Free Will in Social Psychology

A third series of studies showed effects in the other direction. That is, after people have exerted self-control, their decision processes change (Pocheptsova, Amir, Dhar, & Baumeister, 2009). When willpower has been depleted by acts of self-control, people seem less willing to invest the effort in choosing. They postpone choices. They favor simple solutions over complex compromises. They succumb to irrational biases. In these studies, the depleting tasks were often rather short and simple, such as watching a CNN-style news broadcast for five minutes with instructions not to read the printed headlines at the bottom of the screen. But doing one of those tasks was enough to make people dodge a choice afterward. For example, some were presented with a selection of items they might hypothetically choose to buy, and they could either choose the best one or simply say (as genuine consumers can) that they could not make a decision now and would prefer to keep looking in the future.

In my view, these studies highlight the sort of contribution social psychology can make to the free will debate. None of these studies proves or disproves the idea that people have free will. But people have something that is sometimes called free will, which is evident in their acts of self-control and rational choice, and social psychology can illuminate how those happen. Moreover, philosophers had lumped rational choice and self-control in the same category on a priori conceptual grounds or empirical impressions, but only social psychology studies were able to establish the empirical basis for the connection. Self-control and rational choice really do share some vital inner processes. Doing one of them uses up energy needed for the other.

Initiative may be yet another important form of free will. In many situations, people have a low-effort or default option of simply going along with the situation or, indeed, doing nothing and waiting for whatever happens to happen. Taking initiative to steer events in a different direction takes more energy than the passive or default option, and in that sense it may be considered an effortful “freeing” of oneself from the default or passive response. A recent series of lab studies by Vohs and Baumeister (2009) found that initiative relies on willpower, just like self-regulation and rational choice. After acts of self-control, initiative was reduced in favor of passive and default responding. In one study in that investigation, initiative was measured in the following way. Participants were seated at a computer and told to follow its instructions. The experimenter hit “start” and left the room, but the computer went to a blank blue screen and never provided any instructions or other stimulation. At some point the participant had to get up and tell the experimenter that the apparatus was not functioning. Participants who had previously exerted self-control were slower to take the initiative to report the problem.

Likewise, creativity, which represents a culturally valued form of initiative, was reduced among people whose willpower had been depleted by acts of self-control. Several studies have shown that people who have depleted their willpower by acts of self-control later perform worse on a creativity task. That is, what they created was rated by others as lower in creativity.

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