We have much less control over our behavior than we think.
The psychologist Benjamin Libet showed that he could predict with 80 percent accuracy that a subject was going to push a particular button seven to 10 seconds before they “knew” they wanted to push it. It appears that the many personal, social, environmental, and other forces that shape our choices nudge various neurons in our brain and collectively contribute to our ultimate intention in a way that is outside of our awareness. These parts of our brain are campaigning to get us to act a certain way long (in cerebral time) before we “know” what we’re going to do. This research begs the question, “Is willpower a complete figment of our imagination?”
Recently, I was in an all-day meeting in San Francisco with a pretty sophisticated group of international business experts. As the morning wore on, our host brought out treats. I quickly learned that sophistication does not dull one's response to M&Ms. As bowls of the brightly colored, candy-coated chocolates were distributed around the room, these hot shot financiers and venture capitalists perked up, wiggled with glee, and leaned forward to retrieve a handful of happiness.
When the host reached the couch on which I sat with another man, I heard the man mutter, “Oh no, here goes my diet.”
I turned to him and said, “Want some help?” He looked at me despairingly and said, “Yes!”
I leaned forward, picked up my note pad, and placed it over the M&M bowl that sat on the coffee table in front of us, offering its bounty like a candy shop window. The effect on my friend was immediate. It was as though the candy store proprietor had pulled a window blind. My friend relaxed. His breathing became more regular. And in spite of the fact that the M&Ms were no further from him than they had been seconds earlier, he endured the remaining hours of our meeting without even once succumbing to the bowl’s siren call.
Perhaps we don’t have as much free will as we think we do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take an active role in shaping our own behavior. The journalist Michael Shermer suggests that the way to do so is by exercising our “free won’t.” While the impulses to act a certain way are inevitably tied to the various sources of influence that affect us—we can choose not only to not respond to them, but to blunt or change them.
The neuroscientist Marcel Brass repeated Libet’s experiment, but added a twist. He gave subjects the opportunity to veto their decision to push a button at the last minute. Brass found that there is a particular part of the brain called the left dorsal fronto-median that gets all fired up during efforts to inhibit actions. In other words, this seems to be where our “free won’t” muscles live. Let’s call it the “cover the M&M bowl” part of the brain.
Shermer is right to refocus our attention on “free won’t” rather than “free will.” My colleagues and I have come to the same conclusion. The vast evidence of the social sciences over the past decades suggests that human beings have remarkably little control over their own behavior. We are incredibly easy to manipulate. We spend, eat, talk, vote, work, and play in ways that are profoundly shaped by forces we grossly underestimate. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we start accepting how little free will we have, we can refocus our attention on our free won’t by reshaping the sources of influence that shape us. In the end, we’re back in control—just a little less directly.