Effect hierarchy on moral behavior

The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience published a fascinating research on the effect of hierarchy on moral behavior. In fact, the findings were a personal confirmation. The research underlines that if there is a lot of hierarchy within an organization, that it is easier to commit harmful actions. The explanation is that agency and empathy are divided across many people. Especially in times of technological advancement, it is important to protect humanity because technology, empathy and decision-making as a whole will become a challenging domain in the years ahead.

A hierarchical structure consists of superiors who communicate orders and subordinates who act on it. Those superiors tend to be distanced from the results, while the subordinates feel responsible, yet less responsible for the results. Organizations with a hierarchical structure have chains of commands, in which commanders often merely rely on the orders received from other superiors. Thus, the position within a hierarchical structure influences the sense of agency and empathy for pain. It is important to know how to ensure that people feel responsible, despite being in a hierarchical chain.

Commanders and intermediaries show less activation in the empathic brain regions when pain is inflicted on the victim, compared to people who can decide and act for themselves. This explains why people can be less engaged in the harm they cause.

Read the full research report.