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Nice people do bad things at work. Brain scientists have figured out why

So-called “crimes of obedience” are a thing.

Nice people do bad things at work. Brain scientists have figured out why
[Photo: Headway/Unsplash]

Nice people carry out horrible acts in the name of their companies every day: firings, evictions, financial swindles, healthcare denials, not to mention coworker tyranny. Now researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience understand why.

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A new study in NeuroImage found that when people are obeying orders, they feel less empathy and fewer feelings of guilt.

Empathy-related brain activity while observing a victim receive a shock was reduced while obeying orders. View image larger here. [Image: courtesy of Dr. Emilie Caspar]
The researchers placed participants in an MRI machine, and ordered them to trigger a painful shock on someone’s hand, or allowed them to choose whether or not to do so, sometimes for money. They found that participants sent more shocks when instructed, and, pivotally, that “empathy-related regions were less active when obeying orders compared to acting freely,” says lead author  Kalliopi Ioumpa, a doctoral candidate at the institute’s Social Brain Lab. “We also observed that obeying orders reduced activations in brain regions associated with feelings of guilt.”

That seemingly nice people commit truly atrocious acts under orders from a commander has long been known—so much so that it has a name, “crimes of obedience.” People are much more willing to enact this morally repugnant behavior on the job than in their own lives, and many seemingly don’t think twice.

This research goes a long way in explaining why workers can commit heinous acts when coerced to do so: on the job, they simply have less empathy for victims. Next up, researchers will look into why people don’t resist morally problematic orders before carrying them out.

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