Does Belief in Free Will Make us Better People?

From Jonathan Schooler, a clip:

The results revealed that those presented with the anti-free will message were particularly likely to allow the computer to give them the answer, and this change in behavior was statistically mediated by a decreased belief in free will. In short, discouraging a belief in free will encouraged cheating.

A second study demonstrated a similar point. In this study, participants read statements that expressed either the view that free will does not exist, that it does exist, or that only mentioned ideas unrelated to free will. Later, they participated in a task in which they paid themselves for the number of problems they successfully completed. The results revealed that participants who were exposed to the anti-free will message were more likely to overpay themselves relative to the other conditions. Once again, discouraging a belief in free will encouraged cheating

Since the publication of these findings, a number of studies have documented additional anti-social behaviors resulting from discouraging a belief in free will. For example,Baumeister and colleagues demonstrated that discouraging a belief in free will leads to less helping, more aggression, more mindless conformity, less feeling of guilt, less learning of moral lessons from one’s misdeeds, and less counterfactual thinking about how one might have behaved better.

Other studies have begun to reveal the mechanisms underpinning these behavioral effects. For example, Rigoni and colleagues found that discouraging a belief in free will reduces a specific signal of the brain’s electrical activity (the “readiness potential,” as measured by electroencephalography) known to be associated with the preparation of intentional action.  In recent studies conducted in my laboratory, we found that discouraging a belief in free will can reduce people’s belief in their capacity to effectively engage in mental control.

Still other studies have investigated the relationship between people’s pre-existing beliefs about free will and their behavior and attitudes. Research by Stillman and colleagues found that believing in free will is associated with better career prospects and job performance.

Recently we found that a belief in free will is positively correlated with a host of positive attributes (including: self-control, life satisfaction, subjective happiness, mindfulness, and ambition) and negatively correlated with several less desirable traits (such as neuroticism and mind-wandering). Of course, we must be cautious in drawing causal inferences from correlational studies. Nevertheless, these findings are consistent with the view, more directly implicated by the experimental studies reviewed earlier, that a belief in free will affords some positive benefits….

Hard determinism’s assumption, as endorsed by Crick, that free will is an illusion, seems the most straightforward way of reconciling the experience of free will with current scientific views of cause and effect. However, there is much we still do not understand about the underpinnings of science, and a complete absence of free will is very difficult to square with the seemingly self-evident experience of personal control.

Compatibilism ’s assumption (alluded to just above) that genuine free will can exist in an entirely deterministic universe is by far the most popular view among modern philosophers. However, it is very difficult for me to gain an intuitive understanding of how our decisions can be in any real sense free if they are the unavoidable consequence of deterministic and potentially random processes.

The Libertarian view that conscious intent somehow transcends the causal chain of physical events most closely resonates with my personal experience, but it is difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to imagine how this might happen.

The lack of a fully satisfying conceptualization of free will leads me to conclude that all three major views are contenders, but I yearn for the formulation of other accounts that could be more readily reconciled with both logic and experience.

Given this quandary, each of us is faced with deciding the matter for ourselves. The conclusion we draw will depend on our personal predispositions and for many be informed by logic and scientific evidence.

"Just realized that this bog is only one part of her response. There is so ..."

Thanks To Deborah Haarsma
"Yes you're right, approx 2.5 billion years ago. Btw I was referring to when the ..."

An Ancient Document (RJS)
"Thanks! I got the books in the other comment and will work through them."

Thanks To Deborah Haarsma

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jon G

    “Given this quandary, each of us is faced with deciding the matter for ourselves.”

    This is the presuppositional place where Free Will seems blatantly obvious to me…if you can choose what you believe, you have already acted out of Free Will. A strict determinist must admit that their belief in Determinism was not “chosen”, logically, deductively or otherwise.

    So either we choose based on real reasoning and must conclude Free Will exists or we must admit that we don’t have a real reason for Determinism other than it was thrust upon us.

  • Dan

    Q. Are you a determinist?
    A. Do I have a choice?


    Q. Are you a Calvinist?
    A. Do I have a choice?

  • Tom F.

    Well, whatever the philosophical truth is, these studies seem to suggest that there are real drawbacks to anything that seems to be anti-free will. These experiments are just starting, and so I would guess that the story is more complicated (though right now, determinism does not look good.)

    I would speculate that there might be drawbacks to thinking one has too much control over oneself as well. For example, persons with certain brain disorders (such as ADD) often experience that they are making conscious decisions about what they are doing. Specifically with ADD, people experience where their attention goes as a choice. Often, when their attention goes in places it shouldn’t, and their life suffers, they blame themselves harshly, but often unrealistically. So thinking you have the free will to change something you really can’t could have negative effects too. Perhaps that is an upside for more deterministic Calvinists: if you can’t really change your state of salvation, at least you don’t have to spend energy trying to do so. (On the other hand, you did seem to have to put all that energy back into discerning whether you were elect, at least as it was explained to me. Sometimes, it really does seem like there’s no such thing as a free lunch, even in the spiritual life.)

  • Dorfl

    I don’t see how that follows. Computers can and do reason. Would you say that they must therefore have free will?

  • Jon G

    Dorfl, fair enough. However I think we would need to define each of our definitions of “choose”, “reason”, etc. because, in the words of Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

  • Jon G

    Tom, as a person recently diagnosed with ADD myself, I can attest to what you are saying here. After years of guilt over underachieving, it was a weight off my shoulders to realize that many of my “choices” were really affected by my brain chemistry and structure and it led me to really explore my free will. In the end I concluded that I still had some ability to choose but that the choices were just more difficult to make. For instance, if we think of choosing to attend to a boring task as similar to pushing a boulder up an incline, both the ADD brain and normal brain have the choice to do so but the normal brain would be pushing it up a 15 degree incline while an ADD brain might be pushing it up a 40 degree incline. Both can choose but the amount of difficulty makes a difference (not to mention the amount of motivation).

    So I came away from my ADD revelation realizing that I have different predetermined influencers in my decision making processes than others do but my decision to overcome them was still a free will decision. There’s an absolute play between them…

  • DMH

    “…deciding the matter for ourselves.” ?????

    It seems to me that IF in fact all thought and action were FULLY determined we would never be able to know it.

  • Tim

    “Compatibilism’s assumption…that genuine free will can exist in an entirely deterministic universe is by far the most popular view among modern philosophers.
    However, it is very difficult for me to gain an intuitive understanding
    of how our decisions can be in any real sense free if they are the
    unavoidable consequence of deterministic and potentially random

    I’d say that the focal point of Compatibilism is one’s will/identity. What ultimately do you want to do with your life? Who do you want to be? Given those starting points, do you have the autonomy (freedom) as a person to pursue/actualize those goals? To the degree one would say they do, would be the degree we’d say they have “free will.” Now, one may argue that they didn’t get to choose ultimately what they would want out of life. Or what sort of person they want to be. But to such a person, you could ask “Which other way would you prefer to have it?” And of course, they would come back and say that they would want what they want and wish to be who they wish to be. So the moral philosopher could then say, “Well, you have nothing to complain about then.” BTW, many no longer consider that we live in a deterministic universe due to quantum uncertainty. 🙂

  • Phil Miller

    It seems that the difference between true free will and a computer is that a computer in any given situation will reason and can only come to one conclusion. It is impossible for it to do otherwise. For free will to exist, it means that in a given situation, a free agent can make a real choice between two options.

    I think many philosophers set up a straw man when arguing against free will. They make it sound as if those who support free will are saying that agents can literally choose anything they want to do. I don’t believe anyone would say that. Who proponents of free will would say is that even if we are in a situation where we have very limited freedom of choice, we still have a real choice that influences the future in some way.

    Where that choice originates from is really what the conversation is about. Are our choices truly simply a product of chemical reactions in our brain cascading into the future, or does our mind, our personhood somehow transcend that?

  • Dorfl

    Well, you could put in a hardware random number generator and have its output affect the computer’s conclusion. I don’t know why you would in any practical situation*, but if we did, would that mean the computer had free will?

    * As long as we’re just talking about a computer which is trying to reach some factual conclusion, that is. If the computer is doing actual decision-making, a slight degree of randomness could be useful.

  • RJS4DQ


    Computer random number generators are easier said than done. Are any truly random?

  • Dorfl

    That depends which interpretation of quantum physics is correct. If the result of a measurement on a quantum mechanical system is truly random, then yes.

    It does require some custom hardware to get that level of randomness, though:

  • attytjj466

    Free will does not mean the freedom to choose anything and/or everything. But it does mean some choice. Will I get up this morning, or stay in bed and sleep in. That seems to me to be a first choice each day and many like that follow all day unto we decide when to go to bed.

  • Phil Miller

    This is the same line of thought that people like Daniel Dennett take. I’ve read him, and fundamentally I find it unconvincing. The question really comes down to whether or not we actually believe there is really a “you” there when we talk about people making decisions. We can talk about mythical computers making decisions all we want, but no one is ready to start assigning personhood to computers governed by random number generators.

    The question is are you simply a series of chemical reactions that give you the feeling of self-awareness or not or are you something that goes beyond that.

  • Dorfl

    I’d very broadly define ‘reason’ as “to apply some more or less rigorous process to extract a conclusion from some set of premises”. That said, a quick look at Wikipedia shows that this doesn’t seem to be the standard definition.

    I’d define a ‘choice’ as some process by which we select one option out of several possible ones. I guess a choice would then be ‘free’ for your definition of the word if the same chooser could still have made a different choice than they made.

  • Marshall

    It’s more runaway Individualism. That is, somebody is choosing, but I’m not at all sure it is (or should be) “Marshall”, whoever he is.

  • Tom F.

    Jon, thanks for sharing your experience. Outside of philosophy, free will is likely sort of fuzzy and in degrees. So, ADD is going to diminish your free will moment to moment, but you still have choices on how to organize and structure your life to help yourself out.

  • It might make us better people. But it makes us lousy Christians.

    God chooses us. Our wills are bound…to sin.

    Our choosing is what got us into this mess to begin with.

    Give this one about 6 min. :

    And you’ll see what I mean.

  • Jamie Sinclair


    The opposite of determinism is not free will, it’s randomness. And if I’m understanding you correctly, what you would call “choice” for a computer is actually not a choice at all but a computer following a programmed script with randomness thrown in to make it appear like it’s “choosing” because it’s answer may change at times.

    In free will, an agent not only can choose between options but is legitimately responsible for said choice… Making a free will choice and flipping a coin are two different things. (At least in my understanding of free will choices.)

  • Dorfl

    I don’t really follow that reasoning. To me the question of whether there is some kind of me transcending the electrochemical reactions in my brain, and the question of whether my brain can make free choices, seem basically unrelated. At least to the extent that knowing the answer to either question would not tell us the answer to the other.

  • What’s interesting is that it was materialist determinism which was investigated here.

    The people believed to be determined by the impersonal laws of nature, which don’t love them and which they don’t love.
    This has led to an increase in immoral behavior.

    What would have been the results for theistic determinists like Calvinists and many Muslims, who believe that the Almighty predetermined
    them to sin?

    My intuition is that this would much more increase their willingness to engage into sinful behaviors.

    Greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son