One of the oldest questions in psychology, and in other fields such as philosophy, is whether humans have free will. That is, are we able to choose what we will do with our lives?
Our choices feel free, don't they? I decided to be a psychologist because I felt called or inspired to understand what makes people tick. That was my choice, wasn't it?
The free will issue is especially thorny because it represents a collision between two opposing, yet equally valid, perspectives. From a purely metaphysical perspective, if we don't have free will, why are we here? What is the point of life if we cannot choose our own paths? Yet from a purely scientific perspective, how is it possible that anything can occur without having been caused by something else? If we really can choose, then these choices must be uncaused - something that cannot be explained within the model of science that many of us rely on.
There is no consensus within psychology as to whether we really do have free will - although much of our field seems to assume that we don't. Freud and Skinner didn't agree on very much, but one thing they did agree on was that human behavior was determined by influences within or outside the person. Freud talked about unconscious conflicts as causes of behavior, and Skinner talked about environmental contingencies, but either way we were not free to decide.
New "threats" to the possibility of free will have come from fields such as neuroscience and genetics. Many neuroscientists, armed with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other brain scanning tools, argue that, now that we can peer into the brain, we can see that there is no "agent" there making choices. John Searle (1997) approaches consciousness from a biological perspective and argues that the brain is no more free than is the liver or the stomach. Geneticists are discovering that many psychological experiences are linked with gene-environment interactions, such that people with a specific gene are more likely to react in a certain way. For example, van Roekel et al. (2013) found that girls with a specific oxytocin receptor gene felt more lonely in the presence of judgmental friends than did girls without this gene. These results suggest that at least some of what we perceive as "free" responses are really determined by our biology, our environment, or both.
In a controversial set of experiments, neuroscientist Ben Libet (1985) scanned participants’ brains as he instructed them to move their arm. Libet found that brain activity increased even before participants were aware of their decision to move their arm. Libet interpreted this finding as meaning that the brain had somehow “decided” to make the movement, and that the person became consciously aware of this decision only after it had already been made. Many other neuroscientists have used Libet’s findings as evidence that human behavior is controlled by neurobiology, and that free will does not exist.
Further still, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Wegner and his colleagues (e.g., Pronin et al., 2006) have conducted studies suggesting that people claim control over events that are initiated by others. Fans try to "give good vibes" to a basketball player shooting critical free throws, or to a football quarterback trying to complete a pass. Yet common sense tells us that our “vibes” have nothing to with whether the player makes that free throw or completes that pass. Wegner argues that what we call "free will" is really just events whose causes we don't understand.
So is there any hope for free will? Are we really controlled by our biology and our environments?
Some psychological theories are actually based on an assumption of free will—or at least they are at first glance. Self-determination theory, for example, holds that volitional functioning—intentional, freely chosen behavior—is a basic human need (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Theories of personal identity, especially those rooted in Erikson’s (1950) ego psychology, state that adolescents and young adults must deliberately make sense of the world around them and of their place within that world (Côté & Levine, 2002; McAdams, 2013). Maslow’s (1968) humanistic theory regards self-actualization—identifying and living according to one’s highest potentials—as the ultimate goal of human existence.
This brings us to an inherent incompatibility. How can a person make self-determined choices, make sense of the world, and even self-actualize when neuroscientific evidence seems to indicate that our brains are making decisions before we even realize it? Are we claiming responsibility for events that have little or nothing to do with conscious intention? Are we really just automatons—creatures without the ability to choose? And if we are, what is the need for volitional functioning, making sense of the world, or self-actualization? An automaton would have no need for any of these things.
The free will issue has huge issues for many areas of our society, including our legal system. If a criminal defendant has no free will, then he cannot be held responsible for his crime, because he could not have chosen otherwise. A child who fails an exam cannot be punished, because that test score could not have been different. A parent who spoils her children is not doing anything “wrong”, because she did not make the choice to raise her children in any specific way.
Psychologists such as Roy Baumeister (2008) have attempted to develop a science of free will, but much of Baumeister’s argument focuses on the consequences of believing (or not believing) in free will—rather than on whether or not we actually have free will. Put differently, what matters is whether we think we are making choices, regardless of whether our behavior is really “uncaused”. For Baumeister, believing that we are free leads us to act as though we are, and he and his colleagues (Baumeister, Masicampo, & DeWall, 2009) have conducted experiments indicating that telling people that they have no free will leads them to behave in socially irresponsible ways such as cheating and refusing to help others.
So do we really have free will? Is this question even answerable? If we did not have free will, then a scientist who was able to measure all of the determinants of our behavior should be able to explain 100% of our behavior. If we did have free will, then even measuring all of the determinants would leave some of our behavior unexplained. Unfortunately, we don’t know all of the determinants of human behavior, and we may never understand all of these determinants—so the question of whether or not we have free will is likely to remain a philosophical quagmire.
But if Baumeister is correct, then does it really matter whether we actually have free will? Or does it matter only whether we believe that we do? And if the latter is true, and if Baumeister’s findings regarding how people behave when they think they don’t have free will are accurate, then should scientists be careful about making statements against free will? Are such statements encouraging people to behave as though they are not responsible for their behavior?
And perhaps psychology cannot speak to whether criminal defendants should be held accountable for their crimes. Libet’s experiments may have simply demonstrated that the brain is “gearing up” to initiate an action, which does not contraindicate free will. Gene-environment interactions generally explain very small percentages of variability in behavior, suggesting that there is a lot left over to be explained by other factors. The fact that we might overestimate the extent of our influence, as Wegner has found, does not necessarily mean that we have no influence at all.
So we are left pretty much where we started. Whether or not humans have free will is a question that philosophers have debated for centuries, and they will likely continue to do so. Psychology can provide some insights into how free will—or at least a belief in its existence—might work, but beyond that, we likely cannot verify or invalidate its existence. What is important, however, is that we treat each other (and ourselves) as self-determined beings whose thoughts and feelings are important. In that regard, Baumeister’s research has much to teach us. Maybe we should just follow the Golden Rule after all.
Baumeister, R. F. (2008). Free will in scientific psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 14-19.
Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E. J., & DeWall, C. N. (2009). Prosocial benefits of feeling free: Disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 260-268.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8, 529-566.
Maslow, A. H. (1968). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Van Nostrand.
McAdams, D. P. (2013). Life authorship: A psychological challenge for emerging adulthood, as illustrated in two notable case studies. Emerging Adulthood, 1, 151-158.
Pronin, E., Wegner, D. M., McCarthy, K., & Rodriguez, S. (2006). Everyday magical powers: The role of apparent mental causation in the overestimation of personal influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 218-231.
Searle, J. R. (1997). The mystery of consciousness. New York: New York Review of Books.
van Roekel, E., Verhagen, M., Scholte, R. H. J., Kleinjan, M., Goossens, L., & Engels, R. C. M. E. (2013). The oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) in relation to state levels of loneliness in adolescence: Evidence for micro-level gene-environment interactions. PLoS One, 8(11), Article e77689.