In a clever new study, psychologists Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara tested this question by giving participants passages from The Astonishing Hypothesis, a popular science book by Francis Crick, a biochemist and Nobel laureate (as co-discoverer, with James Watson, of the DNA double helix). Half of the participants got a passage saying that there is no such thing as free will. The passage begins as follows: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”Before we jump to conclusions:
The passage then goes on to talk about the neural basis of decisions and claims that “…although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.” The other participants got a passage that was similarly scientific-sounding, but it was about the importance of studying consciousness, with no mention of free will.
After reading the passages, all participants completed a survey on their belief in free will. Then comes the inspired part of the experiment. Participants were told to complete 20 arithmetic problems that would appear on the computer screen. But they were also told that when the question appeared, they needed to press the space bar, otherwise a computer glitch would make the answer appear on the screen, too. The participants were told that no one would know whether they pushed the space bar, but they were asked not to cheat.
The results were clear: those who read the anti-free will text cheated more often! (That is, they pressed the space bar less often than the other participants.) Moreover, the researchers found that the amount a participant cheated correlated with the extent to which they rejected free will in their survey responses.
Philosophers have raised questions about some elements of the study. For one thing, the anti-free will text presents a bleak worldview, and that alone might lead one to cheat more in such a context (“OMG, if I’m just a pack of neurons, I have much bigger things to worry about than behaving on this experiment!”). It might be that one would also find increased cheating if you gave people a passage arguing that all sentient life will ultimately be destroyed in the heat death of the universe.Read the full article here.
On the other hand, the results fit with what some philosophers had predicted. The Western conception idea of free will seems bound up with our sense of moral responsibility, guilt for misdeeds and pride in accomplishment. We hold ourselves responsible precisely when we think that our actions come from free will. In this light, it’s not surprising that people behave less morally as they become skeptical of free will. Further, the Vohs and Schooler result fits with the idea that people will behave less responsibly if they regard their actions as beyond their control. If I think that there’s no point in trying to be good, then I’m less likely to try.