Free Will in Social Psychology

What People Believe 

One of social psychology’s ongoing success stories is its exploration of people’s beliefs. Historians trace this back to the “New Look” movement in perception back in the 1940s, which took a key step of moving into areas that did not require a firm criterion of accuracy. This opened up tremendous opportunities for social perception. For example, it was possible to show that participants in one condition rated a target’s aggression as 8 on a 10-point scale, unlike those in another condition who rated the same behavior as a 6, without having to have an objective way of proving that one or the other was correct.

Several psychologists have recently used the same approach to study free will. It is not essential to know whether people really have free will or not. We can measure or manipulate different levels of belief in it and see what consequences ensue. Paulhus and Carey (2009) developed a trait scale to assess what people believe about free will. Vohs and Schooler (2008) pioneered several procedures for increasing or diminishing participants’ belief in free will. Again, these studies are agnostic with regard to whether free will is a reality or in what sense people have it, but they provide useful insights into the dynamics and consequences of beliefs about it.

One conclusion is that most people seem to believe in free will to some extent. On Paulhus and Carey’s (2009) scales, most people score above the midpoint in belief in free will. There are certainly variations, and these are meaningful, but the belief in free will seems to be a widespread social fact.

The Vohs and Schooler (2008) studies showed that belief in free will has behavioral consequences. Participants who were induced to disbelieve in free will showed an increase in antisocial behavior: They cheated on a test and thereby effectively stole money from the researchers. Subsequent work in our laboratory using their procedures has found other disturbing effects, including aggression, reductions in helpfulness, and mindless conformity (e.g., Baumeister, Masicampo, & DeWall, 2009).

Once again, the social psychology findings are of interest regardless of whether one believes in free will. For those who reject the reality of free will, these studies suggest why society supports the false belief in it: Belief in free will contributes to prosocial, responsible behavior. The belief in free will is thus a highly useful fiction. Meanwhile, for those who believe in free will, these findings fit the view that free will is an adaptation for culture — that is, an advanced form of behavior control that facilitates the sort of actions that are needed in order for human society and culture to function.

Free Will as Self-organization

If humans have free will, how did they get it? Here again, developing a scientifically plausible account depends on what notion of free will you hold. If one wants to regard free will as a form of supernatural power, it is hard to offer a scientific theory for how humans would have acquired it. But if we understand it as an advanced form of action control that encompasses effortful self-regulation, rational choice, and initiative, then the project becomes somewhat more viable.

One intriguing approach would rely on dynamical systems theory, as discussed by Michaels and Vallacher (2009) among others. One core idea is that patterns form out of random variation and that these can then exert causal influence. The process is one of self-organization: higher-order units emerge from random events. Once the higher-order units emerge, they tend to perpetuate or reproduce themselves. Instead of regression to the mean (as in, quick drift back into randomness and disorder), self-organization has a ratcheting effect of staying in place and possibly permitting further forward steps. (For those not familiar with ratchets, these are tools with rotating wheels that have a lock against rotating backward; thus, the point of the metaphor is that forward movement is retained and preserved.)

article author(s)