The Disobedient brain: The social neuroscience of non-compliance to immoral orders

01 January 2022 → 31 December 2025
Regional and community funding: Special Research Fund
Research disciplines
  • Social sciences
    • Human experimental psychology not elsewhere classified
  • Medical and health sciences
    • Behavioural neuroscience
    • Cognitive neuroscience
Empathy for pain Milgram Disobedience Sense of agency Social neurosciences Cognitive psychology
Project description

The History of Mankind is plagued by immoral acts of obedience that have caused the loss of many lives, of entire cultures and civilizations. Regrettably, there is a lack of research investigating the neuro-cognitive processes that play a role in preventing individuals from complying with immoral orders. By using methods from an array of disciplines, I here offer to investigate for the first time this question in a highly ecological paradigm, in which participants will be given the order to inflict a painful shock on another individual in exchange for a monetary gain. Two main neuro-cognitive processes will be considered: the sense of agency that one experiences when performing a voluntary action and the empathic response towards others’ pain. The main hypothesis is that individuals who retain a high sense of agency and empathy for pain even under coercion are more likely to resist immoral orders despite potential social costs. I thus expect that the degree of upregulation of those processes will correlate with the prosocial disobedience rate of volunteers, that is, when they refuse the orders of the experimenter to deliver pain to someone else in exchange for money. I will also investigate how individual and social differences modulate the sense of agency and empathy for pain, and thus, by extension, resistance to immoral orders. The project will include healthy adults, a military population and a population whose family history is rooted in highly traumatic events due to a genocide and a population of “Righteous Among the Nations”, that is, individuals who rescued lives from extermination during genocides. With this project I aim to pioneer a new area of research that will have deep societal implications. In practice, I intend to develop specific education programs for both military members and civilians in vulnerable societies that seek to prevent illegitimate violence on the ground of compliance to an authoritative figure.