Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Good Intentions Often Fail

There is no free will because there is no will.

I live near Toronto, whose mayor Rob Ford has become an international embarrassment. On top of Ford’s public problems with overeating and alcohol, he has admitted smoking crack cocaine and been accused of using heroin. Ford clearly knows that these actions are not in his best interests. Like many other people, however, he has had great difficulty in turning his intentions into sensible actions. In contrast with some philosophical views that humans are inherently rational, people frequently display weaknesses such as eating and drinking too much, gambling, taking unhealthy drugs, engaging in inappropriate sex, overspending, and loafing when there is work to be done.

Philosophers call cases where people fail to act in their own best interests weakness of will, but I prefer the more neutral term used by psychologists: intention-action gaps. Clearly there is a serious gap between how people act and their intentions to lose weight, drink less, work more, and engage in other behaviors that they reflectively view as desirable. The term weakness of will presumes that our minds include a kind of faculty or organ that is responsible for actions but can be weak like a muscle that is incapable of lifting a heavy weight. Such ideas about will and its shortcomings fit with everyday views of minds, but are often incompatible with scientific evidence.

Tobias Schröder, Terry Stewart, and I have a new paper about intention, emotion and action that will be published soon in the journal Cognitive Science. We describe intentions as neural processes that lead to behavior as the result of complex interactions among several brain areas, including the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, amygdala, anterior cingulate, and motor areas. Intention-action gaps occur when conscious, deliberative processes fail to override impulses arising from unconscious, automatic ones because of cognitive loads that can result from stress, cravings, or distraction. In this model, there is no identifiable will component, and hence no weakness of will.

Scientists such as Benjamin Libet, Daniel Wegner, and John-Dylan Haynes have described experiments that seem to cast doubt on the traditional idea of free will. In response, philosophers such as Alfred Mele and Adina Roskies have countered that the neural and psychological evidence need not undermine people’s ordinary conceptions of free will. My radical view, based on the new model of how intentions in the brain lead to action, is that there is no free will because there is no will! Many ordinary concepts such as belief, emotion, and action can be reinterpreted in scientific terms, but free will is a casualty of scientific progress, like immortality and demonic possession. Moral responsibility needs to be reinterpreted as important for social effects rather than for absolute judgments. The dismay of abandonment of free will is more than balanced by elimination of noxious ideas like sin, blame, and fear of eternal punishment.

Does that mean there is no hope for Rob Ford and other victims of intention-action gaps? No, because psychology has identified various techniques that can help people to get a better fit between their actions and their reflective desires. Evidence-based psychotherapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and rational-emotive therapy have had success in improving people’s lives. More specifically, behavior can be improved by a technique called implementation intentions, which are cognitive rules that take an environmental cue and turn it into a commitment to a particular course of action. Such methods abandon the idea of weakness of will but can nevertheless help people to do what they rationally want to do. Rationality here is much more than having a consistent set of preferences. It requires having desires, and beliefs, and choices that promote objective human needs such as social relatedness, competence to accomplish worthwhile tasks, and autonomy in the sense of freedom from external control.