The idea that free will is largely an illusion is largely confined to the worlds of neuroscience and philosophy. But ethicists fear that, if and when it reaches the wider public, we could see a dangerous drop in morality.
Previous research has confirmed those fears, finding people who disbelieve in free will are less likely to volunteer, and more likely to cheat on tests, than those who feel more in control of their actions. This makes intuitive sense: If we're not accountable for our actions, why not just follow our impulses, including the dark ones?
But new research reaches a very different conclusion. In a series of studies, it finds no relationship between moral behavior and one's belief in free will, or lack thereof.
"The association between free-will beliefs and moral behavior may be greatly overstated," write University of Melbourne psychologist Damien Crone and University of Oxford philosopher Neil Levy. "There is good reason to doubt that free-will beliefs have any substantial implications for everyday moral behavior."
The researchers describe their unexpected findings in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Their four studies, all conducted online, featured a total of 921 people.
All of the studies included a survey in which participants indicated their belief in free will (or lack thereof). Using a one-to-seven scale, they reported their level of agreement with such statements as "Your genes determine your fate" and "I believe the future has already been determined by fate."
They then provided participants various ways to engage in morally questionable behavior. All four had some version of a "charity dictator game," in which they could keep a small amount of money or donate it to charity. Three of them also included "a dice cheating task, in which participants had the opportunity to lie without detection to earn a bonus."
"Across two measures of free-will beliefs and all studies, we found no correlation with pro-social or antisocial behavior," the researchers report. To the contrary, those with a stronger belief in free will were slightly less generous on average than other participants.
All in all, "free-will beliefs were neither clearly associated with increased generosity nor reduced cheating," they conclude. "Any potential association between free-will beliefs and moral behavior is likely to be much smaller and/or more context-sensitive than previously suggested."
Crone put it more directly in announcing the findings. "Of all the things that might predict moral behavior," he said, "belief in free will is probably a long way down the list."
And that's reassuring, no matter if you believe he actively decided to make that statement, or was driven to do so by forces beyond his control.