Ideas have consequences!
One such was recently shown through an experiment described in Scientific American.
[R]esearchers found that the amount a participant cheated correlated with the extent to which they rejected [the philosophical notion of] free will….
The correlation was positive: those who rejected free will tended to cheat more. The 22-page original research paper, written by Kathleen D. Vohs of the University of Minnesota and Jonathan W. Schooler of the University of British Columbia, opens with a provocative quote from Sartre:
We are always ready to take refuge in a belief in determinism if this freedom weighs upon us or if we need an excuse.
The paper goes on to note the increasing public attention being given to scientists who claim to have disproved the existence of free will. (See below for several relevant links.) These “scientific” conclusions are anything but scientific, however; and more often than, not the researchers who make these claims seem simply unaware of the philosophical discussion surrounding their topics. At any rate, Vohs and Schooler raise an important practical question:
What would happen if people came to believe that their behavior is the inexorable product of a causal chain set into motion without their own volition? Would people carry on, selves and behavior unperturbed, or might, as Sarte (above) suggests, the adoption of a deterministic worldview serves as an excuse for untoward behaviors[?]
We need not have comments pointing out that this does not affect whether free will exists or not. That was obviously not the point of this study (see the related links below for discussions on the reality of free will). The point is the idea’s consequences, not its proof or disproof.
A rich set of research preceding this study shows that those who believe they have the personal capability and responsibility to affect their lives’ outcomes generally have better outcomes than those who think it’s all based on inborn characteristics, fate, or other circumstances beyond their control. This study focused on moral behavior as an outcome measure. In the first of two experiments, a small one involving 30 subjects,
a strong negative relationship was found, r(30)=-.53, indicating that rejection of the idea that personal behavior is determined by one’s own will was associated with more instances of cheating.
(One of the variables here was stated opposite to the way Scientific American stated it: it was acceptance, rather than rejection, of free will. That’s why it’s reported here as a negative relationship, whereas Scientific American reported a positive relationship. Both mean the same thing in the end.)
A correlation in the .5 range is considered rather strong in psychological research, indicating an effect of significant size. If the results from these 30 subjects could be generalized to the rest of us—if the rest of us are like those 30—then belief in determinism could lead to serious negative effects on society. But this was only 30 subjects, a very small sample. The researchers ran a second experiment with 122 participants and stronger controls over possible confounding variables. The result:
In two experiments we found that weakening free will beliefs reliably increased cheating…. The present findings raise the genuine concern that widespread encouragement of a deterministic worldview may have the inadvertent consequence of encouraging cheating behavior.
Their final conclusion was:
If exposure to deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions, then identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative. Ultimately, negating the unfavorable consequences of deterministic sentiments will require a deeper understanding of why a dismissal of free will leads to amoral behavior. Does the belief that forces outside the self determine one’s behavior drain the motivation to resist the temptation to cheat, thereby inducing a “why bother?” mentality (cf. Baumeister & Vohs, in press)? Much as thoughts of death and meaninglessness can induce existential angst that can lead to ignoble behaviors (e.g. Arndt et al. 1997; Heine et al., 2006), doubting one’s free will may undermine the sense of self as agent. Or, perhaps, denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes.
These are tendencies. They do not indicate that if you pair up a believer in free will with a believer in determinism, the believer in determinism will be a less honorable person than the other. It also doesn’t mean (please hear me well) that if you, the reader, believe in determinism, I’m calling you dishonest. I have no reason to believe that about you, and I’m not jumping to any conclusions.
Besides that, we haven’t landed this one yet anyway. Scientific American rightly points out that this study was limited to a very short time frame. Would the same participants cheat the same way a week or two later? We don’t know. Do people who believe in determinism generally cheat more, in the real world, than those who don’t? Well, once again we don’t know; but if they do, it’s at least not obvious that they do. The whole thing raises as many questions as it answers, as Scientific American concludes:
Many philosophers and scientists reject free will and, while there has been no systematic study of the matter, there’s currently little reason to think that the philosophers and scientists who reject free will are generally less morally upright than those who believe in it. But this raises yet another puzzling question about the belief in free will. People who explicitly deny free will often continue to hold themselves responsible for their actions and feel guilty for doing wrong. Have such people managed to accommodate the rest of their attitudes to their rejection of free will? Have they adjusted their notion of guilt and responsibility so that it really doesn’t depend on the existence of free will? Or is it that when they are in the thick of things, trying to decide what to do, trying to do the right thing, they just fall back into the belief that they do have free will after all?
We could spend a lot of time discussing those last three questions. Have at it!
- Same day posting, 1:30 pm: Ideas have nothing to do with reality?
- Can Someone Tell Me What I’m Missing Here?
- Can we have free will in an evolutionary framework?
- Freedom Evolves, by Dennett: Final Chapters
- “If It Feels Good To Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural”
- Dawkins and Determinism
- At Last: Responsible Brain-Research Reporting
- New York Times Tries To Understand Free Will
- “Hopeless Hypotheses”
- Unconscious Decisions In the Brain
Update 9/6/08: I have turned off threaded comments, as explained here. This will unfortunately jumble up the sequence of the comments on this post, for which I offer my apologies.