Does Belief in Free Will Make Us Better People?

Free Will
image: Getty
August 12, 2013

Resolving what to think about free will is itself a choice. Like many other important decisions, there may be alternatives that are better or worse for each of us, but no single conclusion is necessarily appropriate for everyone.

Too often scholars treat the topic of free will as if there currently exists a single indisputably “correct” perspective. However, the sheer variety of accounts of whether and how our choices control our actions demonstrates that this issue is far from resolved.

Given this lack of consensus, each one of us is faced with deciding for ourselves where we stand on an issue that may have important consequences for how we lead our lives. Increasing evidence suggests that people’s views about free will bear on their pro-social behaviors, sense of personal control, and general well being. Indeed, while more research is needed, science will likely determine which beliefs about free will are maximally functional long before it discerns which beliefs are correct.

Initial evidence for the functionality of a belief in free will emerged from several studies by Kathleen Vohs and myself examining the impact of discouraging a belief in free will on individuals’ tendency to cheat. In one study, participants were presented with one of two essays by the Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA who later in his career studied the nature of consciousness. One of Crick’s essays (a fine example of the unwavering certitude of many scholars on this topic) directly undermined the notion that people posses free will stating:

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons…So, although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us, and we cannot change that. “

Crick’s other essay referred to consciousness but made no mention of whether or not people possess free will. Later, in what was framed as a different experiment, participants received a variety of questions including ones that asked about their belief in free will. They also received a computer based mental arithmetic task that they were advised included a programming error that would cause the answer to prematurely appear on the screen if they did not press the space bar. This meant that participants needed to press the space bar as soon as they finished seeing a problem to avoid cheating.

The results revealed that those presented with the anti-free will message were particularly likely to allow the computer to give them the answer, and this change in behavior was statistically mediated by a decreased belief in free will. In short, discouraging a belief in free will encouraged cheating.

A second study demonstrated a similar point. In this study, participants read statements that expressed either the view that free will does not exist, that it does exist, or that only mentioned ideas unrelated to free will. Later, they participated in a task in which they paid themselves for the number of problems they successfully completed. The results revealed that participants who were exposed to the anti-free will message were more likely to overpay themselves relative to the other conditions. Once again, discouraging a belief in free will encouraged cheating

Since the publication of these findings, a number of studies have documented additional anti-social behaviors resulting from discouraging a belief in free will. For example, Baumeister and colleagues demonstrated that discouraging a belief in free will leads to less helping, more aggression, more mindless conformity, less feeling of guilt, less learning of moral lessons from one’s misdeeds, and less counterfactual thinking about how one might have behaved better.

Other studies have begun to reveal the mechanisms underpinning these behavioral effects. For example, Rigoni and colleagues found that discouraging a belief in free will reduces a specific signal of the brain’s electrical activity (the “readiness potential,” as measured by electroencephalography) known to be associated with the preparation of intentional action.  In recent studies conducted in my laboratory, we found that discouraging a belief in free will can reduce people’s belief in their capacity to effectively engage in mental control.

Still other studies have investigated the relationship between people’s pre-existing beliefs about free will and their behavior and attitudes. Research by Stillman and colleagues found that believing in free will is associated with better career prospects and job performance.  

Recently we found that a belief in free will is positively correlated with a host of positive attributes (including: self-control, life satisfaction, subjective happiness, mindfulness, and ambition) and negatively correlated with several less desirable traits (such as neuroticism and mind-wandering). Of course, we must be cautious in drawing causal inferences from correlational studies. Nevertheless, these findings are consistent with the view, more directly implicated by the experimental studies reviewed earlier, that a belief in free will affords some positive benefits.

Given these various lines of research, it might be tempting to conclude that a belief in free will makes us better people. However, I think such a blanket conclusion is misguided for a number of reasons.

First, the strengths of the relationships between belief in free will and the assorted positive traits and behaviors reviewed above, though observed in various labs and typically statistically significant, are generally relatively modest. Indeed, some studies have failed to find these relationships at all.  

Second, although the bulk of studies investigating the issue have found positive benefits of a belief in free will, there is also evidence that a disbelief in free will has its advantages.  For example, a recent set of studies by Sharif and colleagues found that discouraging a belief in free will reduced people’s tendency to punish purely for the sake of vengeance.  

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, those who have concluded that a belief in free will is misguided would reasonably cringe at the notion that people who believe in a convenient fiction are “better” than those who have faced up to the reality of the situation.  Related Questions Does Contemporary Neuroscience Support or Challenge the Reality of Free Will? Can Virtuous Habits Be Cultivated?

Ultimately, whether or not a belief in free will affords positive benefits likely depends on a person’s idiosyncratic predispositions and understandings. For some, a belief in free will may offer a sense of personal control that enables them to behave in ways most consistent with their personal values. Those individuals whose pro-social behaviors are undermined by telling them that free will does not exist may fit in this camp.  For others, a dismissal of free will may have no negative consequences. Many people who have concluded that free will is an illusion nevertheless maintain the highest level of self-actualization and moral fortitude.

Furthermore, the apparent costs of dismissing a belief in free will may stem from an overly simplified understanding of the concept. People may assume that if one’s decisions are the product of an unending deterministic string of causes and effect, then they necessarily lack any genuine personal control. However, as noted below, many philosophers question the necessity of this assumption.  

Personally, I find all three of the major conceptualizations of free will lacking, which contributes to my belief that neither logic nor science currently requires me to abandon a concept that I find quite useful. (Read more.)

Hard determinism’s assumption, as endorsed by Crick, that free will is an illusion, seems the most straightforward way of reconciling the experience of free will with current scientific views of cause and effect. However, there is much we still do not understand about the underpinnings of science, and a complete absence of free will is very difficult to square with the seemingly self-evident experience of personal control.  

Compatibilism ’s assumption (alluded to just above) that genuine free will can exist in an entirely deterministic universe is by far the most popular view among modern philosophers. However, it is very difficult for me to gain an intuitive understanding of how our decisions can be in any real sense free if they are the unavoidable consequence of deterministic and potentially random processes.

The Libertarian view that conscious intent somehow transcends the causal chain of physical events most closely resonates with my personal experience, but it is difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to imagine how this might happen.

The lack of a fully satisfying conceptualization of free will leads me to conclude that all three major views are contenders, but I yearn for the formulation of other accounts that could be more readily reconciled with both logic and experience. 

Given this quandary, each of us is faced with deciding the matter for ourselves. The conclusion we draw will depend on our personal predispositions and for many be informed by logic and scientific evidence.

Yet as William James observed in making the case for pragmatism, when an idea cannot be evaluated on reason alone, it may be appropriate to:

"Grant an idea or belief to be true," and ask "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?"

For myself, the functionality of a belief in free will, both as revealed by research and through personal experience, contributes to its appeal.  Free will from my perspective is like sailing a ship; we are buffeted by innumerable forces out of our control and will inevitably get somewhere regardless of what we do. However, if we take the helm we are more likely to end up where we want to go. 

For some, though clearly not all, the belief in free will may be bolstered by an appreciation of its value in helping us steward our lives.

 Discussion Questions:

Do you think it is appropriate to encourage people to consider the practical value of a belief in free will in deciding whether or not they think it exists? 

What might be some of the other costs or benefits to a belief in free will? 

What are some of the potential mechanisms by which a belief in free will may influence behavior?