Your brain looks different if you are told what to do

I absolutely believe that people own what they create. It is one of the beliefs that guides all of my change work – engage people early in the process, listen to them and let them build and shape the future. It is the most successful way to build ownership and ultimately create and embed lasting change.

Now a study has come out showing that our brains fundamentally look different when we have a choice, to when we don’t.

 A recent study in Current Biology showed that when a person is coerced into performing an action, their brain processes the outcomes of that action differently from how it processes the same actions carried out intentionally.  Being forced to do something indeed diminish our sense of agency, or the sense that we are in control of our actions.

The new research is based on a phenomenon called temporal binding, first described in 2002 by neuroscientist Patrick Haggard of UCL. It refers to the observation that the brain compresses time during voluntary actions, but not involuntary ones, so that our actions and their consequences are perceived to occur more closely together, enhancing our sense of agency.

Haggard and his collaborators performed two experiments to determine whether coercion alters perception of the time interval between an action and its outcome.


In the first, each of 30 pairs of volunteers took turns at being the “agent” and the “victim”. In the coercive condition, a researcher stood over the table staring intensely at the agent, and ordered them to either take money from the victim or give them a mild electric shock, by pressing one of two computer keys.

In the free-choice condition, the researcher was more detached, and told the agents they were totally free to choose what they wanted – again, the agents initiated the outcomes they wanted by pressing different keyboard keys.

In both the coercive and voluntary conditions, the agents’ key presses caused an audible tone to occur, with a variable random delay of up to one second, and the participants had to estimate the interval between the two.

Under the coercive, but not the free-choice condition, the participants estimated the intervals to be significantly longer than they actually were – in other words they showed a reduced temporal binding effect, suggesting that they had a reduced sense of agency over their actions. This was the case for both the harmful and the non-harmful outcomes, showing that it was due to the coercive instructions they were given.

In a second experiment, the researchers recruited 22 more volunteers and used electroencephalography (EEG) to examine whether coercion alters the brain wave patterns associated with action outcomes.

They found that one particular type of brain wave, called N1, was far bigger for outcomes of voluntary actions than for those of actions performed under coercive conditions. A questionnaire administered after the experiments further revealed that the participants felt more responsible for their actions during the free-choice than the coerced trials.

Therefore, being coerced into doing something seems to reduce our sense of agency, not just psychologically, but also at the level of basic brain function. Our brains look different  when we are told what to do, compared to when we have choice.

If you want to build ownership, and ultimately create and embed lasting change, you need to actively engage and let the people impacted create the change. It’s the only way it works.

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