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Convincing evidence: Our wills aren’t as free as we (or I) would like to think

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


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As I professed in a previous post, I’m a hardcore believer in free will. No matter how far science goes in reducing our thoughts, emotions and decisions to deterministic physical processes, I have faith that we can, to a certain extent, choose our paths in life. And yet our freedom to choose can be compromised, undermined, subverted.

In his entertaining, disturbing new book, Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Kevin Dutton, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge (where we met and became buddies in 2005), shows how easy it is for others to choose our actions for us. Indeed, Dutton—who previewed his book last year in Scientific American MIND—could have titled his book "Split-Second Manipulation".

Conformity, or groupthink—our tendency to do and even think like others—represents one of our greatest vulnerabilities. In a classic experiment carried out in the 1950s the psychologist Solomon Asch asked subjects to compare two sets of lines with each other and identify which lines were the same length. The subjects easily answered correctly when alone but not when surrounded by actors whom Asch had secretly instructed to give the wrong answer. After listening to the actors the subjects agreed with the erroneous majority opinion as often as 76 percent of the time.

Another example cited by Dutton: During the 1992 presidential race, researchers assembled two groups of students—half Republican and half Democratic—to watch a debate between the candidates Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. The groups contained actors who cheered Clinton and jeered Bush in one group and did the reverse in the other. After the debate the subjects were asked to rate the candidates’ performances. Jeering drove down each candidate’s ratings and cheering boosted them compared with a control group, regardless of the subjects’ initial preference.

This is the same basic phenomenon, Dutton notes, that led television producers to add laugh tracks to their comedies decades ago. "Sometimes, it would seem, the way we see others depends on nothing more substantial than the way others see others," Dutton comments. We also defer to the trappings of authority. In famous experiments carried out by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s about one in four subjects administered what they believed to be potentially lethal shocks to strangers when ordered to do so by "technicians" wearing jeans and t-shirts. The compliance rose to 65 percent when the orders came from "professors" wearing white lab coats.

Similarly, Dutton points out, we rate people as more intelligent if we believe they are wealthy rather than poor. Expert wine-tasters insist that a vintage labeled as expensive tastes better than one labeled as cheap—even though the wines are identical. Women view men as more attractive if the men are accompanied by an attractive female. Worse, we assume that "good-looking people are good," Dutton concludes. Studies have shown that attractive defendants are more likely to be judged not guilty or, if convicted, to receive a lighter sentence than unattractive defendants.

We tend to like people with whom we think we have something in common, no matter how trivial the commonality. After reading about Rasputin, whose spell over the Russian royal family ended only with his assassination in 1916, students were more likely to view the mad monk positively if told they shared his birthday. We rate faces as more trustworthy if the images have been modified by computers to resemble us.

In addition to reviewing all this research, Dutton also interviews "persuasion grandmasters," including salesmen, political propagandists, trial lawyers, pickup artists, military interrogators and even con artists, who explain how they charm victims out of their money, possessions, secrets or disinclinations. Key factors are humor, surprise, eye contact and absolute confidence ("con," after all, is short for "confidence"). The more confident someone is, the more readily we believe him—even if he is deluded or deceptive.

Persuasion can be used for good as well as ill, of course. Psychotherapists, in a sense, try to persuade patients not to feel anxious or depressed. Dutton also describes a British policeman who excels at talking people out of committing suicide. In one case the policeman stripped off his coat to reveal a t-shirt bearing the words: "PISS OFF—I’VE GOT ENOUGH FRIENDS!" The startled would-be suicide laughed and crawled back from his window ledge.

How can we prevent ourselves from being unduly manipulated, yet keep ourselves open to legitimate persuasion? How can we keep our wills free? Dutton has persuaded me that reading his book might help.

Photo of Kevin Dutton courtesy Inkwell Photographic





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  1. 1. krohleder 6:05 pm 02/15/2011

    It is not that our free will, or choosing ability, is non existent in these examples; it is that our choosing ability does not exist in real time as much as we think. The choices that shape our willingness to adapt to a certain group of people, for example, are small choices we make every day freely. Small yet free choices that shape our beliefs and perceptions. However when the time comes in real time to make an important decision, then the summation of our acquired attitudes, are realized in a way that is seemingly out of control. So free will exists more in the small, and ironically sub-conscious (or barely conscious), choices we make every day, rather than the big decisions made when we may be held accountable for. It is still the you, that is deciding, however factors of your previous choices are heavy in determining the outcome.

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  2. 2. rumskib 6:32 pm 02/15/2011

    Don’t worry, we do have free will. Only it doesn’t necessarily involve our conscious mind :)

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  3. 3. SAJP2000 11:43 pm 02/15/2011

    We’ve heard about all these Pavlovian-type/alpha-leader behaviors in decades-old studies, so what’s new here?

    "Conformity, or groupthink–our tendency to do and even think like others…"

    Don’t most nominally intelligent people intuit this sort of behavior in groups?

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  4. 4. magillb 12:38 am 02/16/2011

    It’s good to see that psychologista are beginning to realize what sociologists have known for a long time. Our beliefs, attitudes, and feelings, and yes even behaviors are strongly influenced by our social experiences. Read some Durkheim, "Back to the future"!

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  5. 5. robert schmidt 9:14 am 02/16/2011

    @John, "No matter how far science goes in reducing our thoughts, emotions and decisions to deterministic physical processes, I have faith that we can, to a certain extent, choose our paths in life." So let me get this straight; you will ignore the evidence and instead rely on your faith to determine the nature of free will? Well you have that right I guess but it suggests to me that you should not be writing for a science magazine. Science is about evidence, not faith. Anyone who claims that faith supersedes evidence does not accept the principals of science. What is the point of having someone who does not respect science comment on it? If I want an ill informed, biased view about science I would watch fox news not read Scientific American. We get enough irrational B.S. from the trolls, why does sciam insist on hosting a faith based blog?

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  6. 6. gesimsek 2:22 pm 02/16/2011

    Actually we decide not according to our sterile free will but according to our character, which takes shape as a result of life experiences.

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  7. 7. cccampbell38 7:24 pm 02/16/2011

    In all things concerning human behavior I ask one question: "In what way would this be adaptive for a hunter/gatherer population?" It’s interesting how often that several possible answers present themselves. In this case group cohesion may often be more important than being right. I know, armchair speculation, but still, how many of our behavioral tendencies evolved as survival strategies that were essential 50 thousand or 2 million years ago and maintain today below the level of our conscious thought?

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  8. 8. robert schmidt 8:07 pm 02/16/2011

    @cccampbell38, from my limited study of the phenomenon, freewill does not exist. Do not confuse freewill with conscious thought. Consciousness is awareness. It is not decision making. We are aware of our state and the choices we make, but conscious thought does not make those choices even though it feels like it does. The choices are made by lower level neural processes competing for resources. These processes are directed by brain organization and our experiences. The ideas that have the highest "need" and ability to be fulfilled are given priority. Our conscious thought is merely aware of the choice that has been made by these lower level processes. We, our conscious selves, are passengers in our bodies. We look out the window and see what is happening but have no direct control over where we are going. But because the vehicle is going where we want, it feels like we are in control. This is how it looks, to me anyway, from a low level study of neural networks. I have seen nothing to indicate that there is a place in the brain where non-caused behaviour (freewill) originates.

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  9. 9. cccampbell38 8:55 pm 02/16/2011

    Robert, I tend to agree with you up to a point. I do know that I make choices but am also aware that much, though perhaps not all, of my tendencies to choose one thing over another may be driven by the neural networks that are the product of some 3 billion years of evolution. The human brain is far too complex for us to be able to say that we actually understand what’s going on. That’s why we are still studying worm brains. A couple of hundred neural connections are a bit easier to study than 100 trillion+

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  10. 10. robert schmidt 11:32 pm 02/16/2011

    @cccampbell38, brains are undeniably complex but at the same time they are composed of a small number of components; neurons and synapses that we do know a fair amount about. We are also gaining a better understanding of the circuits for different brain regions and find similar motifs in many different regions. Studying worm brains doesn’t mean we have no understanding about human brains any more than studying atoms means we don’t understand chemistry. People like to make a big deal about how much we don’t know about the brain. John Horgan does this often enough. It is as if saying the brain is mysterious implies that we are somewhat above nature. That we are mystical beings that are not ruled by natural laws. When I first began studying neural networks I was surprised at how much we did know. It certainly wasn’t this big black box (gray box) that everyone had made it out to be. The fact is we are able to reproduce the function of neurons, neural networks and brain regions in both software and hardware. This wouldn’t be possible if we knew nothing.

    For me though one of the keys to understanding the brain is to stop comparing my own experiences with the science. For example, when I look at the world I see a single unified scene; yet the image received by my retina is processed in a number of different places in my brain, not a single place. How does that make sense? Same goes with the idea that your conscious mind is making a choice. You are aware of the choice and you may be aware of the reason but that doesn’t mean it was your conscious mind that made the choice. Have a look at this article; http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-04/m-udi041408.php. Again, we are poor witnesses of reality. The experiences we have are all heavily burdened by our expectations and assumptions. The only way to make sense of the brain is to look at the research and not look at yourself.

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  11. 11. tharter 8:48 am 02/17/2011

    What is this ‘I’ that supposedly has "free will". It really isn’t a question that can be separated from any of the other basic questions of identity and existence. Only an operational theory seems possible. Nobody can ever "know" anything about free will.

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  12. 12. twclark3 9:58 pm 02/17/2011

    In this piece Horgan says “I’m a hardcore believer in free will. No matter how far science goes in reducing our thoughts, emotions and decisions to deterministic physical processes, I have faith that we can, to a certain extent, choose our paths in life.” Here Horgan is championing *contra-causal* free will, something that permits the choosing self to transcend the deterministic physical processes going on in our brains and bodies.

    But in his earlier blog on free will, he said “physiological processes underpin all our perceptions, plans, choices and actions. Only a believer in dualism or an immaterial soul would expect anything else.” If so, then our choices *don’t* transcend cause and effect, and indeed everything Horgan says there, including his appeals to consciousness as an emergent property, shows his concept of free will to be compatible with determinism. Consciousness doesn’t float free of its physical instantiation and somehow escape causality in determining our choices.

    He even says in the first blog that “Deniers of free will often have weird metaphysical definitions of it, which lead them to view it as a kind of exception to causality.” But this is exactly what he says free will is in the current piece: an exception to causality (see the quote I started with).

    Unless and until Horgan gets clear about what he means by free will, and gives good scientific grounds for his belief that it exists, his hardcore faith in free will seems unfounded.

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  13. 13. twclark3 10:04 pm 02/17/2011

    Not sure why the quotation marks got removed in my post above, go figure…

    Anyway, here are the quotes from Horgan in order:

    "I’m a hardcore believer in free will. No matter how far science goes in reducing our thoughts, emotions and decisions to deterministic physical processes, I have faith that we can, to a certain extent, choose our paths in life."

    "…physiological processes underpin all our perceptions, plans, choices and actions. Only a believer in dualism or an immaterial soul would expect anything else."

    "Deniers of free will often have weird metaphysical definitions of it, which lead them to view it as a kind of exception to causality."

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