The Natural Unconscious

Automaticity in cognition, motivation, and emotion.

The Will Is Caused, Not "Free"

Our belief in free will is mainly self-serving.

Note: The following is a summary of our side of a recent debate with Roy Baumeister on free will, held at the annual convention of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology last February in Tampa, Florida. It appears in the current issue of Dialogue, the SPSP newsletter, along with a companion piece by Roy and Kathleen Vohs on determinism and causality.  My co-author is Brian Earp, erstwhile ACME lab manager.

We welcome the opportunity to summarize our main points from the SPSP debate; first though we will respond to the additional arguments by Baumeister and Vohs in this issue concerning determinism and causality. We see no problem with the assertions that psychologists need not be strict determinists to practice their science, and that determinism and causality are not the same thing. However, neither of these points is relevant to the basic question of free will. The ‘free' in free will means freedom from causation, either by external forces (in the political sense of the term) or internal ones (in the psychological sense); and in our view it is just as problematic to claim that the will is uncaused as it is to argue it is not determined.

Free will may be defined as an agent's ability to act on the world by its own volition, independently of purely physical (as opposed to metaphysical) causes and prior states of the world. The folk notion of free will is laden with the concept of a soul, a non-physical, unfettered, internal source of choice-making-in other words, an uncaused causer. "The soul" may have gone out of fashion, and "the mind" taken over many of its functions and connotations, but the intuitive notion of free will has stayed much the same: there is something inside each of us that allows us to make "real" choices-choices that even an omnipotent being, one who knew every environmental influence, and every physical fact leading up to the choice-making event, could not foretell with perfect confidence and accuracy. Determinism, if it were true, would indeed rule out this sort of free will, or shunt it into the realm of total redundancy. But indeterminism (of whatever flavor) isn't any kinder to the notion. Just because some event is not strictly determined by prior physical data doesn't mean it is caused by a free will. It may be simply indeterminately, probabilistically, or (to whatever degree) "randomly" caused by prior physical data. (If one wishes nonetheless to use the existence of error variance as evidence for the existence of free will, we can only point out that our business as scientists is to strive to reduce this unexplained variance by replacing it with explanation. Calling it ‘free will' and walking away satisfied rather misses the point.)

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But let us assume that there is a free, internal source of control that guides our behavior and is ultimately responsible for ‘real' choices. To attribute human behavior to this mystical source is to place one's bets on an increasingly shrinking sphere. The project of social psychology, after all, has been to identify (a) external-to-the-individual causes of judgment, motivation, and behavior, such as situational influences, and (b) internal-to-the-individual causes, which research has shown increasingly to operate outside of awareness and conscious intention-not "freely chosen" in any sense of the term. Are there some human behaviors that are possible only if free will exists and is a true causal source of action? There may be. But let's not give up on the search for non-mystical causes just yet.

This brings us to an area of agreement revealed in the debate: that a belief in free will is important for human strivings. People cherish their sense of control over the world and their own behavior. In the debate, we noted recent empirical articles by Vohs and by Baumeister showing negative consequences (cheating, aggression) of informing participants that free will does not exist. Our response to these ‘new' articles is that our field revealed the existence of such positive illusions decades ago, and we already know how essential they are to normal functioning. Clearly it is motivating for each of us to believe we are better than average, that bad things happen to other people, not ourselves, and that we have free-agentic control over our own judgments and behavior -- just as it is comforting to believe in a benevolent God and justice for all in an afterlife. But the benefits of believing in free will are irrelevant to the actual existence of free will. A positive illusion, no matter how functional and comforting, is still an illusion.

And we must caution against drawing conclusions from such research findings (implicitly or explicitly) that we should either (a) not make findings against the existence of free will known to the public or (b) stop doing such research altogether. The belief in personal free will is a deeply rooted aspect of human phenomenal experience, and is so powerful that even those who do not subscribe to it intellectually still feel it in their personal lives as much as everyone else. It is not uncommon for one's first-person experience to be at odds with physical reality: 500 years after Copernicus we still see a morning sunrise, not the earth (and ourselves) tilting towards the sun, even though we know better scientifically. As Dan Wegner, Paul Bloom, Dan Dennett, and others have argued, there are strong natural supports for the belief in supernatural entities, just as there are for free will -- and sunrises too, for that matter. And if, as countless recent surveys show, the prodigious evidence in favor of evolutionary theory accumulated over the past 150 years has done little to erode the popular belief in a creator-god, then we can rest assured that the relatively nascent research on unconscious causes of motivation, judgment, and behavior will not result in anarchy or the collapse of social norms and moral behavior.

We should also not forget past social psychological research demonstrating that the belief in personal free will is selective: people routinely make self-serving attributions about the causes of their behavior. We take credit for the positive things we do (free will), but not for our misdeeds and failures ( "I had no choice", "I was abused as a child", "I was angry"). This suggests to us that much of the emotion surrounding the issue of free will is not about freedom per se but about self-esteem maintenance. We take personal pride in our ancestors, our blue eyes or rich brown skin, our height or birthday or name (as in the name-letter effect)-none of which we chose or had any control over. Accordingly, we analyzed hundreds of individuals' spontaneous self-descriptions, and indeed 34% of their first-to-mind completions to the stem "I am _____" were such non-chosen aspects of self. It seems that people do not possess a consistent belief in free will so much as they strongly wish to take credit for the good things they are and do (regardless of whether they caused them), and to distance themselves from the bad things (even if they caused them). Evidently, the belief in free will is not principled, but socially strategic in nature.

So what, then, if one's will is not ‘free' of internal causation? It is still your will and my will and each is unique: a confluence of genetic heritage, early absorption of local cultural norms and values, and particular individual life experiences. After all, one can claim personal ownership of one's will just as much as one claims ownership of one's name, eye color, and birthday, and be as proud of one's will and its products as one is proud of the exploits of great-great-Grandma the pioneer, even though one's ‘free will' played no role in any of these.

John Bargh and ACME Lab at Yale University conduct research on the unconscious causes of our preferences, motivations, and social behavior.  ACME publications are freely available at www.yale.edu/acmelab

John Bargh is Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.

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