Free Will at the Tampa SPSP Conference: The Great Debate

Humans evolved a new kind of action control for culture.

Posted Jun 25, 2009

Free Will at SPSP in Tampa

Do human beings have free will? Or is every human action the inevitable result of prior events and external causes? Or both?

At SPSP in Tampa this past February, they keynote session was devoted to a debate between me and John Bargh regarding these questions. In this post, I wish to cover the key points that I sought to make. Another post will summarize my reactions to the event.

I actually have not yet formed a clear opinion on the philosophical questions of whether free will is compatible with determinism and, if the two are not compatible, which of them (if either) is correct. Many of the arguments seem to boil down to definitions and semantics.

Instead, my goal has been to understand the psychological reality and processes that are associated with the idea of free will. It seems to me that free will is important to study and understand, regardless of whether you believe in it. There are vitally important phenomena involved that psychology cannot afford to ignore.

Humans evolved from other animals and continue to be animals. Yet we are different in some obvious ways. Most notably, we create and sustain culture, to an extent that is far beyond what even the most cultural of other animals have achieved. We have language, technology, science, morality, religion, legal systems, schools and universities, democratic governments, news media, and more.

To achieve these things, we had to free ourselves from animal ways of acting. As I said, we remain animals, fully equipped with instinct and with the mechanisms for Skinnerian and Pavlovian learning. But we can also overcome animalistic behavior pattrns to become civilized beings. That capacity for overcoming is a vital and operative meaning of free will.

Science is built on facts and findings. At SPSP my talk was built around four facts, each based on numerous findings. Whatever your private opinion may be about determinism, causality, and freedom of action, these facts need to be recognized.

First, most people believe in free will. It is not always clear (to researchers or even to the participants) exactly what they mean by that. Their definitions may not meet various philosophically rigorous criteria. Nonetheless, they believe in something they call free will.

Second, that belief has behavioral consequences. Multiple studies have now manipulated people's belief in free will (increasing it or decreasing it), and these have found substantial changes in behavior. Specifically, reducing people's belief in free will and pushing them toward deterministic beliefs makes people more likely to lie, cheat, steal, hurt an innocent person, and conform mindlessly to what others say. It makes them less likely to offer help to someone in need or to reflect on their misdeeds and learn lessons about how they might behave better in the future.

Incidentally, this pattern of results suggests that the belief in free will promotes socially desirable behavior. That fits the view that the idea of free will is associated with making culture possible and helping people to live together in this civilized manner. (It does not prove the reality of free will, by this or that definition.) All of this encourages me to continue to think that what we call free will is something that evolved to enable us to make this new kind of social life (culture) work for us.

Third, people can reliably distinguish between actions that are more or less free.

Fourth, the inner processes that lead to the actions regarded as free are different from those that lead to the less free actions.

What are the inner processes associated with free actions? This has been a focus of my own lab research. My current understanding, which has been undergone multiple revisions and should therefore be regarded as tentative, lists four types of acts that qualify as free. In whatever sense people have free will, I suspect it is for accomplishing these four types of acts.

They are: self-control; rational, intelligent choice; planning; and initiative. Crucially, our research (and work by other labs also) is suggesting that all four of these draw on a common psychological resource that gets depleted after use. Hence there is some kind of common "will," whether free or not, that draws on a common stock of willpower to accomplish self-control, rational choice, planning, and initiative.

Note, too, that these four types of action are all well suited for getting along in a cultural environment. Hence, again, my suggestion that free will is something that humankind acquired in evolution to enable them to "do" culture.