For years, physics, neuroscience, and psychology have steadily pecked away at the notion of free will by reducing the self to a mechanistic brain. Lab results have yet to convert the masses to a deterministic worldview devoid of personal agency, but what would happen if they did? Would society fall apart? Would we lose motivation, abandon morality, and dance like robots?
A paper in Psychological Science reports that reducing belief in free will makes people more likely to cheat. Students answered 15 test questions, then self-scored and took a dollar per right answer. Those who'd first read statements describing free will as an illusion took home 27 percent more coin. "To resist temptations," explains lead author Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota, "people need to have a sense that they govern their own behaviors."
"Those subjects feel they wouldn't be blameworthy if they did something morally wrong," speculates Joshua Knobe, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina. Don't try the deterministic defense in the courtroom, though—a mistake dubbed "the fundamental psycholegal error" by Stephen Morse, a professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's the pernicious belief that once you discover a cause for behavior—biological, psychological, sociological, or astrological—somehow the person should be excused," Morse says. "But if causation is an excuse then everyone is excused and no one is responsible."