The Curse of Free Will

Be careful what you wish for.

Posted Jun 03, 2012

Eve & apple
And god cursed man; he gave him free will.

~ The Book of Cain, 2:1

Psychologists have discovered the profitability of framing their work as if it were an examination of free will. Why not follow the money? Economists and other behaviorists have long held that it would be foolish not to. So I won’t complain, just note. Self-regulation and self-organization are two sets of phenomena, which, despite being wholly deterministic, lend themselves to free-will framing. Now come Rounding et al. (2012) to close the loop. In a new paper in the clastic Psychological Science (icono- and otherwise), they report that they got their participants to exert more self-control by exposing them to religious concepts. These participants who, while descrambling sets of words, came across terms such as divine, god, sacred, or prophet, drank more of an unsavory liquid (study 1), waited longer to get more money (study 2), persisted longer when trying to complete an impossible task (study 3), and responded faster in an interference paradigm (Stroop) than controls did.

Priming is the royal road to the unconscious and it is indisputably deterministic in its effect on behavior. According to the free-will narrative, however, what Rounding et al. did was to control whether free will did or did not come into play. If self-regulation (i.e., the ability to resist temptation) is the mark of free will, then the god primes set the will free; they determined it to be free. Doesn’t anyone find this paradoxical? The ordinary understanding of personal freedom is to not be openly coerced or manipulated. This type of freedom is gained when others cease to meddle. What we have in Rounding’s research, however, is a conventional experimental intervention whose objective is to produce significant differences in the average behavior between conditions. When god-primed participants drink more disgusting fluid (study 1), they do so because they are deterministically responding to the primes and their implications. Well, this is the conventional interpretation. If self-regulation is free, however, then being primed with god words liberates participants from the constraints of causation. They are now free to self-regulate, and they decide to act differently than their brethren in the control group. The god-primed participants are predictable but presumably also free at the same time – that is what you have to conclude to keep the story going.

I do not hold myths to rational standards of coherence – only scientific work. Myths seek to explain unsettled and unsettling issues by weaving stories, and they are not overly bothered by contradictions. They may even thrive on them. In Genesis, free will and moral responsibility enter human affairs in, shall we say, a nonlinear way. The snake tempts Eve. Eve fails to self-regulate and bites. Then she is considered guilty and she knows it. What do we make of her decision to take the low road and sample the apple? If she was tempted and chose to yield, the presumption of free will had already been made. If she knew the difference between good and evil only after eating the apple, then free will first existed without entailing moral responsibility. Something else needs to be added to get from free will to moral responsibility. The author of Genesis does not say what it is. Alternatively, both free will and moral responsibility existed in Eve when she followed the snake. She knew that yielding to the temptation of eating the apple would be trouble. If so, the apple incident only revealed human nature, it did not create it.

The insistence on free will always got christian ethics into trouble (and I hate to see psychology suffer the same fate). Once you open the door to free will, how much are you prepared to let in? Article XVIII of the Augsburg Confession says that humans have free will in matters of reason (i.e., behavior) but not in matters of spirituality (i.e., salvation). This distinction led to the famous conundrum of why anyone should bother to freely act ethically, when the ultimate reward and the ultimate punishment are not under personal control. One rational response is to say that the decoupling of behavior from its consequences eliminates any religious need to act morally, and free will and its putative purpose thereby become moot. Another rational response (the Calvinist one) is to say that divine providence dictates not only who will be saved and who will burn, but also who will act well on Earth and who will not. Calvinists are free to do good things under the assumption that their behavior and their successes signal their state of salvation. Calvinists apply, in other words, a common cause model to human affairs, but they have to give up the notion of free will; they can only retain its as-if version. But isn’t that enough to be happy and good?

In a previous post of free-will framing, I considered the idea that free will increases the variability of behavior beyond what can be accounted for with reference to stimuli and context. If self-regulation is also a hallmark of free will, it would seem that there should be an association between self-regulation and behavioral variability. I doubt that this is so. Self-control is often little more than code for social control. Much of self-regulation consists of the suppression of impulses and spontaneous behavior. This suppression and bringing-in-line of behavior with social norms usually entails behavioral standardization, homogenization, and thus a reduction of variability. In short, I have trouble seeing how self-regulation and behavioral variability might be used to score points for free will.

Rounding, K., Lee, A., Jacobson, J. A., & Ji, L.-J. (2012). Religion replenishes self-control. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797611431987