Evidence from the fields of behavioral economics and neuroeconomics shows that many cognitive biases influence people’s minds when they have to make choices. These unconscious but universally spread processes shape our brains and make us “Predictably Irrational” (as behavioral scientist Dan Ariely wrote). For this reason, “nudging” can act on our decision-making system and be positively effective. However, this deep connection between the mind’s structure and our actions affects our perception of independence and leads to a complex, unsolved question: what happens to personal free will if our choices actually depend on physical (cognitive) and environmental factors? Does free will even exist?
Free will is typically defined as the power of acting without the constraint of necessity, so as the ability to act at one’s own discretion. The discussion about it is probably as old as humankind. Recently an increasing number of philosophers and neuroscientists have argued that, based on the current understanding of the human brain, we are not the intentional authors of our lives, but we are simply pushed around by past events and by the behind-the-scenes machinery of our unconscious minds. According to this theory, free will is just an illusion. Not everyone agrees, of course, and debates about free will continue to exist.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how the belief or the doubt of the existence of free will influence our choices as individuals or as a society and shape different scenarios.
Most cultures believe in free will. For instance, it is a key concept in many legal systems, where the assumption of its existence assures one’s liability and accountability for their own actions. What happens if people’s belief in free will – justified or not – is shaken? If actions were determined uniquely by necessary internal mechanisms instead of being the result of free choices, it would be impossible to decide whether someone is liable of a crime or not. The lack of control over mental faculties is indeed the basis to plead the insanity defense. Likewise, punishment would become useless, both in its “retributive” (aimed at making criminals pay or suffer) and “corrective” (aimed at rehabilitating them) forms. In fact, there is no point in punishing people for something they did unintentionally, since the punishment would neither be able to create regret for past actions nor to deter from future wrongdoings.
Many experiments have also shown that weakening the sense of one’s accountability encourages people to lie, cheat, be violent and, in general, to misbehave. The Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo can be an interesting example. Twenty-four people were chosen to act like prisoners or guards in a prison setting. Prisoners had to wear uniforms, serial numbers and chains whereas guards had uniforms and weapons. The experiment showed that, if deindividualized, people feel less responsible for their own actions and tend to act according to the social role they cover rather than to their conscience. In particular, guards soon became violent and prisoners started to rebel against the “authorities”.
Neuroscience has revealed that the link between skepticism about free will and unethical behavior is the reduction of willpower. Before making a motion, such as reaching for an object, a particular pattern of electrical activity occurs in the brain’s motor cortex, which helps to regulate movements. It has been shown that weakening people’s belief in free will reduces this electrical activity. The less we believe in free will, it seems, the less strength we have to control our impulsive reactions.
Another related phenomenon that must be taken into account is “ego depletion”. It refers to the idea that self-control draws upon a limited pool of mental resources and when the energy for mental activity is low, self-control is typically impaired. In particular, a task requiring a great effort (in terms of mental resources) could have a hindering effect on a subsequent self-control task. This means that a state of ego depletion impairs the ability to control oneself later on. This phenomenon often appears in people who are dieting or saving money. If they hold themselves too strictly for a certain time, they are more likely to give up if they are tempted again shortly after.
Even though in many cases this could lead to instinctive (irrational) but harmless choices, in many others it could be fatal. Consider, for example, psychological issues such as addictions.
Among scholars, the nature of addiction is often debated. A widespread view is the idea that addiction is essentially a disease, caused by problems when the brain encounters certain substances known as addictive drugs. This model treats addiction like any other disease. It is due to a physical malfunction in the brain which, if healed, should stop the disease. This idea implies that addicts cannot will away their addictive behaviors, just like one cannot will away a sore throat or a heart attack. Moreover, addictions and brain disorders in general are commonly viewed as undermining free will. It is clear that changes in brain functioning are associated with addictive behaviors, but addiction primarily affects the brain in areas responsible for processing information about reward and desire rather than motor areas that are directly related to behavior.
This is the reason why a large and growing literature supports an alternative view in which addiction essentially is a disorder of choice. According to this idea, addictive behaviors are initially caused by free choices to use drugs and even if addiction involves loss of control over wanting a particular substance, people can keep control of behavior and maintain free will. This view of addiction as being consistent with free will is supported by the effectiveness of drug treatment programs. They are usually based on reinforcing patients’ willpower and determination to change their own condition and this thing is possible only if individuals believe in free will. Therapy helps addicts re-shape their choices and only indirectly changes their brains.
Therefore, also in this case, skepticism about free will could have some terrible consequences. If people considered addiction as a natural disease, they could think of it as independent from their actions and unavoidable or they could use the “lack of choice” as a justification of relapses and failures in quitting.
These are only few examples in which the belief in free will (whether it is substantial or not) or alternatively the doubt of it, shape the way we live, choose and act. It is interesting to notice how a society deeply relies on its components’ perception of freedom and how the new findings about decision-making become problematic, if observed from the perspective of individual free will.
Criminality and mental health are issues that our society tries to tackle on a daily basis. In these last years, the idea of a preventive approach has become more and more important and it has been realised through many public campaigns. However, we are constantly exposed to contradictory messages. On the one hand, we seem to be powerless towards our decision-making system, whereas, on the other hand, we are asked to act responsibly. And if it is true that our choices depend on how information is processed by our unconscious minds, ambiguities can only have negative effects. This is something that governments should take into consideration when they design public policies or spread technical information to the vast public. The latest discoveries about the human brain are fundamental for the future developments of medicine, economics, psychology and many other fields, but have very deep and challenging implications.
As shown above, skepticism about free will has negative effects on individuals’ sense of agency and accountability. These two characteristics are essential for a society to work properly. Therefore, this should no longer be considered a mere theoretical matter, as it affects our lives in many concrete ways. The question about the actual existence of free will remains inevitably open. However, if we wonder what a society would do if it found itself without free will, we could argue that, in order not to collapse, it would probably reinvent it.
“Free Will Beliefs Predict Attitudes toward Unethical Behavior and Criminal Punishment: A Global Analysis,” Nathan Martin, Davide Rigoni, and Kathleen D. Vohs (2017), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114
“Ordinary people associate addiction with loss of free will,” Andrew J. Vonasch, Cory J. Clark, Stephan Lau, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Roy F. Baumeister (2017), Addictive Behaviors Reports, 5, 56-66