“Just Following Orders” Doesn’t Let You Off the Hook Psychologically

We spend a lot of time and energy analyzing the decisions people make. Those of our family or friends, we gossip. Our political leaders, we rant. The coach of our favorite sports team, we cheer (or vilify). And, of course, our own, we second guess.

Our focus is often on the outcome of the decision and the impact the decision had on others. Less frequently do we stop to think about the effect of the decision on the decision maker or those tasked with implementing a decision.

Consider some of the decisions people had to make over the past year and a half:

  • Parents had to decide whether to send their kids to school in-person or online.
  • Public health officials had to balance a seemingly infinite number of factors as they set closure guidelines, prioritized vaccines, and juggled when to reopen.
  • Managers had to set and implement health standards for their employees and customers.

As we’ve poured over the merits of these decisions, the primary focus has been on what impact they’ve had on our kids, employees and customers, and society at large. But taking a closer look at how tough decisions affect the decision maker and those who carry out a decision is an interesting and important proposition.

For instance, what impact did deciding to stick with online school have on parents’ sense of responsibility to their kids’ social well-being? When public health officials decided who to prioritize for a vaccine, did they feel guilty about deprioritizing others? How did doctors and nurses administering vaccines feel if they were directed to turn people away who didn’t meet certain criteria? And when employees had to implement standards set by their managers, say a mask mandate at a grocery store, how did that responsibility weigh on them day in and day out?

A series of studies, recently published in Psychological Science, offers some insight into the psychology of the decision maker and those charged with implementing a decision. The research trio of Maayan Malter, Sonia Kim, and Janet Metcalfe used a series of moral dilemmas to examine how agency over a decision influences how someone feels when that decision leads to someone’s death. These moral dilemmas included decisions about who an autonomous vehicle kills in the event of a crash and how to reopen the economy during COVID-19.

The authors found that those who had low agency over a decision, those charged with following orders, felt more culpable for the negative outcome than those who had high agency and who made the decision themselves. The authors operationalize culpability as a constellation of responsibility, regret, and guilt.

This surprised the researchers, and me. Why should it be the case that if the buck stops with you, you feel less responsible, guilty, and regretful than if you’re simply following orders?

I caught up with Maayan Malter to find out more. We discussed their five studies and what they found. The work is in its early stages. They’ve only had a chance to test this in online samples in hypothetical (though relevant) scenarios so far. Our conversation touched on these limitations, as well as the potential implications of understanding how agency affects the decision maker and relates to how we hold decision makers accountable.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Evan Nesterak: What was the core question you were asking in this series of five studies?

Maayan Malter: How does the act of making a decision yourself, as opposed to just following orders and implementing the decision of another, affect how culpable you feel for the outcome of the decision that you implemented? What we find is that just following orders actually leads to higher feelings of culpability than when you make the decision yourself.

What inspired your work on this question of decision-making and culpability?

We had read a whole set of articles about moral trade-offs and how people make moral trade-offs. All of those articles were really focused on what factors lead people to choose between one of these two options—the tipping point at which point people choose the utilitarian versus the deontological option. [Editor’s note: In a moral trade-off, the utilitarian option refers to saving as many people as possible (maximizing welfare), while the deontological option refers to saving people based on a set of predetermined rules (following moral standards)].

How does the act of making a decision yourself, as opposed to just following orders and implementing the decision of another, affect how culpable you feel for the outcome of the decision that you implemented?

There’s all this work on how [people] choose one or the other, but, at least for me personally coming from more of a decision-making background, how does actually making that decision affect the individual? Not so much which one which of the two options do they choose, but the act of making the decision and implementing that decision. How do they feel about the outcome and their role in it, as compared to the person who just follows orders and simply implements it but doesn’t actually make the decision?

Can you give an overview of the scenarios you put people in, what they had to decide, and then what you found?

We adapted this very classic paradigm of the trolley problem, where an individual has to choose between sacrificing the one individual to save the five or sacrificing the five to save one. We thought that to make the trolley problem more relevant, we could adapt it for the scenario of programming an autonomous car. So we designed this paradigm of a programmer who needs to program the autonomous vehicle to either save the rider above all else [deontological option] or to save the five pedestrians above all else [utilitarian option].

The big picture finding was that the individual who imagined that they had actually made the choice and implemented the choice [high agency] felt less culpable after seeing the outcome of that programming decision than the person who simply followed orders—they were told by their CEO how to program the car [low agency].

That’s super surprising. We actually predicted the opposite. We thought if you make a decision, you’ll feel more culpable, right? You made the decision, and so, therefore, you should be more connected to the decision and its outcome.

In the final study, we wanted to be sure that this isn’t something that is just specific to that one paradigm. With the COVID-19 pandemic, there are just so many moral trade-offs that decision makers, policymakers, we as a society need to make. This question of how will one feel after making a trade-off decision that has really serious implications for other people was applicable to so many questions that need to be answered in society.

We ran study five last May, and, at that point in time, the the two scenarios that we wrote about were really, really big questions. How should we open up bars and restaurants? And it seems silly now because tests are all over the place, but last May COVID-19 tests were pretty scarce and so there was a real dilemma about who should be required to get a test and how will that limited supply affect the labor force.

We adapted our autonomous vehicle scenario to being a mayor who needs to make the decision about these two policies. We replicated the results and that gave us a lot of confidence that there really is something here. This act of just following orders, not making the decision, leads to these higher feelings of culpability, not just in programming an autonomous vehicle, but a whole range of moral trade-offs that people might need to make.

You also explored the third person perspective—observing someone make a decision versus making the decision yourself. Can you tell us what you found?

The third person perspective is really how we originally asked the question. When we were developing this research question, we were thinking, How would this person who made this decision or just implemented this decision, how would they feel? That’s where our hypothesis came from. The hypothesis didn’t come from, How would I personally feel if I had been in this person’s shoes?

The big picture finding was that the individual who imagined that they had actually made the choice and implemented the choice felt less culpable after seeing the outcome of that programming decision than the person who simply followed orders.

When we got the opposite findings from our original hypothesis, we were thinking, is our intuition wrong? So we designed experiment three to test very directly this third person perspective and to ask other people, Okay, there are these two groups, one makes a decision and one just implements a decision, who do you think will feel more culpable? And, like our own intuition that led to the hypothesis, the participants in experiment three had that same that same sort of thought process—that the person who makes the decision should be more culpable.

It really shows this difference in how we think about a question pertaining to another person versus how do we think about how we feel when we make a decision, and when we act on that decision.

What do you think are some of the implications of this initial work?

I think the fact that we get this flip on the perspective from the first person to the third person—it shows that how we, as a society, might be laying judgment is really different from how the individual feels about their actions. There’s this disconnect. I don’t know what policy should be changed, based on that, but I think it’s really important to think about and to understand that how one person lays blame on another could be very different than how the individual feels.

This was a really interesting set of five studies, but one of the limitations is that they were conducted online with hypothetical, imagined scenarios. Do you have plans to do to research in a more generalizable context?

In the COVID-19 policy scenarios, although the participants were not actually mayors implementing a policy, the questions that were being asked were relevant to everyone’s life, whereas, not everyone really cares about how an autonomous vehicle should be programmed. But I do believe that everyone in the world right now cares about how the economy should reopen after the pandemic, so that was getting a little bit closer at being real life situations.

Understanding how that makes the decision maker feel versus the person that just implements it could, in fact, influence where a company decides to give that decision agency.

We are working to try and make it even more even more real and part of people’s lives. For example, I have a study about parents choosing how their children should go back to school last fall. That work isn’t ready to be published, yet, but I do ask parents who actually had to make this trade-off decision of whether to send their child to in-person school or online school, and I see the same results.

Are there other scenarios or settings where you are curious to explore decision-making and culpability?

I would really like to test this within a company. In any type of organization, whether it be government, whether it be a firm, whether it be a school system, there are different levels of decision makers. They need to decide which level should have agency to make different types of decisions.

I was speaking to someone that runs an organization of product managers and she told me, This is really interesting to me because, as a product manager, I really want autonomy, I really want agency to make my own decision, and product managers hate being told by the CEO what to do. Then product managers in turn go and tell the engineers what to do. And so there’s this multilevel sort of structure, and people at every single level want to be the ones to make the decisions. Let’s say there’s an adverse outcome of a decision, understanding how that makes the decision maker feel versus the person that just implements it could, in fact, influence where a company decides to give that decision agency.

I think this question is really important to us, because we want leaders to make the decisions and we want them to be accountable for their decisions. The next question I’m trying to think about is how does feeling culpable for your actions lead to accountability? If I made the decision and feel less culpable will I be more or less accountable to my constituents, my customers, whoever it is that I’m serving? Versus, if I just followed orders and I feel more culpable, how accountable will I feel?