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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

How You Perceive Free Will May Not Be a Choice

by Susan Leem, associate producer

I Am A Bird Nowphoto: Toni Blay/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

The nature of “free will” is central for those who study ethics, the law, and religion. And science is getting in on the discussion.

Researchers cannot determine whether humans can make truly voluntary choices or if we’re justifying unconscious impulses. But their findings around the edges of it are illuminating.

For example, Miller-McCune reports that antisocial behavior is linked with the belief that free will is an illusion.

Researchers asked participants to read three types of essays: one that argues that free will is real, one that argues that it is an illusion, and a third one on a neutral topic. The experimenters are trying to instill a “disbelief” in free will.

The participants in this group reported that they were less likely to help a woman raise money for college (a fabricated scenario). They reasoned that it takes energy to help someone else, and, if a person doesn’t believe in free will then he or she is more beholden to one’s urges and will want to preserve energy. According to the authors of the study, “disbelief in free will serves as a cue to act on impulse, a style of response that promotes selfish and impulsive actions.”

And on the flip side, a more recent study found that people who are extraverted “are more likely to believe that free will remains a viable concept.”

Now, note that this study had a small (121) pool of subjects, and they were all scientifically-minded psychologists or philosophers. The researchers created a scenario about a man named John who kills a shop owner “because he needs money.” They were asked how strongly they agreed with three statements:

  1. John is morally responsible for his action;
  2. John did it because of his own free will;
  3. John’s decision was up to him.

A high level of agreement with these statements correlated with how extraverted the subjects reported themselves to be.

Journalist Tom Jacobs raises interesting legal implications from this work:

"If these results hold up, they could pose a challenge for the legal system, with its need for impartiality. A jury that is largely composed of extraverts ‘may be more willing to hold a person morally responsible for an action, even if the person could not have done anything to prevent the action from coming about,’ they write. ‘Extraverts may be less likely to evaluate excusing conditions for bad actions,’ even when doing so might be appropriate."

Now where exactly does personality come from?