Much has been made in science fiction about future wars being fought by machines. 

The fear is that taking the human element out of conflict will result in even worse atrocities than we already read about in the news.

But a new study suggests the opposite might actually happen. Reducing the number of humans an order passes through might make those making the decisions feel more responsibility for the outcomes. 

“The soldier at the forefront, whose empathy sometimes prevented the worst atrocities, is increasingly replaced by drones that feel no empathy,” said Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, senior author of a recent paper.

“Has this removed any empathy from the chain of command?”

Using MRI and EEG machines, researchers got ‘commanders’ and ‘intermediaries’ to inflict “painful shocks” on volunteers. 

They found when a commander delivered the instruction an intermediary, who carried out the shock’s delivery, the response in the brain’s empathy and social regions were “equally low”. When a person made the call to do it directly, the brain’s response was higher. 

“It seems that people commanding may not always experience the responsibility they should, an aspect which would nonetheless be crucial to avoid mass atrocities,” said Emilie Caspar, first co-author. 

“We show how powerful hierarchical situations can facilitate committing actions that harm others, as agency and empathy are distributed across multiple individuals,” added another first co-author, Kalliopi Ioumpa.

When the order is given directly to a robot however, the commander appears to show more empathy to the victim. 

“We find that merely commanding someone to deliver pain reduces how much your brain processes the pain you command compared to directly triggering the pain,” said Keysers.

“What was really exciting to see, however, is that knowing that you command a machine, that you cannot defer the responsibility to, restores some of the reactions to the pain in commanders. 

“Perhaps there is hope, after all, that the empathy we reduce at the forefront might be replaced – at least in part – by an increase in the sense of responsibility at higher levels in the hierarchy.”