Why belief in free will is important: its pro-social and moral implications


I recently stumbled upon the Psychology Today blog of Roy F Baumeiester and went through some lively blog posts that were exchanged between him and other PT bloggers especially John Bargh on the issue of free will. Thoise exchanges are worth reading by themselves and are highly recommeneded.

This post meanwhile is not about whether free will exists or not , but it is about whether belief in free will is detrimental or has a beneficial effect. The opposite of free will, is traditionally conceived to be determinism and Baumeister recently and Vohs  et al earlier have demonstrated in laboratory that belief in determinism leads to 1) more cheating 2) less pro-social helping behavior nd intentions and 3) more unwarranted aggressive  behavior towards con-specifics.

First I will let Baumeister define the folk concpet of free will, as knowing fisrt hand that we are dealing with folk psychological concept of free will, rather than philosophical nuances helps. In his 2008 article titled Free Will in Scientific Psychology he provides following definition of free will:

Another approach to understanding what people mean by free will is to have participants rate how free a stimulus person’s actions are. Stillman, Sparks, Baumeister, and Tice (2006) had participants rate scenarios that varied systematically along several dimensions. Participants rated people’s actions as freest when their choices were made after conscious deliberation, when their actions went against external pressure rather than going along with it, and when people acted against their shortterm self-interest. Thus conscious, rational choice and selfcontrol seem to be integral parts of what people perceive as free. When people wrote autobiographical accounts of their own acts that felt free or unfree, pursuing long-term personal goals was central to the feeling of freedom. The difference suggests that people see free will in others as useful for restraining their socially undesirable impulses, but in themselves they see free will in the sustained pursuit of (enlightened) self-interest. As Dennett (1984, 2003) has argued, free will is hardly worth having unless it helps you get something you want.
Let me focus briefly on two of the most important phenomena that are associated with the concept of free will: self-control and rational intelligent choice. The cultural-animal argument has the following assumptions. First, self-control and smart choice are much more highly developed in humans than in other animals and thus are among the most distinctively human traits. Second, these traits are highly conducive for living in a cultural society. Third, these traits are probably interrelated in the sense of sharing some inner processes and mechanisms, which suggests that one evolved first and the other piggy-backed on the first one’s system.
Put another way, self-control gives the capacity to alter your behavior to conform to the group’s rules, and rationality enables you to work out your own rules and then behave accordingly.

Now that we know what we are talking about lets look at the two studies. In the first study by Vohs et al, the participants read text from ‘The Astonishing hypothesis ‘ by Crick and the manipulation was designed to induce deterministic thoughts in them. Afterwards they were given an opportunity to cheat. It was found that those who were manipulated to believe in determinism were more likely to cheat. In the second study in the same paper,  deterministic belief was again induced using a different paradigm and agian was found correlated with cheating behavior. the two experiments were conducted to rule out intermediate effcets of mood valence etc or other explanations for the effect.

ABSTRACT—Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.

The second article by Baumeister et al carried over from where Vohs et al left. In the first experiment they manipulated state deterministic beliefs using a paradigm similar to Vohs et al second experiment and found that deterministic manipulations lead to less helping intentions. In the second experiment they looked at trait deterministic beliefs as opposed to state deterministic beliefs in the first study, and found that actual helping behavior as opposed to helping intentions in first study were also reduced in the deterministic condition. In the third and final experiment, they used the ‘serve hot sauce to someone you are aggressing against’ paradigm to demonstrate that deterministic manipulations led to more aggressive tendencies. Taken together these and vohs et al findings demonstrate the importance of belief in free will for pro-social and moral behavior.

Laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable. Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression. In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior. In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others. Although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.

The free will debate will not be settled any time soon, but that should not blind us to these experimental findings that show what harm is done by blindly propagating deterministic beliefs that my eventually turn out to be false when applied to the agentic human and animal domain. I would like to end by referencing a post by Baumeister that provides ample food for thought. In it Baumeister proposes that just like physical reality we grant significance to the symbolic and meaning driven alternate reality of agents and actors and shared meanings etc. although he doesn’t go so far, I would label it as Mythos as opposed to Logos. As long as we think that mythos is all in the head (where undoubtedly it is) and does not merit any other handling and laws than those that apply to the physical world, we would surely be missing the point.

&rftBaumeister, R., Masicampo, E., & DeWall, C. (2009). Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (2), 260-268 DOI: 10.1177/0146167208327217
Vohs, K., & Schooler, J. (2008). The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating Psychological Science, 19 (1), 49-54 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02045.x

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7 thoughts on “Why belief in free will is important: its pro-social and moral implications

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  4. Michael

    It is a bit misleading to present determinism as the “opposite” of free will.

    Probably the most popularly held position among philosophers on the topic is what’s called compatibalism: the view that we have free will *and* determinism is true.

    The view that we need determinism to be false in order to have free will is called “libertarianism” and is not widely held.

  5. A. Granville Fonda

    Michael says that to present determinism as the “opposite” of free will is “a bit misleading.” . Quite an understatement! Kant resolved this seeming paradox only by declaring a dualistic exception to determinism. Schopenhauer called it “the world knot,” and J. S. Mill said that it is “insoluble.”
    Rather than resort to dualism, indeed “probably the most popularly held position among philosophers on the topic is what’s called compatibalism: the view that we have free will *and* determinism is true.” But I do not find the arguments to that effect very weighty. Mostly they just *say* that both views must be true and they leave it at that. That’s no argument at all.
    I have a new one to offer, however. Over 50 years ago it seemed immediately obvious to me, when as a young engineer I thought of this problem, that if you *are* that deterministic system, then whenever what it does includes the feeling of intent, that is you acting of your own free will. It *is* mechanistic, and it *is* clockwork, but that is what the process is, and it’s *your* process. It is *you.* Own it! You are not “possessed” by the causative factors within you; quite to the contrary, *you possess them.* You do what you will, but at the same time you will what you must.
    This is in detail how it is that, as Michael says, we have free will and yet determinism is true. What unfolds within us breaks no laws of physics, but obeys them, as does everything else, with not necessarily any quantum exception. Allowing for that, all clockwork. No exceptionalism at all, so no recourse to dualism. *Free will is determinism as seen from within.* There never really was any paradox — Kant, Schopenhauer, Mill, and many others to the contrary. All that ever was required to resolve it was a simple attitude adjustment.
    Compatibilism is not new — but in 50 years, including extensive recent study (thanks to the internet) I have never encountered this explication of it. Have you?
    Comments, please.

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