For centuries scientists and philosophers have debated the existence of free will. Some argue that it's an illusion, while others contend that it exists but in a limited form: we feel like we're making choices, but in many ways these choices are constrained.
a recent series of studies soon to be published in Psychological Science suggest that thinking about choice (for example, by choosing between a variety of products or by identifying when a person in a video is making a decision) makes people less compassionate. In the studies, choice-primed participants took their belief in free will to an extreme: they were more likely to assume that someone who lost their job or had a heart attack was to blame for bringing it on themselves, and they were less supportive of social policies aimed at helping people.
This phenomenon may also be at play in our romantic lives. In Marry Him: The case for setting for Mr. Good Enough, Lori Gottlieb argues that we've become too picky when selecting a mate. We're taught that we should hold out for Mr. or Ms. Perfect, when in fact this approach can result in chronic dissatisfaction and loneliness. Certainly when it comes to choosing a life partner settling for someone who you're not truly in love with is unlikely to lead to sustained happiness either (better to be single and happy than stuck in a miserable relationship). But if you're happy with someone, constantly keeping an eye out for other options is a recipe for disaster.
Not only can choice be stressful, but free will is only useful to the extent that we know what we want and what will make us happy - and we often don't. For certain decisions, like buying a house, intuition can be a better guide than conscious deliberation. Sometimes our unconscious brains seem to know us better than we know ourselves. In one famous study brain activity associated with movement preceded participants' conscious intentions to move, suggesting that what we perceive to be our will may in fact arise from unconscious processes. It just feels like we're willing it.
Paradoxically, recognizing the ways in which we're not in control may sometimes give us more control. For example, if we know that at certain times of the month our hormones tend to go haywire, leading us to be behave in ways we later regret (and yes, this applies to guys too), we'll know not to plan an important and potentially stressful meeting on that day. In addition to biological factors like hormones, social forces are also more powerful than most people realize. Many of us deny that TV ads influence us, and yet ad agencies spend billions trying to get us to buy their products - they wouldn't be wasting their money if it wasn't working. The same goes for peer pressure - even as adults we care a lot about what other people think of us. Acknowledging that we are susceptible to social influence can help us more consciously choose not to be swayed when we don't want to be.
Free will is an ever-elusive concept. It makes us feel accountable, but also judgmental. It excites us, but also paralyzes us. We feel like we're making choices, but it's not always clear where they come from. By understanding the external and internal forces that limit authentic expressions of free will, maybe we can create more of it.
Savani K, Stephens NM, & Markus HR (2011). The Unanticipated Interpersonal and Societal Consequences of Choice: Victim Blaming and Reduced Support for the Public Good. Psychological science PMID: 21537057