Feelings of Culpability: Just Following Orders versus Making the
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.