The effect of diminished belief in free will

Studies have shown that people who believe things happen randomly and not through our own choice often behave much worse than those who believe the opposite.

Are you reading this because you chose to? Or are you doing so as a result of forces beyond your control?

After thousands of years of philosophy, theology, argument and meditation on the riddle of free will, I’m not about to solve it for you in this column (sorry). But what I can do is tell you about some thought-provoking experiments by psychologists, which suggest that, regardless of whether we have free will or not, whether we believe we do can have a profound impact on how we behave.

The issue is simple: we all make choices, but could those choices be made otherwise? From a religious perspective it might seem as if a divine being knows all, including knowing in advance what you will choose (so your choices could not be otherwise). Or we can take a physics-based perspective. Everything in the universe has physical causes, and as you are part of the universe, your choices must be caused (so your choices could not be otherwise). In either case, our experience of choosing collides with our faith in a world which makes sense because things have causes.

Consider for a moment how you would research whether a belief in free will affects our behaviour. There’s no point comparing the behaviour of people with different fixed philosophical perspectives. You might find that determinists, who believe free will is an illusion and that we are all cogs in a godless universe, behave worse than those who believe we are free to make choices. But you wouldn’t know whether this was simply because people who like to cheat and lie become determinists (the “Yes, I lied, but I couldn’t help it” excuse).

What we really need is a way of changing people’s beliefs about free will, so that we can track the effects of doing so on their behaviour. Fortunately, in recent years researchers have developed a standard method of doing this. It involves asking subjects to read sections from Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis. Crick was one of the co-discoverers of DNA’s double-helix structure, for which he was awarded the Nobel prize. Later in his career he left molecular biology and devoted himself to neuroscience. The hypothesis in question is his belief that our mental life is entirely generated by the physical stuff of the brain. One passage states that neuroscience has killed the idea of free will, an idea that most rational people, including most scientists, now believe is an illusion.

Psychologists have used this section of the book, or sentences taken from it or inspired by it, to induce feelings of determinism in experimental subjects. A typical study asks people to read and think about a series of sentences such as “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion”, or “Like everything else in the universe, all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules”.

The effects on study participants are generally compared with those of other people asked to read sentences that assert the existence of free will, such as “I have feelings of regret when I make bad decisions because I know that ultimately I am responsible for my actions”, or texts on topics unrelated to free will.

And the results are striking. One study reported that participants who had their belief in free will diminished were more likely to cheat in a maths test. In another, US psychologists reported that people who read Crick’s thoughts on free will said they were less likely to help others.

Bad taste

A follow-up to this study used an ingenious method to test this via aggression to strangers. Participants were told a cover story about helping the experimenter prepare food for a taste test to be taken by a stranger. They were given the results of a supposed food preference questionnaire which indicated that the stranger liked most foods but hated hot food. Participants were also given a jar of hot sauce. The critical measure was how much of the sauce they put into the taste-test food. Putting in less sauce, when they knew that the taster didn’t like hot food, meant they scored more highly for what psychologists call “prosociality”, or what everyone else calls being nice.

You’ve guessed it: Participants who had been reading about how they didn’t have any free will chose to give more hot sauce to the poor fictional taster – twice as much, in fact, as those who read sentences supporting the idea of freedom of choice and responsibility.

In a recent study carried out at the University of Padova, Italy, researchers recorded the brain activity of participants who had been told to press a button whenever they wanted. This showed that people whose belief in free will had taken a battering thanks to reading Crick’s views showed a weaker signal in areas of the brain involved in preparing to move. In another study by the same team, volunteers carried out a series of on-screen tasks designed to test their reaction times, self control and judgement. Those told free will didn’t exist were slower, and more likely to go for easier and more automatic courses of action.

This is a young research area. We still need to check that individual results hold up, but taken all together these studies show that our belief in free will isn’t just a philosophical abstraction. We are less likely to behave ethically and kindly if our belief in free will is diminished.

This puts an extra burden of responsibility on philosophers, scientists, pundits and journalists who use evidence from psychology or neuroscience experiments to argue that free will is an illusion. We need to be careful about what stories we tell, given what we know about the likely consequences.

Fortunately, the evidence shows that most people have a sense of their individual freedom and responsibility that is resistant to being overturned by neuroscience. Those sentences from Crick’s book claim that most scientists believe free will to be an illusion. My guess is that most scientists would want to define what exactly is meant by free will, and to examine the various versions of free will on offer, before they agree whether it is an illusion or not.

If the last few thousands of years have taught us anything, the debate about free will may rumble on and on. But whether the outcome is inevitable or not, these results show that how we think about the way we think could have a profound effect on us, and on others.

This was published on BBC Future last week. See the original, ‘Does non-belief in free will make us better or worse?‘ (it is identical apart from the title, and there’s a nice picture on that site). If the neuroscience and the free will debate floats your boat, you can check out this video of the Sheffield Salon on the topic “‘My Brain Made Me Do It’ – have neuroscience and evolutionary psychology put free will on the slab?“. I’m the one on the left.


  1. Posted October 1, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    There is a huge difference between a person who is made to read about not having a free will and a person who has integrated that fact into his self-image.

  2. Posted October 1, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Being under primary control of the primate brain makes free will an illusion. Consciousness is always the last to know what goes on. Taking conscious decisions are always influenced by the primate brain. You don’t like blue because you consciously decided you like blue, it’s because your primate brain likes it and makes you feel good about it. So you buy a blue sweater and not a red one.
    If someone bugs you and you punch him him, you didn’t do that, but your primate brain did that, leaving your consciousness to find an explanation why your body did that. You call that by lack of a real reason an impulse.

    No such thing as free will for you, a lot of free will for your primate brain.

  3. tomstafford
    Posted October 1, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    IMO once you are happy to identify the self solely with your conscious awareness you are screwed (conceptually, and probably morally as well)

  4. Ben Birkenkutscher
    Posted October 1, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    That neurobabble/no-free-will/primate-brain stuff will sooner or later die off and make room for the next science-based idology or whatever. But it is unpleasant to note that in the meantime these simplistic claims could have a detrimential effect on prosocial behaviour in those who fall for them…

    • Posted October 2, 2013 at 5:50 am | Permalink

      For that religion was invented. I suggest you invest some time finding a religion that better suits your hubris. I’m sure one of the monotheistic ones will provide all the answers/confirmations you seek on man’s superiority over all.

      • Ben Birkenkutscher
        Posted October 2, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

        There’s of corse no need to fall for any of these undercomplex “explainations”. I’ll rather stick to science than to neurobabble/primate brain/Jesus etc. stuff. See e.g. the Mason Kelsey posting below in this thread and note its differences to neurobabble.

      • Posted October 2, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

        In that case the science is clear. Homo sapiens is a primate with an overdeveloped brain leading to negative evolutionary results. Which Ofcourse is not to the liking of many people so they seek explanations with more grandeur then just a being fornication primate. Scientists being just people like everyone else they do the same. Some result in using denigrating terms such as neurobabble others come with varying farfetched explanations. But in the end, it’s all we are. Primates.

  5. kkeefner
    Posted October 1, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    The idea of determinism has a long lineage. Its latest notable heir is Sam Harris. I wrote a long essay about Harris’ book “Free Will,” which is available here:

    Also in my forthcoming book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life, there will be an essay on the psychology of people who think that values are given rather than coming from reason. Not quite determinism vs. free will, but very close.

  6. wayne rice
    Posted October 1, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Without study size, detailed results, test parameters, etc., this is fluff. I do not accept the premise I do not agree with the conclusion, and would appreciate some actual facts rather than this philosophy paper. Things are of course, not as they seem, however this is a very incomplete explanation.

  7. Posted October 1, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    I am so confused. For non-religious folks, where is this “free will” idea coming from?

    Let’s say an axe falls out of the sky and chops off my arm. My arm will bleed. It doesn’t have a choice. Similarly, I will react a certain way. But my brain didn’t cause the axe to fall, and I (my brain) had no way of knowing this would happen. So my brain reaction isn’t exactly pre-determined the way non free will is presented. This isn’t about fate, it’s about reactions.

    Sure everything in the universe may react in a reliable way, but fate or pre-determination is a human construct anyway.

    One study reported that participants who had their belief in free will diminished were more likely to cheat in a maths test

    Well, doesn’t this confirm that our “fate” is not pre-determined? The outcome would presumably be different had people not read arguments against free will.

    I guess what I’m saying is people could be compelled to stay generous and moral if they understood that it’s not fate but merely the way our brain function connects with behavior, which is really not controversial.

    Living systems are dynamic so there’s no need for people to feel so dreary about life.

  8. Frank john Reid
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    I have a certain reserve in accepting any conclusions reached by scientific papers that begin (in truthful English translation) with the statement, “The following lies were told to a group of undergraduates or other presumably naïve persons….”

  9. Peter
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Not believing in free will doesn’t mean believing things happen randomly. It’s like saying believing in evolution is the same as believing life happens randomly. It’s not random and it’s not free.

  10. Mason Kelsey
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    One of the perpetual misconceptions included in any discussion of free will vs. determinism is that they are opposites of each other. The opposite of determinism is indeterminism, which has nothing to do with free will, by any definition of free will. We clearly live in an indeterminate world otherwise we would be able to easily predict the world for all events, even though it is clear that we are limited to those events that can be reduced to a controlled environment and a scientific law/formula. On the other had, I have never found any definition of free will to be satisfactorily clear as to what is free and what it is free of. That subject-object definition of free will is simply filled with too many paradoxes and contradictions. Yes, we have the illusion of free will, but that is the consequence of a “self” that falsely thinks it is the center of the universe or at least the body. What Crick’s study seems to indicate is that any disruption of a mental illusion will have at lease some temporary negative impact. Well, so what other illusions have temporary negative impacts? I imagine most of them. How long lasting are the negative impacts? Probably as long as the person is unable to resolve all the loose ends, ramifications, and consequences of his elaborate zoo of beliefs all based on silly traditions and unverifiable nonsense.

    • Posted October 2, 2013 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

      Even if it is long term people need only know if they’re heading towards a healthier mental life. Studies (from what I understand) show that meditation and exercise can benefit brain function. If whatever-chemical-neuron firing gets them into a meditation class, they will know their life is on track. Whatever gets them on a better path (and in a better mood) may negate the idea that their “consciousness” is not “choosing” choices before their “brain”. Whatever the heck that means.

  11. Posted October 2, 2013 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Remember this :
    Even if everything is determined and there is no free will, in the end and before, you are still responsible for the decisions you make and the effects of those decisions.

    • Posted October 8, 2013 at 1:08 am | Permalink

      I agree. Doesn’t the research on social axioms suggest that there are cultural differences on belief in determinism? To say that determinists are less moral would be to say that people in these cultures are less moral, but that is hardly the case. So I think here it is definitely the case of people’s norms being challenged, as opposed to determinism being somehow primed. If that’s not a view they normally subscribe to, I doubt it could be truly manipulated.

  12. Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I think I ranted about this type of experiment over at Neuroskeptic a while back. The first commenter I think is on the right track: it is unclear to me whether the behavioural changes result from being exposed to determinism per se, or whether simply from having their moral norms challenged. My suggestion is that the experiments do not show lower levels of prosociality result from determinism; they show that people who have had their moral structures challenged feel less obliged to adhere to them. The analysis of the results has built its assumption into the conclusion: there is a presumption that determinism is incompatible with morality, and it is the determinism itself which is therefore presumed to be the causal agent in the reduced prosociality. However, if you believe (as I do) that is is perfectly possible to be moral, prosocial, and a determinist, you will not necessarily leap to name that as the causal vector; and it seems to me to more likely lie in the simple fact of challenge to the participants’ norms, not in the particular stance which was used for the challenge.
    As I said back then, control experiments are required, both in terms of challenging people’s moral norms with other, non-compatible but non-deterministic, and also challenges to determinists’ morality.

  13. Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    This is a very interesting article. Too academe. But should life be placed under the microscope? Should we be analyzed for everything we do? Why can’t we just accept that fact that flowers bloom and grass is green because that is what Nature intended them to be very much like It intended us to be what we are without being torn to bits and pieces to know why we are what we are. Sometimes randomness adds thrill to living.

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Okay, I’ll bite. If those are truly intended as questions, and if you wish to live like that, Joaseph, I don’t really think that’s a huge problem for me. The answer to them would be that some of us get our thrills exactly from learning and understanding; and that that learning and understanding can often be put to use in helping people, which is quite a good thing really. We have amazing brains, it seems a shame not to use them. I think it’s a bit sad when people embrace willful ignorance. But whatever makes you happy.
      However, what I think you’ve done here is assert a moral position to which you think we should adhere as questions, which is a bit disingenuous. I think you are implying that we shouldn’t analyse, that we shouldn’t seek to understand ourselves and the world we live in; in which case I reply (and you may interpret these questions and assertions should you chose): why can’t you live and let live? Why do you feel the need to insist that everyone approach life in the same way as you?

  14. amanda
    Posted October 5, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    An interesting example in how far not believing in free will can take you can be found in Southern Appalachia. Working on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I came across a bunch of murder cases between the Civil War and Great Depression in the area where TN, NC and VA meet. The perpetrators were all men who believed strongly in a Primitive Baptist doctrine of predestination. The belief has softened somewhat, but in those days it was a very grim Calvinist teaching that all things were ordained before creation, most people are damned, and there is nothing you can do about it. These men honestly believed not only that it was their fate to kill their enemy but that to resist the urge to kill was to resist God’s will in their lives. This belief not only allowed them to murder but let them go to the gallows with what seemed to be a clear conscience. Their attitude was that this was a hard deal, but it was God’s plan for them, and their job was to do as God wanted and accept it with good grace. Even when it included killing somebody and being executed yourself. The idea that maybe God might want you not to kill at all did not seem to cross their minds, and it was not until well into the 20th century that a preacher could preach that message and not get run off before he had time to finish the sermon.

    • Mason Kelsey
      Posted October 6, 2013 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      Amanda, that is fantastic research. Thank you for posting it. It raises the question of whether they had the concept of free will and rejected it in preference for predestination of a raw type or whether they never had a concept of free will to reject. Free will might have been an inconceivable concept for them. I have thought of beliefs, especially religious beliefs, as a means of identifying to what group/tribe/culture you profess loyalty. Predestination is a belief that could be used to determine that you were a member. Even understanding the concept of free will would be as impossible for them to conceive as believing themselves to being other than who they saw themselves as being. If so, and here the words get tricky, we cannot say they were not believing in free will but that they couldn’t believe in free will, a different matter.

    • Posted October 6, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Early Islam also wrestled with exactly this problem; but whereas Christian orthodoxy came down on the side of free will, Islam eventually came down strongly on the side of predestination. The early theologians known as the Qadarites and Mutazillah argued for a form of free will, in which man is not the author of his acts (he cannot be, since nothing happens without God’s willing it), but he does “generate” them. As far as I understand it, this is fairly close to the “two clocks” view of the post-Cartesians, in which man is free in his will, and God remains in control of the universe, but he has built it (with his prior knowledge of what we will freely will, bit of a tricky one that) such that the two perfectly overlap.
      The Mutazillah and Qadarites were declared heretical by the Ummayyad caliphs who rather favoured the idea that they could act as they please, as God had willed it and not they.

  15. Posted October 6, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    The best treatise on the subject of “free will” has been provided already in 1677 by Spinoza in his Ethics.
    Go read!

  16. Posted October 7, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    If all the choices are known, where is it that knowledge of choices is stored. Lack of free will is an illusion created by lack of attention. At best all we can say is that sometimes choice is programmed, sometimes it is not. The answer is simple, sometimes we have free will, and sometimes we do not have free will. The problem is the question itself, free will vs no will.

    A classic example would be given illistrated in the matrix movie, of red or blue pill?. We can go on to explain why someone chooses red or blue pill, and never think about the third choice, no pill.

    • Posted October 8, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      I think you may have missed the point a bit. The question is not a prior one of whether you CAN take blue pill, the red pill, or even just turn off the awful movie and do something constructive with your life. The question is, whether having taken whichever pill, or done whatever, the processes which led you to do so were fully determined by the neurochemical state of your brain behaving according to the ordinary laws of physics. If they were then free will, as usually understood as some kind of choice-making agent that is free from external (physical) influences, does not exist. If they were not, if some agent other than pure physics affected your behaviour, then this agent we could roughly call “free will.” The fact that, after the choice, you can imagine doing something different is no evidence that you actually could have done. What is imaginable should never be grounds for ontological claims.
      For me, as an atheist and a naturalist, the postulation of this agent is nonsensical and explanatorily unnecessary. Some atheists have attempted to locate free will within the indeterminacy of quantum phenomena; but I have to say to me this attempt to rescue a phenomena you might like to exist by placing it within the context of another phenomena not yet fully understood smacks of God-of-the-Gaps-ishness: it is using the incompleteness of our scientific knowledge to try and hang onto pre-scientific notions.
      None of this is to say that the language of free will is not useful, indeed necessary, to ordinary, day-to-day morality. The tendency towards the “my neurons made me do it” position is, I think, somewhat lamentable as it merges two different vocabularies: the explanatory vocabularies of science and the coercive/normative language of morality. Free will is fine as a concept within the latter; but just as the moral norms that we seek to assert don’t have (in my view) any independent ontological existence, neither does free will as the agent in selecting whether to adhere to them.

  17. Posted October 8, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Not sure what you mean?

    I said:
    The answer is simple, sometimes we have free will, and sometimes we do not have free will. The problem is the question itself, free will vs no will. ( Why does it have to be one or the other?)

    I then gave an example of how the question itself is a problem, in given situation where the agent is not fully aware of all the choices.

    Stephen Hawking
    “”I have noticed that even people who claim everything is predetermined and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”

  18. Posted October 9, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I didn’t see this in the post, so I wonder whether the tested agents were controlled against their pre-existing attitudes towards free will. It might make some difference if someone strongly (or weakly) believes he/she has free will, and then is exposed to “information” that undermines it, compared to someone who doesn’t believe in free will to begin with (or has no opinion). The post doesn’t characterize that control — was it done?

    I also agree with Frank john Reid, who has difficulties accepting any study based on ad-hoc fictions introduced to subjects in the lab. That is a standard technique in psych experiments and it may be useful sometimes — to tease out some general outline of factors that might affect behavior, let’s say — but a grain of salt is in order, especially since (above noted) pre-existing attitudes of the subjects may affect measurement and the study is almost worthless unless that baseline is controlled. occaminpartaveitsi makes basically the same point, and here’s a hat-tip to wayne rice along the same lines, asking how scientific the studies really were.

    My question is whether these studies have avoided such “unsicentific” pitfalls, or should they be redone more scientifically?

    Further, the points made by Mason Kelsey (re: negative effects of disruption of pre-existing illusions/beliefs) and psychbot who says “here it is definitely the case of people’s norms being challenged, as opposed to determinism being somehow primed” are valid criticisms, depending on how the studies were conducted. And Stuart Brown seconds that as well.

    Taken together, unless these challenges were met by the authors of the studies, it appears the only thing validly tested was the ability to influence test subjects’ attitudes based on something they read just before the relevant questions were asked.

    In the meantime, another problem indicated by Stuart Brown could be fatal to the experiment. In my mind, the effect of “belief in free will” is the intent of the study, but that gets muddied up by introducing a moral dimension to the test. First of all, making this connection between free will and moral behavior is an untested premise, basically a (metaphysical) assumption designed into the study. That is: a moral problem is presented to subjects, to test the effects of (belief in) free will. If the problem presented to subjects had been “choices between blue and red,” or something else outside the “moral domain” would the results be the same? Nominally, the study intended to examine the effects upon moral behavior of “belief in free will.” But this was done without controlling for effects of this belief on any other (less highly charged) form of behavior, as Stuart Brown is pointing out.

    And finally, I find it irritating that discussions in this morality/freewill subject matter tend to conflate the concept of (pre)determinism with the concept of causation. Also, the proper term for the beliefs of the religious nuts in Appalachia cited above is predestination. Scientists need to keep this stuff straight and correctly sorted out to design tests, evaluate results and conclude in a truly scientific manner. Otherwise we’re just philosophers.

  19. Ranjan
    Posted March 4, 2015 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    There is no such things as free will. Every thing is predetermined for infinite time because nothing happens randomly. There is a definite reason behind everything that happens. Whatever choices we make do not come out of blue just like stated above “Like everything else in the universe, all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement molecules”. The free will is only a concept and also an important parameter in making choices for those who take the idea of existence of free will into consideration while making decisions.

    Let’s take that above take into consideration where they experiment on test. Everything in that experiment starting from the idea of conducting experiment to concluding its results is already per determined. What I am trying to say that none of the participant had free will. They choose according to their conscious and subconscious mind told them which affected by all the parameters like their behavior, character, sate of mind, present environment, and also the idea of free will.

    And in the end I want to believe in free will at time when it is beneficial for myself and the society like being kind and nice in the above example. But if conflicts occur then I just have to forget about the idea of free will and take decisions according to other parameters which is again predetermined.

  20. Mason Kelsey
    Posted March 4, 2015 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    I really hate articles on “free will”. It is such a medieval concept that only has relevance to a dualistic concept of the soul or mind being somehow independent of the physical world.

    People, the opposite of free will is NOT determinism. The opposite of determinism is non-determinism and is an apt description of our world that is far too complex to be able to predict most events beyond simple physical and chemical experiments. Free will is the assumption of some mysterious agent that is above and beyond the physical non-deterministic world. It is an obsolete notion that cannot be verified, so it is only a belief and nothing more.

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