The Frontal Cortex has an interesting piece on how giving people information suggesting that neuroscience undermines our everyday concept of free will can alter our ethical behaviour.
The post discusses two experiments where participants had been given information suggesting that free will was an illusion – one passage taken from Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis that argues against the everyday concept of free will on the basis of neurobiology.
It seems even these relatively brief encounters with information arguing against free-will had a noticeable effect on behaviour:
It turned out that students who had read the anti-free will quote were significantly more likely to cheat on the mental arithmetic test; their exposure to some basic scientific spin – your soul is a piece of meat – led to an increase in amorality. Of course, this is a relatively mild ethical lapse – as Schooler notes, “None of the participants exposed to the anti-free will message assaulted the experimenter or ran off with the payment kitty” – but it still demonstrates that even seemingly banal materialist concepts can alter our ethical behavior.
In another study, information on a “disbelief in free will” reduced people’s willingness to help others and increased the amount of unhelpful behaviour toward others.
The issue of free will in neuroscience is complex, but it is interesting that the information provided doesn’t bear directly on the issue of whether it is best to help other people or not.
Science tends to assume that theories are not neutral in that they affect how we look at the world as researchers, but it is interesting to find out that this also happens on a personal psychological level as well.
Link to Frontal Cortex on ‘Free Will and Ethics’.