Psychology attempts to define and investigate some genuinely tricky, decidedly abstract subjects, including, for example, the nature of psychopathy. Free will is also another hot topic for researchers in this field, and there isn’t an adult person alive today who hasn’t even briefly considered whether we actually possess it or not.
Ambitiously, a new paper published in the journal Psychological Science has attempted to address this notorious issue. By asking participants to anticipate when they thought a specific color of circle would appear before them, something determined completely by chance, the researchers found that their predictions were more accurate when they had only a fraction of a second to guess than when they had more time.
Assuming quite safely that the participants were not psychic, it appears a type of mental “time travel” effect is happening here. The participants subconsciously perceived the color change as it happened prior to making their mental choice, even though they always thought they made their prediction before the change occurred. They were getting the answers right because they already knew the answer.
“Our minds may be rewriting history,” Adam Bear, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology at Yale University and lead author of the study, said in a statement. The implication here is that when it comes to very short time scales, even before we think we’ve made a conscious choice, our mind has already subconsciously decided for us, and free will is more of an illusion than we think.
The results of the red circle experiments. Bear & Bloom/Psychological Science
The research consisted of two separate tests. The first involved five white circles, one of which would turn red in rapid-fire sequences. The small sample of 25 young adult participants were asked to predict which one would randomly turn red, make a mental note of this, then wait. After one of the circles took on a crimson hue, the participants had to record via keystroke whether they had predicted correctly, incorrectly, or didn’t have time to complete their choice.
Only 20 percent of these guesses should be correct, and this was shown to be more or less true. However, when the time window for guessing was reduced to a fraction of a second, the accuracy mysteriously rose to upwards of 30 percent.
A second test with 25 additional young adults was fairly similar; they had to predict if the color of an earlier circle matched up to the color of a later one. The participants had a 50 percent chance of getting it right every single time. However, once again, when the time delay was a fraction of a second, the prediction accuracy rose, this time to around 62 percent.
The reason for the accuracy rise is that on a very short time scale, the participants were seeing the circle change color but only subconsciously, so they became aware of the actual answer without knowing it. Across both experiments, however, they thought that they were making their mental choices before the answer appeared.
One possible interpretation of the experiment, therefore, is that when we have to make an immediate decision, we don’t have time to consciously ponder on our choice. By making a snap decision, we have to surrender to our subconscious, and that decides for us – even if we think we’ve made a conscious choice all along.
Freewill and Determinism
Saul McLeod published 2013
The determinist approach proposes that all behavior is caused by preceding factors and is thus predictable. The causal laws of determinism form the basis of science.
Free will is the idea that we are able to have some choice in how we act and assumes that we are free to choose our behavior, in other words we are self determined.
For example, people can make a free choice as to whether to commit a crime or not (unless they are a child or they are insane). This does not mean that behavior is random, but we are free from the causal influences of past events. According to freewill a person is responsible for their own actions.
Some approaches in psychology see the source of determinism as being outside the individual, a position known as environmental determinism. For example, Bandura (1961) showed that children with violent parents will in turn become violent parents through observation and imitation.
Others see it from coming inside i.e., in the form of unconscious motivation or genetic determinism – biological determinism. E.g., high IQ has been related to the IGF2R gene (Chorney et al., 1998).
Behaviorists are strong believers in determinism. Their most forthright and articulate spokesman has been B. F. Skinner. Concepts like “free will” and “motivation” are dismissed as illusions that disguise the real causes of human behavior.
For Skinner (1971) these causes lay in the environment – more specifically in physical and psychological reinforcers and punishments. It is only because we are not aware of the environmental causes of our own behavior or other people’s that we are tricked into believing in our ability to choose.
In Skinner’s scheme of things the person who commits a crime has no real choice. (S)he is propelled in this direction by environmental circumstances and a personal history, which makes breaking the law natural and inevitable.
For the law-abiding, an accumulation of reinforcers has the opposite effect. Having been rewarded for following rules in the past the individual does so in the future. There is no moral evaluation or even mental calculation involved. All behavior is under stimulus control.
The other main supporters of determinism are those who adopt a biological perspective. However for them it is internal, not external, forces that are the determining factor. According to sociobiology evolution governs the behavior of a species and genetic inheritance that of each individual within it. For example Bowlby (1969) states a child has an innate (i.e. inborn) need to attach to one main attachment figure (i.e. monotropy).
Personality traits like extraversion or neuroticism, and the behavior associated with them, are triggered by neurological and hormonal processes within the body. There is no need for the concept of an autonomous human being. Ultimately this view sees us as no more than biological machines and even consciousness itself is interpreted as a level of arousal in the nervous system.
However, a problem with determinism is that it is inconsistent with society's ideas of responsibility and self control that form the basis of our moral and legal obligations.
An additional limitation concerns the facts that psychologists cannot predict a person's behavior with 100% accuracy due to the complex interaction of variables which can influence behavior.
One of the main assumptions of the humanistic approach is that humans have free will; not all behavior is determined. Personal agency is the humanistic term for the exercise of free will. Personal agency refers to the choices we make in life, the paths we go down and their consequences.
For humanistic psychologists such as Maslow (1943) and Rogers (1951) freedom is not only possible but also necessary if we are to become fully functional human beings. Both see self-actualisation as a unique human need and form of motivation setting us apart from all other species. There is thus a line to be drawn between the natural and the social sciences.
To take a simple example, when two chemicals react there is no sense in imagining that they could behave in any other way than the way they do. However when two people come together they could agree, fall out, come to a compromise, start a fight and so on. The permutations are endless and in order to understand their behavior we would need to understand what each party to the relationship chooses to do.
Cognitive psychologists are also inclined to attribute importance to free will, and adopt a soft determinism view. However whereas humanists are especially interested in our choice of ends (how each of us sees the road to self actualization) cognitive psychologists are more inclined to focus on the choice of means. In other words for them it is the rational processing of information which goes into the making of a decision which is their main interest.
Conscious reflection on our own behavior is seen as the best way of achieving goals and learning from mistakes. Calculation, strategy, organization etc are interpreted as key elements – not only in governing the choices that we make but also in helping us make the “right” choices in particular situations.
Mental illnesses appear to undermine the concept of freewill. For example, individuals with OCD lose control of their thoughts and actions and people with depression lose control over their emotions.
Ranged against the deterministic psychologies of those who believe that what “is” is inevitable are therefore those who believe that human beings have the ability to control their own destinies. However there is also an intermediate position that goes back to the psychoanalytic psychology of Sigmund Freud.
At first sight Freud seems to be a supporter of determinism in that he argued that our actions and our thoughts are controlled by the unconscious. However the very goal of therapy was to help the patient overcome that force. Indeed without the belief that people can change therapy itself makes no sense.
This insight has been taken up by several neo-Freudians. One of the most influential has been Erich Fromm (1941). In “Fear of Freedom” he argues that all of us have the potential to control our own lives but that many of us are too afraid to do so.
As a result we give up our freedom and allow our lives to be governed by circumstance, other people, political ideology or irrational feelings. However determinism is not inevitable and in the very choice we all have to do good or evil Fromm sees the essence of human freedom.
Psychologists who take the free will view suggest that determinism removes freedom and dignity, and devalues human behavior. By creating general laws of behavior, deterministic psychology underestimates the uniqueness of human beings and their freedom to choose their own destiny.
There are important implications for taking either side in this debate. Deterministic explanations for behavior reduce individual responsibility. A person arrested for a violent attack for example might plead that they were not responsible for their behavior – it was due to their upbringing, a bang on the head they received earlier in life, recent relationship stresses, or a psychiatric problem. In other words, their behavior was determined.
The deterministic approach also has important implications for psychology as a science. Scientists are interested in discovering laws which can then be used to predict events. This is very easy to see in physics, chemistry and biology. As a science, psychology attempts the same thing – to develop laws, but this time to predict behavior If we argue against determinism, we are in effect rejecting the scientific approach to explaining behavior
Clearly, a pure deterministic or free will approach does not seem appropriate when studying human behavior Most psychologists use the concept of free will to express the idea that behavior is not a passive reaction to forces, but that individuals actively respond to internal and external forces.
The term soft determinism is often used to describe this position, whereby people do have a choice, but their behavior is always subject to some form of biological or environmental pressure.
Bandura, A. Ross, D., & Ross,S.A (1961). Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
Chorney, M. J., Chorney, K., Seese, N., Owen, M. J., Daniels, J., McGuffin, P., ... & Plomin, R. (1998). A quantitative trait locus associated with cognitive ability in children. Psychological Science, 9(3), 159-166.
Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.
Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable.
Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Acton, MA: Copley Publishing Group.
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2013). Freewill and determinism in psychology. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/freewill-determinism.html