To hurt others is not without a cost. Self-reports have revealed that obeying to hurt others may lead to feelings of anxiety, guilt and agitation (Milgram, 1963). We feel so because of our innate need to care about others. We are social animals so hurting others, hurts us too.
We typically avoid hurting others, unless we feel threatened or have a motive for doing so. This is probably because we are deeply dependent of our social life, and in an evolutionary perspective, living in groups improve chances of survival.
When someone bullies, ignores or excludes someone else, it is called ostracism. In fact, ostracism is thought to trigger the same brain activity as physical pain does.
A study by Legate and colleagues (2013) examined the psychological mechanisms that cause the feelings of anxiety, guilt and agitation.
The study hypothesized that two human needs are threatened (or thwarted), when we comply to hurt others. The self-determination theory of human needs postulates that we have a need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
The study found the needs for autonomy and relatedness to be thwarted. The reason why these needs are thwarted is that when we obey orders, we decrease our feelings of autonomy. We normally do not choose to obey, since we have a need for autonomy.
Hurting others were comparable to being hurt (Legate et al., 2013). The psychological costs were fully mediated by the thwarting of psychological needs (i.e., autonomy and relatedness).
This goes hand in hand with the need-threat model, which emphasizes the fact that, if someone is ostracized, it threatens their need for belonging, self-esteem, control and meaning. This will, in turn, impact mood and psychological well-being.
These findings have implications for the literature about bullying and antisocial behaviours. In sum, people can be manipulated to hurt others (see Milgram’s obedience experiment), but hurting others is not without costs.