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Malter Kim and Metcalfe Feelings of Culpability Sage Advances 2021.pdf (412.8 kB)

Feelings of Culpability: Just Following Orders versus Making the Decision Oneself

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posted on 2021-02-26, 18:23 authored by Maayan MalterMaayan Malter, Sonia Kim, Janet Metcalfe

In five experiments (N=1,490), participants were asked to imagine themselves as programmers of self-driving cars who had to decide how to program the car in a potential accident: spare the driver or spare pedestrians. Alternatively, participants imagined they were a mayor, grappling with difficult moral dilemmas concerning COVID-19. Either they, themselves, had to decide how to program the car or which COVID-19 policy to implement (high agency), or they were told by their superior how to act (low agency). After learning that a tragic outcome occurred due to their action, participants reported their felt culpability. Although we expected people to feel less culpable about the outcome if they acted in accordance with their superior's injunction than if they made the decision themselves, participants actually felt more culpable when they followed their superior's order than when they made the decision themselves. Some possible reasons for this counterintuitive finding are discussed.


NSF 1824193


Declaration of conflicts of interest


Corresponding author email

Lead author country

  • United States

Lead author job role

  • PhD Student

Lead author institution

Columbia Business School, Columbia University

Human Participants

  • Yes

Ethics statement

IRB Protocol AAAD9781


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