The Frontal Cortex

Free Will and Ethics

Over at Mind Matters, we’ve got an interesting article on how believing in free will can affect our ethical behavior:

In a clever new study, psychologists Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara tested this question by giving participants passages from The Astonishing Hypothesis, a popular science book by Francis Crick, a biochemist and Nobel laureate (as co-discoverer, with James Watson, of the DNA double helix). Half of the participants got a passage saying that there is no such thing as free will. The passage begins as follows: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”

The passage then goes on to talk about the neural basis of decisions and claims that “…although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.” The other participants got a passage that was similarly scientific-sounding, but it was about the importance of studying consciousness, with no mention of free will.

After reading the passages, all participants completed a survey on their belief in free will. Then comes the inspired part of the experiment. Participants were told to complete 20 arithmetic problems that would appear on the computer screen. But they were also told that when the question appeared, they needed to press the space bar, otherwise a computer glitch would make the answer appear on the screen, too. The participants were told that no one would know whether they pushed the space bar, but they were asked not to cheat.

The results were clear: those who read the anti-free will text cheated more often! (That is, they pressed the space bar less often than the other participants.) Moreover, the researchers found that the amount a participant cheated correlated with the extent to which they rejected free will in their survey responses.

I’ve always been enamored of this William James aphorism: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will”. The legend has it that James used this pithy quote to cheer himself up after suffering from an existential despair. (He’d recently discovered Laplace…) It turns out that such a belief, even when self-imposed, also probably made James a little bit more ethical.


  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    August 20, 2008

    I’ve always been enamored of this William James aphorism: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will”.

    He was predetermined to say that.

  2. #2 Alecco
    August 20, 2008

    A great book to read on this subject is “To have or to be?” by Erich Fromm.

  3. #3 Alecco
    August 20, 2008

    Oops, not… Wrong place for that. Sorry.

  4. #4 db
    August 21, 2008

    The thing that always strikes me, and scares me, in experiments like this is how malleable people’s moral codes seem to be. But then you read the fine print and discover that the subjects were undergrads — post-adolescents who are still in the midst of cobbling together a moral foundation. Is that really a fair sample to draw broad statements from about a trait that evolves so much with maturity?

    I’m sure the conclusion would be similar with older subjects — the free will group would cheat less. But I’ll bet the degree would be different, to an extent that might help me sleep better at night.

  5. #5 RKW
    August 24, 2008

    James wasn’t just looking for a reason to live, he was countering Renouvier’s argument that to define free will as the ability to sustain a thought volitionally is to define an illusion. Renouvier was countering the view that volitional thought tokens free will. His argument consisted of saying “no, its not free will its an illusion.” James outmaneuvers Renouvier and simultaneously solves the materialist assertion that all is matter. By asserting that his first act of free will shall be to believe in free will, James declares the essential power of pragmatism – that the value of an idea lies not in its truth, but in what that idea enables us to do – which is essentially what Vohs and Schooler argue in their discussion.

  6. #6 Norman Doering
    August 25, 2008

    While trying to find out more about this experiment I uncovered this:

    Jonathan W. Schooler was also involved in this symposium sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.

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