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

01 September 2023 → 31 August 2028
European funding: framework programme
Research disciplines
  • Social sciences
    • Cognitive processes
  • Medical and health sciences
    • Behavioural neuroscience
    • Cognitive neuroscience
    • Neurosciences not elsewhere classified
social neuroscience cognitive neuroscience genocide Disobedience
Other information
Project description

The core goal of this project is to unravel the mechanisms of disobedience. To understand the factors that prevent an individual from complying with immoral orders, research should focus on two critical axes: (1) which social and situational factors support disobedience and (2) which individual traits and neuro-cognitive processes support disobedience. While the first axe has been extensively addressed in past literature, the second axe has scarcely been approached. DISOBEY is uniquely focused on developing a social neuroscience approach to understanding the mechanisms through which resistance to immoral orders may develop in a given situation. 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 under coercion are more likely to resist immoral orders despite potential social costs. To validate this hypothesis, MRI and neuromodulation techniques will be used. The project will include WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich & Democratic) adults, as well as very unique and rare non-WEIRD populations, such as military, genocide perpetrators, survivors and their offspring in Rwanda, and ‘Righteous’ individuals who rescued lives from extermination during genocides. Including these populations will also allow to validate my hypothesis beyond WEIRD societies, with individuals who actually experienced the disastrous consequences of obedience during real-life events. With this project I aim to pioneer a new area of research that will have deep societal implications. In the future, I intend to develop specific education programs in the future, with the NGOs I am currently working with, for both military members and civilians in vulnerable societies that seek to prevent illegitimate violence on the ground of compliance to authority.

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council Executive Agency (ERCEA). Neither the European Union nor the authority can be held responsible for them.