Thursday, August 21, 2008

Free-will and cheating

Now, I'm no fan of free-will (and I don't even get to decide that), but here is an interesting study on the effects of believing in free-will (or lack thereof):
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.”
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.
Before we jump to conclusions:
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.

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.
Read the full article here.


Don said...

In that last paragraph, do I detect a hypothesis that the qualities of belief in free will are bound up in culture? Sounds kind of similar to something else...

ungtss said...

Funny how so many "scientists" call their belief in determinism scientific, when it certainly can't be falsified ...

Salman Hameed said...

I partially agree with you. But you can argue the same point for believing in reasons that it is not deterministic, right?

It is an incredibly hard problem, but at the present time it is indeed mostly based on one's worldview, hopefully informed by reason (and scientific studies and philosophical treatises on the subject)

ungtss said...


I agree 100%. It also raises interesting questions that I don't yet have answers to about philosophical predispositions -- why do certain personality types gravitate toward determinism or free-will?

I don't think religion is the cause, because there are religious and non-religious in both the free-will and non-free-will camps. It must be something deeper -- perhaps some deep instinct or perception about the world ... childhood experience ... analysis or lack thereof ... i don't know, what do you think?

Anonymous said...

Personally I can't seem to fit the notion of 'free will' within the industrial complex of the brain.

If you consider that you are able to 'change your mind', then it's still a result of the brain working. On the other hand does the 'fact' that we don't have 'free will' makes it a fact that it's deterministic in a sense that we will be able to predict? What we can do in all the rest of nature so far is making a reasonable and scientific prediction. The prediction might not hold sway, but it is highly likely to do so (of course being stastic variable depending of what scientific area we a looking at). Could it not be the same for the brain? And therefore not determinstic in the sense that everything is 100 % predictable, but deterministic in the sense that it's motoric device.

ungtss said...

Soren: Could be. But how do we know the brain is a strictly motoric device until its behavior can be fully predicted and manipulated like any other machine?

Anonymous said...

Well 'manipulation' is on the market. 'Prediction' is improving. Why it's motoric is because we like concerning other objects of nature can explain the phenomena. We can explain how the sensation of the mind arises, how the visual motoric is working (and the other sensory aspects) etc.

The complete theory is not there yet, but personally I think it will come. The question is wether what will come first; the theory or the creation of robots with sensation of mind. You might call me optimistic :)

ungtss said...


I'm tracking:). You might say I'm pessimistic about that project, and optimistic that we choose:).

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