Free Will : Interesting Findings in Social Psychology

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Free Will : Interesting Findings in Social PsychologyFree will has up until quite recently been considered a philosophical issue. Some philosophers argued that free will exists, some argued that it doesn’t, and work has mainly been focused on trying to better define what free will means and to disentangle and relate free will to other concepts like determinism, fatalism, etc. In the last couple of decades neuroscientists have joined this debate with a line of research that generally claims to show that free will probably does not exist. More recently, social psychologists have joined in on the fun, but rather than debating whether free will exists or not they were more interested in whether people believe in free will, and the antecedents and consequences of that belief.

It’s been over 6 months since I’ve been introduced to the topic and now that I have over four projects on free will from a social psychology perspective, I can now confidently say that I have probably read most of what we currently know about the topic in the leading social psychology journals. The last few months visiting Roy Baumeister‘s lab in Florida State University have given me the opportunity to get a better grasp of the current work done in the field and to expand that into my own directions.


This first post is meant to highlight what I think are very interesting papers in social psychology about free will.

The first paper that I’ve read on the topic was the 2010 PNAS paper by Pronin & Kugler arguing that people tend to perceive as though they have higher free will than others. This follows a long line of research in social psychology that shows that people have inherent biases when comparing self to others (e.g. self-serving bias). So that if people consider their own actions they are more likely to attribute those actions to their own deliberate will and intent while attributing other people’s actions to circumstances, personality or genes. You’ll notice that what’s interesting about this paper is that is no longer looks at people as either believing in free will or not believing in free will but as more complex agents that form conceptions and make attributions of free will according to the target being evaluated.

A recent paper by Helzer & Gilovich in PSPB (2012) takes this idea of contextual free will beliefs even further. Though it doesn’t directly discuss free will, it does show that people tend to see their will as more determinant of future events than of past events. When we contemplate the future we feel as though we have a choice and are likely to influence events but when we consider our own past we often feel like most of the things that have happened were out of our control.

Furthermore, free will perceptions are susceptible to priming effects. But what can prime freedom of will? Aarts and van den Bos (Psychological Science, 2011) show that self-agency binding, meaning showing a person that his actions have influence over real life occurrences, primes the feeling of control and free will. When people see that their actions are tied to what actually happens around them then their perceptions of free will change, or at the very least activated.

But perhaps the most curious findings of all are offered by Gray, Knickman and Wegner recently published in Cognition (2011). Their findings argue that people attribute more will to dead people than they do to people in persistent vegetative state (PVS) following a serious accident. The explanation they offer for these results is related to people’s beliefs in the afterlife. People who believe in the afterlife see the soul as disconnected from the body which is therefore capable of having free will, while considering those who lying in a hospital bed in a vegetative state as trapped without the ability to have or to freely exercise their will.


More on this topic to follow…

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