Thursday, July 16, 2009

Freedom From Free Will

Back in February 2008, the New York Times and many other news outlets made mention of research conducted by Jonathan Schooler and Kathleen Vohs which suggested that people cheat more when induced to believe they don’t have free will (discussed at Memeing Naturalism here). This finding, they argued, raises concerns about disseminating the idea that we might be fully caused in our behavior: we might get demoralized by determinism. Perhaps we should maintain at least the fiction of free will even if we don’t actually have it. But perhaps not. That we need not be demoralized by determinism is argued here, and that determinism is in fact indispensable to us here.

These concerns resurfaced in a debate between psychologists Roy Baumeister and John Bargh at the recent Society for Personality and Social Psychology convention in Tampa. Their presentations are on YouTube here and here respectively, and the debate continues on their Psychology Today blogs here and here. Baumeister, worried about demoralization, is very concerned to spike the idea that human behavior is fully determined, so he floats the unlikely proposal that causation at the macro level isn’t deterministic (same causes, same effects) but more a matter of probabilities (same causes, a range of possible effects). The latter is likely true for micro-level quantum phenomena but there’s no evidence that it’s true at the level of human behavior. I try to steer him straight about determinism here, and try to persuade him that determinism isn’t demoralizing here, with help from philosopher Tamler Sommers. Further, Baumeister’s view of free will itself is somewhat confused, a mixture of naturalistic compatibilism and contra-causal libertarianism, so I try to clarify things for him here. Fortunately he’s a forgiving soul and seems completely unfazed by my meddling.

Bargh, on the other hand, is a model of clarity in his responses to Baumeister (here and here), so hasn’t needed any helpful hints. He’s properly skeptical about contra-causal free will and makes these two important points, among many other good observations:

1) Where’s the research, and publicity, about possible positive effects of disbelief in free will? All the focus so far has been on the downsides of determinism, at least what we’ve heard about. Interestingly, Bargh mentions that Jonathan Schooler, who brought us the study on cheating, also found that “telling experimental participants that free will did not exist caused those participants to be more forgiving towards the transgressions of others.” But there have been no press releases or news stories about this to my knowledge. With any luck, Bargh and others will research the benefits of free will skepticism, so stay tuned.

2) Bargh says it’s crucially important that if we don’t have free will, people should know about it. Why? In order to empower them. He says:

To my mind, one potential benefit to getting people to not believe so strongly in the power of their own personal agency or free will is that they might then be more concerned about external influences or even explicit attempts by advertisers, government, etc. to control what they do (eat, drink, buy, vote). Research by Tim Wilson and Nancy Brekke (Psychological Bulletin, 1994) has shown that people do not worry very much about these influence attempts because they believe they are the captains of their minds and in near-complete control over their judgments and behaviors. For example, people do not believe negative campaign advertising affects them, and so do not attempt to counteract or defend themselves from the effects of such ads, yet that variety of campaign advertising is in actuality so effective that it became nearly the exclusive form of campaign ads during the recent 2008 US presidential election. And Jennifer Harris and colleagues in our ACME lab have recently shown unconscious effects of television ads on snack food and cigarette consumption, such that these ads contribute to societal health problems of obesity and smoking (see Thus I can see significant positive benefits in informing people of their (at least relative) lack of free will in the behavioral impulses triggered by the ads, both in their own health outcomes and in their ability to counteract presumed unwanted influences on their
important decisions, such as who they want to lead their country. Indeed, given that Baumeister has expressed his belief that telling people that free will may not exist is 'irresponsible', I can make the case that not telling them is perhaps even more irresponsible, because it leaves them at the mercy of corporations and governments who are not quite so naive.

Here Bargh agrees with behaviorist B.F. Skinner: the myth of radically “autonomous man” is used to lull people into being more easily controlled. Moreover, it helps in blaming and punishing victims (they cause their own misfortunes), and draws attention away from the actual reasons people fail to flourish (don’t blame circumstances, just blame individuals). In helping to challenge conventional wisdom about free will, Bargh is bringing power to the people, if only they could be convinced. They are, paradoxically enough, made less free by their own beliefs about freedom, which is why we needn’t be shy about advertising the truth about human agency. Freedom from free will is a liberation movement waiting to happen, should naturalism take hold. If it does, we can thank John Bargh for his straight talk on a matter many suppose should be kept under wraps.


Blogger Winstanley said...

"Moreover, it helps in blaming and punishing victims (they cause their own misfortunes), and draws attention away from the actual reasons people fail to flourish (don’t blame circumstances, just blame individuals)"

Just a small but important point. It's the individual's MOTIVES not REASONS that cause them to act in certain ways. They can be held accountable/responsible precisely because they were determined by such and such motives. At least as far as I can see and Hume's argument goes.

Now to say they may also be determined (e.g. to suicidal murder) by reasons (e.g. poverty), this is an entirely different point. And it is usually a kind of intellectualy lazy triablistic irrational anti-humanist determinism. (I didn't kill them because of my poverty but because they are infidels). In other words, to understand other people's behaviour, yes we may seek reasons (e.g. sexual frustration) but usually their motives and beliefs (13 virgins in paradise)are enough.

Jul 18, 2009, 7:08:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

To me, asking whether humans have free will is like asking whether we are omnipotent. Yes, we have some ability to make choices, but not complete power to do so. Yes, we can lift 50 pounds with our bodies, but not 50 tons.

Apr 16, 2010, 11:01:00 AM  

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