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: ‚Äú‚ÄòYou,‚Äô 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.‚Äù
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.