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 Elliot Berkman, University of Oregon and Jordan Miller-Ziegler, University of Oregon

“I love deadlines,” English author Douglas Adams once wrote. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

We’ve all had the experience of wanting to get a project done but putting it off for later. Sometimes we wait because we just don’t care enough about the project, but other times we care a lot – and still end up doing something else. I, for one, end up cleaning my house when I have a lot of papers to grade, even though I know I need to grade them.

So why do we procrastinate? Are we built to operate this way at some times? Or is there something wrong with the way we’re approaching work?

These questions are central to my research on goal pursuit, which could offer some clues from neuroscience about why we procrastinate – and how to overcome this tendency.

To do, or not to do

It all starts with a simple choice between working now on a given project and doing anything else: working on a different project, doing something fun or doing nothing at all.

The decision to work on something is driven by how much we value accomplishing the project in that moment – what psychologists call its subjective value. And procrastination, in psychological terms, is what happens when the value of doing something else outweighs the value of working now.

This way of thinking suggests a simple trick to defeat procrastination: find a way to boost the subjective value of working now, relative to the value of other things. You could increase the value of the project, decrease the value of the distraction, or some combination of the two.

For example, instead of cleaning my house, I might try to focus on why grading is personally important to me. Or I could think about how unpleasant cleaning can actually be – especially when sharing a house with a toddler.

It’s simple advice, but adhering to this strategy can be quite difficult, mainly because there are so many forces that diminish the value of working in the present.

The distant deadline

People are not entirely rational in the way they value things. For example, a dollar bill is worth exactly the same today as it is a week from now, but its subjective value – roughly how good it would feel to own a dollar – depends on other factors besides its face value, such as when we receive it.

The tendency for people to devalue money and other goods based on time is called delay discounting. For example, one study showed that, on average, receiving $100 three months from now is worth the same to people as receiving $83 right now. People would rather lose $17 than wait a few months to get a larger reward.

Other factors also influence subjective value, such as how much money someone has recently gained or lost. The key point is that there is not a perfect match between objective value and subjective value.

Delay discounting is a factor in procrastination because the completion of the project happens in the future. Getting something done is a delayed reward, so its value in the present is reduced: the further away the deadline is, the less attractive it seems to work on the project right now.

Studies have repeatedly shown that the tendency to procrastinate closely follows economic models of delay discounting. Furthermore, people who characterize themselves as procrastinators show an exaggerated effect. They discount the value of getting something done ahead of time even more than other people.

One way to increase the value of completing a task is to make the finish line seem closer. For example, vividly imagining a future reward reduces delay discounting.

No work is ‘effortless’

Not only can completing a project be devalued because it happens in the future, but working on a project can also be unattractive due to the simple fact that work takes effort.

New research supports the idea that mental effort is intrinsically costly; for this reason, people generally choose to work on an easier task rather than a harder task. Furthermore, there are greater subjective costs for work that feels harder (though these costs can be offset by experience with the task at hand).

This leads to the interesting prediction that people would procrastinate more the harder they expect the work to be. That’s because the more effort a task requires, the more someone stands to gain by putting the same amount of effort into something else (a phenomenon economists call opportunity costs). Opportunity costs make working on something that seems hard feels like a loss.

Sure enough, a group of studies shows that people procrastinate more on unpleasant tasks. These results suggest that reducing the pain of working on a project, for example by breaking it down into more familiar and manageable pieces, would be an effective way to reduce procrastination.

Your work, your identity

When we write that procrastination is a side effect of the way we value things, it frames task completion as a product of motivation, rather than ability.

In other words, you can be really good at something, whether it’s cooking a gourmet meal or writing a story, but if you don’t possess the motivation, or sense of importance, to complete the task, it’ll likely be put off.

It was for this reason that the writer Robert Hanks, in an essay for the London Review of Books, described procrastination as “a failure of appetites.”

The source of this “appetite” can be a bit tricky. But one could argue that, like our (real) appetite for food, it’s something that’s closely intertwined with our daily lives, our culture and our sense of who we are.

So how does one increase the subjective value of a project? A powerful way – one that my graduate students and I have written about in detail – is to connect the project to your self-concept. Our hypothesis is that projects seen as important to a person’s self-concept will hold more subjective value for that person.

It’s for this reason that Hanks also wrote that procrastination seems to stem from a failure to “identify sufficiently with your future self” – in other words, the self for whom the goal is most relevant.

Because people are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept, goals connected closely to one’s sense of self or identity take on much more value.

The ConversationConnecting the project to more immediate sources of value, such as life goals or core values, can fill the deficit in subjective value that underlies procrastination.

Elliot Berkman, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon and Jordan Miller-Ziegler, PhD Candidate in Psychology, University of Oregon

This article was originally published on The Conversation.