Your Brain at Work

Using neuroscience to improve daily life

Is Free Will Real? Better Believe It (Even if it's not)

Why believing in free will is good for you

A new study about the impact of free will on success at work recently caught my attention. It's by one of my favorite researchers, Roy Baumeister.

The authors discovered that a belief in free will predicted better career attitudes and actual job performance, at levels greater than well-established predictors. This appears a little crazy at first. Why would a philosophical stance influence how well you perform at work? The answer is complex but worth exploring.

To will, or not to will. Is that the question?
The debate about free will has raged for centuries, embroiling philosophers, psychologists and religious academics. The advent of neuroscience has only made the arguments more fierce, as there was more ambiguous data to argue about. Benjamin Libet in 1983 undertook a now famous experiment which showed that some time before we are aware of taking a voluntary action, a brain signal relating to that action, called an 'action potential' shows up in an EEG. This would seem to claim that we don't have free will, and our perception of choice is only a mirage. Others scientists, such as Jeffrey Schwartz, author of 'The Mind and the Brain', (and the scientists who I co-wrote the 'Neuroscience of Leadership' paper with) argue that the time gap between observing an internal urge and then taking action on that urge, is long enough to be able to thwart the original urge. Schwartz says we may not have free will, but we have 'free wont', which is as good as saying we're not totally deterministic. So far so good.

Determinedly against the mind
Schwartz and others like him are up against a large body of neuroscientists who think that the mind is only an ephemeral by-product of the brain, that the mind is 'reducible' to only the brain. It's like the physicist's search for the ultimate particle. The trouble with this stance is it makes the idea of human agency false, or at best an illusion. Because it's an illusion, the logic goes, we shouldn't believe in it. There's another group of people also fighting against the idea of free will. If you are a deeply religious person of certain faiths, then you might believe that god knows everything, in which case there is not much role for free will either.

Maybe we're asking the wrong question
There's a whole new angle on this free will debate that I personally find really freeing (pun intended). Instead of wondering if free will is 'real' or not, a range of new research is pulling apart the question of whether a belief in free will is, well, helpful. If believing in free will has intrinsic value. The answer appears to be 'quite likely'. Beaumeister's study showed that a belief in free will correlated with increased work performance, both by self-rated measures (based on expectation of career success) as well as by objectives measures of performance by a manager. He proposes in the study that a belief in free will, 'facilitates exerting control over one's actions'.

This is where it gets interesting. Self-regulation, the ability to inhibit yourself from doing the wrong thing, appears to be deeply important for human performance. The famous marshmallow study by Walter Mischel in the 1960's showed that a four year old who could hold out longer for a second marshmallow went on to be dramatically more successful overall in their life. A new paper, published in the NeuroLeadership Journal, called 'The brain's braking system' by Matthew Lieberman, shows that we use largely the same neural circuitry to inhibit physical, mental and emotional behaviors. In summary, if you believe in free will, you are more likely to inhibit the wrong impulses, like throttling a customer who just wasted an hour of your time, which isn't so good for one's career.

Other studies are supporting the notion that a belief in free will is not just helpful to one's career but perhaps important for the health of a wider society. One study found that believing in determinism, the opposite of free will, increases cheating. Another study found that a disbelief in free will increased aggressive behavior and reduced helpfulness in subjects. There is a larger summary of both studies on Jonah Lehrer's blog

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck lays out how people with 'fixed mindsets' believe that their achievements are based on innate abilities. As a result, they are reluctant to take on challenges. People with what Dweck calls 'growth mindsets' believe that they can learn, change, and develop needed skills. They are better equipped to handle inevitable setbacks, and know that hard work can help them accomplish their goals. A growth mindset sounds like a person feels they have some free will. As an employer, hiring several people each month, I start to wonder if I might test for people's belief in free will somehow...

Increasing belief in free will
So now a new question starts to arise. It appears that a belief in free will may make people smarter, better at learning, better on the job, more ethical and more helpful to others. If more people believed in free will it appears the world would be a better place. So maybe we should be putting more energy into a question of greater utility than whether free will is 'real' or not, and trying to work out how to get more people to believe in free will? Unfortunately, a lot of activity in science and religion seems to be working in the opposite direction.

I am reminded of a conversation recently with neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner, just after we had jointly given a talk on emotional regulation at Columbia business school recently. 'You know' Kevin said as we walked out of the building, 'I remember what happened when I told a friend years ago that we have the capacity to change ourselves. Just this one idea seemed so foreign to her, and it seemed to have an enormous impact on her thinking. This one basic idea needs to be taught widely. It's so fundamental, so simple, yet amazingly the majority of people may not know it'. I can distinctly remember the moment in my mid teens when I had a similar insight, and I know this realization changed who I am as a person, in dramatic ways.

In the business world, our organizations and institutions are being run by people who have been academically trained, as engineers, accountants, lawyers, or analysts. They are taught to believe that the world is subjective, that with enough data they can solve any problem. I proposed that many as a result tend to be reductionists at heart, who believe that talent is innate and people can't change: that we don't have a lot of free will. Is this, just perhaps, part of the reason we have so much dysfunction in our financial, education, health and legal systems? Is it time to do something as fundamental and seemingly unimportant as rethink our philosophy of human nature?

As philosopher Theodore Zeldin once said 'when will we make the same breakthroughs in the way we relate to each other as we've made in technology?' I hope that a better understanding of how the brain functions can be part of that solution.

David Rock is executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, a global consulting firm.

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