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  • Writer's pictureJoe

Does belief in free will affect behaviour?

A study by Vohs and Schooler ("The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating," Psychological Science 19(1) 2008, 49-54) revealed that students are more likely to cheat when they read statements that reveal the universe is determined.

These comments were based on some notes that I had accumulated when I read the paper in 2008.

First, the article mentions that there were a number of statements of determinism left out of the study. I’d like to see the other 14 “determinism statements” the study used (and compare them against the “free will” and “neutral” statements). One statement reported in the study: “a belief in free will contradicts the known fact that the universe is governed by lawful principles of science,” seems to goad subjects into denying science. I imagine that people are reluctant to do that. A prevailing assumption people have about the world is that it is responsive natural and physical laws of the universe. These laws are fully determined and not something that can be adjusted by human contrivance. To get people to agree with the above statement people would have to give up that fundamental assumption. If people feel anchored to such fundamental natural and physical laws, I cannot see how they would agree with the above statement. The experimental design seems otherwise sound.

Second, mightn’t the study prove that the cheating subjects (”cheaters”) believe in free will? Each of the statements the cheaters read were about determinism. The cheaters took more money than those who had read “free will” or “neutral” statements and self scored the exam, and they received more money than those who had read determinism statements and the experimenter scored the exam.

The cheaters could either cheat or not cheat. The cheater who chose not to cheat could have felt constrained by outside pressure that they should not cheat. After all, society prescribes such a standard and that’s the standard they know they ought to follow. Then again, an equally good explanation of the non-cheater's actions is that maybe the universe was set up in such a way that they cannot help but cheat, so by choosing not to cheat the non-cheater is exercising their free will.

Choosing to cheat, of course, may be explained by the empirical data. They’ve just read statements about determinism, and these statements may seem to cheaters to be inconsistent with the belief in the ability to choose. So, the subject cheats thereby undermining the external constraint.

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