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Free Will and Our Mean Streak

Although it might seem to be an esoteric issue with few practical implications beyond tenure decisions in philosophy departments, the question of whether free will exists—and, in particular, whether people believe it exists—has some solid real-world repercussions.

Consider, for example, the following 2008 social psychology experiment. Researchers Kathleen Vohs, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, and Jonathan Schooler, professor of psychology at University of California-Santa Barbara, put subjects in front of a computer and asked them to read either a neutral passage or else a passage arguing that free will does not exist and claiming that most scientists agree.

Subjects were then given a 20-problem arithmetic test but were warned that a software glitch would cause the correct answer to be displayed on the screen unless they pressed the space bar immediately after each problem appeared. They should try to do the problems on their own, they were told, but no one would know if they didn't.

In reality, the computer was set up to count how often the subjects hit the space bar. When the numbers of space bar presses were tallied, the experimenters found that the subjects who had read the no-free-will passage cheated far more often than those who had read the neutral passage.

FSU social psychologist Roy Baumeister performed a similar experiment that tested how a belief in free will affects one's behavior toward others. He found that subjects who had read passages denying the existence of free will were less willing to help others and were more aggressive—as measured by their willingness to serve exceptionally hot sauce to others.

In a recent blog, Baumeister summarized the research in the area this way: "Reducing people's belief in free will and pushing them toward deterministic beliefs makes people more likely to lie, cheat, steal, hurt an innocent person, and conform mindlessly to what others say. It makes them less likely to offer help to someone in need or to reflect on their misdeeds and learn lessons about how they might behave better in the future."—R.P.


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