Thursday, April 7, 2011

Too many choices? The limits of free will

Think back to the last big decision you made. How much was that choice influenced by factors outside of your control - external circumstances, other people, maybe even your genes - and how much of it was truly your own? 

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. 

Though science might suggest otherwise, introspection tells us that we have free will. Otherwise, why would we bother making New Years resolutions year after year? In addition to giving us a sense of control over our outcomes, research suggests that the belief in free will makes us behave more ethically.  In a recent study, when participants were led to believe that free will did not exist, they were more likely to cheat on a test, presumably because they felt less personally accountable for their immoral behavior. Similarly, in the classic Milgram experiment, participants were more likely to deliver strong electric shocks to an innocent victim when the experimenter told them they wouldn't be responsible for their actions. And the sense of anonymity and inhibition that comes from being "lost" in a crowd or mob can also lead to destructive behavior (see above - you can get away with it when you're three). Clearly we need to have some sense of personal accountability for society to function. But assuming free will is always operating can have drawbacks... 

Harsh judgment
Believing in the power of personal agency has disturbing consequences when it comes to our judgments of other people. The results of 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. 

The tendency to assume that other people are more in control than they actually are has also contributed to the stigmatization of mental illness. Old conceptions of mental illness attributed it to personal weakness or moral failing, and even modern approaches (e.g., Depression is a Choice) risk promoting a "blame the victim" mentality, even when the intention of such messages is to inspire hope. On the other hand, a purely biological (and deterministic) view of mental illness can also be problematic: one disturbing study found that people were faster to deliver electric shocks to a person whose mental illness was called a "brain disease" (as opposed to being caused by life events), suggesting that the perception that others have no control can lead to dehumanization and harm. Perhaps this biological view would be less problematic if we acknowledged that all of us, as humans, are subject to the whims of biology in various ways.  

Choice paralysis 

Our cultural obsession with freedom is also relevant when it comes to making decisions. As Americans we're lucky to have the choices we do, but sometimes these choices can become excessive, leaving us paralyzed by indecision. Ben & Jerry's alone now has over 75 ice cream flavors to choose from. Research shows that while a large array of choices seems appealing, it can be overwhelming. In one study, customers were more likely to purchase jam if they chose from only two types, rather than 24 (even though more people were drawn initially to the large assortment). Also see The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz.

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. 

Mysterious origins 

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


  1. but isn't it bad to not have choice? what about when people feel completely helpless and then don't leave a spouse who abuses them, and fall into a pattern of abuse, just as an example?

  2. Thanks for your comment! I absolutely agree. The problem is that we often assume people have a choice when they actually don't (as in the study where participants blamed heart attack victims), or assume that we're making a choice when we're actually being controlled by someone or something else (as in our susceptibility to advertising) - this could also apply in the example you raise of staying with an abuser. In some cases, however, a person might truly want to leave their abuser but fear for their lives if they attempt to leave.

    Although the title seems to suggest otherwise, I'm not saying it's a good thing to not have choice - choice is essential, and we should do everything we can to ensure that people have the kinds of choices and opportunities that really matter (such as the opportunity to get an education). On a psychological level, it's also important to find ways to identify what we truly want so that we can make wise, authentic choices.

  3. “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices…until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between Heaven and Earth…between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.