By Peter Gooding, University of Essex

From coffee table books and social media to popular science lectures, it seems it has has become increasing fashionable for neuroscientists, philosophers and other commentators to tell anyone that will listen that free will is a myth.

But why is this debate relevant to anyone but a philosophy student keen to impress a potential date? Actually, a growing body of evidence from psychology suggests belief in free will matters enormously for our behaviour. It is also becoming clear that how we talk about free will affect whether we believe in it.

In the lab, using deterministic arguments to undermine people’s belief in free will has led to a number of negative outcomes including increased cheating and aggression. It has also been linked to a reduction in helping behaviours and lowered feelings of gratitude.

A recent study showed that it is possible to diminish people’s belief in free will by simply making them read a science article suggesting that everything is predetermined. This made the participants’ less willing to donate to charitable causes (compared to a control group). This was only observed in non-religious participants, however.

Scientists argue that these outcomes may be the result of a diminished sense of agency and control that comes with believing that we are free to make choices. Similarly, we may also feel less moral responsibility for the outcomes of our actions.

It may therefore be unsurprising that some studies have shown that people who believe in free will are more likely to have positive life outcomes – such as happiness, academic success and better work performance
. However, the relationship between free will belief and life outcomes may be complex so this association is still debated.

Disturbing dualism

Language and definitions seem linked to whether we believe in free will. Those who refute the existence of free will typically refer to a philosophical definition of free will as an ability of our consciousness (or soul) to make any decision it chooses – regardless of brain processes or preceding causal events. To undermine it, they often couple it with the “determinism” of classical physics. Newton’s laws of physics simply don’t allow for free will to exist – once a physical system is set in motion, it follows a completely predictable path.

According to fundamental physics, everything that happens in the universe is encoded in its initial conditions. From the Big Bang onward, mechanical cause-and-effect interactions of atoms formed stars, planets, life and eventually your DNA and your brain. It was inevitable. Your physical brain was therefore always destined to process information exactly as does, so every decision that you are ever going to make is predetermined. You (your consciousness) are a mere bystander – your brain is in charge of you. Therefore you have no free will. This argument is known as determinism.

But this approach is absurdly dualistic, requiring people to see their consciousness as their true self and their brain as something separate. Despite being an accurate description of the philosophical definition of free will, this flies in the face of what ordinary people – and many scientists – actually believe.

In reality it seems that the functioning of our brain actually affects our consciousness. Most of us can recognise, without existential angst, that drinking alcohol, which impacts our physical brain, subsequently diminishes our capacity to make rational choices in a manner that our consciousness is powerless to simply override. In fact, we tend to be able to accept that our consciousness is the product of our physical brain, which removes dualism. It is not that our brains make decisions for us, rather we make our decisions with our brains.

Most people define free will as simply their capacity to make choices that fulfil their desires – free from constraints.
This lay understanding of free will doesn’t really involve arguments about deterministic causation stretching back to the Big Bang.

But how could we learn about the arguments for and against the existence of free will without feeling threatened and having our moral judgement undermined? One way could be to re-express valid deterministic arguments in language that people actually use.

For example, when the determinist argues that “cause-and-effect interactions since the Big Bang fashioned the universe and your brain in a way that has made your every decision inevitable”, we could replace it with more familiar language. For example, “your family inheritance and life experience made you the person you are by forming your brain and mind”.

In my view, both arguments are equally deterministic – “family inheritance” is another way of saying DNA while “life experiences” is a less challenging way of saying prior causal events. But, importantly, the latter allows for a greater feeling of freedom, potentially reducing any possible negative impacts on behaviour.

Quantum weirdness

Some even argue that the notion of scientific determinism is being challenged by the rise of quantum mechanics, which governs the micro world of atoms and particles. According to quantum mechanics, you cannot predict with certainty what route a particle will take to reach a target – even if you know all its initial conditions. All you can do is to calculate a probability, which implies that nature is a lot less predictable than we thought. In fact, it is only when you actually measure a particle’s path that it “picks” a specific trajectory – until then it can take several routes at once.

While quantum effects such as these tend to disappear on the scale of people and everyday objects, it has recently been shown that they may play a role in some biological processes, ranging from photosynthesis to bird navigation. So far we have no evidence that they play any role in the human brain – but, of course, that’s not to say they don’t.

People using a philosophical definition and classical physics may argue convincingly against the existence of free will. However, they may want to note that modern physics does not necessarily agree that free will is impossible.

Ultimately, whether free will exists or not may depend on your definition. If you wish to deny its existence, you should do so responsibly by first defining the concepts clearly. And be aware that this may affect your life a lot more than you think.The Conversation

Peter Gooding, PhD Candidate of Psychology, University of Essex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


By Jamie Gruman, University of Guelph

Long weekends can give each of us a chance to recharge our drained batteries, but only if we make smart choices about how we spend our time away from work. All weekends are not created equal.

Sometimes we return from our weekends replenished, full of vigour and feeling like we can tackle whatever life throws at us.

Other times, when the new week rolls around, we’re still exhausted from the previous week and just want to climb back into bed and hide.

However, a few simple tricks can help you make sure that your weekends fuel successful recovery and help you be at your best.

I learned about the ways in which our leisure time can help or hinder how recovered we feel while doing research for my upcoming book Boost: The Science of Recharging Yourself in an Age of Unrelenting Demands (Information Age Publishing).

A boost is when your leisure time lets you fully recharge your batteries and return to your obligations happier, healthier and more effective at your tasks. Recharging is so important. The stress we experience at work, and the long hours we put in, can cause hypertension, heart disease and even early death.

Boosting prevents this.

Compared to weekends, most people consider vacations better opportunities to decompress and refuel. So here are a few ideas to help turn your Easter long weekend into a break that feels more like a vacation that fully recharges your batteries:

Get out of your normal routine

This weekend, don’t just lie around the house and run errands like you typically do. Do something out of the ordinary. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. It just has to be different.

Go for a hot air balloon ride. Hike through a forest with friends. Or just spend a day as a tourist in a nearby town. The novelty and unpredictability of uncommon weekend activities will lead you to experience strong emotions that help you put work out of your mind and create memories you’ll cherish.

Distancing yourself from your standard routine can make you feel like you’re away from your normal life, which feels like a vacation.

Plan ahead to minimize stress

Negative experiences have a bigger impact on us than positive experiences. Spending many frustrating hours sitting in a traffic jam on your way to meet friends at a restaurant can easily outweigh the enjoyment you gain from the subsequent sparkling conversation.

Not everything can be planned in advance, nor should it be, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the same way you might reserve a boat for para-sailing before you leave on vacation, plan the predictable parts of your long weekend ahead of time so you can avoid unnecessary stress and disappointments.

Instead of leaving for dinner with just enough time to get to the restaurant, leave early, sidestep the evening traffic and spend an extra couple of hours leisurely window shopping or people-watching.

Spread out the pleasure

Research shows that big, uncommon pleasures such as buying a new car or going on a cruise have less of an impact on our level of happiness than frequent, small pleasures, such as regular afternoon tea, or slowly devouring a box of gourmet cookies over a few days.

When you’re on a weeklong vacation in an exotic location, novelty and surprises persist over seven days. On your long weekend, spread out your enjoyment and savour a bunch of small indulgences over three days instead of confining it to one moment.

At Christmas time, some families do something similar by opening one present a day for a number of days instead of opening them all at once. Not only does this prolong the pleasure of opening gifts and seeing people’s reactions, but extends the pleasure of anticipation.

The pleasure that we derive from anticipating experiences can sometimes be even more enjoyable than the experiences themselves. Spreading out your pleasure over a three-day weekend makes work seem a million miles away and helps you recover.

Consider volunteering

When work is uninspiring, meaningless or even dehumanizing, we can recover meaning and purpose in our lives through volunteering. Indeed, volunteering on vacation, or “voluntouring,” is growing in popularity.

Why not volunteer on a long weekend? It seems paradoxical, but one of the ways we can best recover from the demands of work is by voluntarily working for the benefit of others. If you do this, you should volunteer for causes that are personally meaningful to you.

Goals come in two forms. Intrinsic goals reflect pursuits we find inherently rewarding and meaningful. Extrinsic goals are those we pursue to achieve fame, fortune or otherwise impress other people.

Our happiness is enhanced when we focus on satisfying intrinsic goals. So volunteer for causes that you are inherently motivated to advance.

If you make smart choices about how to spend your long weekend, it can feel like a full-fledged vacation and totally recharge your batteries.

Douglas Coupland, the author of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, recently suggested that because of cloud computing, weekends will eventually disappear from our schedules as work time becomes intermingled with leisure time.

He might be right. And when that happens, we might be able to give ourselves long weekends whenever we want. But until then, we need to make the most of the long weekends we have so that our leisure time not only gives us a break, but gives us a boost.The Conversation

Jamie Gruman, Professor of Organizational Behaviour, University of Guelph

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


By David Levari, Harvard University

Why do many problems in life seem to stubbornly stick around, no matter how hard people work to fix them? It turns out that a quirk in the way human brains process information means that when something becomes rare, we sometimes see it in more places than ever.

Think of a “neighborhood watch” made up of volunteers who call the police when they see anything suspicious. Imagine a new volunteer who joins the watch to help lower crime in the area. When they first start volunteering, they raise the alarm when they see signs of serious crimes, like assault or burglary.

Let’s assume these efforts help and, over time, assaults and burglaries become rarer in the neighborhood. What would the volunteer do next? One possibility is that they would relax and stop calling the police. After all, the serious crimes they used to worry about are a thing of the past.

But you may share the intuition my research group had – that many volunteers in this situation wouldn’t relax just because crime went down. Instead, they’d start calling things “suspicious” that they would never have cared about back when crime was high, like jaywalking or loitering at night.

You can probably think of many similar situations in which problems never seem to go away, because people keep changing how they define them. This is sometimes called “concept creep,” or “moving the goalposts,” and it can be a frustrating experience. How can you know if you’re making progress solving a problem, when you keep redefining what it means to solve it? My colleagues and I wanted to understand when this kind of behavior happens, why, and if it can be prevented.

Looking for trouble

To study how concepts change when they become less common, we brought volunteers into our laboratory and gave them a simple task – to look at a series of computer-generated faces and decide which ones seem “threatening.” The faces had been carefully designed by researchers to range from very intimidating to very harmless.

As we showed people fewer and fewer threatening faces over time, we found that they expanded their definition of “threatening” to include a wider range of faces. In other words, when they ran out of threatening faces to find, they started calling faces threatening that they used to call harmless. Rather than being a consistent category, what people considered “threats” depended on how many threats they had seen lately.

This kind of inconsistency isn’t limited to judgments about threat. In another experiment, we asked people to make an even simpler decision: whether colored dots on a screen were blue or purple.

As blue dots became rare, people started calling slightly purple dots blue. They even did this when we told them blue dots were going to become rare, or offered them cash prizes to stay consistent over time. These results suggest that this behavior isn’t entirely under conscious control – otherwise, people would have been able to be consistent to earn a cash prize.

Expanding what counts as immoral

After looking at the results of our experiments on facial threat and color judgments, our research group wondered if maybe this was just a funny property of the visual system. Would this kind of concept change also happen with non-visual judgments?

To test this, we ran a final experiment in which we asked volunteers to read about different scientific studies, and decide which were ethical and which were unethical. We were skeptical that we would find the same inconsistencies in these kind of judgments that we did with colors and threat.

Why? Because moral judgments, we suspected, would be more consistent across time than other kinds of judgments. After all, if you think violence is wrong today, you should still think it is wrong tomorrow, regardless of how much or how little violence you see that day.

But surprisingly, we found the same pattern. As we showed people fewer and fewer unethical studies over time, they started calling a wider range of studies unethical. In other words, just because they were reading about fewer unethical studies, they became harsher judges of what counted as ethical.

The brain likes to make comparisons

Why can’t people help but expand what they call threatening when threats become rare? Research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience suggests that this kind of behavior is a consequence of the basic way that our brains process information – we are constantly comparing what is front of us to its recent context.

Instead of carefully deciding how threatening a face is compared to all other faces, the brain can just store how threatening it is compared to other faces it has seen recently, or compare it to some average of recently seen faces, or the most and least threatening faces it has seen. This kind of comparison could lead directly to the pattern my research group saw in our experiments, because when threatening faces are rare, new faces would be judged relative to mostly harmless faces. In a sea of mild faces, even slightly threatening faces might seem scary.

It turns out that for your brain, relative comparisons often use less energy than absolute measurements. To get a sense for why this is, just think about how it’s easier to remember which of your cousins is the tallest than exactly how tall each cousin is. Human brains have likely evolved to use relative comparisons in many situations, because these comparisons often provide enough information to safely navigate our environments and make decisions, all while expending as little effort as possible.

Being consistent when it counts

Sometimes, relative judgments work just fine. If you are looking for a fancy restaurant, what you count as “fancy” in Paris, Texas, should be different than in Paris, France.

But a neighborhood watcher who makes relative judgments will keep expanding their concept of “crime” to include milder and milder transgressions, long after serious crimes have become rare. As a result, they may never fully appreciate their success in helping to reduce the problem they are worried about. From medical diagnoses to financial investments, modern humans have to make many complicated judgments where being consistent matters.

How can people make more consistent decisions when necessary? My research group is currently doing follow-up research in the lab to develop more effective interventions to help counter the strange consequences of relative judgment.

The ConversationOne potential strategy: When you’re making decisions where consistency is important, define your categories as clearly as you can. So if you do join a neighborhood watch, think about writing down a list of what kinds of transgressions to worry about when you start. Otherwise, before you know it, you may find yourself calling the cops on dogs being walked without leashes.

David Levari, Postdoctoral Researcher in Psychology, Harvard University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.