Free Will is Bunk? Then Don't Ask Me for Help

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Free will may be an illusion, but if so, it's one we might want to hold onto. New research confirms and expands upon a study from last year that links antisocial behavior with disbelief in the notion that we make our own decisions.

Neuroscientists have been suggesting for some time now that the sensation we experience of making decisions is largely, if not entirely, illusory. They tell us our actions are in fact determined by the unconscious interaction between our genes and our environment; our conscious minds are kept busy justifying the decisions that were made by internal forces beyond our control.

Perhaps because it goes against our perception of reality – or perhaps because it’s just too scary – this notion has yet to catch on in the popular culture. New research suggests that is a very good thing. Following up on the work of Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler, which we reported on last year, researchers led by psychologist Roy Baumeister of Florida State University have linked a lack of belief in free will to increased aggression and a reduced desire to help others.

Vohs and Schooler found that having test subjects read an essay debunking the notion of free will made them more likely to cheat on a test. Baumeister and his colleagues performed a similar experiment, in which some participants read statements supporting free will, while others read arguments opposing it. A third group read statements on other subjects entirely.

All the participants then read six scenarios in which they had the opportunity to help others, such as giving money to a homeless person or allowing someone to borrow their phone. On a scale of one to nine, they rated how likely they were to offer help in each situation.

Those who heard the anti-free-will statements “were less willing to help across an assortment of situations and opportunities,” the researchers report in the February 2009 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They add that the results were “independent of mood and emotion.”

In a second test, participants were rated on their underlying belief or disbelief in free will by their response to a series of statements. (One example: “What will be, will be – there’s not much you can do about it.”) They then listened to a radio interview with a young woman who had to drop out of college due to the sudden death of her parents. As they were leaving, they were given the opportunity to help the woman by helping her raise money.

Those who disbelieved in free will were less likely to volunteer to help the woman. Among those who did volunteer, the nonbelievers volunteered for fewer hours than those who felt they had control over their decisions.

“Volition and self control require the person to expend energy, and these expenditures enable them to act prosocially,” the researchers conclude. “Apparently disbelief in free will subtly reduces people’s willingness to expend that energy. Hence, disbelief in free will serves as a cue to act on impulse, a style of response that promotes selfish and impulsive actions.”

Baumeister and colleagues do not take a stand on whether free will is an objective reality. But they conclude that if it is an illusion, the benefits of better behavior “explain why society continues to find it useful to promote it.”