Coercion Changes Sense of Agency

Claydon, Lisa (2019). Coercion Changes Sense of Agency. In: Walterman, Antonia; Roef, David; Hage, Jaap and Jelicic, Marko eds. Law, Science, Rationality. Maastricht Law Series (14). Maastricht: Eleven International Publishing, pp. 237–263.


Recent neuroscientific research by Caspar et al has demonstrated that it is possible to show that subjective experience of our sense of agency is modified when the actions result from the coercive behaviour of others. This finding that the reporting of experience of acting was altered when the subject of the experiment experienced coercion has some correlation with claims made by individuals that they “were only obeying orders”. The results of the experiments showed that those acting “under orders” reported less of a sense of an agency as measured by the experimental paradigm. This measurement more closely resembled measurements obtained from passive movements rather than those obtained from intentional movements.

This chapter explores the use of the experimental paradigm and discuss whether the scientific findings challenge our existing notions of criminal responsibility. Traditionally, actors are held responsible for their voluntary actions in many Anglo - American jurisdictions. In these jurisdictions testimony is taken in court hearings and the explanations of actors who are viewed as rational form part of the basis on which the court assesses the accused’s responsibility for criminal actions. Thus, the self-report of our experience of action as agents is linked to measures of criminal responsibility. In England and Wales there are concerns about the effect of coercion and control particularly in intimate personal relationships. This chapter examines whether new understandings of behaviour are recognised by the criminal law?

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