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Feelings of Culpability: Just Following Orders versus Making the Decision Oneself
  • Maayan Malter,
  • Sonia Kim,
  • Janet Metcalfe
Maayan Malter
Columbia Business School, Columbia University

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Janet Metcalfe
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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.
May 2021Published in Psychological Science volume 32 issue 5 on pages 635-645. 10.1177/09567976211002821