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Six Ways to Direct Free Will as You Like

“Dear Sir, poor sir, brave sir.” he read, “You are an experiment by the Creator of the Universe. You are the only creature in the entire Universe who has free will. You are the only one who has to figure out what to do next — and why. Everybody else is a robot, a machine.”

―Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

A “wish” is desire without energy. After a wish may come “intention” — the plan to do a thing, to fulfill a wish or desire. But “will” means: “I act until I get my wish.” When you exercise your will power you release the power of life energy — not when you merely wish passively to be able to obtain an objective.

― Yogananda Paramhansa

The dreaded question of late-night, caffeine-fueled speculation, is free will a property of conscious matter, or is free will merely a side effect of mental life, a passive observing rider of a deterministic system living the joyful, despairing delusion of calling the shots?

Let’s say you witness another doing something big, important… not one of those little choices which don’t usually matter. I often wonder about why that happened? Was it an accident, intentional, unconsciously on purpose, habitual, or what? It means a lot to me about who that person is, to decide whether I think they are confident, effective, in charge of their own life. Or otherwise. Perhaps in “flow states”, free will and determinism perfectly coexist. But who we are and how the past has trained us to see, and not to see, key aspects of ourselves, others and the world often keeps us constrained in what we can imagine, and achieve.

When something influential happens, was it the result of contextual factors, outside of awareness or control, or was it the folly or triumph of the actors involved? Who gets the credit, if credit is being given? What about “monkey see, monkey do”, how watching another mammal do something puts the idea in your head, possibly related to the function of mirror neurons as well as social learning factors.

Animals learn by observation and imitation, and we can be unconsciously influenced pretty easily, as advertisers and psychologists can tell you. If free will is an illusion, is there no such thing as individual identity? Are we but bits of flotsam and jetsam in a torrent of big data, neither particle nor wave, with indeterminate statistical relevance to everything and everyone else?

Brain freeze

Let’s say, for example, you see someone eating ice cream. Then you want to eat ice cream. It’s more likely, perhaps that you’ll eat ice cream later, but if you do, was it still your choice? Or is your only choice at that point to veto having ice cream? Involuntary behaviors are definitely not about free will, like a sneeze. But what if you take a big whiff of strong pepper to make yourself sneeze? Where’s the free will there?

Strong belief in free will is a double-edged sword. You have more options, a greater sense of control, but are we distorting reality too much? If you distort things too much, the world-fit is too far off, and instead of influencing events the way we intend, we end up getting push back from reality. We are always testing the world to figure out how it works, and to figure out how to work it. Yet if we conform too much under pressure from the world and other people, we risk becoming complicit in the creation of a world we did not want.

Do we choose reality together to an extent? If so, how? Perhaps not just how strongly we believe in free will but also how we believe in free will together is relevant. There is an often cited neuroscience paper by Benjamin Libet and colleagues (1983) in which the authors saw preparatory brain activity nearly a second before subjects were aware that they decided to move. The conscious sense of wanting to move came after their brains had started the pre-movement sequence. From this perspective, free will is, like, “Hey, guys! Wait up for me!”

So, this study has been widely taken as evidence that free will isn’t real. But the sequencing of events in the brain does not prove causality in any way, shape or form. They two events may be correlated without being causal, even if offset in time (“out of phase”), and the partial consequence of earlier complex events. Everything going on inside and outside of the cranium are themselves at any given moment the result of a chaotic soup of causality few can fathom ― in which the almost soundless blip of free will is a faint signal.

Wasn’t there conscious brain activity before the experiment started? Didn’t the research subjects volunteer willfully, give consent, setting in motion a chain of events leading up to the experiment? If an astronaut deliberately trains for years so she can one day ride a rocket into space, does it mean there is no free will when she gives the go-ahead to launch because all of the rockets systems were already online and ready to go? I see the appeal of no free will… no responsibility.

If we can’t study free will directly, what can we study?

Belief in free will and the existence of free will are totally different things, philosophically and logically speaking. Unless belief in something is the cause of its existence, and I guess there isn’t a consensus there either. Measuring correlations with belief in free will and various outcomes is a cool approach. It changes the nature of contemplating free will’s existence to have data about what reality looks like with and without free will.

You have parallel views which can co-exist. Across the population, there is a distribution of how strong belief in free will actually is. Some people are hard determinists, believing everything is essentially inscribed in a cosmic book which stands apart from our reality, intimately yet acausally related to it. Others are somewhere in the middle, and there are some radical keepers of the faith, who often motivate others by playing up the role we may play in nudging the whale of fate.

Here are a selection of research re: how extent of belief in free will tracks with other aspects of human psychology, including the experience of making decisions, how having choices effects us and visa versa, how belief in free will shifts social attributions, and the basic way that we decide about intention, blame and culpability. The materials they gave the study participants are at the end of this post, for reference. Consider whether you want to check them out before you read the findings:

1. What happens before you begin an action is reflected in brain activity which is outside of consciousness. The classic study by Libet and colleagues noted above has shown that before we are aware we have made a conscious choice, deeper parts of the brain have already been activated, which from a causal framework result in, for example, reaching to grab a piece of fruit. Does degree of belief in free will change this “readiness potential”?

Rigoni and colleagues (2011) made people doubt free will, they “induced disbelief”, and then measured how their brains were different compared to a group without induced disbelief. They found that with greater disbelief in free will, peoples’ likelihood of acting intentionally was reduced, as reflected in reduced brain “event related potentials” (ERPs are a way of measuring whether the brain’s electrical activity is slowed down or changed in intensity after seeing or hearing a stimulus). In the brain, disbelief in free will may make us less likely to step it up when we need to.

2. Do we view our actions as choices, or just actions? How do we feel, when we see ourselves as making choices? Based on the results of psychological experiments (Feldman et al., 2014), having stronger belief in free will makes a big difference. People with stronger beliefs in free will enjoy making decisions more and see themselves as more effective choice-makers. They find it easier to make choices as well, and get greater satisfaction from making choices. Just because you have fewer choices doesn’t mean you have less free will. It may make you believe in free will less, though.

Looking back on things they’ve done, people with greater belief in free will see their past behavior as more purposeful. Making more choices strengthens belief in free will, and participants used more belief in free will when they had greater choice, choosing among several options versus few in the experimental set-up. When we experience our actions as choices, it further enhances belief in free will, creating a force-multiplying effect. Belief in free will is a mental muscle, a cognitive function likely related to many others, and one we can practice. Whether or not we can choose to practice, who knows? But if we end up practicing, these other things tend to be different, too.

3. Increased belief in free will makes people more judgmental. Prior research shows that people with high belief in free will don’t like unethical behavior, and will mete out more severe punishment when someone crosses the line than those with lower belief in free will. If you are a defense attorney, you don’t necessarily want the jury to be big free will fans.

On a related note, those with greater disbelief of free will were less likely to help others in need and were more likely to act aggressively (Baumeister et al., 2009). This suggests that belief in free will may be associated with empathy, and that belief in free serves to regulate hostility and enhance positive social behavior. Seeing others as active agents in their own lives, just like me, may make it easier to relate.

4. Does greater belief in free will give people a sense of control? Rigoni and colleagues (2012) studied whether people with greater belief in free will experience self-governance differently. Participants induced to disbelieve free will reported a lower perception of being in control than others, and not only that but on actual performance measures they were less able to deliberately restrain themselves from acting, suggesting that lower free will correlates with increased impulsivity, which also may contribute to antisocial behavior.

Alquist and colleagues (2013) went on to show that disbelief in free will increased social conformity, making people more likely to adopt others’ opinions at face value. Lower belief in free will apparently make people more likely to be incurious and willing followers, or if you prefer, mindless drones. On the other hand, we all need to be able to go along with the group, often completely unconsciously and for good reasons. Could excessive free will result in dysfunction, extreme rebelliousness, or deviance?

5. How does belief in free will affect performance? In addition to having a greater sense of control, people with higher belief in free will do better on the job, as reflected in better performance reviews by supervisors (Stillman et al., 2010). They also had more positive expectations for career success. Feldman and colleagues (2016) showed that greater belief in free will correlated with academic success, as reflected in actual better grades. Not only that, but they also showed that this grade-increasing effect of belief in free will was independent from other performance-predicting factors, like characterological sense of control (e.g. internal versus external source) and ideas about capacity for personal change and growth (“implicit theories”).

6. Greater belief in free will makes people more likely to view other’s actions as intentional ― even when they aren’t. In one study (Genschow et al, 2017), experiments found that our tendency to see other’s actions as intentional, as arising from internal motives rather than as a result of external factors, is increased by belief in free will. To put it another way, stronger belief in free will increases what psychologists call the “correspondence bias” or “fundamental attribution error”, making us more likely to see others as doing things on purpose. This has pros and cons, of course.

Do inanimate shapes do things on purpose? Source: Genschow et al., 2019

Genschow and colleagues (2019) found further support for this effect, showing that the higher a person’s belief in free will was, the more likely they were to read intention into people’s actions, even when the action was deemed by consensus to be truly accidental (e.g.judging whether a soccer player touched the ball intentionally or not, a key factor in calling it good or illegal).

They showed this effect happens not just when watching people doing something, but also when reading intention into moving abstract shapes, suggesting that belief in free will directly tunes they way we make sense of reality apart from the potential social/contextual confounding factors of a social match.

The ineluctable crucible of the present moment

There are many times when what happens in life can lead us to doubt free will. Our faith in free will may waiver as our efforts to have influence of what happens in our lives are more or less successful. If we don’t respond well to failure, we may stop believing in ourselves, our self-esteem may falter, our sense of self-efficacy flounder, our optimism may fail to persuade us to keep going. Any kind of obsession or compulsion may rob us of will, when we are caught in habit loops.

In the ineluctable crucible of the present moment, past, present and future all exist together, unchanging, indelible. Within the paradox of free will lies the impossibility of change. Looking forward, all things are possible. Looking back, it is what it is, the past is fixed. We are bugs trapped in amber. Or are we? The stories we tell about the same past events seem infinitely mutable, and we can choose how we interpret. This would be an act of free will. The past is subject to the same mental distortions and verities as the future is. If the way we see things changes, it can affect everything.

At the same time, we may want to hand ourselves over to passion, get lost in flow, allow ourselves to be caught up in the grip of creativity, to accomplish long-term goals. We may feel that love is a trap from which we cannot escape, and we may feel that love is liberating. When outside forces are indomitable, we may be free only to surrender and be patient, while looking for opportunity. There are many other situations in life which can feel like traps, and if we approach them the wrong way they indeed are.

What is free will?

The way we respond to things can be very knee-jerk, which itself can be good or bad depending on whether the programmed response happens to fit what’s at hand. It can depend on our repertoire of responses, and how we’ll we can appraise and select pre-programmed responses when we don’t have time to pause and think, planning reflectively. Free will is blurry, complex. Why complex? Because choices usually have tiny effects, nudges, to change the nature of reality. Whether or not a decision was a choice, a combination of factors among which free will may be, or forged in stone at the dawn of time may be a matter of complex perspective.

Because of chaotic determinism, the formal mathematical idea behind the butterfly effect, or “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” tiny differences in where we start from can result in big differences in where we end up. Making choices, given how little real power most of us have, can feel like a drop in the ocean. But there are a few ways these drops can add up and have much larger effects than we might predict. They can build up over time, leading to an avalanche of change from small, deliberate efforts.

Why do I say it is a matter of perspective? Because whether or not an action is viewed as an intentional choice depends on how you look at it. For example:

An intrepid child makes her first bid to grab a cookie without getting caught. Never before has she felt so free, transgression is so exhilarating. Best idea ever! She treads ninja-like into the kitchen, as silent as a gentle breeze. Her heart pounds as she knowingly breaks the rules, but unknowingly leaves a telltale scattering of crumbs. Yet her parents were expecting this to happen, knowing how kids are, having raised a couple of kids before, they knew 100 percent beforehand this would come to pass. They could know all the details, but barring some catastrophic event, it would happen. How they deal with it is another story.

That’s an overly simplistic view, but in an analogous way, we look back on our own actions, which at a younger age may have seemed like choices we were making, and ― understanding our own psychology better than we did at the time ― see our own past actions as having been the result of unconscious influences we only recognize in retrospect. Sigmund Freud called this nachtraeglichkeit, or afterwardness. As we develop, we re-work our past experiencing, learning about ourselves and life, sometimes radically. What seemed like free will at the time looking back may be understood as a consequence of our upbringing, a repetition of factors we didn’t see at the time. Is free will a kind of magic, which only exists as long as you believe? Is this the elusive secret?

How powerful do you want your belief in free will to be?

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

― Viktor Frankl

We may wonder whether our actions make a difference, or if we have any choice or control in our own lives, whether we are at the mercy of fate or the masters of destiny. There are a lot of angles on the question of whether there is free will. The jury may be permanently out unless we invent a plausible quantum free-willometer. Is the universe deterministic, as some religions and interpretations of meta- and regular physics suggest?

Actual possibilities vs. belief in influence Source: Grant H. Brenner

If our choices are under our control to some extent, it is of critical importance, because our belief in what we can do works best when it aligns with what is actually possible, increasing success, reducing frustration and lost opportunity, and allowing us to recognize when acceptance is appropriate.

Does this research data, which shows that belief in free will can be manipulated to change how people see things and behave, and that greater and lesser free will is correlated with different real-world outcomes, say anything about whether free will actually exists? Or is strength of belief in free will simply a property of a deterministic system?

Belief in free will is associated with various research findings. Manipulating belief in free will can change attitudes and behaviors, suggesting a causal relationship. I could, in principle, intentionally cultivate my belief in free will in an effort to change things for the better, but even if that happened it doesn’t say anything about whether or not there actually is free will.

Additional resources

The Free Will Inventory: Part 1

The Free Will Subscale (FW):

1. People always have the ability to do otherwise.

2. People always have free will.

3. How people’s lives unfold is completely up to them.

4. People ultimately have complete control over their decisions and their actions.

5. People have free will even when their choices are completely limited by external circumstances.

The Determinism Subscale (DE):

1. Everything that has ever happened had to happen precisely as it did, given what happened before.

2. Every event that has ever occurred, including human decisions and actions, was completely determined by prior events.

3. People’s choices and actions must happen precisely the way they do because of the laws of nature and the way things were in the distant past.

4. A supercomputer that could know everything about the way the universe is now could know everything about the way the universe will be in the future.

5. Given the way things were at the Big Bang, there is only one way for everything to happen in the universe after that.

The Dualism/Anti-Reductionism Scale (DU):

1. The fact that we have souls that are distinct from our material bodies is what makes humans unique.

2. Each person has a non-physical essence that makes that person unique.

3. The human mind cannot simply be reduced to the brain.

4. The human mind is more than just a complicated biological machine.

5. Human action can only be understood in terms of our souls and minds and not just in terms of our brains.

Script used to heighten disbelief in free will:

Francis Crick is the British physicist and biochemist who collaborated with James D. Watson in the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, for which they received the Nobel Prize in 1962. He is the author of What Mad Pursuit, Life Itself, and Of Molecules and Men. Dr. Crick lectures widely all over the world to both professional and lay audiences, and is a Distinguished Research Professor at The Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA. Dr. Crick’s essay (below) comes from The Astonishing Hypothesis.

“You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons. Most religions hold that some kind of spirit exists that persists after one’s bodily death and, to some degree, embodies the essence of that human being. Religions may not have all the same beliefs, but they do have a broad agreement that people have souls. Yet the common belief of today has a totally different view. It is inclined to believe that the idea of a soul, distinct from the body and not subject to our known scientific laws, is a myth. It is quite understandable how this myth arose without today’s scientific knowledge of nature of matter and radiation, and of biological evolution. Such myths, of having a soul, seem only too plausible. For example, four thousand years ago almost everyone believed the earth was flat. Only with modern science has it occurred to us that in fact the earth is round. From modern science we now know that all living things, from bacteria to ourselves, are closely related at the biochemical level. We now know that many species of plants and animals have evolved over time. We can watch the basic processes of evolution happening today, both in the field and in our test tubes and therefore, there is no need for the religious concept of a soul to explain the behavior of humans and other animals. In addition to scientists, many educated people also share the belief that the soul is a metaphor and that there is no personal life either before conception or after death. Most people take free will for granted, since they feel that usually they are free to act as they please. Three assumptions can be made about free will. The first assumption is that part of one’s brain is concerned with making plans for future actions, without necessarily carrying them out. The second assumption is that one is not conscious of the “computations” done by this part of the brain but only of the “decisions” it makes — that is, its plans, depending of course on its current inputs from other parts of the brain. The third assumption is that the decision to act on one’s plan or another is also subject to the same limitations in that one has immediate recall of what is decided, but not of the computations that went into the decision. So, although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that. The actual cause of the decision may be clear cut or it may be determined by chaos, that is, a very small perturbation may make a big difference to the end result. This would give the appearance of the Will being “free” since it would make the outcome essentially unpredictable. Of course, conscious activities may also influence the decision mechanism. One’s self can attempt to explain why it made a certain choice. Sometimes we may reach the correct conclusion. At other times, we will either not know or, more likely, will confabulate, because there is no conscious knowledge of the ‘reason’ for the choice. This implies that there must be a mechanism for confabulation, meaning that given a certain amount of evidence, which may or may not be misleading, part of the brain will jump to the simplest conclusion.

Originally published at

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Advocate

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