If you are exposed to arguments that there is no free will, you’ll be more likely to cheat

May 29, 2008 | By | 2 Replies More

Ouch! The serious study of philosophy or neuroscience might make you less moral. That’s my take-away from a recent article: “The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating,” by Kathleen D. Vohs and Jonathan W. Schooler. This particular article by Vohs and Schooler purports to find a direct link between exposure to articles criticizing free will and self-centered conduct.

I suspect that the conclusions of the article by Vohs and Schooler tap into the concerns of many conservatives, that too much intellectual activity (too much science and free-thinking philosophy) can cause a person to become self-centered and immoral (or, at least, amoral). I don’t agree with that assessment as a general rule. Based on my experience, many intellectuals, as a result of their wide-ranging studies, actually expand their realm of moral concern well beyond the narrowly-defined types of in-groups honored by many conservatives. Obviously, there are free-thinkers of all stripes and I need to be careful to not over-generalize. Also, I’m not suggesting that my personal opinions and anecdotes could possibly serve as a counter-balance to a carefully controlled study.

The authors of this particular study recognized that belief in a free will is strong and pervasive. On the other hand, they also recognize the view of many scientists “that genes, underlying personality dispositions, brain mechanisms, or features of the environment cause behavior.” The authors’ hypothesis was that “cheating would increase after persuading participants that free will does not exist.”

Although some have speculated about the possible societal risks that might result from adopting a viewpoint that denies personal responsibility for actions, empirical exploration of this hypothesis has been absent. In two experiments, we manipulated beliefs related to free will and measured their influence on morality as manifested in cheating behavior. We hypothesized that manipulations of lay beliefs about free will would affect cheating behavior, such that participants induced to believe that human behavior is under the control of scientifically predetermined forces would cheat more than would participants not led to believe that behavior is technically predetermined. The results of two experiments supported this hypothesis.

The authors manipulated the subjects’ belief that free will is an illusion and that free will is a side effect of the architecture of the mind by exposing them to arguments criticizing the belief in free will. The subjects who were exposed to these anti-free-will arguments tended to act in more self-centered” ways on subsequent tasks. The conclusions of the authors:

The present findings raise the genuine concern that widespread encouragement of a deterministic worldview may have the inadvertent consequence of encouraging cheating behavior.

The Vohs and Schooler experiments involved only about 30 subjects, although the statistical significance of their most outcomes was p<.01.

I’m not entirely convinced by the conclusions of this study, for the reasons I set forth above. I suspect that there is something else that might combine with a free-thinking intellect that can (and does) often lead conduct less responsive to one’s most salient in-groups. If this study indeed shows what it purports to show, however, it has highlighted “free will” as a highly useful falsehood. I suspect that all of us cling to many such useful falsehoods.

Full disclosure: I have strongly criticized the notion of “free will.” Perhaps that belief taints my opinion on this study.

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Category: Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Ben says:

    i didnt realize that there was a valid argument against free will. (dropped out of philosophy 101). i took a peek at the link at the bottom, wild stuff there indeed. the word introspective comes to mind.

  2. Erika Price says:

    I see a LOT of parallels between belief in free will and belief in God. Both have little evidence to support any notion of their existence, but of course cannot be disproved outright. People want to believe in both things, claim both beliefs give them comfort, and claim that a foundation of such beliefs leads to better behavior. And both are pretty empty, hard-to-define concepts that feel good, so people don't want to give up their belief in them.

    I have similar feelings for both free will and God. I'm ignostic for both of them- they are unknowable, meaningless questions. But they sure mean a hell of a lot to most everyone else. I think there's a separate post on the topic in here somewhere, I just need to tease it out a bit…

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