Free will is a controversial idea in social psychology. Researchers have begun to talk about it and study it, including ordinary people’s beliefs about it, but there are many social psychologists who insist that all such beliefs are mistaken. As a field of scientific research, social psychology is almost certainly unable to prove whether free will exists or not. But social psychology can study how people make choices, when they feel themselves to be free versus less free, how action is initiated and controlled, how people react when their freedom is taken away, and what the consequences are of believing versus disbelieving in free will.
Free Will Definition
Free will is a concept inherited from philosophy and even theology, so it is not one that scientists have been able to define as they wish. That definitional problem has contributed to the controversies about it, because different people use the term to refer to different things.
The core idea behind free will is that people can choose to act in different ways. The opposite belief is determinism, which holds that every action is fully caused (determined) by prior events.
Think of something you did recently, even perhaps picking up this entry to read. Is it possible that you could have done something differently? Or was it an inevitable result of forces and pressures operating on you, including both the current situation and past experiences and lessons? You may have felt as though you made a decision to read this, but then again that feeling might be an illusion. Strict determinists think that it was inevitable that you read this and that you really could not have done anything else. In contrast, if you have free will, then you might well have done something different.
The “will” part of free will presents additional problems for some philosophers and psychologists. It implies that there is such a thing as a will, as a part of the human mind, possibly located somewhere in the brain. Many experts believe that the will is just a metaphor or a convenient way of talking about human mental processes, rather than being something real. Those experts hence reject the term free will and prefer to talk about freedom of action. Some of them think that freedom is real and the will is not real. For most, however, the issue is whether freedom really exists, and the “will” part is not the controversial part.
Opposition to Free Will
Social psychologists who reject the idea of free have several main reasons for doing so. One is a simple act of faith. Many psychologists believe that, as scientists, they must believe that there is a cause for everything and that determinism is the only suitable assumption for scientific research. Most agree that determinism cannot be proven true, but they believe that it is necessary for scientists to assume that it is true. Some regard free will as an obsolete religious idea. B. F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist, wrote a book called Beyond Freedom and Dignity, in which he called upon people to abandon their silly (as he saw it) belief in freedom of choice and accept that everything everyone does is a product of reinforcement history (i.e., previous rewards and punishments for similar behaviors) and learning, plus a few innate biological patterns. Skinner studied the behavior of rats and found that a few general principles could explain rat behavior. He thought human behavior followed the same principles, perhaps in a slightly more complicated way but in no less determined a fashion.
In psychology, there are several lines of evidence that call into question people’s belief in free will. Certainly almost all show that human behavior is caused by something, including the sorts of rewards and punishments that Skinner studied. That very fact of causation can be taken as evidence against free will. More dramatically, work by Sigmund Freud claimed to show that people’s behavior is often guided and shaped by unconscious processes and forces, so that what they consciously think they are doing might be mistaken. For example, Freud suggested that a man who criticizes, condemns, and attacks homosexuals might consciously believe that homosexuality is bad, but underneath he may have an unconscious attraction to homosexuality, and so he defends himself against his own homosexual feelings (which he cannot accept) by insisting that homosexuality is evil.
More generally, recent research has shown that many nonconscious processes affect behavior strongly. Mostly these do not have a strong resemblance to the kind of unconscious dynamics that Freud wrote about. Instead of a dungeon into which socially unacceptable thoughts are banished, the new theories depict the unconscious as more like the support staff of an important executive, performing many helpful activities behind the scenes. Research has shown that people are affected by many stimuli that they never realize consciously (such as subliminal advertising—flashing an image so fast that one does not consciously see it but unconsciously registers and responds to it). In one famous study, research subjects had to solve word puzzles in which they unscrambled sets of words to make short sentences. By random assignment, some of the participants solved sentences that invoked the idea of being old, such as the words retirement, sunshine, and Florida. When the participants left the experiment, the researchers secretly timed how fast they walked to the elevators. The participants who had been “primed” with the idea of being old walked more slowly than other participants. Such causes do not indicate any free will. The conscious decision about how fast to walk did not involve any deliberate decision to walk slowly, but their behavior was affected by these nonconscious processes.
The operation of such effects is one important factor that makes experts question the idea of free will. It is certain that many times when people believe they are freely, consciously deciding what to do, in reality they are affected by things outside their awareness.
Even when people think they control and initiate behavior, they are sometimes mistaken. Work by Daniel Wegner, summarized in his book The Illusion of Conscious Will, has shown that people are often mistaken about whether they caused something to happen. He has run many cleverly designed experiments in which people are or are not responsible for some event, and yet they consciously have an opinion about it that can be shown to be wrong. Have you ever played with an Ouija board? Many people like to think that the movement of the Ouija board pointer is guided by ghosts or spirits and that people are not conscious of moving the pointer themselves, but in reality they do move it themselves. Ouija boards are one illusion of free will.
Support for Free Will
Against the skeptics, some researchers believe that people do actually make choices and have some degree of freedom. The deterministic view that there is no free will is unproven and unprovable, as noted. Moreover, it is contrary to everyday experience (in which people feel that they are making choices in which more than one outcome is possible). Also, psychological data usually do not show 100% inevitable causation; rather, most psychology studies simply show a difference in the odds of some response. By that view, the way psychological causes work is simply to change the odds a bit rather than to activate a response that is inevitable. That leaves ample room for free will, at least in theory.
Other support for free will comes from recent evidence that willpower is more than a metaphor. Self-control and choice are central to most discussions of free will, and they do seem to use up some psychological resource that could be called willpower.
Other support comes from simply recognizing the importance of choice and freedom in human life. If freedom is entirely an illusion, why have there been so many wars, revolutions, and strivings to gain it? Why do people struggle so over making decisions? Why do people react so negatively when their freedom is taken away?
Another research approach is to study the effects of believing in free will, because some people believe in it more than others. Delroy Paulhus has developed a personality trait scale that sorts people according to whether they believe in free will or not. It is possible to give that questionnaire to people, score it, and then bring people into the laboratory to see how they behave. People who believe in free will may act differently from people who reject the idea.
Another approach is to manipulate that belief. Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler have developed several procedures to increase or decrease belief in free will, such as by having some participants read an essay that says science has supposedly proven that free will is a false idea and that brain processes are a complete cause and explanation for all behavior. They have found that these beliefs make a difference. For example, when people are discouraged from believing in free will, they become more willing to cheat and perform other antisocial behaviors. Other work has shown that losing the belief in free will makes people more aggressive and less helpful to others. Apparently the common belief in free will promotes a sense of personal responsibility and social obligation, and so people treat each other better to the extent that they believe in free will.
At a Crossroads
The topic of free will has come to the forefront of social psychology research because of its profound implications and its relevance to several, very different lines of thought and investigation. It seems likely that the next 10 years will yield important new advances in how psychologists understand the way people act and how they talk about the idea of free will.
- Baumeister, R. F. (2005). The cultural animal: Human nature, meaning, and social life (Chap. 6). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge: MIT Press.