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Do You Believe in Free Will?

If you don't, maybe you should. Here are six research-based reasons why.

“Dear Sir, poor sir, brave sir," he read, "You are an experiment by the Creator of the Universe. You are the only creature in the entire Universe who has free will. You are the only one who has to figure out what to do next — and why. Everybody else is a robot, a machine.”

―Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

A “wish” is desire without energy. After a wish may come “intention” — the plan to do a thing, to fulfill a wish or desire. But “will” means: “I act until I get my wish.” When you exercise your will power you release the power of life energy — not when you merely wish passively to be able to obtain an objective.

―Yogananda Paramhansa

Do you believe in free will?

The dreaded question of late-night, caffeine-fueled speculation: Is free will a property of conscious matter, or is free will merely a side effect of mental life, a passive observing rider of a deterministic system living the joyful, despairing delusion of calling the shots?

Let's say you witness another person doing something big, important... not one of those little choices that don't usually matter. I often wonder about why that happened. Was it an accident, intentional, unconsciously on purpose, habitual, or what? Who we are and how the past has trained us to see, and not to see, key aspects of ourselves, others and the world often keeps us constrained in what we can imagine, and achieve.

Brain freeze

Let's say, for example, you see someone eating ice cream. Then you want to eat ice cream. It's more likely, perhaps, that you'll eat ice cream later, but if you do, was it still your choice? Or is your only choice at that point to veto having ice cream?

Strong belief in free will is a double-edged sword. You have a greater sense of control, but does it distort reality too much? If we distort things too much, the world-fit is too far off, and instead of influencing events the way we intend, we end up getting pushback from reality. We are always testing the world to figure out how it works, and to figure out how to work it. Yet if we conform too much under pressure from the world and other people, we risk becoming complicit in the creation of a world we did not want.

Perhaps not just how strongly we believe in free will but also how we believe in free will together is relevant. There is an often-cited neuroscience paper by Benjamin Libet and colleagues (1983) in which the authors saw preparatory brain activity nearly a second before subjects were aware that they decided to move. The conscious sense of wanting to move came after their brains had started the pre-movement sequence. From this perspective, free will seems to say, "Hey, guys! Wait up for me!"

So, this study has been widely taken as evidence that free will isn't real. But the sequencing of events in the brain does not prove causality. Two events, even ones that are offset in time, may be the partial consequence of earlier complex events. Every event going on inside and outside of the cranium is itself the result of a chaotic soup of causality few can fathom.

If we can't study free will directly, what can we study?

Belief in free will and the existence of free will are totally different things. (Unless belief in something is the cause of its existence, and I guess there isn't a consensus there either.)

Across the population, there is a distribution of how strong belief in free will is. Some people are hard determinists, believing everything is essentially inscribed in a cosmic book that stands apart from our reality. Others are somewhere in the middle, and there are some radical keepers of the faith in free will, who often motivate others by playing up the role we may play in nudging the whale of fate.

Here is a selection of research findings on how belief in free will tracks with other aspects of human psychology, including the experience of making decisions, how having choices effects us and visa versa, how belief in free will shifts social attributions, and the basic way that we decide about intention, blame, and culpability.

1. The classic study by Libet and colleagues noted above has shown that before we are aware we have made a conscious choice, parts of the brain have already been activated. Does one's degree of belief in free will change this “readiness potential”? Rigoni and colleagues (2011) made people doubt free will and then measured how their brains were different compared to a group without induced doubt. (For the script used to heighten disbelief, see here.) They found that with greater disbelief in free will, peoples’ likelihood of acting intentionally was reduced, as reflected in reduced brain “event-related potentials.” (ERPs are a way of measuring whether the brain’s electrical activity is slowed down or changed in intensity after seeing or hearing a stimulus.)

2. Do we view our actions as choices? How do we feel when we see ourselves as making choices? Based on the results of psychological experiments (Feldman et al., 2014), having stronger belief in free will could make a difference. People with stronger beliefs in free will seem to enjoy making decisions more and see themselves as more effective choice-makers. They find it easier to make choices as well, and get greater satisfaction from making choices. Just because you have fewer choices doesn't mean you have less free will. It may make you believe in free will less, though.

Looking back on things they’ve done, people with greater belief in free will see their past behavior as more purposeful. Making more choices strengthens belief in free will, and participants used more belief in free will when they had greater choice, choosing among several options versus few in the experimental set-up. When we experience our actions as choices, it further enhances belief in free will.

3. Increased belief in free will makes people more judgmental. Prior research shows that people with high belief in free will don’t like unethical behavior, and will mete out more severe punishment when someone crosses the line than those with lower belief in free will. If you are a defense attorney, you don't necessarily want the jury to be big free-will fans.

On a related note, those with greater disbelief of free will were less likely to help others in need and were more likely to act aggressively (Baumeister et al., 2009). This suggests that belief in free will may be associated with empathy, and that belief in free will might serve to regulate hostility and enhance positive social behavior. Seeing others as active agents in their own lives, just like me, may make it easier to relate.

4. Does greater belief in free will give people a sense of control? Rigoni and colleagues (2012) studied whether people with greater belief in free will experience self-governance differently. Participants induced to disbelieve free will reported a lower perception of being in control than others, and not only that but on actual performance measures they were less able to deliberately restrain themselves from acting.

Alquist and colleagues (2013) went on to show that disbelief in free will increased social conformity, making people more likely to adopt others’ opinions. Lower belief in free will apparently can make people more likely to be incurious and willing followers. On the other hand, we all need to be able to go along with the group, often completely unconsciously and for good reasons. Could excessive free will belief result in dysfunction, extreme rebelliousness, or deviance?

5. How does belief in free will affect performance? In addition to having a greater sense of control, people with higher belief in free will may tend to do better on the job, as reflected in better performance reviews by supervisors (Stillman et al., 2010). Feldman and colleagues (2016) showed that greater belief in free will correlated with academic success, as reflected in actual better grades. Not only that, but they also showed that this link was independent of other performance-predicting factors, like characterological sense of control (e.g. internal versus external source) and ideas about capacity for personal change and growth (“implicit theories”).

6. Greater belief in free will makes people more likely to view other’s actions as intentional ― even when they aren’t. In one study (Genschow et al, 2017), experiments found that our tendency to see other’ 'actions as intentional—as arising from internal motives rather than as a result of external factors—is increased by belief in free will.

Genschow et al., 2019
Do inanimate shapes do things on purpose?
Source: Genschow et al., 2019

Genschow and colleagues (2019) found further support for this effect, showing that the higher a person’s belief in free will was, the more likely they were to read intention into people’s actions, even when the action was deemed by consensus to be truly accidental (e.g., judging whether a soccer player touched the ball intentionally or not, a key factor in calling it good or illegal).

They showed this effect happens not just when watching people doing something, but also when reading intention into moving abstract shapes, suggesting that belief in free will directly tunes the way we make sense of reality apart from potential social/contextual confounding factors.

The ineluctable crucible of the present moment

There are many times when what happens in life can lead us to doubt free will. Our faith in free will may waiver as our efforts to have an influence on what happens in our lives are more or less successful. If we don’t respond well to failure, we may stop believing in ourselves, our self-esteem may falter, our sense of self-efficacy may flounder, our optimism may fail to persuade us to keep going. Any kind of obsession or compulsion may rob us of will when we are caught in habit loops.

In the ineluctable crucible of the present moment, past, present, and future all exist together, unchanging, indelible. Within the paradox of free will lies the impossibility of change. Looking forward, all things are possible. Looking back, it is what it is, the past is fixed. We are bugs trapped in amber. Or are we? The stories we tell about the same past events seem infinitely mutable, and we can choose how we interpret. This would be an act of free will. The past is subject to the same mental distortions and verities as the future is. If the way we see things changes, it can affect everything.

At the same time, we may want to hand ourselves over to passion, get lost in flow, allow ourselves to be caught up in the grip of creativity, to accomplish long-term goals. We may feel that love is a trap from which we cannot escape, and we may feel that love is liberating. When outside forces are indomitable, we may be free only to surrender and be patient, while looking for opportunity. There are many other situations in life which can feel like traps, and if we approach them the wrong way they indeed are.

What is free will?

The way we respond to things can be very knee-jerk, which itself can be good or bad depending on whether the programmed response happens to fit what’s at hand. It can depend on our repertoire of responses, and how we appraise and select pre-programmed responses when we don’t have time to pause and think, planning reflectively. Free will is blurry, complex. Why complex? Because choices usually have tiny effects, nudges, to change the nature of reality. Whether or not a decision was a choice, a combination of factors among which free will may be, or forged in stone at the dawn of time may be a matter of complex perspective.

Because of chaotic determinism, the formal mathematical idea behind the butterfly effect, or “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” tiny differences in where we start from can result in big differences in where we end up. Making choices, given how little real power most of us have, can feel like a drop in the ocean. But there are a few ways these drops can add up and have much larger effects than we might predict. They can build up over time, leading to an avalanche of change from small, deliberate efforts.

Why do I say it is a matter of perspective? Because whether or not an action is viewed as an intentional choice depends on how you look at it. For example:

An intrepid child makes her first bid to grab a cookie without getting caught. Never before has she felt so free, transgression is so exhilarating. Best idea ever! She treads ninja-like into the kitchen, as silent as a gentle breeze. Her heart pounds as she knowingly breaks the rules, but unknowingly leaves a telltale scattering of crumbs. Yet her parents were expecting this to happen, knowing how kids are—having raised a couple of kids before, they knew 100 percent beforehand that this would come to pass. They could know all the details, but barring some catastrophic event, it would happen. How they deal with it is another story.

That's an overly simplistic view, but in an analogous way, we look back on our own actions, which at a younger age may have seemed like choices we were making, and ― understanding our own psychology better than we did at the time ― see our own past actions as having been the result of unconscious influences we only recognize in retrospect. Sigmund Freud called this nachtraeglichkeit, or afterwardness. As we develop, we re-work our past experiencing, learning about ourselves and life, sometimes radically. What seemed like free will at the time looking back may be understood as a consequence of our upbringing, a repetition of factors we didn’t see at the time. Is free will a kind of magic, which only exists as long as you believe? Is this the elusive secret?

How powerful do you want your belief in free will to be?

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

―Viktor Frankl

We may wonder whether our actions make a difference, or if we have any choice or control in our own lives, whether we are at the mercy of fate or the masters of destiny. There are a lot of angles on the question of whether there is free will. The jury may be permanently out unless we invent a plausible quantum free-willometer. Is the universe deterministic, as some religions and interpretations of meta- and regular physics suggest?

Does this research data, which shows that belief in free will can be manipulated to change how people see things and behave, and that greater and lesser free will belief is correlated with different real-world outcomes, say anything about whether free will actually exists? Or is strength of belief in free will simply a property of a deterministic system?

Belief in free will is associated with various research findings. Manipulating belief in free will can change attitudes and behaviors, suggesting a causal relationship. I could, in principle, intentionally cultivate my belief in free will in an effort to change things for the better, but even if that happened it doesn’t say anything about whether or not there actually is free will.