Philosophers are trained to think things through logically and reach conclusions based solely on reason. But as science provides increasing evidence for the interconnectivity of mind, body and emotions, is that sort of intellectual objectivity truly possible?
A newly published study suggests the answer is no — at least when it comes to addressing one fundamental issue. It finds deep thinkers with a specific type of personality — warm and extraverted — are more likely to believe that free will remains a viable concept, even in the light of research suggesting our behavior is largely determined by unconscious impulses.
While this may sound like a theoretical argument, the researchers, led by Eric Schulz of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, argue it has potentially profound implications. If expert opinion is partly a matter of personality, it negates the notion that trained specialists can and do provide cool, clear-minded assessments of the facts — a concept that is at the foundation of our legal system.
“Even highly skilled professionals such as lawyers, judges, ethicists and philosophers may not be immune to the influence of their different personalities,” they write in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. One could easily add other experts to that list, including economists, sociologists — and journalists.
Schulz’s co-authors, Adam Feltz and Edward Cokely, initially raised this issue in a 2008 paper. In an experiment featuring 58 undergraduates, they found a link between extraversion and the belief that free will and moral responsibility are compatible with current science.
This new paper features a similar experiment, but uses a different pool of participants: 121 individuals recruited via an online survey platform at the Max Planck Institute. “We advertised our study via academic philosophy and psychology mailing lists in Germany that are used to advanced students (undergraduate and graduate) and faculty in psychology and philosophy,” they write.
In other words, people who have been trained how to think scientifically.
Participants first completed a survey designed to measure their level of extraversion — a personality trait that “consists of six facets, including warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity, excitement-seeking and positive emotion,” the researchers note.
They then read two paragraphs describing research in neuroscience providing evidence for a deterministic philosophy. “Many respected neuroscientists … think that whenever we are trying to decide what to do, the decision we end up making is completely caused by the specific chemical reactions and neural processes occurring in our brains,” reads one sentence.
Finally, they were presented with a short scenario about a man named John who kills a shop owner “because he needs money.” They were asked to rate their level of agreement on three statements: John is morally responsible for his action; John did it because of his own free will; John’s decision was up to him.
The researchers found extraversion was “a reliable predictor” of belief in free will. They added that “One specific facet of extraversion — warmth — was found to be primarily responsible for extraversion’s predictive power.”
“The effect of personality on intuitions about free will and moral responsibility persisted for those who had some expert knowledge about the free will debate,” they write. “At a minimum, our results suggests that one important factor in expertise (reproducible and verifiable knowledge) does not reduce the effects of at least one extraneous factor (personality) on judgments of freedom and moral responsibility.”
If these results hold up, they could pose a challenge for the legal system, with its need for impartiality. A jury that is largely composed of extraverts “may be more willing to hold a person morally responsible for an action, even if the person could not have don anything to prevent the action from coming about,” they write. “Extraverts may be less likely to evaluate excusing conditions for bad actions,” even when doing so might be appropriate.
So, at the very least, the researchers have come up with a new tool for jury consultants. But in exploring the implications of their findings, they have cast their net far wider.
“The current results may help us understand why some philosophical debates never seem to go away,” Schulz and his colleagues write. “Studies suggest that individual differences in personality are partly or even largely heritable. (Since personality influences our intuitive beliefs), it seems as if the philosophical view one ends up endorsing will be partially a function of what personality one has inherited.
“As a result,” they add, “many philosophical debates would continue through the ages, and few would be resolved by reason alone.”
I’d argue the point, but given your personality, you’d never understand.