Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Just Following Orders: From Perpetrator Testimonies to Brain Research

Emilie A. Caspar

One night in 2013, I found myself watching a documentary on television about a criminal investigation. Watching such documentaries was not uncommon for me, as my studies in neuropsychology and criminology had fueled my desire to better understand human nature and its association with antisocial conduct. This particular documentary narrated the story of a kindergarten teacher who had hired two contract killers to end her partner’s life and claim his life insurance. In court, before the judges and jury, all parties denied responsibility. The teacher had orchestrated the act but did not pull the trigger, while the hired killers carried out her plan solely for the money, claiming no personal intent. As I watched, I kept wondering who should feel responsible for the man’s death, and why no one seemed to fully acknowledge their role. That night, captivated by the complexities of hierarchical situations and obedience, I embarked on years of research that eventually culminated, 10 years later, in the writing of this book.

Hierarchical structures are powerful, and numerous historical events have demonstrated how they can promote the diffusion of responsibility, leading individuals to commit horrific acts without their usual moral constraints. During the Holocaust, for example, the Nazi leadership established a meticulously organized bureaucratic system through which orders to commit atrocities were disseminated. Lower-ranking individuals could rationalize their actions by claiming they were simply following orders. Similarly, under Pol Pot’s leadership, the Khmer Rouge enforced a strict social hierarchy. This hierarchical division reduced direct accountability and led individuals to believe they were acting towards a higher collective goal, thereby enabling the widespread perpetration of genocide.

How can the diffusion of responsibility be so powerful that when we receive orders, we seem to forget our basic human moral values? How have several regimes been able to implement this diffusion of responsibility on such a massive scale, with only a small percentage of the population resisting and organizing revolts?

To address these questions, I delved into the mysteries of the human brain, the central organ responsible for orchestrating a vast array of functions that define our existence. It is the seat of all our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and the core from which our cognition and perceptions emerge. When one receives an order, the brain processes the sensory information, computes a decision, and sends the command to the muscles to execute the action. But what specific processes are at play, and how does receiving orders alter our natural aversion to harming others? My book presents key findings in neuroscience that aim to illuminate this critical societal question. It explores how the brain processes our sense of agency and responsibility for our actions, our empathy when witnessing someone in pain, and our feelings of guilt following actions that harm another. The book details experimental approaches using various neuroscience methods to show how these processes are altered when individuals obey orders to inflict pain, compared to when they act freely.

After several years of research, I realized that fully capturing the complexity of obedience required a more direct approach. Despite being a neuroscientist accustomed to the confines of university offices and experimental rooms, I took an unusual step for my field: I ventured out with portable electroencephalograms and an audio recorder to meet with former genocide perpetrators in Rwanda and Cambodia, who were still alive and had been released from prison. My aim was to talk to them and analyze their narratives to enrich my neuroscience research and the content of the present book.

This journey was an incredibly rare opportunity and proved to be a profound human and scientific adventure. Throughout the writing of this book, I made it a point to include personal narratives gathered in the field—tales that are at times disturbing, at other times deeply poignant, yet always profoundly human. These stories serve not only to illustrate the raw complexities of obedience and resistance but also to offer a lens through which we can reevaluate our understanding of human behavior. By weaving together these personal accounts with rigorous scientific analysis, I aim to challenge and expand the reader’s perceptions of what drives human actions under extreme circumstances.

Title: Just Following Orders

ISBN: 9781009385435

Author: Emilie A. Caspar

About The Author

Emilie A. Caspar

Emilie A. Caspar is a Professor at Ghent University, Belgium, specializing in social and cognitive neuroscience. She is one of the few neuroscientists worldwide working on the topi...

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