Robots with Delusions Are Better

I’ve written about free will before. Several times. And yet I exercise my free will by writing about it again. Or maybe my genetics and environmental influences have programmed me to write about it. If so, you can’t possibly be annoyed with me, right?

One of the major issues I’ve addressed in previous writings is that without free will, our “choices” are programmed not chosen, and therefore, we have no responsibility for who we are or what we do.

Well, it turns out I’m not the only one addressing that issue.

The article Giving Up the Ghost **in this quarter’s issue of Psychology Today sets aside the debate about whether free will actually exists or not, and instead focuses on how the perception of no free will affects a person’s behavior.

The article cites a study reviewed in Psychological Science that revealed that “reducing belief in free will makes people more likely to cheat.” The study involved a 15-question test that the subjects graded themselves, taking $1.00 per correct answer. Subjects that first read statements indicating that free will is an illusion consistently cheated while grading, thus taking home more dough.

Katherine Vohs, lead author at the University of Minnesota, says, “To resist temptations, people need to have a senses that they govern their own behaviors.”

But isn’t the underlying assumption of that statement that people do govern their own behavior? Or is she saying that leading people to think they govern their own behavior programs them to behave better?

The concept of free will is regarded as shaky at best among the scientific and skeptical community, however, the implications go largely undiscussed. For example, the defense that people aren’t responsible for their actions won’t work in the courtroom.

Stephen Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, calls such implications “the pernicious belief that once you discover a cause for behavior – biological, psychological, sociological, or astrological – somehow the person should be excused. But if causation is an excuse, then everyone is excused and no one is responsible.”

In a study done by Joshua Knobe, professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, a majority of people said that “full moral responsibility is impossible in a deterministic universe”. However, when the same people were presented with the case of a man who “torched his family and ran off with his secretary”, they backpedaled.

So the debate and discomfort over free will and its implications goes on. But meanwhile, studies show that the perception our lack of free will seems to affect our actions. And not for the better. So perhaps free will is a delusion we are better off having.

**I’m sorry there’s no link. This is a print article and is not available online (that I can find).

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  1. "Or maybe my genetics and environmental influences have programmed me to write about it. If so, you can’t possibly be annoyed with me, right?"

    What if I am programmed to be annoyed?

    Seriously, the reality is that whether or not people have free will has no real practical affect on life at all. Sure, if you have no free will, you aren't responsible for anything bad you do. But then all the resulting consequences are just other people reacting with an equal lack of free will, so there is no responsibility, and therefore no victimhood, in your suffering either.

  2. Can't I operate under a lesser form of free will and be annoyed (or not) as I choose?…dependent of genetic predisposition, learned responses and environmental factors, of course.

    I wonder how the results would compare with a similar study where a person was told that there were no repercussions for cheating. Doesn't the one you mention amount to the same thing?

  3. Just to clarify, the study made no comment on the existence of free will or its effect on our lives. Only how the concept (or delusion) of free will affects our behavior. This could apply to any concept, such as how the concept of an impending recession affects consumer behavior.

  4. The only time I am conscious that in many regards I don't have free will, is when I have to pee. Not peeing is not an option regardless of what my will says.

    Outside of that, I'm not sure it matters, as TheCzech says. We have created a society and laws which make us accountable for our behaviour and as far as I can tell, it's a pretty good system compared to the alternatives. So in that regard, I don't mind if I have free will, as long as I have the illusion of it.

    And importantly, I have empathy, which in society motivates us to insist people take responsibility for their actions.

  5. Well, supposing that there are son many factors in so many combinations that intermix, one's will, or thought processes, act as if part of a "chaotic system?"

    I could understand having so many factors that program us to behave in certain ways in certain situations. But there are also so many variables that it might be exceedingly difficult to calculate.

  6. I'd like to see a replication that tries to control for the subjects' pre-existing biases about the concept of free will, say by asking (more nuanced versions of…) questions like "Do you believe that humans have free will?" Mental illness also serves as a good proxy for free will, so it could be helpful to ask for the subjects' opinion on insanity pleas, specifically how they affect the apportionment of "blame" to criminals.

    My intuition here is that those who are predisposed to believe that free will exists and is central to their conception of morality would show the reported effect to a greater degree than, say, a Calvinist. ;)

  7. "Or is she saying that leading people to think they govern their own behavior programs them to behave better?"

    I think that is the only logical statement you can make regarding this study. I don't see that there is any underlying assumption at all and the results seem to me to go pretty far in the direction of supporting determinism. By changing the environment (introducing statements that support determinism) the researchers were consistently able to effect the moral choices of the study participants. You can still make the argument that the subjects were just making different choices as a response to new information and thus exercising free will, but I find that argument hard to swallow. If small changes in the environment cause significant changes in the choices you make, then that seems to go against the idea that you really had any choice at all.

    I could talk about this all day since I find the topic really interesting, but I'd be interested in hearing someone actually define free will in a way that makes any kind of scientific sense. I mean all choices we make seem to be based on our physiology and what we perceive in our environment and both of those things are outside of our control. The only other kinds of choices I can imagine are based on random luck, like if I toss a coin to decide something (although that would still really be environmental) and I don't think that those who believe in free will are suggesting we do that.

  8. I guess I still consider "analysis" to be consistent with determinism, but I see where you're coming from. My point of view is that we're just analyzing the environment and then responding to it, in the same way that if I intend to drive down a road and then see that it is barricaded due to road work I would analyze the situation and take another route. I could "choose" to continue down that road if I new that construction workers were in the habit of unnecessarily restricting access and if I wasn't concerned about getting ticketed, but it is still primarily the environment that drives my decision making. The "analysis" you're doing is a conditioned response and I don't think any of our "choices" go beyond that. Some analysis is far more complex, particularly if you are involved in analytical philosophy and/or theoretical science, but I still don't think it goes beyond something that can be explained by simple rules of cause and effect.

    . . . and that makes me support determinism. Not that it is functionally any different than free will. I still have to make decisions based on the way I analyze the information available to me. Whether that analysis qualifies as "free will" or is simply "cause and effect" is irrelevant. It's also why I think the moral question is only relevant because people think it is. Punitive punishments for "immoral" acts function just the same in a deterministic world. When I action you could take is associated with a punishment you're looking at the possible causes and effects, not necessarily an innate moral compass.

  9. Where do imagination and thought experiments fit into this? Is it possible to imagine a scenario and determine a response solely on that imagination?

    And how does one explain differing reactions to the same stimulus? It would be interesting, if not impossible, to study 2 people with identical genetic and environmental stimuli, to see if their response could possibly differ.

    Once again, I'm not defending free will. I just like throwing ideas out there…

  10. Well, imagination is a little more complicated, but I still think the act of imagining or the act of performing a thought experiment can be caused by environmental stimuli. It's sort of like how our dreams tend to be loosely based on reality and also tend to revolve around waking conflicts. If we dreamed and imagined in purely abstract ways, I would be more inclined to take free will seriously. So art might also be a better indication of free thinking and free will, especially the more abstract and non-representative types. I'm still not quite convinced of that, but there may be a decent argument there.

    Differing reactions to the same stimuli in two identical people in identical environments would go a long way towards convincing me of free will. Too bad that sounds fairly impossible. The existence of parallel universes, of the Sci-Fi type, in which every choice causes a new branched universe would also serve the same purpose and convince me. The trick is that I would want a system that would allow me to explain the differing reactions or the multiple universes and tell me why a different choice was made here or there. On a very basic level it seems to me to violate the general scientific principles of cause and effect. So it seems like there would have to be an additional weird cause that we're not accounting for called "free will." And I would like to see an explanation of how that cause works, which I haven't come across as of yet. Either that or there are some strictly random elements to the universe. Maybe we can invoke some crazy quantum physics magic!

  11. I’ve defined free will in the past like this:

    The ability to change one’s behavior based solely on analysis, not on genetic disposition or environmental factors.

    I’m not positing that this ability exists, only defining what is to be studied.

  12. If I remember my philosophy lessons there are two forms of free will. One is compatible with determinism and the other is not. Weak free will allows us to choose actions within a framework of available choices which are determined by environmental, physiological, psychological, educational and lots of other factors. True free will allows for actions outside of these limits.

    Hard determinism goes a step further and states that the choices are already determined and that free will is simply an illusion that people buy into to make them feel better.

    For the purpose of the Psychological Science article I would say that the illusion of free will was weakened which gave an excuse for cheating. It's not actually important whether or not free will exists or not, only that people can suspend their disbelief enough to alter their actions. Belief is very powerful and people can perform wonderful (and horrific) feats based on belief.

  13. That's interesting. I hadn't heard the distinction between weak and hard free will before. I really same problem with both of them, though. I don't see a plausible mechanism that would allow a framework to exist or define that framework. Either within a set of available choices or with unlimited choices it seems like unlimited choice would mean every single cause could have a large number of or infinite infinite number of effects and that gets a little wacky to justify.

  14. Um, a couple of edits for clarity:

    That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard the distinction between weak and hard free will before. I really see the same problem with both of them, though. I don’t see a plausible mechanism that would allow a framework to exist or define that framework. Either within a set of available choices or with unlimited choices it seems like an array of choices would mean every single cause could have a large number of or infinite infinite number of effects and that gets a little wacky to justify and/or define.

  15. The justification of weakening of free will in the form of insanity or temporary insanity is a valid excuse for committing some crimes. Crimes of passion require that the perpetrator's options become limited through external factors. The defence is that some factor caused the defendant to lose control of their actions.

    Determinism and totalitarianism are significant philosophical theories where law making is concerned.

    Regarding the religious viewpoint though, hard free is supposedly granted to humans by the divine creator. The idea of original sin doesn't allow for any factors other than absolute choice. I don't believe that the writers of the OT thought about free will at all but humans have advanced somewhat since the Iron Age and we have the benefit of hindsight.

    If you argue that we have no free will or even a weaker form of free will then we cannot have been granted true free will by a deity. If this is the case then heaven and hell become meaningless and the entire structure of religion starts to unfold. Arguing for free will necessitates an extra natural or supernatural force like a soul.

    I'm not a great believer in free will at all but I can see how others would support the argument. Nobody likes to think of themselves as an automaton. Not even a very clever one.

  16. hF,

    Using the "weakening of free will" to justify some crimes is only necessary if you start from the standpoint that we all have free will. "Some factor" can cause a person to commit a crime in a deterministic world just as easily, and far more directly I might add. My wife's infidelity drove me crazy, for example, is probably an even better argument if you're looking at the world as a deterministic place. That doesn't mean we shouldn't punish the guy anyway, simply as another factor to cause the guy (and other people) to not allow themselves to be driven crazy. I think I understand the way free will and determinism influence the law, but I don't see that the two theories cause very different applications of the law.

    It seems to me that the religious arguments you're making are slightly reversed from what I would argue. First of all, the idea of original sin assume s a certain level of determinism put in place by God so that you are pretty much destined for Hell unless you act to change that destiny. The idea does assume the ability of each person to "choose" a different fate for themselves, but other Christian beliefs seem to contradict that idea (big surprise!). For instance, God is supposedly Omniscient so despite the fact that he gave you "free will" he still knows what your fate will be and what choices you will make. I think Christians tend to assume an omniscience that doesn't include knowledge of the future. Also, the bible often portrays a level of ridiculous cluelessness in an omniscient being (i.e. Where did Adam and Eve go? Oh there you are, now why are you hiding your nakedness? Oh snap! You ate from my tree!), so maybe omniscience isn't as much a part of the bedrock of Christianity as I had always assumed.

    In any case, free will doesn't seem to necessitate a supernatural force so much as a force which we have not yet adequately defined. I suppose that could be said for a lot of crazy things that I am deeply skeptical about, but it seems to apply better to free will since don't we don't have a very complete understanding of how we make choices yet. If we acquire a deep enough understanding of the mind to perfectly predict people's choices in advance, then the death knell will have sounded for free will.

  17. SP, in a deterministic legal system there is no action that is the total responsibility of the actor. If you take the example of an abused child who grows up to be an abuser you can see that they were psychologically damaged by a traumatic childhood. This makes their own actions understandable although not acceptable. Now, do we seek to punish the individual for their crimes or do we try to correct the aberrant behaviour? A determinist would probably try to correct the fault through drug or psychological therapy. Once cured though the criminal would be free to return to society.

    A totalitarian would probably punish the individual severely as an example to other potential criminals. They would view the effort of rehabilitation as wasteful given the high recidivism rate of sex offenders. Totalitarian policy may actually be to execute these sort of criminals to protect society and send a harsh message to others.

    We have a legal system that has elements of both theories. This is pretty much a hold over from the Victorian era where such theories were debated ad nauseum. Whether we have free will or not is really secondary to the effects that belief in it has.

    I think Christianity assumes that we’re all damned by default AND that we have the ability to choose not to be. Facts seem to point otherwise as most people retain the religion of their parents. No choice necessary.

    “If we acquire a deep enough understanding of the mind to perfectly predict people’s choices in advance”

    Aha, the very origin of determinism. If we could know everything that had ever occurred in exact details then we would be able to predict the future. We can’t, of course, but if you could….

    Oh bugger! Quantum theory messes the whole thing up.

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