Morality under threat as science debunks our sense of free will

Science is uncovering the myriad causal pathways that lead to us to behave the way we do, and it seems free will isn’t one of them. Where does that leave people’s sense of moral responsibility? Under threat, is the answer from Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler. Their new study shows that students exposed to arguments against the existence of free will are more likely to cheat.

Thirty students answered maths problems on a computer. A feigned technical glitch meant that they had to press the space bar each question to stop the computer from giving the answers away. Crucially, before the test, half the students read a passage from the late Francis Crick’s book about consciousness, in which he argues that free will is an illusion. These students pressed the space bar less often than the students who hadn’t read about free will – in other words, they cheated more.

In a second experiment, dozens of students were exposed to either pro free will, anti free will or neutral statements prior to performing a series of mental tests. Afterwards, the students were allowed to score their own answers, shred them for anonymity, and then award themselves a dollar for each correct answer. The students previously exposed to anti free will messages awarded themselves significantly more money than the other students, probably because they cheated more. It’s unlikely they had truly performed better. Two further groups of students, one of which was also exposed to anti free will statements, had their answers marked by the researchers and neither of them performed as well as the first group of anti free will students claimed to have done.

These findings complement survey research showing that people’s sense of how much control they have over their own lives is diminishing, as well as data from academia showing that cheating is on the increase. “If exposure to deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions”, the researchers said, “then identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative.”

Vohs, K.D. & Schooler, J.W. (2008). The value of believing in free will. Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Science, 19, 49-54.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

8 thoughts on “Morality under threat as science debunks our sense of free will”

  1. These findings really annoy me, especially their conclusion: ‘We must insulate the public against deterministic messages’. Not: ‘It’s imperative that people learn to think for themselves; learn how to reason; to think long-range; to see that it’s in their own best interest to live in a society that upholds human rights; that their own actions affects their self-esteem and so it’s in their own best interests to act ethically – if they choose not to, then their integrity, which is essential for healthy self-esteem, will suffer. I also see the experiments as grossly flawed: telling people beforehand that they don’t have freewill does not mean that humans don’t have it; it simply means that 45 years after Stanley Milgram first conducted his ‘Obedience to Authority’ experiment, people still don’t think for themselves. All it says is, the subjects didn’t stop to question an authority figure, didn’t stop to ask to see these ‘experiments proving we don’t have freewill’; or for the second experiment, stop and reason about whether these messages they were receiving were rational or not.Of course people feel that they have less control over their lives; the government treats them like helpless dependents who need some big authority (read adult figure), to protect them – and not volitional beings who are capable of taking care of themselves. Volition, the ability to think long-range and independence are, after all, what distinguishes children from adults. Protecting the public from deterministic messages isn’t helping the public, it’s simply reinforcing this infantile behaviour. What actually needs to happen is a return to reason.The researchers also haven’t addressed the correlation between people feeling less in control of their lives and the increase in cheating; if people don’t feel efficacious (because they haven’t made the transition to adulthood and what this entails), then they’re probably more likely to cheat – what alternative do they have, if they believe their own actions won’t procure the desired results?If people need protecting from anything, it’s from social psychologists who disseminate the belief that adults are incapable of looking after themselves.


  2. It’s amusing that these powerful think tanks fail to understand that the whole idea of free will is flawed. They don’t even define the very thing that they are attempting to debunk. Acting with free will does not mean the absence of a “cause” for our actions, but rather it means that our actions align with our intentions as propelled by our beliefs and values. Our human nature leads us to have a tendency towards pleasure and an aversion to pain – not just physical but emotional, psychological and in ways we may not properly express through words. However, this foundation leads to a moral sense that we are all challenged to act in accordance with. This study certainly proves what we all know – that people can be influenced. However, I would argue that this study actually demonstrates free will since the responders actually changed behaviour based on new information. If they didn’t have free will, they would produce the same results regardless of the information that they received.


  3. ” . . . people’s sense of how much control they have over their own lives is diminishing . . . [therefore] identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative.”Translation: People feel that have no control over their lives, so we must control them more completely.How can you even argue with idiocy this hermetic?


  4. “What actually needs to happen is a return to reason.”Absolutely.“If people need protecting from anything, it’s from social psychologists who disseminate the belief that adults are incapable of looking after themselves.”Couldn’t agree more.


  5. Wow. I am starting to lose faith either in psychological research or how it is popularised. How does this in anyway relate to whether settled nornally deterministic people act? I am used to this ‘atheist determinists are clearly evil’ bunk from my fundamentalist neighbors but not ostensibly scientific sources.


  6. Free will is a joke. Anyone who subscribes to this theory is holding their hand out blindly – waiting to be led up the garden path. I care not for speakers from this angle.


  7. As a determinist philosopher, this is a familiar area of sensitivity. You just can’t talk about stuff like this to your friends or family. Clearly almost every other person on the globe is not equipped when it comes to grasping the fact that A)humans or any other animal are not conscious and B)reductionism is alive and well and is unaffected by quantum indeterminacy. Lack of deterministic behaviour at a quantum level, has no effect on if we are morally or physically responsible. We still have an equal amount of helplessness when you trace the causation of an event. If it is sparked by a random quantum event or not, doesn’t change the fact that we couldn’t have had any influence. Moral acts occur on a macro level and as such, no human action can or has ever made any difference to a decision. If anything, indeterminacy creates more reasons to dispel any assumption of free will. I had this exact discussion with a physicist at Cambridge, he had to be told that nothing in quantum changes the lack of intervention by their imagined human decision maker. At a macro level, we are causally bound.
    Most determinists will not discuss the things we know, with even post-grad level thinkers, let alone a normal person. They just don’t have the critical thinking tools to process what is said, without reverting to emotion, norms and compatiblist dogma. A small group around the world, know that humans are biological automatons, with zero free will and most importantly, who are not conscious. Evolution produced a superior survivor, based on an animal producing outputs, which created behavioural agency. Evolution just needed us to act as if we were conscious. That is the fascinating thing, that we have a model of what a conscious being is, yet any determinist worth his salt knows, there never has been even one being that actually was aware, it just kicks out outputs as if that were true. ‘yes but I think, is an output, thinking about how something feels is an output, thinking that you are monitoring your own thinking, just another output, which in turn references yet another output. Every thing that we think we are, just outputs which refer to an identity, as if it were a thinking, knowing, sense feeling being.
    Once you get to the point where you accept that consciousness is purely and exclusively stored as sense data(not one example of awareness is created in any other format than the senses), then you are getting somewhere. Then observe, unless you claim that there exists something that does not have a cause, the brain and all the mechanisms within it are physically determined by antecedent events. Thus consciousness is composed of physical data, which is stored in a physical organ, both things being the subject of causation. Hence there is no part of the system that is not caused and therefore no human has control over the decisions which are produced by their data processing and further more, no human is conscious, just an animal, which has a brain, that produces outputs that describe an assumed conscious being. Free will is dependent on Acausation, which we know is impossible. Even asking the question, ‘what is consciousness?’ is a mistake, created by the assumption that consciousness is a thing at all.


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