Does eroding belief in free will cause cheating? Failure to replicate a famous result.

March 24, 2013 • 8:24 am

In his essay written for receiving the Erasmus Prize, “Erasmus: Sometimes a Spin Doctor is Right“, Dan Dennett argues that the idea that free will is merely an illusion—an idea promulgated by bad people like Sam Harris and me—is deleterious to society:

There is—and has always been—an arms race between persuaders and their targets or intended victims, and folklore is full of tales of innocents being taken in by the blandishments of sharp talkers. This folklore is part of the defense we pass on to our children, so that they will become adept at guarding against it. We don’t want our children to become puppets!  If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use—we are all already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful, mistake.

. . . the deep conviction Erasmus and I share: we both believe that the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate social consequences if not rebutted forcefully.

And on Point of Inquiry, Dec. 12, 2011, Dennett told John Shook the same thing:

“We certainly don’t want people disabling themselves with bad science. . . so I think this [claims that fee will is an illusion] is a very serious issue.

Similarly, in a piece at “Cross-Check,” his Scientific American website, John Horgan, while going after me, also argues that it’s bad for society to embrace determinism:

A recent experiment shows that belief in free will has measurable consequences. The psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler asked subjects to read a passage by Francis Crick , co-discoverer of the double helix, that casts doubt on free will. Crick wrote in The Astonishing Hypothesis (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993) that “although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.” Subjects who read this passage were more likely to cheat on a test than control subjects who read a passage about brain science that did not mention free will. Mere exposure to the idea that we are not really responsible for our actions, it seems, can make us behave badly.

This all reminds me of the famous (and possibly apocryphal) response of the wife of the Bishop of Worcester when her husband told her of Darwin’s theory that humans evolved from apes. “My dear, descended from the apes!” she said. “Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known.”

And it all supports my notion that one motivation for promulgating “compatibilist” free will (i.e., the view that pure determinism of human actions is still compatible with some conceptions of free will) is that if people learned that their actions are predetermined, and that dualistic free will did not exist, they’d either behave like beasts or lapse into torpor and nihilism. (This is, of course, the same argument that religious creationists use against evolution.) Yes, I know that compatibilism preceded these psychological studies, but look at the quotes above again. An insistence on incompatibilism is, as Horgan and Dennett argue, bad for society.

Many others agree with them, often cite as support the Vohs and Schooler paper (reference and link to download below) supposedly proving the deleterious effects of incompatibilism. Here’s the abstract of that paper:

Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.

Well, a new research team has repeated the Vohs and Schooler experiment, and couldn’t repeat their results. In the new study, reading about determinism had no effect on cheating. The work was done by Rolf Zwaan at the University of Rotterdam, as part of a university class on cognition. He describes the results on his website:

In V&S’s study, subjects in the AFW condition [those having read Crick’s view that free will is an illusion] reported weaker free will beliefs (M = 13.6, SD = 2.66) than subjects in the control condition [Crick’s “neutral text”] (M = 16.8, SD = 2.67).  In contrast, we found no difference between the AFW condition (M = 25.90, SD = 5.35) and the control condition (M = 25.11, SD = 5.37), p = .37. Also, our averages are noticeably higher than V&S’s.
How about the effect on cheating?
V&S found that subjects in the AFW condition cheated more often (M = 14.00, SD = 4.17) than subjects in the control condition (M = 9.67, SD = 5.58), p < .01, an effect of almost one standard deviation! In contrast, we found no difference in cheating behavior between the AFW condition (M = 4.53, SD = 5.66) and the control condition (M = 5.97, SD = 6.83), p = .158. Clearly, we did not replicate the main effect. It is also important to note that the average level of cheating we observed was much lower than that in the original study.
V&S reported a .53 correlation between scores on the Free Will subscale and cheating behavior. We, on the other hand, observed a nonsignificant .03 correlation.

In short, Vohs and Schooler’s result, used to buttress the value of compatibilism, is now in doubt.  Do note, though, that Zwaan hasn’t yet published his result in a peer-reviewed journal, so this failure of replication must remain tentative. I’ll write Zwaan and ask if they’re going to publish this result.

In another post, Zwaan describes why his group’s result might have differed from that of Vohs and Schooler.  First, there is sample size:

We ran the experiment on Mechanical Turk, using 150 subjects. This should give us awesome power because the original experiment used 30 subjects and the effect size was large (.82).
And then the nature of the subject population.
One obvious difference between our findings and those of V&S is in subject populations. Our subjects had an average age of 33 (range 18-69) and were native speakers of English residing in the US (75 males and 77 females). The distribution of education levels was as follows: high school (13%), college no-degree (33%), associate’s degree (13%), bachelor (33%), and master’s/PhD (8%).

How about the subjects in the original study? V&S used… 30 undergraduates (13 females, 17 males); that’s all it says in the paper. Kathleen Vohs informed us via email that the subjects were undergraduates at the University of Utah. Specifically, they were smart, devoted adults about half of whom were active in the Mormon Church. One would think that it is not too trivial to mention in the paper. After all, free will is not unimportant to Mormons, as is shown here and here. It is quite true that Psychological Science imposes rather stringent word limits but still…

Surprisingly, the subject population (largely Mormons) was not described in the Vohs and Schooler paper!  There is simply no excuse for that; it’s sloppy writing.

Zwaaan describes other differences in the experiments that could have affected the results. For example, Zwaan’s study was online while Vohs and Schooler’s (V&S) was in the lab.  V&S also employed a fake “computer glitch” that could allow for cheating, and thus there was acting involved. Zwaan says this might be telling, and makes the rather strong claim that V&S’s failure to adequately explain their protocol was “voodo experimentation”:

But there is a bigger point. If the large effect reported in the original study hinges on the acting skills of the experimenter, then there should be information on this in the paper. The article merely states that the subjects were told of the glitch. We incorporated what the students were told in our instruction. But if it is not the contents of what they were told that is responsible for the effect but rather the manner in which it is told, then there should be information on this. Did the experimenter act distraught, confused, embarrassed, or neutrally? And was this performance believable and delivered with any consistency? If the effect hinges on the acting skills of an experimenter, experimentation becomes an art and not a science. In addition to voodoo statistics, we would have voodoo experimentation. (A reader of this post pointed me to this higly relevant article on the ubiquity of voodoo practices in psychological research.)

Zwaan’s conclusion?

So where does this leave us? The fact that the large (!) effect of the original study completely evaporated in our experiment cannot be due to (1) the age or education levels of the subjects, (2) subjects not reading the manipulation-inducing passages (if reading times are any indicator), and (3) subjects’ awareness of the manipulation. The original paper provides no evidence regarding these issues.

The evaporation of the effect could, however, be due to (1), the special nature of the sample of the original sample (2) the undocumented acting skills of a real-life experimenter (voodoo experimentation), or of course (3) the large effect being a false positive. I am leaning towards the third option, although I would not find a small effect implausible (in fact, that is what I was initially expecting to find).

He also observes that another researcher is replicating the V&S experiment.

I emphasize again that Zwaan’s study hasn’t been peer-reviewed or published, and until it has we shouldn’t conclude that the V&S paper is deeply questionable. However, I am disturbed at the lack of replication, which may be a common feature of such small-scale psychological experiments.  These studies often use college students, and it’s not clear how representative they are of people as a group (or even Westerners as a group). Small sample size is also an issue.

In an ideal world, every experiment would be replicated, and in molecular  or evolutionary genetics such replication is often inherent in later studies, which frequently build on earlier ones. But in psychology—and much of evolutionary biology and ecology—there’s no professional payoff in repeating what someone else has done. Because such experiments often involve special populations or locations, I’ve often mused that replicating most evolutionary or ecological experiments using different materials and/or locales (or even the same ones!) would probably give the original result only about 30% of the time. (That’s just pure speculation on my part.)  Remember that when you use conventional statistical criteria, you’ll get false positives at least 5% of the time. What I’m saying here is that we should be wary of single studies with flashy results that nobody tries to repeat.

In this case, we should be wary of using the V&S experiment to argue that belief in determinism has inimical effects for society. But even if it did, I can’t countenance hiding our belief in determinism—a belief shared by Dennett and many compatibilists—from the general public on the grounds that it’s bad for society.  That’s simply condescending. The truth is the truth, and shouldn’t be suppressed. And, of course, there are some potentially positive effects of accepting determinism and the idea that free will is an “illusion” (i.e., not the dualistic behavior it seems to many people). Those positive effects include salubrious reforms of the criminal justice system and the demolition of an important cornerstone of religion.

This is all independent of whether one can philosophically forge a compatibilist notion of free will. To me that endeavor is futile and incoherent, though others disagree. Nevertheless, such an endeavor should derive from philosophical motivations alone rather from some supposed effect of incompatibilism on society.

h/t: Stephen O.
Vohs, K. D., and J. W. Schooler. 2008. The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychol. Sci. 19:49-54.

105 thoughts on “Does eroding belief in free will cause cheating? Failure to replicate a famous result.

    1. I wrote two books on evolution, lots of articles, working on a book about random drift that Jerry will hate, yet all were done with human free will. Phooey on the theme that we will not work with no free will.

  1. The idea that disbelieve in a free will is somehow bad for society suffers from the moralistic fallacy. If even it were true (this hypothesis) then still it does not prove the existence of a free will. An analogy: earthquakes are obviously bad for society, however they certainly exists.

    1. Mordanicus,

      <i<"The idea that disbelieve in a free will is somehow bad for society suffers from the moralistic fallacy. "

      No it doesn’t. What you just wrote does not contain a “moralistic fallacy.” It doesn’t even contain an argument – let alone represent actual arguments from compatibilists like Dennett (or any compatibilists here).

      Why bother with such strawmen?


  2. Doesn’t the very idea that a widespread disbelief in free will will have a deleterious effect on behavior establish an underlying expectation in favor of determinism? If people behave badly because they believe they can’t help themselves, isn’t that evidence against free will?

      1. I didn’t miss the point, I’m making another point: the argument from consequences against free will is inherently self-abnegating, as it intrinsically relies on an unspoken assumption of a lack of free will.

  3. The thing that keeps puzzling me in the free will debate is the role of environment. Clearly environment, including education, does affect the way people behave. Is this just changing the patch-cords on human deterministic wiring? Dunno. It does keep me from loosing sleep about the outcome of the debate (I almost said ‘about whether there really is a dog’).

    Specific to this experiment, I think the fact that the subject group was religious (I assume as Mormons) is important. From what I’ve seen and read, people who are raised religiously, especially evangelicals, have no mental preparation for the idea that their belief-system (in this case free will) isn’t true. Or rather they expect that the opposite of god is licentiousness. Because they never think about a source for moral decision making outside their church, I wouldn’t be surprised if many religious people’s reaction to determinism was to run off the rails.

    1. They might even react the same way if mind/body dualism is taken away from them:

      “I didn’t decide to cheat, teacher — my brain made the decision!”

      I think the solution is the same in both cases. They need to correct the framework in which they place their concept of “me.”

      1. They might even react the same way if mind/body dualism is taken away from them:
        “I didn’t decide to cheat, teacher — my brain made the decision!”

        But that excuse is inherently dualistic, since “I” and “my brain” are considered to be different. So it certainly does not fit with :if mind/body dualism is taken away.”

        1. I thought it was a decent analogy – someone failing to properly understand what it’d mean to give up dualism as an analogy to people failing to properly understand what it would mean to give up free will.

  4. I could get a lot more exercised about how the Proles will react to learning that they don’t have Freedom Willies if somebody — anybody! — could explain to me what, exactly, a “will” is and what it’s supposed to be “free” of.



    1. Here’s an attempt – ‘will’ is a non-physical entity which nevertheless has a causal influence on behavior (ridiculous, but that’s the idea, right?). What is ‘will’ free of? Simple – causal determination by the laws of physics.

      Well, what *does* determine what ‘will’ decides? Perhaps ‘character’? But then, isn’t character also subject to influences external to the individual? So I’m not trying to argue that the above notion of free will ‘does the work’ that is hoped of it – we can’t ourselves be the sources of our own characteristics, because this leads to an infinite regress. So I think ‘free will’ fails to make us really ‘free’, but the above is my understanding of what it is supposed to mean.

  5. “an idea promulgated by bad people like Sam Harris and me”

    The idea that free will exists is promulgated by “bad people” like the clergy in the Catholic Church. Even when I was still buying into Catholic propaganda, I questioned the idea that free will exists, but God knows what we will do before we do it. It is religion that is “is deleterious to society.”

    1. Despite the importance of free will in resonding to the Problem of Evil (see the Susan Jacoby interview linked in another thread) the term “free will” does not appear anywhere in the Bible, and several examples can be identified of Yahweh ‘hardening someone’s heart’ in a manner which clearly shows no regard for free will, so that He can show off or punish them.

  6. I disagree that widespread rejection of free will is bad, and I agree that getting the answer right is more important anyway. But understanding that people are not the conscious authors of their thoughts and actions has some very interesting implications not just for the criminal justice system, but also for social welfare policy. Also, the philosophical underpinnings of capitalism depend upon free will. Capitalism justifies inequality on the basis of desert, after all. But without free will, there is no desert. It’s all just luck. Capitalism purports to reward the virtues of hard work, intelligence, commitment, dedication, etc., but without free will, no one has any control over how hard-working, intelligent, committed, or dedicated they happen to be.

    Basically, I think it matters very much whether or not free will is an illusion. If it is, we need to know that, because that will require us to redesign (or at least reconsider) many of our public institutions to take that into account.

    1. As far as I can tell the existence or non-existence of free will would make no difference to any individual or group of individuals themselves because the world looks the same either way when you’re close up and living it. You only see the distinction when you step back objectively and look at the Big Picture.

      Without “free will” God could not place blame on people. The responsibility now spreads out too far: instead of trees, you see forest.

      1. Of course an omnipotent god could place blame on people without free will, whatever it is: to deny that is to deny omnipotence. Indeed, in Calvinist theology (if I understand correctly), if you are of the elect it depends on the gift of the god, “lest any man should boast.”

  7. Isn’t it all just semantics, whether you call it free will or not? I don’t imagine that Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have any essential disagreement on how brains actually work, at least in respect to how far the science reaches.

    It leaves me baffled that people spend so much time arguing about the meaning of words. Surely they only have meaning in far as they attach to concepts. Perhaps we should just invent another phrase and use that to describe the current scientific consensus on brain functionality.

    1. Your post here is baffling to me. Clearly people are concerned about and arguing over concepts. Certainly some use arguments hinged upon semantics, but if there was agreement on the concepts there would be no argument at all.

      1. People are destined to disagree because of their DNA and brain structures. Dennett, Harris, and Coyne would find something to disagree about even if they seemingly agreed about everything because it’s their destiny.

      2. When you have described how brains work, that’s as much as you can do. All the participants (including Dennett) agree that brains are deterministic and that brain function arises from the matter of which the brain consists. If the brain, then, is a deterministic machine and makes deterministic choices then we have free will if you define deterministic choices as “free”, not if you don’t. “Free will” outside of a dualistic approach to mind is just a question of definition.

        1. Exactly! +1

          I think there are two different referents of the term “free will” in use here.

          The compatibilists seem content with externally observing certain types of human behavior, and allowing “free will” to refer to that behavior, irrespective of its causes. I think this is a kind of devaluation of the original use and meaning of the term “free will”, which amounted to some kind of cosmic explanation of apparent human decision making freedom and control.

          The incompatibilists think the term “free will” should refer to some facility, structure, process, or mechanism in the brain that is in some way free from determinism, or that in some way provides latitude or play that enables us to go beyond what is determined by the physical state of the brain. Then they deny this exists, because they are good and reasonable determinists.

          There are some who go by the name compatibilist who disagree to a greater or lesser extent with determinism. I’m excluding them. I’m just talking about those who fully embrace determinism.

          I have long felt that the urgency of the compatibilist view is like a desperate Hail Mary made to rescue either professional commitment, or based on the condescending view that people in general can’t handle the truth. Either way, this insistence that the apparent freedom in intelligent behaviors is deserving of the name “free will” just doesn’t add up for me.

          1. I think this is a caricature of compatibilism, which at bottom simply asks, What behavioral phenomena do people refer to when they talk about “free will” in ordinary speech? And is there a naturalistic explanation for those phenomena?

            Compatibilists think the answer to the second question is Yes, in which case there’s no reason not to go on calling those phenomena “free will”. You may disagree with this stance, but that doesn’t make it a trick or a Hail Mary.

          2. It’s hard for me to see any real difference between this:

            The compatibilists seem content with externally observing certain types of human behavior, and allowing “free will” to refer to that behavior, irrespective of its causes.

            and this:

            What behavioral phenomena do people refer to when they talk about “free will” in ordinary speech?

            In what way is it a caricature? I thought it was a fair description of what compatibilists do: they identify some set of behaviors that seem worthy of naming “free will”. There is no argument that they seem this way, if you in fact treat the brain as a black box of mystery.

            On the matter of the traditional and historic meaning of “free will”, that’s harder to settle. However it seems like a willful blindness to me to look at the history of Philosophy and Theology and deny that “free will” has always been bound up with cosmic explanations for human uniqueness, human identity, and human soul.

            This leaves one scratching one’s head wondering why compatibilists can look at the causes of behaviors in the deterministic brain, and even though people may speak of them as “free will”, fail to notice that there is nothing “free” about them in any real sense. They are flexible, adaptable, dynamic, intelligent, but “free” just would never come to mind unless one had a long history of commitment to arguing that this really is “free will”, which argument for personal or emotional reasons one is simply unwilling to let go of.

            To go by how people use language in ordinary speech is convenient for compatibilists, because people developed this language during century upon century of being wrong about dualism. So the conceptual basis of this language is distorted in its origins and conceptual roots, even though it has a consistent and sensible connection to real observable behaviors. The language implicitly contains false assumptions about that behavior. By your definition, compatibilists are just preserving these historic errors.

            And evidently one reason they do it is because they don’t trust people to understand the truth, as we can surmise directly from Daniel Dennet.

          3. I think that’s a caricature of Dennett’s position, as I’ve already explained elsewhere in this thread. Dennett’s worry is that people will misunderstand the truth if we explain it badly (which neuroscientists seem prone to do by leaping to conclusions not warranted by their data).

            The compatibilist point is that “free will” is no less free than free time, free speech, or free throws in basketball, and is perfectly understandable in those terms. So if you’re going to go around saying that free will is an illusion, then the burden is on you to make it clear that you’re using some technical, metaphysical, “original” meaning of “free” that has little to do with its everyday meaning. Otherwise you’re just inviting confusion.

            That’s not condescending; that’s just recognizing that most people aren’t philosophers and don’t care about technical or historical meanings of the term. Aren’t those the people Jerry et al. are trying to reach?

          4. I said that the language people use has a perfectly sensible connection to behavior. I didn’t say free throw and free time don’t make sense.

            But I pointed out that the term “free will” has deeper historical and theological meanings that compatibilists ignore. Also words like “choice”, “decide”, “want”, “intend”, have multiple underlying meanings, some of which are corrupted from the mistaken understanding of dualism that was in effect during the development of these words and concepts.

            So from my standpoint the compatibilists are doing lots of equivocating and pretending to be innocent when they say their version of free will is just what people use in language. There is a deceptive denial of determinism in action that compatibilists never acknowledge when they pretend that common language isn’t masking hidden implicit assumptions of dualism that is baked into the origins of that language.

          5. In fact Dennett has written whole chapters on libertarian free will and its history, so I think you’re off base to say that compatibilists ignore or deny that history. It might be more accurate to say they de-emphasize it as not relevant to the problem of constructing a plausible naturalistic account of agency that comports with our evolved social intuitions.

            Bottom line is that I’m just not buying this notion of a deliberate conspiracy by “the compatibilists” to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. You might consider their project misguided, but it’s not dishonest or malicious.

          6. On a few occasions that I’m aware of Dennet has admitted that he is concerned about public reaction. One was the Erasmus Award speech, and the othe was at the “Moving Naturalism Forward” seminar, as reported Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard recently. He expresses the view that he thinks it important that people retain the belief in free will. Not that they can do what they want, not that they have agency and control, not that obviously people are what they are and will continue to be so no matter what words are used. He seems to have special attachment to te pair of words “free will”. I think these words give a false impression, and we need to be honest that people don’t have the free will they think they have.

            I don’t see why using the term “free will” is “relevant to the problem of constructing a plausible naturalistic account of agency that comports with our evolved social intuitions.”

            Such an account can be given without pretending that it involves continuity with traditional views of what free will means. And such an account can not be given using the name “free will” without clarifying that it isn’t really your mother and father’s free will, it is a very constrained reinterpretation of what people think free will actually means.

          7. Personally I think we could use more research into what kind(s) of free will people think they have before we can confidently say that they don’t have it.

          8. But when people talk about free will in common language they are often just referring to a lack of compulsion arising from other agents: “he did it of his own free will”. But when people then abstract that into an *absolute* lack of compulsion they are just misleading themselves:

            “…men think themselves free inasmuch as they are conscious of their volitions and desires, and never even dream, in their ignorance, of the causes which have disposed them so to wish and desire.” (Spinoza).

            “Free Will” is one of those concepts that has a well defined meaning in common language when used in a relative sense, in this case relative to other agents, but is meaningless when used in an absolute sense.

  8. 1) The earth rotating in front of the sun, or the sun going around the earth, look pretty much the same, subjectively. What would it feel like for a physical automaton that had a conscious sub-system that was not aware of what caused its own thought processes? Wouldn’t it feel as if it had free will? Wouldn’t it be introspectively unable to determine one way or the other whether it had free will or not?

    2) Optical illusions can be recognised as such because we can always take a different perspective to see what is causing the illusion. With an introspective view of the brain/mind we cannot. No matter what we think about the matter intellectually it still feels like we have free will. This is why it is highly intellectually dubious to say, “See, I willed that I raise my arm,” or “I could have done otherwise.” It always feels as if this is the case, but we can never demonstrate it. Some seem unable to take an intellectual view that is distinct from their subjective view.

    3) The conscious aspect of the brain cannot detect the neuronal activity that constitutes its own conscious thinking, unlike, say, feeling an arm move, or a finger touch a surface. There is a disconnect that gives rise to the illusion that the mind floats free of the brain. In open skull experiments neurons can be stimulated to create subjective sensations, such as music or visions; but the subjects don’t actually report something like, “I can feel you prodding my brain”. The experienced phenomena just seem to appear in the ‘mind’.

    4) There is a further disconnect in that we should expect neural activity that transitions from subconscious causes to conscious awareness to feel like uncaused spontaneous thoughts, which when applied to decisions make them feel like they are free of physical brain precursors. of course the unconscious causes remain, well, unconscious, and of course the first we know of them is when they become conscious. This is what consciousness entails.

    5) Any complex automaton should be able to make some un-free caused decision to act, issue a warning that it will act, and then act. That humans do this type of stuff, such as plan, predict, decide, is what we should expect of an organism that has evolved with capabilities that allow this sort of behaviour. Free will isn’t necessary. This localised decision making system is not (necessarily) free will. Humans making decisions is not (necessarily) free will. Free will is going to have to be demonstrated by some other means than simply showing a decision has been made inside a human head.

    6) Compatibilist sometimes make complaints [based on an earlier post by Jerry], such as, “Jerry Coyne tells us to decide whether we think free will is an illusion or not. Can’t he see he’s telling us to use our free will to decide? He is contradicting himself.” No he isn’t. He was caused to make that request for you to make that decision. And you will be caused to make it, one way or the other, according to what extent your brain is persuaded (caused) to think along one path or the other. These complaints completely miss the point.

    7) All we know from physics and neuroscience sees no evidence to support free will. There is no ghost in the machine, no mind, no soul, that has been found. There is nothing we are aware of that can act freely of prior physical causes.

    8) The argument from (perceived) bad consequences only addresses the consequences. It does not in any way refute the suggestion that free will is an illusion.

    I can take all this an wonder if anything has been missed, if there’s anything that might show up in the future that shows we have free will, but it seems all unlikely at this point. It seems ridiculous to take from all this that we do indeed have free will.

    Should scientists be claiming we all have free will based on such flimsy evidence for (the subjective feeling), and on what, if anything, looks like evidence against? I can see that philosophers and theologians would – that’s what they do. But I’ve been surprised for some time that Dan Dennett uses this atrocious, almost theological, appeal to consequences to deny what he can’t demonstrate to be false by any other means – the illusory nature of free will.

    1. Oh, +8 at least (+1 for each point).

      Re (3), some time ago I had an argument with someone on Twitter who claimed that they were aware of their neuronal activity… The conversation did not end amicably.


    2. Oh, +8 at least (+1 for each point).

      Re (3), some time ago I had an argument with someone on Twitter who argued that they were aware of their neuronal activity… The conversation did not end amicably!


    3. Ron Murphy, sorry, but you have a few flaws in your well-written post.

      From all we know of physics a molecule has no “solid” and no “color” — yet we are all aware of the emergent proporty of “color”, and I assure you that you cannot walk through a “solid” steel door. Looking at the micro level does not always tell you about the macro level.

      Simple case: a single molecule of H2O — is it water? Steam? Ice? Snow? You can’t tell at the micro level. You can’t tell what color it is. Is it transparent? White? Is it under the pressure of miles of ocean, or a single molecule in a vacuum?

      If you’re subvocalizing this post, what part of “you” is reading it? What part is hearing your words? If I ask you to subvocalize it with a phony French accent — what part of “you” does that? It probably didn’t take you 4 seconds to decide whether to make the accent switch, so that appears to blow the one experiment out of the water rather handily.

  9. I find it bizarre that a scientist would think that any result in psychology could be adequately established by a single experiment on 30 subjects. The only use of such a study is to persuade a grant authority to fund an experiment of adequate size.

    1. I agree. The crux of this article is about TWO studies, one as yet unpublished.
      We need to see a lot more research, across all groups of society around the world.
      I am relatively new to the free-will arguments but I can already see this is a very important battleground against religion and other far -reaching consequences such as crime/justice.
      It is very easy to see why Dennett is concerned with just a little knowledge and experience of human nature.
      The truth might be easy for readers here to deal with, but perhaps not elsewhere in society.

  10. If it were true that there is no freewill and people believed it or didn’t believe it then how could their beliefs about it possibly affect society?

    And are we to believe that after having it brought to their attention that they did not have freewill people chose to cheat on a test?

    Seems a bit odd to me; but maybe a sophisticated theologian can clarify it?

    1. Unless one is a strict epiphenomenalist regarding the will, consciousness etc, then belief can become part of the causal factors at play in the world.

      But any belief is itself the result of prior causes, and is not at all free; and so the existence of beliefs as part of any causal chain is entirely compatible with disbelief in free-will. Whether the conscious will has causal properties or not, it isn’t the result of an autonomous and uncaused event, it is itself determined by prior causes.

  11. Not that most here need any convincing, but I just finished a terrific book by British lawyer Richard Oerton, “The Nonsense of Free Will: Facing Up to a False Belief”. If you know of any believers in contra-causal, libertarian free will, or on the fence about it (and you probably do), this should do the trick, and it’s a delightful read to boot. Were experimental subjects exposed to it, they would leave enlightened and humanized and advocates for a more rational criminal justice system.

  12. “One has deprived becoming of its innocence if being in this or that state is traced back to will, intentions, to accountable acts: the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty. The whole of the old-style psychology, the psychology of will, has as its precondition the desire of the priests at the head of the ancient communities, to create for themselves a right to ordain punishments – or their desire to create for God a right to do so. . . Men were thought of as ‘free’ so that they could become guilty“. (Nietzsche).

    I have a lot of respect for Dan, but I part company with him on this issue and agree with Jerry, Sam, Nietzsche et al. Are there many other issues that Dan thinks we should finesse the truth about, in the interests of societal calm? What about selfishness and altruism, for example? Does Dan think we should pretend that genuine altruism exists among humans, even though (in my view) it doesn’t?

    1. I believe in altruism as well as incompatibalism. I was raised by my family to believe….I think I just changed my mind… If I do selfless acts because they make me feel good about myself, then they are no longer selfless… Never mind.

  13. In fact it’s not hard to see some personal and societal benefits of NOT believing in free will.

    For starters: tolerance, compassion and understanding become automatic. Our minds also start to focus on causes and think about effective solutions rather than running through the blame-and-punish routine.

    1. Absolutely, for instance see Shariff, Azim F., Johan Karremans, Joshua D. Greene, Corey Clark, Jamie Luguri, Roy F. Baumeister, Peter Ditto, Jonathan W. Schooler and Kathleen D. Vohs. 2012. “Diminished Belief in Free Will Increases Forgiveness and Reduces Retributive Punishment”.

  14. Funny that people (Coyne, Harris, responders above) seem to exempt their own comments, analysis, and arguments from determinism! If determinism is correct, then both determinists and their opponents are just saying what they’re (pre)determined to say; what reason is there, then, for thinking that either view is true? The answer appears to be: none. I’ve never seen a determinist discuss this line of thought.

    1. Actually, not believing in free will is NOT the same as determinism. One can be a non-believer in free will simply because it is an empty idea – the proverbial ‘all hat and no cattle’.

      Even if determinism were true (which I personally doubt but that’s a different story), however, then we may not be able to coherently imagine a non-deterministic ‘reason’ for our beliefs, but that wouldn’t make determinism any less true.

        1. Exactly, so determinism doesn’t preclude people holding either true or false beliefs or reasoning as to why they might be true or false. In a similar way, some computer chess programs play better chess than others do even though their programs are entirely deterministic.

    2. Your objection is like saying “A thermometer is just doing what it is predetermined to do; what reason, then, is there for me to think the temperature it reports is correct?”

      People have evolved to be fairly reliable in some respects and unreliable in others.

      1. If we were thermometers, there wouldn’t be any good reason for us thermometers to think that we correctly report temperature. Some thermometers are rather inaccurate . . .

  15. There’s a long tradition of this debate in philosophy which informs Dennett’s view and others’ views on it. Neuropsychologists like Sam Harris should make sure they’ve read this stuff before they pronounce judgment.

    That being said, I’m in favour of the view known as hard determinism, (ie there’s no such thing as free-will), yet, I remain what I believe to be a moral person. It is simplistic to assume that believing you’re omnipotent is tied to good behaviour, and believing that you’re a product of genetics and society will lead to bad behaviour.

  16. But even if it did, I can’t countenance hiding our belief in determinism—a belief shared by Dennett and many compatibilists—from the general public on the grounds that it’s bad for society.

    What is Dennett exactly requesting? Intellectual debate be zipped up? And if vocal proponents of incompatibilism don’t comply and get with Dennett’s program, he will do what? Take away their right of free speech? His approach is either clueless (the truth/vigorous debate can not be kept under wraps in this age of the Net) or not ethical. He also appears to be a meddler, in the sense he knows what it is best for everyone.

    Is he also implying that altruism will fly out the window once we all know that free will is an illusion? Altruism/empathy is the glue that keeps society cohesive.

    All in all, I am beginning to find Dennett creepy.

  17. Why would anyone generalize the results of a study (the original V & S) on a subject group of 30 undergraduate students?

    What results could ever be valid?

  18. The truth is the truth, and shouldn’t be suppressed.

    You do Dennett a disservice if you think he’s advocating the suppression of truth. His point, as I take it, is that we should tell people the whole truth. “You don’t have (dualist) free will” is true, but it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth includes the fact that we do have an evolved ability to weigh options, make plans, and govern our behavior in accordance with those plans. It’s also true that our plans have causal consequences in the real world. Our thoughts are part of the causal chain that determines what happens; global warming has its roots in the idea of a coal-burning steam engine. So if we care about the future, then we should act as if our choices matter — because they do matter. That’s the truth Dennett wants to communicate.

    Regarding the experiment, the key difference that jumped out at me was that the V&S subjects found the Crick text persuasive, while the Zwaan subjects didn’t. Surely that wants explanation before any conclusions can be drawn about the effect of belief on cheating. So how does Zwaan explain it?

    1. As Bob and I point out above, Zwaan doesn’t really need to explain anything, not when the V&S study only had 30 subjects. If they manage to replicate the finding with five times as many subjects, from a decent variety of backgrounds, then there might be something to explain.

      1. OK, let’s ignore the V&S study then. Zwaan’s own numbers show that his subjects were unconvinced by Crick’s text. So he has no basis to conclude that cheating is unrelated to belief, since there’s no measurable difference in belief between the AFW group and the control group. The most he can say is that reading an unconvincing text had no effect on cheating. Which leaves us no wiser about the social consequences of beliefs about free will.

  19. We don’t want our children to become puppets!

    Oh crikey! He ought to be ashamed for having said that. Determinism != fatalism.

    1. You misunderstand Dennett’s point. The puppet imagery isn’t his; it comes from Harris and other anti-compatibilists. What Dennett is saying is that such imagery is unnecessarily alarmist, precisely because determinism != fatalism. So it’s Harris that ought to be ashamed.

  20. In an interview Dennett gave to The New Humanist Magazine he said there certainly is free will. And from what I understand he believes that free will exists in the same sense that colour exists in the world, or that right and wrong exist.

  21. Both studies are frivolous, as evidenced by the Zwaaan postscript, observing that most of the subjects didn’t believe the lies told by the administrators.

    At best, a study might show that the subjects felt *guilt* about cheating (though not necessarily), suggesting that they believed in free will. Neither study addressed that question.

  22. Well, I’m sorry but the repetitive use of “V&S” engendered a major Pavlovian reaction in me and I totally lost track of the discussion. All I can think of is V&S sandwich shops around the Reading PA area back in the ’70s. They made the world’s best Italian subs, and I am really jonesing for one right now.

    I would pay a lot for a V&S Italian sub with some Goods potatoe chips (fried in lard!). Thanks for inspiring a longing that is impossible to satisfy!

  23. I have always been suspicious of the Vohs and Schooler experiment. It’s been discussed in past threads on free will at this website.

    This is good news, but not surprising to me. Experiments like this are deeply dependent on cultural factors, and I don’t think Vohs and Schooler demonstrate what they claim to demonstrate.

    Here is an excellent article I just read about changes in the assumptions of the social sciences resulting from the realization that culture imprints on cognitive processes much more deeply than previously expected. This indicates just some of the flaws in the Vohs & Schooler methods.

    Clearly if people are raised their entire life to believe that they have free will, but they are under constant unavoidable surveillance, so they had better seriously constrain their exercise of that free will if they know what is good for them, then it is no surprise that feeling liberated from that system of threats and constraints might make them revel in the idea that they can cheat and only have to contend with their own guilt, or the possible disapproval of peers, but not the wrath of an all-powerful being. How trivial compared to eternal damnation!

    On the other hand, people raised to be responsible for themselves, independent of any celestial North Korean despotacracy, understand that their behavior is constrained by their own notion of what is right and wrong, and what their responsibilities are to themselves, their families, and their communities. Such persons are more likely to be resilient when exposed to thoughts of their existential independence and the associated responsibilities. The knowledge that our behavior and consciousness is the product of deterministic forces structured in a very complex and flexible fabric of intelligence is not likely to disturb them or change their behaviors.

    It is obvious that belief affects our behavior. If we think today is a normal day, we most likely will behave differently than if we woke up believing that we had won $50 million in the lottery (whether it is true or not). So there is some basis for concerns about how changing beliefs can change people’s behavior. But my own experience gives me confidence that the majority of humans can recover from the temporary shock and hangover of waking up from religious delusions.

    1. Oh my, cultural relativism again?

      You need strong evidence for this. “I did the study in Bongo Bongo and it came out very differently!” is not strong evidence. For one thing, there’s a monster publication bias in this kind of work (if effect comes out the same as it does in Ann Arbor or Brussels, investigator has to admit having wasted his or her time going on a big trip. So it won’t come out the same… any more than a drug company’s in-house sponsored trial is going to fail to produce something exciting and encouraging.)

  24. These studies often use college students, and it’s not clear how representative they are of people as a group (or even Westerners as a group).

    I’m reading “The World Until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond and he discusses this very issue with respect to psychological studies of human nature, saying that:

    … most of our understanding of human psychology is based on subjects who may be described by the acronym WEIRD: from Western, educated , industrialized, rich, and democratic societies. Most subjects also appear to be literally weird by the standards of world cultural variation, because they prove to be outliers in many studies of cultural phenomena that have sampled world variation more broadly.

  25. B.F. Skinner wrote extensively about the illusion of free will. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity(1971) he argued that behavioural freedom is an illusion. There are many more of his writings that address the issue, and I believe, quite correctly.

    Critics of Skinner made the same tired arguments that are being regurgitated today. Of course, when Skinner made the argument we knew far less about the brain.

    I wish I new what drives forecasters of doom. “Fear the truth. It will be our ruin.” To that I say bullshit. I’m solidly with JC on this.

  26. I guess Dan Dennett and others just don’t understand that the existence or absence of “Free Will” (whatever it is) is absolutely irrelevant to the subject of morality – basing morality on Free Will is as ridiculous as basing it on gods.

    1. Please define morality — but without the pesky “choices” or “decisions” and using only “uncontrollable reactions” — that will be some fine wordsmithing if you can do it.

  27. Having got round to reading what Dennett says in the essay linked by Jerry in the OP (it’s long), I notice that he makes precisely the opposite point (to that ascribed to him by Jerry) about the advisability of fooling the public: See page 18 onward where Dennett accuses Horgan of paternalism for advocating such a deception.

    What Dennett is actually claiming is not that we should be fooling everyone that they have free will when they don’t, but that the compatibilist view of free will is a valid one and that we have “a variety of free will worth wanting”, which is sufficient for us to be personally responsible for our actions.

    As argued in previous comments, whether a deterministic choice should be labelled as “free will” is a semantic issue and in fact I rather doubt that the (reasonable) protagonists in this debate (Dennett, Harris, Coyne, Pinker etc) have any underlying differences; they all accept computational theory of mind, as far as I can tell. Except, that is, if you think that the experiments mentioned by Sam Harris, where subjects make a decision earlier than they had previously assumed, have any bearing on the issue of personal responsibility (I don’t see their relevance).

    1. Dennet is a smart and reasonable guy, and I agree with him we have capacities that are worth having, and that we are not helpless puppets simply because of determinism.

      The odd thing is the insistance on using the same name for what is worth having as we used for what people used to think we had, which is “free will”

      The analogy for me with elan vital makes sense. We once widely believed in vitalism, which hypothesized a special dualist substance that distinguished mere material and chemicals from life. This substance was known as “elan vital”. As we learned more about biology, this idea that “elan vital” animated biological life was abandoned. We didn’t say, as the dynamic mechanisms of biochemistry were unraveled, that we had an “elan vital” worth having because we are still in fact alive.

      Nobody who got up and went to work, who loved their children, who did the things they have always done everyday suddenly felt like they couldn’t get out of bed because they didn’t have “elan vital”. Obviously when we learn something new about ourselves, we are still the same people we always were.

      So where does this insistence on “the free will worth having” come from, and what good does it serve? Do we say “we have the kind of Ptolemaic solar system worth having” or “we have the kind of flat earth worth having” because we an still walk around on large areas as if it were flat? No, we don’t, and we recognize those as absurd.

      There is some kind of extra emotional attachment to the term “free will”.

      One possible reason for such attachment is a professional one, people who have much invested in the idea of compatibilism, and when it seems to be wrong, i.e. there is no mechanism or ability that really qualifies and deserves the name “free will”, they move the goal posts so they can continue to use the same language and pretend they were always right. The unwillingness to let go of the term “free will” could at some deep psychological level be connected to this, at least partially.

      Another possible attachment is that “free will” has been bound up in people’s religious feelings. The squeamishness about saying “we don’t have free will” could be a kind of accomodationist gentility designed to not hurt the feelings of religious believers, who if they got a more accurate and honest description of the implications of the deterministic brain, might panic or be angry that science tells them they don’t have a soul. I think its fine not to make people angry, but then if you placate them with lies long enough they’re going to be angry any way when they eventually figure out the truth. Maybe we should just pull the band-aid quickly.

      Another possibility is along the lines of the Vohs & Schooler experiment: people will become immoral if they think they don’t have free will. But this seems as ridiculous to me as people changing because of the Copernican solar system or the demise of “elan vital”. People are the same as they always were, we just understand them better.

      So why is it that Dennet doesn’t say that we have capacities worth having, intelligence, flexibility, agency, control, the ability to interact with our environment and persue our own wants and needs, we just don’t have the kind of freedom from natural causation, or “free will”, we once thought we had?

      Why the attachment to the phrase “free will”? It strikes me as peculiar and worthless and confusing.

      1. Spot on, IMOP: The issue is one of terminology and the disagreements that arise come from the connotations and echoes that the term free will has to an outdated dualistic theory of mind, that nevertheless is still upheld by religion since the deterministic inference in computational theory of mind is just as destructive to the idea of a benevolent creator god as natural selection is.

        Perhaps Dennett’s attachment to the term free will (and it’s clear that his “varieties of free will worth wanting” is already an adjustment) is largely historical, to maintain continuity with other philosophers. And what Dennett does well (in Elbow Room etc) is showing that our ability to make rational choices that depend on experience *relies* on the fact that brain function *is* deterministic. Also he wants to establish that the kind of nuanced choices that we can make are only possible at an advanced stage of brain evolution (i.e. in his comparisons of human behaviour to the inflexible behaviour of the digger wasp SPHEX) and we consequently have a kind of freedom that is qualitatively different from more primitive deterministic systems.

  28. 1. I don’t share Dennett’s concern. Since humans evolved to care for each other, I wouldn’t expect much of a change in behavior even if disbelief in free will became common. I welcome studies like these to find out, but I’m not worried about it. The feeling of free will is so strong that I doubt I could act like I don’t have it (and I don’t think I do; i’m a compatibilist).

    2. I love philosophy and science, but I can’t prove in advance that they will be adaptive for humanity. There is plenty of evidence science may not be. And philosophy changes minds all the time; to do that, it must be hazardous to some ideas.

    I still love them, though, because they are both cold fact generators. In science, this has famously allowed us to make cool shit, and extend and improve human life, while perhaps making things worse in the long run. Almost everyone thinks it’s worth it.

    We evolved to be curious, some more than others. Perhaps the incurious will amass the political power to rein us in, lest we bring society down. But I doubt it. Even the incurious want antibiotics and the internet. Curiosity is sometimes dangerous, and we don’t know in advance it is worth the risk, but we always find a reason to take the next step into the dark.

    Finally, if it was taught in the schools that we don’t have free will, millions simply wouldn’t believe it. Witness evolution. Most people only adopt the scientific findings that please them.

  29. This study would have been clearer if instead of misusing the term free will, they used the word that captures what they actually mean – “responsibility”. Are people encourages to cheat if they are convinced there’s no such thing as “responsibility”? That was really the question being pursued here.

  30. In my view the whole issue of free will is broadly misunderstood. The question is: what is meant by free and about which agent do we talk? Conscious free will – making decisions and initiating behaviour caused by conscious thinking – doesn’t exist. Conscious thinking and acting come from the same unconscious source, the motor cortex and its connected networks. To assume this doesn’t imply that we would suddenly act in a different way, that is, become more passive, less moral, etc. leading to a derailment of society. We simply can’t decide consciously to behave different from the way we do. Ofcourse I can simply say to myself: “okay, from now on I stop thinking about cleaning the house, I can’t help it, I am powerless.” But will I not clean the house anymore? There will be unconscious processes that urge me to start cleaning again, including an afterthought to justify this ‘decision’. I will do whatever my ‘unconscious me’ will urge me to do, and this same ‘unconscious me’ will throw up a rational justification to consciousness. Free will only exists as ‘unconscious free will’, that is: as an organism I can decide to behave autonomously (in my environment), as long as I consider my ‘I’ as an unconscious agent. Consciousness is a nice debriefing about what happened, but without causal powers.

  31. “There will be unconscious processes that urge me to start cleaning again, including an afterthought to justify this ‘decision’.”

    Or, there will be unconscious processes that urge you to skip the cleaning, which you never enjoyed anyway, including, as an afterthought to justify this ‘decision’, that you have learned that you cannot escape the consequences of the laws of physics.

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