Free Will in Social Psychology

Self-organization has certainly been a major theme in the natural history of the world. One can view the Big Bang itself, or the events immediately following it, as self-organization on a colossal scale. Out of random chaos emerged a universe following the laws of physics. (A lucky break for us!) Among those laws is entropy, however: physical systems slip ever backward toward randomness.

Life brought a new direction, however, or at least a big step forward in self-organization. As the Nobel laureate physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1944) wrote, life is itself based on “negative entropy.” That is, the very essence of the inner processes of living things is that they pull away from randomness and disorder, toward self-organization. Evolution, too, has been one long progress of progressive organization, with more complex organisms emerging from simpler ones.

Agency probably began with the transition from plants to animals, and it represents another step forward in self-organization. Plants do not have to make decisions and so they do not need brains. But animals do.

What many people call free will can be understood as a further step in this process of self-organization and negative entropy. Free will could be regarded as “Agency 2.0.” It developed from the action control systems that many animals have, but it has added some new capabilities, such as the ability to adjust behavior on the basis of logical reasoning and rational analysis, complex mental simulations of possible future events, physically invisible influences such as (human) laws and norms, and other symbolic relationships. Put more simply, the human action control system had the capabilities to function in culture.

Functioning in culture requires multiple advances that can fairly and reasonably be called increases in freedom. A cultural being must be able to override certain natural forms of response, which would otherwise have the person acting like an animal rather than a civilized being. After all, what is it that enables us to operate in civilized society? One must be able to control one’s impulses and urges according to the rules of society. One must be able to coordinate one’s actions with other people’s, often in a flexible manner based on the exchange of symbolic information. One must be able to maintain one’s self-interest and satisfy most of one’s needs and wants while contributing enough to the group to keep the system going. One must be able to overcome here-and-now impulses and their prepotent behavioral tendencies in order to decide one’s behavior flexibly on the pursuit of rewards in the distant future.

These behavioral adjustments to culture are much of the bread and butter of social psychology. Our field studies how people learn and follow norms, how they delay gratification, how they develop attitudes and values and why they only sometimes act consistently with them. It studies how people perform roles and maintain membership in groups while pursuing self-interest. It studies how they form into groups and collectively decide, undertake, and perform.


Social psychology has much to contribute to the scientific study of free will. The argument about whether people have free will or not is probably not something we should become heavily invested in. There are versions of the concept of free will that are quite compatible with prevailing scientific opinions about the physical universe and causal processes. Social psychologists would do best to focus on what they do best, namely illuminating the inner psychological processes that enable people to live, work, and thrive in the complex social environments that humans create and that are among the major biological strategies of our species. The belief in free will is conducive to prosocial behavior and cultural functioning. Self-control, rational choice, and initiative are important classes of behavior that social psychologists have shed much light upon, including their links to common underlying processes.


Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.


Baumeister, R.F., Masicampo, E.J., & DeWall, C.N. (2009). Prosocial benefits of feeling free: Disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 260-268.

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