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.

Jazz no longer corrupting young people

A study published in the journal Pediatrics looked at the link between music preferences at age 12 and adolescent delinquency – finding that an early liking for ‘rebellious’ music predicted small scale anti-social behaviour like shoplifting, petty theft and vandalism.

Rebellious music turns out to be defined as variations of rock, hip-hop and electronica. But one of the interesting findings was that kids who liked jazz music were slightly less likely to be antisocial:

Although some music preferences were positively associated with delinquency, liking jazz at age 12 correlated negatively with delinquency (r = –0.12), but did not relate to age 16 delinquency.

Historically, this is interesting because jazz, at the height of its popularity, was widely linked to delinquency, drug-taking, insanity and sexual promiscuity:

Dig this:

The human organism responds to musical vibrations. This fact is universally recognized. What instincts then are aroused by jazz? Certainly not deeds of valor or martial courage, for all marches and patriotic hymns are of regular rhythm and simple harmony; decidedly not contentment or serenity, for the songs of home and the love of native land are all of the simplest melody and harmony with noticeably regular rhythm. Jazz disorganizes all regular laws and order; it stimulates to extreme deeds, to a breaking away from all rules and conventions; it is harmful and dangerous, and its influence is wholly bad.

That’s from the August 1921 edition of the Ladies Home Journal, one of the most widely read magazines of the time.

You’ll notice a lot of racism around the ‘jazz is bad’ vibe. This was picked up at the time as it happens.

However, I would guess that 50’s jazz, like modern rebellious music, could have had a statistical link to minor delinquency, but like today, it was probably not causal. Rebellious people gravitate toward rebellious music.

Jazz, however, aint no longer rebellious. In the popular imagination, it’s a soundtrack for beard-strokers, and the days of banging up a quarter gram of snow and downing a couple of bennies before losing it in a sweaty jazz joint are long gone.

In fact, it’s so no-longer-rebellious that it was the only type of music to predict lower delinquency.

One thing hasn’t changed though. The slightly awkward tone that sounds like your dad lamenting the death of proper music. With a tune. And lyrics. You know, proper lyrics, that tell a story.

The opening sentence of the Pediatrics study:

During the 1980s and 1990s, the loudest and most rebellious forms of rock (eg, heavy metal, gothic), African American music (hip-hop, particularly gangstarap), and electronic dance music (house, techno, hardhouse) were labeled by adults as “problem” music and perceived as promoting violence, substance use, promiscuous sex, blasphemy, and depression

Can I get a nice cup of tea from the massive tonight?

Link to study ‘Early Adolescent Music Preferences and Minor Delinquency’.

Madness and hallucination in The Shining

Roger Ebert’s 2006 review of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining turns out to be a brilliant exploration of hallucination, madness and unreliable witnessing in a film he describes as “not about ghosts but about madness and the energies it sets loose”.

Kubrick is telling a story with ghosts (the two girls, the former caretaker and a bartender), but it isn’t a “ghost story,” because the ghosts may not be present in any sense at all except as visions experienced by Jack or Danny.

The movie is not about ghosts but about madness and the energies it sets loose in an isolated situation primed to magnify them. Jack is an alcoholic and child abuser who has reportedly not had a drink for five months but is anything but a “recovering alcoholic.” When he imagines he drinks with the imaginary bartender, he is as drunk as if he were really drinking, and the imaginary booze triggers all his alcoholic demons, including an erotic vision that turns into a nightmare. We believe Hallorann when he senses Danny has psychic powers, but it’s clear Danny is not their master; as he picks up his father’s madness and the story of the murdered girls, he conflates it into his fears of another attack by Jack. Wendy, who is terrified by her enraged husband, perhaps also receives versions of this psychic output. They all lose reality together.

A psychologically insightful piece on one of the classics of psychological horror.

Link to Roger Ebert’s 2006 review of The Shining.

18 minutes of trauma

I’ve just found one of the best discussions on the importance and limits of the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder on a programme from the Why Factor on BBC World Service.

It’s a brief programme, only 18 minutes long, but packs in a remarkably incisive look at PTSD that tackles its causes, its cultural limits and its increasing use as an all-purpose folk description for painful reactions to difficult events.

Both compassionate and critical, it’s one of the best discussions of post-trauma and its diagnosis I have heard for a while.

As is typical for the internet-impaired BBC radio pages, the podcast is on an entirely different page, so you might want to download the mp3 directly.

Link to programme page and streamed audio.
mp3 of programme audio.

A war of biases

Here’s an interesting take on terrorism as a fundamentally audience-focused activity that relies on causing fear to achieve political ends and whether citizen-led community monitoring schemes actually serve to amplify the effects rather than make us feel safer.

It’s from an article just published in Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology by political scientist Alex Braithwaite:

A long-held premise in the literature on terrorism is that the provocation of a sense of fear within a mass population is the mechanism linking motivations for the use of violence with the anticipated outcome of policy change. This assumption is the pivot point upon and around which most theories of terrorism rest and revolve. Martha Crenshaw, for instance, claims, the ‘political effectiveness of terrorism is importantly determined by the psychological effects of violence on audiences’…

Terrorists prioritize communication of an exaggerated sense of their ability to do harm. They do this by attempting to convince the population that their government is unable to protect them. It follows, then, that any attempt at improving security policy ought to center upon gaining a better understanding of the factors that affect public perceptions of security.

States with at least minimal historical experience of terrorism typically implore their citizens to participate actively in the task of monitoring streets, buildings, transportation, and task them with reporting suspicious activities and behaviors… I argue that if there is evidence to suggest that such approaches meaningfully improve state security this evidence is not widely available and that, moreover, such approaches are likely to exacerbate rather than alleviate public fear.

In the article, Braithwaite presents evidence that terrorist attacks genuinely do exaggerate our fear of danger by examining opinion polls close to terrorist attacks.

For example, after 9/11 a Gallup poll found that 66% of Americans reported believing that “further acts of terrorism are somewhat or very likely in the coming weeks” while 56% “worried that they or a member of their family will become victim of a terrorist attack”.

With regard to community monitoring and reporting schemes (‘Call us if you see anything suspicious in your neighbourhood’) Braithwaite notes that there is no solid evidence that they make us physically safer. But unfortunately, there isn’t any hard evidence to suggest that they make us more fearful either.

In fact, you could just as easily argue that even if they are useless, they might build confidence due to the illusion of control where we feel like we are having an effect on external events simply because we are participating.

It may be, of course, that authorities don’t publish the effectiveness figures for community monitoring schemes because even if they do genuinely make a difference, terrorists might have the same difficulty as the public and over-estimate their effectiveness.

Perhaps the war on terror is being fought with cognitive biases.

Link to locked academic article on fear and terrorism.

It is mind control but not as we know it

The Headlines

The Independent: First ever human brain-to-brain interface successfully tested

BBC News: Are we close to making human ‘mind control’ a reality?

Visual News: Mind Control is Now a Reality: UW Researcher Controls Friend Via an Internet Connection

The story

Using the internet, one researcher remotely controls the finger of another, using it to play a simple video game.

What they actually did

University of Washington researcher Rajesh Rao watches a very simple video game, which involved firing a cannon at incoming rockets (and avoiding firing at incoming supply planes). Electrical signals from his scalp were recorded using a technology called EEG and processed by a computer. The resulting signal was sent over the internet, and across campus, to a lab where another researcher, Andrea Stocco, watches the same video game with his finger over the “fire” button.

Unlike Rao, Stocco wears a magnetic coil over his head. This is designed to invoke electrical activity, not record it. When Rao imagines pressing the fire button, the coil activates the area of Stocco’s brain that makes his finger twitch, thus firing the cannon and completing a startling demonstration of “brain to brain” mind control over the internet.

You can read more details in the University of Washington press release or on the “brain2brain” website where this work is published.

How plausible is this?

EEG recording is a very well established technology, and takes advantage of the fact that the cells of our brain operate by passing around electrochemical signals which can be read from the surface of the scalp with simple electrodes. Unfortunately, the intricate details of brain activity tend to get muffled by the scalp, and the fact that you are recording at one specific point in space, so the technology’s strength is more in telling us that brain activity has changed, rather than in saying how or exactly where brain activity has changed.

The magnetic coil which made the receiver’s finger twitch is also well established, and known in the business as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). An alternating magnetic field is used to alter brain activity underneath the coil. I’ve written about it here before.

The effect is relatively crude. You can’t make someone play the violin, for example, but activating the motor cortex in the right region can generate a finger twitch. So, in summary, the story is very plausible. The researchers are well respected in this area and open about the limitations of their research. Although the experiment wasn’t published in a peer-reviewed journal, we have every reason to believe what we’re being told here.

Tom’s take

This is a wonderful piece of “proof of concept” research, which is completely plausible given existing technology, but yet hints at the possibilities which might soon become available.

The real magic is in the signal processing done. The dizzying complexities of brain activity are compressed into an EEG signal which is still highly complex, and pretty opaque as to what it means – hardly mind reading.

The research team then managed to find a reliable change in the EEG signal which reflected when Rao was thinking about pressing the fire button. The signal – just a simple “go”, as far as I can tell – was then sent over the internet. This “go” signal then triggered the TMS, which is either on or off.

In information terms, this is close to as simple as it gets. Even producing a signal which said what to fire at, as well as when to fire, would be a step change in complexity and wasn’t attempted by the group. TMS is a pretty crude device. Even if the signal the device received was more complex, it wouldn’t be able to make you perform complex, fluid movements, such as those required to track a moving object, tie your shoelaces or pluck a guitar. But this is a real example of brain to brain communication.

As the field develops the thing to watch is not whether this kind of communication can be done (we would have predicted it could be), but exactly how much information is contained in the communication.

A similar moral holds for reports that researchers can read thoughts from brain scans. This is true, but misleading. Many people imagine that such thought-reading gives researchers a read out in full technicolour mentalese, something like “I would like peas for dinner”. The reality is that such experiments allow the researchers to take a guess at what you are thinking based on them having already specified a very limited set of things which you can think about (for example peas or chips, and no other options).

Real progress on this front will come as we identify with more and more precision the brain areas that underlie complex behaviours. Armed with this knowledge, brain interface researchers will be able to use simple signals to generate complex responses by targeting specific circuits.

Read more

The original research report: Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans: A Pilot Study

Previously at The Conversation, another column on TMS: Does brain stimulation make you better at maths?

Thinking about brain interfaces is helped by a bit of information theory. To read a bit more about that field I recommend James Gleik’s book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The rise of the circuit-based human

Image from Sociedad Española de NeuroCienciasI’ve got a piece in The Observer about how we’re moving towards viewing the brain as a series of modifiable brain circuits each responsible for distinct aspects of experience and behaviour.

The ‘brain circuit’ aspect is not new but the fact that neuroscience and medicine, on the billion-dollar global level, are reorienting themselves to focus on identifying and, crucially, altering brain circuits is a significant change we’ve seen only recently.

What many people don’t realise, is the extent to which direct stimulation of brain circuits by implanted electrodes is already happening.

Perhaps more surprising for some is the explosion in deep brain stimulation procedures, where electrodes are implanted in the brains of patients to alter electronically the activity in specific neural circuits. Medtronic, just one of the manufacturers of these devices, claims that its stimulators have been used in more than 100,000 patients. Most of these involve well-tested and validated treatments for Parkinson’s disease, but increasingly they are being trialled for a wider range of problems. Recent studies have examined direct brain stimulation for treating pain, epilepsy, eating disorders, addiction, controlling aggression, enhancing memory and for intervening in a range of other behavioural problems.

More on how we are increasingly focussed on hacking our circuits in the rest of the article.

Link to ‘Changing brains: why neuroscience is ending the Prozac era’.