You Have Free Will, But You Might Not Be Aware

We have reason to believe that some aspects of free will you are not consciously aware of.  I don’t think that necessarily means that you’re not free, but you’re not consciously aware of it. 

We have reason to believe that some aspects of free will you are not consciously aware of.  I don’t think that necessarily means that you’re not free, but you’re not consciously aware of it. And the background from that comes from a famous experiment that Benjamin Libet did, and I forget when it was, 1971, thereabouts.  In which he did a fascinating experiment.  He asked subjects to make a decision to move their hand and to indicate by pressing a button when they’re making that decision.  And he had electrodes on their head and it turned out that before I made a decision to move my hand, an electrical potential appeared in my brain that preceded my conscious decision to move the hand.  So you can be aware of my wanting to move the hand consciously without my being aware of it.  


That means the decision was made unconsciously.  Now, when Ben Libet came out with that, it shook up the scientific community.  Do you think Freud would have been surprised about that? He said from the very beginning, much of our mental life is unconscious.  We now know we make a lot of decisions, we choose our partner in part by unconscious evaluations.  There are lots of decisions that are made unconsciously than consciously.  Conscious decision-making is very good when there are two alternatives because you can focus consciously very effectively on one thing at a time.  If you’ve got a lot of options, now this was not my case, but you have lots of women who are interested in you probably can choose from many of them.  That decision that you have to make is likely to be more effective if you make it unconsciously.  

So there is now a whole psychology on unconscious decision-making that is emerging, in part stimulated by Libet’s interest, but also a continuation from Freud’s interest.

60 Second Reads is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Related Articles

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less

Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
Surprising Science

We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

Keep reading Show less

NASA launches ICESat-2 into orbit to track ice changes in Antarctica and Greenland

Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.

Firing three pairs of laser beams 10,000 times per second, the ICESat-2 satellite will measure how long it takes for faint reflections to bounce back from ground and sea ice, allowing scientists to measure the thickness, elevation and extent of global ice
popular

Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

Keep reading Show less