Assuming responsibility for your actions is a key aspect of social belonging. An awareness that we are responsible for an outcome—particularly when it may impact people beyond ourselves—means that our actions are generally tempered by our relationships to others. But this sense of responsibility breaks down when we feel the action is sanctioned or we can pass the responsibility for the outcome onto someone else. This is particularly relevant today as anonymity in online spaces creates environments conducive to socially detrimental behavior. People can assume bullying behavior, and make inflammatory comments and false statements with little sense consequence. We see this magnified when people in power assume these behaviors. Where does responsibility begin and end?

Parents of toddlers are are actively engaged in teaching that actions have consequences. For example, if you don’t eat your lunch, you will be hungry before dinnertime. Or if you leave your toys lying around, you may not be able to find them later. The challenge is to get them to make these decisions themselves—or at least believe they are making these decisions herself because when we make decisions of our own volition, that resulting sense of responsibility rests squarely on our shoulders. The impact of this sense of responsibility is that our actions are generally tempered by our relationships to others and to society at large—the experience of responsibility, of seeing the impact of our actions, can be a deterrent to damaging behavior. However, this balance is challenged in instances where a social hierarchy intervenes. For example in the chain of command in the military, officers are expected to execute orders from their supervisors. Who bears the responsibility for the execution of those orders? The initiator or the actor? 

We know that people can do terrible things under the guise of “taking orders.” A study published in PLOS One demonstrates that the social context of delivering and acting on orders dilutes the sense of responsibility for the both the person who issues the order and the person who executes the action. The implications for this help us understand how people can justify behaving in ways that are morally irresponsible or socially destructive: Each party can essentially lay responsibility on the shoulders of the other by reducing their sense of agency.

In two experiments designed to assess feelings of responsibility in a hierarchal setting, researchers assigned the role of commander, agent, and victim to participants. All participants played all roles. The “victim” was designated to receive a shock from the other roles. To measure agency, the researchers devised a model to have participants estimate the delay between their action and the outcome. The idea is that if the action is voluntary, then the perceived time to the outcome is shorter. When you believe that you are the originator of an action, you believe you are quicker to act whereas when the directive to act comes from another source, there is a delay while the order is processed. So if agents felt responsible for their decision, their perceived time to action would be lower than if they did not. Similarly, if commanders felt responsible, they would perceive the time for the agents to act as being shorter in comparison to their perception of the agents acting on their own. 

In the first experiment, agents were told they could freely choose to shock or not shock the victim, but if they chose to shock the victim, they would increase their participation reward. In a secondary trial, a commander stood next to the agent and issued an order to shock or not shock the victim. If the commander ordered a shock, both the commander and agent received an additional participation reward. Researchers found that when participants acted as agents, they freely chose to shock the victim in 29.23 out of 60 trials. When they acted as commanders, they chose to shock the victim in 31.57 out of 60 trials. The results suggest that participants were statistically more likely to deliver shocks to the victim when they played the role of commander. However, both agents and commanders gave high responsibility ratings when they made free choices; agents reported lower responsibility ratings when they received orders from commanders. This was supported by the time to act interval: in cases when both the participant acted freely, the time to act interval was smaller.

In the second experiment, commanders were told they could choose whether to issue an order to shock the victim or not. And in this scenario the agent was instructed to always follow the order issued. Both the commander and the agent received an additional participation reward if a shock was delivered. In a secondary trial, the agent could choose to act on the instruction—so they could “disobey” the commander. In this case only the agent received an additional participation reward if a shock was issued. In this experiment, agents were more likely overall to issue shocks than commanders, which is a reversal from the first experiment. 

The results demonstrated that the agent’s interval estimates were shorter in the free-choice condition compared to when they were given orders, which confirms that when obeying orders the agent’s sense of responsibility is reduced. Making a free choice between a harmful and non-harmful act that will impact another person directly increases a sense of responsibility as compared to being told what to do. However, there is a distinction between when a participant was the direct actor versus the deliverer—meaning the person doing the act felt greater agency than the person issuing the command. The researchers found that the commanders’ sense of agency did not change; this may be because they themselves are not actually executing the actions themselves.

Utilizing this framework, we can begin to understand how leaders can distance themselves from the outcomes of inflammatory speech—and how actors  who are emboldened by this kind of provocation can reduce their sense of responsibility for the outcomes of their actions. Because leaders themselves are not the ones to take action, they believe their responsibility is reduced; and because the actors see themselves as completing a sanctioned act, their sense of responsibility is also reduced. The net result is that no one takes responsibility, and this can trigger a breakdown in norms.

There has been an increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric and politics around the globe. In the United States, the FBI reported that most major categories of hate crimes (motivated by race, ancestry religion, or sexual orientation) were reported at higher rates in 2017 than in 2016. And this number may be even higher because the FBI can only account for reported crimes and victims of hate crimes may be less inclined to report crimes against them.

Several projects are attempting to record instances of hate crimes to better represent these experiences. One such study found a 226% increase in reported hate crimes in counties where President Trump hosted a campaign rally in 2016. The President has developed a reputation for making inflammatory statements about immigrants, people of color, women and all parties who are critical of or disagree with his political agenda. Anecdotally, his statements seem to have emboldened his supporters to make similar statements while in the general public—social media networks like Twitter are ripe with examples of individual reports of these encounters. Extreme instances of the interpretation of his statements are linked to a car being driven through a crowd protesting a white nationalist rally in Virginia, the delivery of pipe bombs to notable media outlets and key Democratic leader, and the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Social norms fall into two general categories. There are injunctive norms, which drive our responses based on our perception of how others will interpret our actions. This means that we're inclined to act in certain ways if we think people will think well or think poorly of us. And there are descriptive norms, where our responses are driven by contextual clues. This means we're apt to mimic behaviors of others—so what we see or hear or smell suggests the appropriate/accepted response or behavior that we should display. Leaders have a responsibility to uphold the social norms that form the foundation for society. In many ways, the increase in hate crimes suggests the dismantling of a norm of acceptance that we have been expanding socially over time.

The breakdown of norms doesn’t occur in a vacuum. We live in a connected world; anthropologists have long documented the ways in which ideas spread among and between communities. The Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand was based in anti-immigration rhetoric. Additionally, support for far-right leaders in Europe has grown: For example, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party is the second most popular party in the country, and Hungary’s prime minister routinely makes anti-immigrant statements. Statements made by the President are not necessarily the root cause of these events, but they may have paved the way for them to happen. The emergence of these ideas and behaviors grants permission to others to think and behave in a similar way.

While leaders can and often do set the tone for norms and a sense of responsibility for our actions by modeling this behavior, we can choose to take responsibility for ourselves. Norms are not determined by a single person; it takes the social collective working together to determine the foundational rules for our society. An individual sense of responsibility can be a great driving force—for those individuals in a position to assert themselves. 

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