Do we have free will? While some may see the question as trivial, it’s a challenging topic that has been actively debated for centuries. Whether or not you believe a god is involved, a case can be made that free will is simply an illusion, and that every “decision” we make is completely controlled by factors outside of an individual’s control.
Yet others have argued that a belief in free will is essential to morality. If we don’t actually have any control over the decisions we make, how can we be held accountable for them? Several studies have suggested that when kids believe their achievements are due to innate ability rather than their own effort, they are less likely to persist at similar tasks in the future. But until recently, no study has attempted to directly study belief in free will and how it affects behavior.
Kathleen Vohs and Johnathan Schooler have found a way to study this question (though they can’t tell you whether they were predestined to do it or they came up with the idea through their own independent efforts!). They had 30 students read one of two passages by Francis Crick. The first passage argued that most scientists now recognize free will as an artifact of the way the brain works, that free will is simply an illusion and our actions are determined solely by genetics and the environment. The second passage discussed consciousness and did not bring up free will at all. Then the students were given a test to measure their belief in free will versus determinism.
Finally, the students were asked to take a computerized mental arithmetic test with twenty questions like 1 + 8 + 18 – 12 + 19 – 7 + 17 – 2 + 8 – 4 = X. Next came the key to the experiment: the experimenter told them there was a small computer “glitch” that caused the answer to be displayed shortly after the question appeared. To avoid the glitch, students had the space bar as soon as they saw each question. In fact, the computer recorded both the answers and whether or not the space bar was pressed. Here are the results:
Students who read the passage advocating determinism and against free will “cheated” significantly more often than those who read the passage on consciousness that didn’t mention free will. These students also were significantly more likely to believe in determinism compared to the other group, so it seems likely that this increased belief in determinism led directly to the “cheating” behavior.
But arguably this is just passive cheating — the students didn’t do anything wrong, they just didn’t take active steps to avoid an ambiguous moral situation. In a second study, Vohs and Schooler addressed the question of overt cheating with 122 new student volunteers.
This time, instead of just reading a passage, two groups of students read a booklet fifteen phrases such as “A belief in free will contradicts the known fact that the universe is governed by lawful principles of science,” and were required to ponder each phrase for a full minute before turning to the next page. Another group read similar statements advocating free will, and another group read neutral statements. A final baseline group didn’t read any statements at all. Everyone was given the same test, which was composed of 15 problems from the GRE exam, a rigorous test designed to assess applicants for graduate school.
One determinism group, the free will group, and the neutral group took the test in sets of 2 to 5 individuals. For these groups, a tempting possibility of cheating was introduced. The experimenter told them that she had to leave the room for a meeting, and that they were to take no more than 15 minutes to take the test, which they should grade themselves. She would not see their test sheets: they were to be destroyed in a document shredder in the room. Then they could award themselves $1 for every correct response from an envelope of coins she left on a table in the room.
The other two groups (the second determinism group and the baseline group) were tested individually, the experimenter graded their tests, and paid them based on their actual scores. Here are the results:
The beauty of this experiment is that the experimenter honestly didn’t know how much money each person in the “cheating possible” groups took. She could only count the money after they left and find the average take per person. She couldn’t even assess their answers on the test — those were shredded. Yet those who had read the determinism statements took significantly more money when they were given the opportunity to cheat. The fact that reading about determinism didn’t lead to higher scores when cheating was not possible suggests that indeed, cheating was going on, not just super-performance due to reading about determinism.
Does this study also demonstrate that free will itself doesn’t exist? The authors won’t go that far, but it’s pretty clear from this demonstration that external factors had a very strong impact on these students’ behavior.
One might also be tempted to use these results to argue that belief in free will is important from a moral perspective (whether or not it actually exists). Yet many religions have very strong deterministic traditions and also strong moralistic traditions, so clearly belief in determinism isn’t the only influence on moral behavior. Nonetheless, the results of this study are fascinating. I look forward to hearing what our commenters think about them.
Vohs, K.D., Schooler, J.W. (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