Free Will is a Cognitive Illusion
Social psychology has demonstrated that the more people think you don’t have free will, the worse they behave.
Jesse Bering, Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to Scientific American, Slate, and Das Magazin (Switzerland). His work has also appeared in New York Magazine, The Guardian, and The New Republic, and has been featured on NPR, the BBC, Playboy Radio and more. Bering is the former director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University, Belfast and began his career as a psychology professor at the University of Arkansas.
All of human behavior is incredibly complex and it’s influenced by heredity and culture, but the evolutionary argument is particular potent because, first of all, it reminds people that we’re animals.
And this has implications for people’s conceptions of free will because the more deterministic and reductionistic it becomes, the more people feel like they have no control over their own behavior. And personally, I don’t think that there is such a thing as free will. I think it’s an illusion. I think it’s a psychological illusion that we can reflect upon our own mental contents and try to take the perspective of why we were thinking what we were thinking when we made a decision at the time. In fact, it’s all just retrospective.
I think it’s largely a cognitive illusion. Simply knowing this about ourselves has effects. We know from psychology experiments that if you tell people that there is no free will and you couch behavioral explanations in terms of determinism, it actually genuinely makes them more selfish, makes them less altruistic. Social psychology has demonstrated that the more people think you don’t have free will, the worse they behave.
And I don’t know if there’s any real, simple way to get around that problem, but I think just simply understanding how that works and taking stock of why we feel that way can have affects also on our emotional responses to the free will question.
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