"Many good people get convinced to do something bad that they are unwilling to do because they actually feel less responsible for their own actions and painful consequences," the study noted.

To reach this conclusion, the team sought to answer this question by measuring a phenomenon called 'sense of agency'. They measured 'sense of agency' to explore changes in perception when someone delivered a mild electric shock to another person, either on orders or by their own choice.

When the participants chose freely, they were encouraged along with the promise of a small financial gain. They also knew exactly what kind of harm they were inflicting because pairs of participants traded places with each other.

Coercion led to a small but significant increase in the perceived time interval between action and outcome in comparison to situations in which participants freely chose to inflict the same harms, the study found. The study claims of reduced responsibility under coercion that could indeed correspond to a change in basic feelings of responsibility – not just attempts to avoid social punishment.

The study was published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.

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