The psychology of Lego Star Wars III

Do children (or adults) have free will?

Posted Aug 03, 2010

My last post on this topic was about establishing a sense of agency through action, a problem which I argued was a familiar one for newborn babies. When my old eyes are faced with two Lego Star Wars characters, either of which could be me, one option I have is simply to do something, and see whether either character on the screen does the same thing. I work out who I am by acting, and watching for the results. 

But there's a further difficulty in establishing a sense of who you are. The problem is that, in working out what are our own actions and what are not, our brains frequently play tricks on us. The psychologist Dan Wegner and his colleagues have demonstrated these effects in a series of studies into what they call the 'illusion of conscious will'. In one experiment1, participants were asked to collaborate in moving an object over a picture board and then making judgements about whether they themselves had caused the object to stop where it did. The study found that, when participants heard relevant cue words in headphones just before the object came to a stop, they claimed responsibility for the action even when their collaborator had actually performed it. They claimed free will for themselves even when their actions were determined by someone else. 

Presumably children become susceptible to this illusion at some point during their development. I'm not aware of any research yet on this topic (I think it would be a hard thing to study, for many reasons). But there is some related research that shows that, given a choice between saying whether an action was performed by them or by a collaborator, children will claim more credit than they should. In a series of studies2, four-year-olds worked together with an adult in making collages. When they were subsequently asked who placed individual pieces, children tended to claim greater contributions than they merited. For interesting reasons, children seem to recode the behavior of their collaborator in terms of their own behavior, leading them to falsely remember performing the act for themselves. 

This is not quite the same issue as that addressed by Wegner, which concerns whether any action can be causally attributed to the self. But there are important commonalities which point to interesting developmental research questions. I also suspect that children's susceptibility to the illusion will depend on whether the action has a positive or negative outcome. Here's a bit from the book where I mention some of the research on toddlers' sense of responsibility: 

If you don't understand causes, you can't really understand guilt and innocence. Which is why, in their innocence, children often end up shouldering the blame for themselves. In one naturalistic study of empathy in toddlers, two-year-olds would sometimes take responsibility for their mothers' distress, even when they had no part in it. They would see her crying and say, ‘Did I make you sad?', or apologise and promise to behave better in future. It seems a harsh lesson, but thinking through what she can and can't be held responsible for is already helping Athena to plot the limits of her own agency. She is learning that life is a story that pays only scant attention to human wishes. That's a tough one, in terms of what it means for your ego, but it can also save you a lot of pain.

(Charles Fernyhough, [amazon 1583333479], p. 220)

Fortunately, Isaac is in no mood today to take the blame for my mistakes. As we fight the killer bats in the poisoned swamps of the snowy planet (I need a Star Wars geek to tell me exactly where I've ended up), I'm made fully aware of my own failings. When everything goes well, he is happy to claim the plaudits. When he makes mistakes himself, he reacts with laughter or irritation, but he is less likely nowadays to say that it's my fault. He's learning about what he did and didn't do, what he can and can't claim responsibility for. And, I'm guessing, from somewhere in that messy nexus of causes and effects will emerge a sense of free will.  

1Wegner, D. M., & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54, 480-492. 

2For a summary, see Ratner, H. H., Foley, M. A., & Gimpert, N. (2002). The role of collaborative planning in children's source-monitoring errors and learning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 81, 44-73.