Belief in Free Will as Predictor of Success in Self-Control

What happens when people’s belief in free will is shaken?

Posted Apr 19, 2018

Free will (freedom of choice) is typically defined as the ability to choose between alternative courses of action. And this belief gives people a greater sense of agency and responsibility for their actions. Casting doubts on free will encourage impulsive instinct. The deterministic view diminishes one’s capacity for overcoming internal urges and desires (self-control).

Self‐control generally refers to the capacity to regulate thoughts, emotions, and behavior by managing natural impulses and desires. Successful self-control depends in part on believing that one is capable of self-control. Those who believe in free will tend to show higher capacity for self‐control (Feldman, 2017).

Self-control is an important form of what people understand as free will, and good self-control helps with overcoming strong desire and quitting an addiction. And people who fail to use self-control suffer from many bad outcomes (e.g., addiction, debt, violence, academic failure, and procrastination).

People often claim that they are not fully in control of their own behavior. They think their efforts will make no difference. They attribute their failures, for example, to emotional distress, external provocation, and other factors. For example, people may believe that genes predetermine their actions and thus limiting their choices. One possible reason for the disbelief is simply to ease feeling guilty for making bad choices. To say “I can't help it” might reduce their culpability. Consequently, they keep making similar choices.

Psychologists have explored the question of what might happen if people lost belief in their capacity to choose (Baumeister, et al., 2009). And the results reveal that when people stop believing they are free agents, they act less responsibly and give in to their instincts. For example, when people are primed to see free will as illusory, they are more likely to cheat, act aggressively toward others, as well as act less kindly (Vohs and Schooler, 2008).

Strong belief in free will is associated with more positive attitudes, better work performance, and academic achievements. The belief in free will may cause an individual to have an increased level of perceived autonomy that they can freely act to accomplish personal goals and improve life quality. And this positive attitude enhances self-control (Ryan and Deci, 2000).

Belief in free will may be especially important for overcoming addiction. A key aspect of all of the successful treatments is that the addict must decide to quit. And, in order for people to choose to quit, they must believe that it is possible to make such a choice and follow through with it. For example, evidence shows that belief that one is capable of quitting increases the rate at which people quit tobacco and alcohol (Vonasch, et al., 2017).

The belief that one has no free will contributes to continuing and indulging to excess (Heyman, 2009). Addicts may put less effort into quitting if they think they lack the ability. If an addict believes that she is likely to succumb anyway then she is less likely to resist. In short, belief in free will stresses the important role of willpower or self-control in treatment for addiction.

In sum, when people believe in free will, they behave better than when they disbelieve in it. Those who believe more strongly in their own free will are better able to learn from their mistakes, rather than submitting passively to failure.

Fortunately, belief in free will comes naturally to us. Most people have a sense of responsibility most of the time. Disbelief in free will departs from this norm.

Viewing addiction in this way may encourage people to take responsibility for their own choices and actions. On the contrary, seeing addiction as determined by forces beyond one’s control may hinder the very capacities needed to achieve recovery.

Of course, free choices require cognitive abilities, such as exploring options, evaluating those options, imagining distanced consequences, and making choices. However, the awareness that one can influence one’s fate provides the motivation to seek opportunities to escape from despair (Frijda, 2013).  The belief that there is no such thing as free will leads people to stop exercising it.


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