Francis Crick inadvertently raises criminal robot army

Scientific American’s Mind Matters blog covers an interesting study that found that altering people’s belief in free will also altered the likelihood of participants being dishonest in a test of mental ability.

To achieve this, the study used part of Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis that argues against the everyday concept of free will on the basis of neurobiology.

Half of the participants got a passage saying that there is no such thing as free will. The passage begins as follows: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”

The passage then goes on to talk about the neural basis of decisions and claims that ‚Äú…although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.‚Äù The other participants got a passage that was similarly scientific-sounding, but it was about the importance of studying consciousness, with no mention of free will.

After reading the passages, all participants completed a survey on their belief in free will. Then comes the inspired part of the experiment. Participants were told to complete 20 arithmetic problems that would appear on the computer screen. But they were also told that when the question appeared, they needed to press the space bar, otherwise a computer glitch would make the answer appear on the screen, too. The participants were told that no one would know whether they pushed the space bar, but they were asked not to cheat.

The results were clear: those who read the anti-free will text cheated more often! (That is, they pressed the space bar less often than the other participants.) Moreover, the researchers found that the amount a participant cheated correlated with the extent to which they rejected free will in their survey responses.

I wonder how specific this is to a general belief in us lacking free will, or whether it’s more specifically to do with a similar belief but which is particularly tied up with the mechanistic concept that Crick discusses – i.e. we’re all just the function of lots of little parts.

The reason I’m wondering this is because the twelve-step approach to addiction recovery has two free-will reducing principles at its core – namely an admission that you are not in control of your addiction and the belief that you have to give yourself up to a ‘higher power’.

The Mind Matters article goes on to discuss the various interpretations of the study and how it fits with our understanding of the philosophy of free will.

Link to Mind Matters on ‘Free Will vs. the Programmed Brain’ (via fc).
pdf of full text of study.

4 Comments

  1. DHM
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Surely you mean Francis Crick?

  2. Posted August 20, 2008 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi DHM,
    You’re quite right. Egregious error now corrected – many thanks!

  3. alleycatsphinx
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    This is all well and good, but I can’t help but think the passage about freewill is factually wrong. It’s really only ascribing agency to the neurons and isolating the “individual” from a concept of social oversight (be it god, or fate, or whatever.)
    This is a socially isolating statement, and I should guess that socially isolating statements lead to cheating far more directly than ones regarding “free will.”
    A more correct understanding would break the paradigm of agency and deconstruct the idea of an “individual,” explaining that the neurons do what they will because of our ongoing social interactions with people and our environment, and that it’s all mediated by the results of millions of years of continuing evolution. A concept of freewill that emphasizes “oneness” might very well show opposite results social behavior.
    It would be more factually accurate by any well thinking determinist reckoning, too. If we’re going to do experiments that make sweeping statements about “freewill.” we ought to at least comprehend it fully.
    Sorry for the little rant, but it’s a pet peeve of mine ;)

  4. bkurilko
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    I’m starting to get tired of how often this “pack of neurons” are so uncredited. How can this possibly be viewed as some less-than-ordinary thing? Obviously the human mind has proven time and time again how creative and ingenious it can be. Believing that there’s some extra super-awesome layer at work (the soul) just seems so ridiculous to me. If drinking a coke can change my behavior, it’s probably because of the caffeine, and not some magical relationship between the coke brand and my eternal soul.
    In the future I hope we can all come to a consensus as to how amazing these “packs of neurons” really are, and respect them as such. It seems like any time I read something that even remotely touches on this subject, the notion that we’re purely biological beings is pretty much ridiculed. I just don’t understand why people find it so insulting that those could simply be the facts.


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