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On Free Will, Fate, and a Science That Sways Juries

A new study shows how teaching people about neuroscience can make them softer on crime.
A sketch of a jury in Marietta, Georgia. (Photo: Matt Freedman/Flickr)

A sketch of a jury in Marietta, Georgia. (Photo: Matt Freedman/Flickr)

“A common opinion prevails that the juice has ages ago been pressed out of the free-will controversy, and that no new champion can do more than warm up stale arguments which everyone has heard,” declared the American philosopher William James. “That is a radical mistake. I know of no subject less worn out, or in which inventive genius has a better chance of breaking open new ground.”

Those words opened a speech, entitled “The Dilemma of Determinism,” that James gave to Harvard Divinity students in 1884. His point is as true now as it was then. To what extent are we free agents, independently making choices with purpose and with the responsibility that comes with them? To what extent are our choices the inevitable results of our environments, circumstances, and neurological and biological make-up?

The tug-of-war between free will and fate, and its implications for moral responsibility, remains an eternal one for philosophers. Likewise, social scientists continue their research into the psychology and neuroscience of choice, and its implications for crime and punishment.

Determinists, holding people less responsible for the circumstances that would have led them to commit the crimes, tended to emphasize therapy and reform efforts over harsh punishments.

As Pacific Standard has previously discussed, social science has lately revealed that a belief in the broadly-defined concept of “free will” can be linked to extroverted personalities, charitable giving, and a willingness to cheat on tests. Cognitive research has also slowly crept toward the hypothesis that free will is an illusion, and that our supposed choices are nothing more than the predetermined results of complicated series of synapses, but that’s another topic entirely.

Regardless of the extent to which free will exists, psychologists have been particularly occupied with the question of how a belief in free will changes a person’s attitudes toward punishment, as well as how these attitudes can be subtly steered. For instance, how does a judge’s preconceived views on free will affect his or her sentencing of criminals? Can cues or suggestions about free will influence the outcome of a jury?

In 1959, the sociologist Gwynne Nettler sought the answers to these questions in a study for an American Sociological Review article called “Cruelty, Dignity, and Determinism.” Nettler gave people questionnaires about their belief in free will on one hand, or determinism (the belief that choices are, to some extent, pre-determined) on the other. Another questionnaire asked the same people about what types of punishments they would recommend for certain crimes. As one might expect, the people who expressed a stronger belief in free will tended to put more weight on personal responsibility, and so also recommended harsher punishments for irresponsible behavior. Determinists, holding people less responsible for the circumstances that would have led them to commit the crimes, tended to emphasize therapy and reform efforts over harsh punishments.

Three and a half decades later, a group of researchers investigated a similar correlation, but rather than simply measuring it, they tried to see how they could manipulate it. Azim Shariff, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, along with seven colleagues, first took it as a given that most people do believe in free will. Then they studied the effects of teaching people about “the neural bases of human behavior”—that is, the biological evidence for determinism—on their attitudes toward punishment.

The researchers wanted to test “whether reduced belief in free will would lead people to see others’ bad behavior as less morally reprehensible, resulting in less retributive punishment.” In short, it worked. People who were primed with neuroscience lessons in a lab or a college classroom had their free-will beliefs reduced, and also chose less harsh punishments in hypothetical situations. The authors wrote about the implications their research could have in the legal realm:

The explicit existence of free will may be rarely debated in court, but neuroscientific evidence often is. Indeed, recent research showed that judges afforded shorter sentences to hypothetical psychopathic criminals when the description of the criminals’ psychopathy included a biomechanical component.... Our findings likewise suggest that merely presenting such a perspective may move judges and jurors toward being less punitive and less retributive in general.

This latest study by Shariff and his colleagues happened to affirm Nettler’s findings from 1959, but not every similar study has. A study conducted at Colorado State University in 1980, for example, actually yielded the opposite results. When given surveys about their belief in free will or determinism and about what punishment they would recommend for certain crimes, the subjects who more strongly believed in free will recommended harsher punishments than those who believed in determinism.

In trying to explain the discrepancy, the Colorado State psychologists pointed out that their study subjects were in different parts of their lives than those in Nettler’s study (college students, rather than older working professionals). Differences in maturity, life experience, and socioeconomic status may have played a part. But they also raised an interesting point: A belief in free will or determinism also applied to the personal responsibility of the punisher, and perhaps the people in the study had that side of the relationship in mind, too.

So, for the person who believes in free will, the question of punishment "represents a burdensome moral responsibility. Presumably, the person who administers punishment must be viewed as a free and responsible moral agent; as such, it would be imperative that punishment be administered prudently with due attention to fairness and justice. It would be irresponsible and unjust or perhaps immoral to administer it in excess."

But on the other hand, the determinist "would possibly be preoccupied with the pragmatic role of punishment in the control of behavior. With primary emphasis on the technology of control, the determinist could logically subordinate questions of justice and responsible use. For example, if an outsize dose of punishment works to control behavior effectively, it could be of minor concern that such a dose is unjust in terms of the magnitude of the crime."

The Colorado State psychologists also conceded the general difficulty of quantifying an issue as subjective as this one. People don’t have hard-line philosophies about free will and determinism; they make judgment calls based on the variables of the situation at hand, and based on their moods and any number of other factors. They’re inconsistent within the context of psychological studies, and they maintain double standards in their real lives.

“[There is] a commonly observed lack of consistency with respect to beliefs in free will and determinism,” the authors wrote in an article about their study in 1982. “Many of us are determinists when we reflect on reasons for our own mistakes and [believe in free will] when we reflect on mistakes of others.”