The effect of diminished belief in free will

Tom Stafford wrote:

Psychologists have used this section of the book, or sentences taken from it or inspired by it, to induce feelings of determinism in experimental subjects. A typical study asks people to read and think about a series of sentences such as “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion”, or “Like everything else in the universe, all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules”.

The effects on study participants are generally compared with those of other people asked to read sentences that assert the existence of free will, such as “I have feelings of regret when I make bad decisions because I know that ultimately I am responsible for my actions”, or texts on topics unrelated to free will.

And the results are striking. One study reported that participants who had their belief in free will diminished were more likely to cheat in a maths test. In another, US psychologists reported that people who read Crick’s thoughts on free will said they were less likely to help others. [...]

This puts an extra burden of responsibility on philosophers, scientists, pundits and journalists who use evidence from psychology or neuroscience experiments to argue that free will is an illusion. We need to be careful about what stories we tell, given what we know about the likely consequences.

Fortunately, the evidence shows that most people have a sense of their individual freedom and responsibility that is resistant to being overturned by neuroscience. Those sentences from Crick’s book claim that most scientists believe free will to be an illusion. My guess is that most scientists would want to define what exactly is meant by free will, and to examine the various versions of free will on offer, before they agree whether it is an illusion or not.

Full Story: Mind Hacks: The effect of diminished belief in free will

Interesting stuff, especially when considered alongside the Milgram experiments, which turned out not to be very sound. It also brings to mind the Kitty Genovese myth. If this effect is real, it is important to be aware of it so that we can try to overide it in ourselves.

2 Comments

  1. When you exercise your “will power” to get yourself to do something you know needs doing, or to control some impulsive or addictive behavior you are prone to, what’s happening is that one part of your brain is trying to gain control over another perhaps dysfunctional part. This is a real physical event;
    your “will” exists in fact. Our wills are only partly free, and the “will” part of your brain goes into action because of our past experience so in some sense everything is determined. But the event of exercising your will (or failing to) is a genuine phenomenon.

  2. Free will is one of the handful of things that I’d believe in even if I thought it wasn’t true, because believing I have free will is good for me and believing I don’t have free will is bad for me. Of course, I may have been predestined to feel that way, in which case the preceding statement still holds true.

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