Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind

A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior

Scientists say free will probably doesn't exist, but urge: "Don't stop believing!"


Young Adolph HitlerSuspend disbelief for a moment and imagine that you have agreed, as a secret agent in some confidential military operation, to travel back in time to the year 1894. To your astonishment, it’s a success! And now—after wiping away the magical time-travelling dust from your eyes—you find yourself on the fringes of some Bavarian village, hidden in a camouflaging thicket of wilderness against the edge of town, the distant, disembodied voices of nineteenth-century Germans mingling atmospherically with the unmistakable sounds of church bells.

Quickly, you survey your surroundings: you seem to be directly behind a set of old row houses; white linens have been hung out to dry; a little stream tinkles behind you; windows have been opened to let in the warm springtime air. How quaint. No one else appears to be about, although occasionally you glimpse a pedestrian passing between the narrow gaps separating the houses. And then you notice him. There’s a quiet, solemn-looking little boy nearby, playing quietly with some toys in the dirt. He looks to be about six years old—a mere kindergartner, in the modern era. It’s then that you’re reminded of your mission: this is the town of Passau in Southern Germany. And that’s no ordinary little boy. It’s none other than young Adolph Hitler (image above).

What would you do next?

This scenario is, rather unfortunately for us, in the realm of science fiction. But your answer to this hypothetical question—and others like it—is a matter for psychological scientists, because among other things it betrays your underlying assumptions about whether Hitler, and the decisions he made later in his life, were simply the product of his environment acting on his genes or whether he could have acted differently by exerting his “free will.” Most scientists in this area aren’t terribly concerned over whether or not free will does or doesn’t exist, but rather how people’s everyday reasoning about free will, particularly in the moral domain, influences their social behaviors and attitudes. (In fact, the Templeton Foundation has just launched a massive funding initiative designed to support scientific research on the subject of free will.)

One of the leading investigators in this area, Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, puts it this way in a recent article in Perspectives on Psychological Science :

At the core of the question of free will is a debate about the psychological causes of action. That is, is the person an autonomous entity who genuinely chooses how to act from among multiple possible options? Or is the person essentially just one link in a causal chain, so that the person’s actions are merely the inevitable product of lawful causes stemming from prior events, and no one ever could have acted differently than he or she actually did? …
To discuss free will in terms of scientific psychology is therefore to invoke notions of self-regulation, controlled processes, behavioral plasticity, and conscious decision-making. 

So with this understanding of what psychologists study when they turn their attention to people’s beliefs in free will, let’s return to the Hitler example above. In your role of this time-travelling secret agent from the twenty-first century, you’ve been equipped with the following pieces of information. First, the time-travelling technology is still in its infancy, and researchers are doubtful that it will ever succeed again. Second, you have only ten minutes before being zapped back into the year 2010 (and two of those minutes have already elapsed since you arrived). Third, you’ve been informed that seven minutes is just enough time to throttle a six-year-old with your bare hands and to confirm, without a doubt, that the child is dead. This means that you have only one minute left to decide whether or not to assassinate the little boy.

But you have other options. Seven minutes is also enough time, you’ve been told by your advisors, to walk into the Hitler residence and hand-deliver to Alois and Klara, Adolph’s humorless father and kindly, retiring mother, a specially prepared package of historical documents related to the Holocaust, including clear photographs of their son as a moustachioed Führer and a detailed look at the Third Reich four decades later. Nobody knows precisely what effect this would have, but most modern scholars believe that this horrifying preview of WWII would meaningfully alter Adolph’s childhood. Perhaps Klara would finally leave her domineering, abusive husband; Alois, unhappy with the idea of his surname becoming synonymous with all that is evil, might change his ways and become a kinder parent; or they might both sit down together with the young Adolph and share with him disturbing death camp images and testimonies from Holocaust survivors that are so shocking and terrifying that even Adolph himself would come to disdain his much-hated adult persona. But can Adolph really change the course of his life? Does he have free will? Do any of us?

One of the most striking findings to emerge recently in the science of free will is that when people believe—or are led to believe—that free will is just an illusion, they tend to become more antisocial. We’ll get back to little Adolph shortly (which do you think is the antisocial decision here, to kill or not to kill the Hitler boy?). But before making your decision, have a look at what the science says. The first study to directly demonstrate the antisocial consequences of deterministic beliefs was done by University of Minnesota’s Kathleen Vohs and her colleague Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist from the University of British Columbia. In this 2008 report [pdf] published in Psychological Science , Vohs and Schooler invited thirty undergraduate students into their lab to participate in what was ostensibly a study about mental arithmetic, in which they were asked to calculate the answers to 20 math problems (e.g., 1 + 8 + 18 – 12 +19 – 7 + 17 – 2 + 8 – 4 = ?) in their heads. But, as social psychology experiments often go, testing something as trivial as the students’ math skills was not the real purpose of the study.

Prior to taking the math test, half the group (15 participants) were asked to read the following passage from Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis (Scribner):

‘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 … although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.

In contrast, the other 15 participants read a different passage from the same book, but one in which Crick makes no mention of free will. And, rather amazingly, when given the opportunity this second group of people cheated significantly less on the math test than those who read Crick’s free-will-as-illusion passage above. (The study was cleverly rigged to measure cheating: participants were led to believe that there was a “glitch” in the computer program, and that if the answer appeared on the screen before they finished the problem, they should hit the space bar and finish the test honestly. The number of space bar clicks throughout the task therefore indicated how honest they were being.) These general effects were replicated in a second experiment using a different, money allocation task, in which participants randomly assigned to a determinism condition and who were asked to read statements such as, “A belief in free will contradicts the known fact that the universe is governed by lawful principles of science,” essentially stole more money than those who’d been randomly assigned to read statements from a free-will condition (e.g., “Avoiding temptation requires that I exert my free will”) or a neutral condition with control statements (e.g., “Sugar cane and sugar beets are grown in 112 countries”).

Vohs and Schooler’s findings reveal a rather strange dilemma facing social scientists: if a deterministic understanding of human behavior encourages antisocial behavior, how can we scientists justify communicating our deterministic research findings? In fact, there’s a rather shocking line in this Psychological Science article, one that I nearly overlooked on my first pass. Vohs and Schooler write that:

If exposure to deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions, then identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative.

Perhaps you missed it on your first reading too, but the authors are making an extraordinary suggestion. They seem to be claiming that the public “can’t handle the truth,” and that we should somehow be protecting them (lying to them?) about the true causes of human social behaviors. Perhaps they’re right. Consider the following example.

A middle-aged man hires a prostitute, knowingly exposing his wife to a sexually transmitted infection and exploiting a young drug addict for his own pleasure. Should the man be punished somehow for his transgression? Should we hold him accountable? Most people, I’d wager, wouldn’t hesitate to say “yes” to both questions.

But what if you thought about it in the following slightly different, scientific terms? The man’s decision to have sex with this woman was in accordance with his physiology at that time, which had arisen as a consequence of his unique developmental experiences, which occurred within a particular cultural environment in interaction with a particular genotype, which he inherited from his particular parents, who inherited genetic variants of similar traits from their own particular parents, ad infinitum. Even his ability to inhibit or “override” these forces, or to understand his own behavior, is the product itself of these forces! What’s more, this man’s brain acted without first consulting his self-consciousness; rather, his neurocognitive system enacted evolved behavioral algorithms that responded, either normally or in error, in ways that had favored genetic success in the ancestral past.

Given the combination of these deterministic factors, could the man have responded any other way to the stimuli that he was confronted with? Attributing personal responsibility to this sap becomes merely a social convention that reflects only a naive understanding of the causes of his behaviors. Like us judging him, this man’s self merely plays the role of spectator in his body’s sexual affairs. There is only the embodiment of a man who is helpless to act in any way that is contrary to his particular nature, which is a derivative of a more general nature. The self is only a deluded creature that thinks it is participating in a moral game when in fact it is just an emotionally invested audience member.

If this deterministic understanding of the man’s behaviors leads you to feel even a smidgeon more sympathy for him than you otherwise might have had, that reaction is precisely what Vohs and Schooler are warning us about. How can we fault this “pack of neurons”—let alone punish him—for acting as his nature dictates, even if our own nature would have steered us otherwise? What’s more, shouldn’t we be more sympathetic of our own moral shortcomings? After all, we can’t help who we are either. Right?

In fact, a study published last year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues found that simply by exposing people to deterministic statements such as, “Like everything else in the universe, all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules” made them act more aggressively and selfishly compared to those who read statements endorsing the idea of free will, such as, “I demonstrate my free will every day when I make decisions” or those who simply read neutral statements, such as, “Oceans cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface.” Participants who’d been randomly assigned to the deterministic condition, for example, were less likely than those from the other two groups to give money to a homeless person, or to allow a classmate to use their cellular phone. In discussing the societal implications of these results, Baumeister and his coauthors echo Vohs and Schooler’s concerns about “insulating the public” against a detailed understanding of the causes of human social behaviors:

Some philosophical analyses may conclude that a fatalistic determinism is compatible with highly ethical behavior, but the present results suggest that many laypersons do not yet appreciate that possibility.

These laboratory findings demonstrating the antisocial consequences of viewing individual human beings as hapless pin balls trapped in a mechanical system—even when, in point of fact, that’s pretty much what we are—are enough to give me pause in my scientific proselytizing. Returning to innocent little Adolph, we could, of course, play with this particular example forever. It’s an unpalatable thought, but what if one of the children slaughtered at Auschwitz would have grown up to be even more despised than Hitler, as an adult ordering the deaths of ten million? Isn’t your ability to make a decision a question fundamentally about your own free will? And so on. But the point is not to play the “what if” Hitler game in some infinite regress, but rather to provoke your intuitions about free will without asking you directly whether you believe in it or not. As any good scientist knows, what people say they believe doesn’t always capture their private psychology. 

In this case, it’s not so much your decision to kill the child or to deliver the package to his parents that research psychologists would be interested in. Rather, it’s how you would justify your decision (e.g., “I’d kill him because [fill in the blank here]” or “I’d deliver the package because [fill in the blank]") that would illuminate your thinking about Hitler’s free will. On the face of it, strangling an innocent six-year-old seems rather antisocial, and so perhaps hearing a deterministic message before answering this question would lead you to kill him (e.g, “ Hitler is evil, he will grow up to murder people no matter what—he has no free will to do otherwise”) . For some people, however, the decision not to kill the innocent boy is the antisocial one, because it may well mean the unthinkable for over six million fellow human beings.

I, for one, wouldn’t hesitate to gleefully strangle that little prick in 1894 Passau. (The fact that I recently visited Auschwitz may have something to do with that.) I can’t help but feel that Hitler could have raised his hand at any time and quashed the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish people” before it ever began. This justification seems to reveal my hidden belief in free will: Adolph could have acted differently, but chose not to. That is to say, the chain of causal events preceding Hitler’s rise to power seems largely irrelevant to me, or at least inconsequential. His bad deeds would have occurred irrespective of the vicissitudes of his personal past. There is something essentially evil about this individual. And so I decide to kill the child: it’s probably best in this instance, I seem to be saying, to slay the beast while it’s still lying dormant in a little boy playing with plastic soldiers.

But you might opt for a less homicidal way to spend your time with little Adolph. For example, if you spare the life of this pasty, forlorn kid and decide to deliver the package to his parents because, you say, had the Hitlers known what was to become of their troubled son, they would have raised him otherwise, and this change in his early environment would almost certainly have prevented mass genocide, this entails that you subscribe more to the principle of causal determinism.

In any event, your minute is up! So what’s it going to be—and why ? With millions of future lives at stake, do you murder the innocent six-year-old boy as a pre-emptive homicide? Do you deliver the package to his parents, in the hopes that the shocking vision of the Holocaust will lead Adolph—one way or another—to choose a different career path, or even to flub his own rise to fame from all the pressure? Or, like those who lived in Nazi Germany and who were bombarded with (false) deterministic messages about the Jews, do you simply not intervene at all?


In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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