Free will

One of the things we can learn from psychology is that a lot of different factors outside our control influence our behavior. And one of those factors itself is whether we believe factors outside our control are influencing our behavior.

That’s a little circular, so let me put it in less confusing terms: what decisions we make depends on whether we believe we have the ability to make decisions. Well, OK, I tried.

As any rate, how much you buy into the idea of free will shapes how you see the world and what you do. Here are some examples of how:

1. People who are thinking about free will make riskier decisions

In a recent study, participants were split into three groups and asked to read statements that either promoted the idea of free will, pushed a deterministic view of the world or did neither. Examples of each kind of statement:

  • Free will statement: I demonstrate my free will every day when I make decisions.
  • Deterministic statement: Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion.
  • Neutral statement: The Olympics are held every four years.

All participants were then asked to complete tasks that measured decision making style. What emerged was that the group that had read the free will statements tended to make riskier decisions.

Also interesting was that there were no real differences between the deterministic group and the neutral group. In other words, at least for some kinds of risky decision making, thinking about free will seems to lead to riskier decisions, but the opposite isn’t true – thinking of the world as deterministic doesn’t lead to less risky decisions.

2. People are more likely to attribute bad actions to free will than good actions

Apparently people enjoy using the concept of free will as a way of casting blame more than anything else!

Research published this year shows that people give higher ratings of free will to negative actions than positive actions.

This pattern held up both for actions committed by other people and actions committed by the people doing the rating themselves. In other words, people were more likely to see both their own actions and the actions of others as examples of free will when the actions involved making mistakes or doing something unethical.

3. Free will matters when people focus on the means but not the end

In morally ambiguous situations, there’s often a conflict between short-term goals and long-term goals. That is, the most ethical short-term actions may not lead to the desired outcome and vice-versa. Hence the whole thing about whether the ends justify the means.

It turns out that whether people focus on short-term goals or long-term goals changes how they take free will into account when making ethical judgments.

Specifically, when people focus on short-term goals, believing in free will makes them more likely to also believe that people are responsible for their actions. But when people focus on long-term goals, believing in free will doesn’t make them any more likely to believe this.

To put it another way, when people focus on the means, they see free will and responsibility as linked, but when they focus on the end, they don’t. There’s a fundamental difference in the moral judgments people make when they take a short-term vs. a long-term view.

So paradoxically, free will is associated with responsibility in some contexts but risk-taking in other contexts. If that’s not enough, I’ll leave you with one more question to think about: if belief in free will affects what decisions and judgments you make, is that in itself evidence that there’s no such thing as free will? Or can you choose whether you believe in free will?