Sense of agency and responsibility: integrating legal and neurocognitive accounts

Research Grant

Project Team:

Principal Investigator:

Professor Patrick Haggard, University College London

Award Information:

This interdisciplinary project compares the concepts of responsibility for action in criminal law, and in psychology/neuroscience.  All known human societies have some concept of individual responsibility for action.  Legal systems generally view individuals as responsible because they have control over their actions: they are conscious, rational agents who ‘could have done otherwise’.  Rapidly-expanding scientific knowledge suggests a different view, in which an individual’s actions are the result of neurobiological brain processes that are mechanistic, and largely independent of conscious experience.

Recent expert consensus identified the tension between legal and neuroscientific views of responsibility as an important current debate between scientific knowledge and wider human culture.  Interdisciplinary research, including new data, is required to identify the similarities and differences between legal and scientific views of responsibility.  The present project acts as a research beacon, bridging this interdisciplinary gap.  It does so by legal research that highlights the importance of psychology, and by experimental psychology research that addresses the possible mechanistic neurobiological bases of specific aspects of legal responsibility.

First, the project begins by identifying the ways in which English criminal law makes reference to subjective experience and other psychological concepts in its doctrine of responsibility.  We will review key cases in which an agent’s intention is relevant to responsibility, because of oblique intention, automatism/insanity, or loss of control.  For each case, we will write parallel legal analyses, and psychological/neuroscientific commentary, highlighting how recent scientific knowledge might inform the legal discussion. The resulting publication(s) will present the points of similarity and tension between legal and scientific ways of viewing human action.  It will also suggest fruitful areas for further research in both law and neuroscience.

Second, the project will include a series of 5 behavioural experiments.  The experiments aim at quantifying the human sense of agency, using an established implicit measure based on human time perception: stronger agency and sense of responsibility leads to a shorter perceived interval between an action and its outcome.  Using this measure, we will perform 3 simple experiments to investigate how agents’ understanding of the value of an action outcome changes the experience of acting.  Put simply, how does the sense of agency over good outcomes differ from that over bad outcomes?  Developing experimental paradigms to study this would clarify the legal assumption that the intention to act is based on knowing the “nature and quality of the act”.  The results of these experiments will be relevant to automatism, insanity and oblique intention.

A further two studies will investigate how extreme negative circumstances affect the sense of responsibility, aiming to provide an experimental comparison to legal “loss of control” defences.  We will assess how our experimental measures of sense of agency are altered when the agent’s action serves to terminate a persistent and painful sensation, produced by a controlled heat-pain stimulator.  Taken together, the experiments aim to provide systematic and pertinent data to inform future research and discussion of the important links between neuroscience/psychology and law.

Finally, at the end of the project we will organise an expert workshop bringing together international experts in the law/neuroscience field.  This serves as a focus to present our results, to exchange interdisciplinary perspectives, and to consider future research agendas for this fundamental topic in science and culture.

Project dates:  October 2014 to Sept 2015