The Fault Really Does Lie in Our Stars

Students who were taught that free will is an illusion were more likely to cheat on tests, according to new research.
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Students who were taught that free will is an illusion were more likely to cheat on tests, according to new research.

In a 2002 New York Times essay, author John Horgan expressed his discomfort with recent neurobiological research suggesting free will is, in fact, an illusion. The conviction that we make our own choices “provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality,” he wrote. “It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes, or God.”

Indeed, a fatalistic belief system — an acknowledgment that unconscious forces actually govern our behavior, while our conscious minds keep busy forming retroactive justifications — would seem to undermine our sense of personal responsibility. If our actions are really determined by the complex interaction between our genes and the environment, doesn’t that free us from accountability?

Psychologists Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara decided to test this plausible but perturbing hypothesis. They set out to discover, first, whether students’ belief in free will could be easily shaken and, second, whether undermining that conviction would make them more likely to cheat on a test.

In a new paper published by the Association for Psychological Science, they answer: yes and yes. The suggestion that free will is illusory “had pretty substantial effects” in two different tests, according to Schooler. “We found that the more we reduced their belief in free will, the more they cheated.”

In the first test, conducted at the University of Utah, students were asked to read one of two passages by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Francis Crick. In the first, “he basically undermines belief in free will,” Schooler said. In the second, the subject does not come up.

The students were then asked to calculate the answers to a series of mathematical problems. They were told that, due to a programming glitch, the correct answer would appear on their computer screens as they were attempting to solve each equation. They were instructed to hit the space bar as soon as the answer appeared on the screen, which would cause it to disappear.

Which group was more honest? There wasn’t any contest. Students who read the anti-free-will essay were 45 percent less likely to press the space bar and thereby avoid cheating. Challenging their notion of personal control had immediate, and unwelcome, results.

“I think people maintain multiple worldviews,” Schooler said. “Think of a visual illusion, where the image is either a vase or two faces. You can shift back and forth (between which you perceive). I think people who have been indoctrinated into the scientific worldview maintain two separate ways of thinking about the mind. Giving them the deterministic argument shifts them from one perspective to the other.

“This rides on the coattails of a lot of research of late, showing that surprisingly small environmental cues can change people’s behaviors relatively substantially. All you have to do is mention a few cues that are associated with the elderly, and people walk more slowly. It doesn’t take a lot to shift people’s behavior, which is a little bit alarming.”

When Schooler and Vohs presented these results to other psychologists, they encountered some skepticism. “Some of our colleagues said it may not necessarily be that people were cheating,” Schooler said. “It may be that this instruction in determinism was making them more passive — and in this particular case, passivity translated into cheating.”

So he and Vohs, who by then were both teaching at the University of British Columbia, devised a second experiment. This time, students were split into three groups: One read arguments against the concept of free will, a second read statements supporting free will, and a third read passages that had nothing to do with the subject.

The students were presented with a set of reading comprehension, math and logic questions by an examiner, who then told them she had to run off to a meeting. She put them on the honor system, explaining they could score their own problems and pay themselves $1 (from an envelope in the room) for every correct answer.

“Once again, we found the pro-determinism statements increased cheating,” Schooler said, noting that the students who had been primed to deny free will took home far more money than the others. Members of that group paid themselves, on average, 30 percent more than did the students in the other two sections — although they did not perform any better on the test.

Schooler can think of at least two possible explanations for this. “One is belief in determinism is an all-encompassing excuse,” he said. “‘I couldn’t help it — it’s the way I’m wired.’ Ironically, that means they can do what they like. My intuition is this is not conscious, but either way, there’s a reduced sense of personal responsibility.

“The other possibility, which is related, is it undermines people’s capacity for exerting their will. They want to do something, but they no longer have the sense of control that they did before. You’ve pulled the rug out from under their will.”

Schooler cautions that these results should not be over-interpreted. Just because they cheated on a test does not mean these students’ moral compass was completely destroyed. “A number of my colleagues who are strong believers in determinism are nevertheless extremely moral individuals,” he noted.

And yet, he’s concerned.

“This suggests to me that the current scientific doctrine which is being strongly promoted from the ivory tower — namely, that we are nothing but a pack of neurons — may have important consequences for people’s behavior. A bit of caution making metaphysical claims based on the current state of scientific knowledge might be appropriate.”

As a follow-up, Schooler is collaborating with philosopher Daniel Dennett, who is currently serving as a Sage Fellow at UC Santa Barbara. “He advocates ‘compatibilism’ — the view that even though our actions are determined by our genes and our environment, we nevertheless maintain a moral responsibility and a certain kind of free will. I’m working on a project with him to see whether a passage that characterizes his view of free will and determinism would be less problematic in terms of encouraging cheating.”

Less problematic — but also less true? Schooler isn’t so sure. “I personally am not persuaded that the evidence unequivocally demonstrates free will is an illusion,” he said. “In my mind, the jury is still out.”