seven out of 22 people.” None of the test subjects had a problem with grinding the coffee beans, and only one person from the control group refused to destroy the paper crane. “The results show that the participants in the prompt condition were more willing to kill beetles,” write Götz and his team. But those who followed the request felt bad about it: “The self-reported negative affect was increased after the request to destroy beetles compared to other objects.”
The second experiment showed similar results: 22 out of 31 participants in the prompt group consented to killing the beetles, compared to only 11 out of 30 in the control group. In those who thought they were killing the beetles, the researchers recorded a significant increase in skin conductivity – an indication of emotional excitement and stress. In contrast to earlier experiments, however, the alleged “bug killers” stated in the subsequent survey that they were responsible for their actions. “This finding is inconsistent with an explanation based on a transfer of responsibility to the experimenter,” the team writes. “Taken together, these results indicate that many obedient participants felt guilty about complying with the experimenter’s requests to kill the beetles.”
Obligation or free will?
But why did they still follow the instruction? “Looking at the video recordings of the experiment, it seems that during the task of destroying the beetles, most of the obedient participants somehow felt obliged to do what the experimenter said, even though they were not convinced that his goal was the right one,” explain Götz and his team. The researchers assume that the feeling of obligation towards the experimenter led to the subjects putting their own moral ideas aside in order not to disappoint their expectations.
“The present investigation provides important ethical implications for psychological science in general,” say the team. “First, participants may feel compelled to make an initial agreement, even if doing so is against their own interests, if not their well-being. Second, researchers should be careful not to confuse the absence of resistance with an expression of one’s ‘free will’.”
Source: Felix Götz (University of Regensburg) et al., Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-38067-z