Even though all rational people know that determinism rules human behavior, and in that sense there is no possibility of “choosing otherwise” at a moment of decision—absent quantum effects, which don’t in any way give us “free will”—this conclusion disturbs some people. Our sense of agency is so strong that it’s impossible for many of us to accept determinism of our behavior, or, if we do, to fully grasp its implications. Others, while accepting determinism, nevertheless confect other forms of “free will” that are compatible with determinism. I won’t go into the arguments for “compatibilism”, which I uniformly reject as simply semantic arguments designed to fool people into thinking that they’re free agents. Finally, a lot of compatibilists tout alternative forms of non-dualistic free will by the “Little People” argument: that if regular folks truly grasped determinism, with no loopholes, they’d become nihilistic, apathetic, or even immoral. In this way, belief in free will resembles belief in God, as many atheists are nevertheless pro-religion because they think that without faith society will fall apart. (That of course is wrong, as we know from seeing the godless countries of Europe.)
Several previous studies have buttressed the Little People’s argument for free will, including an oft-cited paper by Vohs and Schooler published in 2008, which showed that subjects “primed” by reading a passage by Francis Crick promoting determinism tended to cheat more in subsequent tests than those primed by reading an innocuous passage on consciousness. This paper has been used to show that it’s important to let people think they have free will, for they’ll behave badly if they don’t.
Unfortunately, the Vohs and Schooler paper, which has its own flaws (e.g., not a whit of evidence that the readings affected real-life cheating or lasted more than a day), was not replicated in two subsequent studies (see here and here). Nevertheless, new papers continue to come out with mixed results: some show that belief in free will promotes good behavior, others that it promotes bad behavior, and still others give mixed results. They all have their problems, including the article discussed here, a new paper by Emilie Caspar et al. in Frontiers in Psychology (free link; reference below). And by “problems”, I mean that these are all lab studies that give no conclusion about how one’s belief in free will or lack thereof affects regular quotidian behavior.
Nevertheless, I’ll summarize it briefly.
First, subjects (40 of them, recruited and tested in pairs) were “primed” by reading one of two passages written by Francis Crick: one attacking free will and promoting determinism, the other a neutral passage on consciousness (this resembles Vohs and Schooler’s method). But the psychologists also assessed participants’ “core beliefs” in (dualistic) free will versus determinism in psychological tests administered before the experiment.
Then the experiments. There were two that were relevant.
1.) Empathy. The first involved one member of a pair giving an electric shock to the other, and under two conditions: “coercive,” in which an experimenter sat next to the “shocker” and told him/her whether or not to administer a shock (a real one!) to a “shockee”. There was also a “free will” condition in which participants could decide on their own whether or not to administer a shock, earning € 0.05 for each shock they gave (they were already paid € 12 for participating). At the end, all participants reread the priming text they’d read before starting. After one bout, the positions were reversed so the “shocker” became the “shockee” (see point 2).
Results: They’re shown in the figure below, giving the number of shocks given in the “free will” condition (i.e., no hectoring experimenter telling you what to do). The data are divided into those primed by an innocuous passage (left two bars) and the “deterministic” passage (right two bars). The graph shows that overall, those primed with determinism showed significantly fewer shocks administered, but that is due to a huge reduction in the number of shocks administered by women who were primed with determinism. Men primed with determinism showed a nonsignificant increase in number of shocks administered, but the effect of female “empathy” outweighed that so there was an overall effect of priming. In fact, one can conclude that there’s a sex-by-priming interaction effect here, and that priming with determinism made females—but not males—more empathic. The authors, however, concentrate on the overall effect, which I think is misguided given the effect of sex (which they do, in fairness, mention).
When participants were told to shock or not shock others (data not shown), the results were pretty much the same, although participants who were coerced estimated longer interval estimates between their actions and the outcome, which, say the authors, is more characteristic of an involuntary than a voluntary action.
Finally, the “core beliefs” of participants in free will vs. determinism assessed before the experiment had no effect on the results. That is, these results appear to be due solely to the effect of priming.
2. Vindictiveness. The authors also estimated the degree of “vindictiveness” of participants: that is, the correlation between the number of shocks you got from your partner and those that you then gave to your partner. Here are those data from the groups primed for “no free will” and the controls. In both control and experimental groups, there was a correlation, i.e., evidence of vindictiveness, but that correlation wasn’t significant for females in the “no free will” group. In other words, priming females, but not males, with determinism made them more empathic—less likely to be vindictive. In this case, core beliefs did affect behavior for males but not females, but the effect was small. The main effect again was that induced by the priming.
What’s the upshot? The results are a bit complicated, for while there’s evidence that being primed with determinism makes you more empathic and less vindictive, this effect appears to hold for females but not males. The authors conclude that this runs counter to previous studies:
Moreover, we observed that the core beliefs of participants did not differ in these groups, and neither did their scores on empathy. Taken together, this suggests that the reduction of immoral behavior in the no free will group for female participants stems from the induced beliefs. The observed prosocial benefits of disbelief in free will may appear to go against the mainstream, since the literature mainly converged toward the prosocial benefits of believing in free will (e.g., Vohs and Schooler, 2008; Baumeister et al., 2009). However, numerous factors differed in our study, notably the social aspects associated with the presence of two co-participants who were aware that roles would be reversed at the middle of the experiment. Future work is required to explore this question more thoroughly.
and about vindictiveness:
Additionally, we observed that vindictive behavior was reduced for female participants in the no free will group compared to other sub-groups, and that the higher female participants scored on free will, the more vindictive they were. Importantly, our paradigm made it possible to investigate whether disbelief in free will influences the occurrence of vindictive behavior without the need to mention the notion of punishment to our participant, such as in previous studies. This tendency to behave vindictively is consistent with previous studies that showed that people who believe in determinism are less punitive and have reduced retributive attitudes toward others (e.g., Westlake and Paulhus, 2007; Krueger et al., 2014; Shariff et al., 2014). When people have to express a judgment about the morality of someone else’s behavior, their beliefs about the cause of these behaviors may greatly influence how they judge the severity of the act. Reducing people’s beliefs in free will might make them consider that individual responsibility is reduced, thus making them less retributive toward others.
Overall, the authors say that “we observed that a disbelief in free will had a positive impact on the morality of decisions toward others” and that this “challenges current thinking.” Well, that holds only for women and not men, and I won’t speculate why.
The study is of course flawed because it assesses only short-term behavior in the lab and not the long-term effect of belief in determinism on empathy and vindictiveness, which is what we really want to know. Of course, all such studies are flawed in this way. But this new one suggests that previous studies showing an increase in bad behaviors caused by priming with determinism must be taken with a grain of salt. Reviewing the literature, the authors note that among all studies there’s simply no consensus on this issue, and nearly all those studies are of this short-term nature.
But in the end, are such studies necessary? I’m not sure. The first thing we need to do is figure out what the truth is, and we already know that: human behavior is ruled by the laws of physics, and, save any effect of quantum indeterminacy, that leaves us no room for dualistic free will. Then we need to deal with that truth, just as we need to deal with the even more unpleasant truth of our own mortality. For this secondary program it might be useful to have studies such as these, but I don’t think they’re necessary, especially because of their flaws. What’s important about grasping determinism is, as I’ve always said, is to apply it to our system of reward and punishment, being mindful that nobody has a choice about whether to act good or badly. To claim, as some readers have, that determinism has no effect on such judgments is a claim I don’t accept (and neither do Caspar et al.). A full grasp of determinism would have a marked effect on how our legal system deals with criminals, or even how we deal with our own lives vis-a-vis empathy, forgiveness, and our attitude towards those who are at the bottom of society.
Caspar, E. A., L. Vuillaume, P. A. Magalhães De Saldanha da Gama, and A. Cleeremans. 2017. The Influence of (Dis)belief in Free Will on Immoral Behavior. Frontiers in Psychology 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00020