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Free(r) Wills

[ 6 ] December 20, 2010 |

Do people think that their own will is “freer” than others’?  

Emily Pronin and Matthew Kugler’s recent paper, “People Believe They Have More Free Will Than Others,” confidently suggests an answer to that question.  

While the debate concerning the existence of true “free will” rages on (see the Re:Cog piece on that debate here), it is accepted that “free will” is, at least, a subjective feeling everyone has. Published in the most recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Pronin and Kugler’s paper is centered around an interesting phenomenon known as the “actor-observer bias,”  which was first described forty years ago by social psychologist Richard Nisbett.  The actor-observer bias describes people’s inclination to perceive their own actions as calculated responses to shifting circumstances, while viewing others’ actions as results of a fixed, established personality.

In a series of survey-based experiments, Princeton’s Pronin and Kugler show that people exhibit the actor-observer bias in a variety of circumstances. In one experiment, subjects answered the question “What are you doing this Saturday night?”  In most cases, their answers reflected their own desires and intentions in the moment (I imagine these answers went something like: “I’m gonna go to the bar because I’m in the mood for a drink and I’m tired of going to the weekly campus concert”). When subjects were asked “What is your roommate [X] doing this Saturday night?” their answers tended to account for history and personality more than desires and intentions (“Jake is probably going to the concert series because he goes to it every week and loves loud indie rock.”)

In another study, the author’s asked restaurant employees to describe the possible paths of their futures.  Those asked generally listed twice as many paths for their own future than that of their fellow workers:

Participants circled more options as being genuine possibilities in the case of themselves than a coworker…[They] believed that their own futures contained many possible paths, but that others were likely to continue on whatever path they were currently walking.

***

While we may like to think that free will, if it exists, is imbued by evolution in all individuals in equal measure, our actions don’t appear to reflect this principle.  We attempt to predict our peers’ behaviors by drawing on our knowledge of their previous actions and their personality, while we characterize our own behaviors as reactions to our ever-changing environment:

This research supports the hypothesis that people perceive themselves as possessing more of the ingredients that constitute free will than those around them. Individuals in our experiments viewed their past and future behaviors as less predictable a priori than those of their peers, and they believed that, relative to their peers, there were more possible paths that their own lives could take…Our participants indicated that it was internal desires and intentions that best predicted their own (but not others’) future behavior.

In some ways, though, this result should not come as a surprise.  We can only really know our own minds, and it makes sense to think of our own behaviors as malleable and adaptive – after all, that’s why we think we have free will.  On the other hand, we cannot get inside others’ minds and can only use what we know about them (their history, personality, etc.) to predict their behavior.

***

So, we live on alone, tortured by the endless number of options we have at every moment and annoyed by the millions of robots that get in our way.  George Carlin, in one of his best comedy specials, made an astute observation on driving that seems eerily apropos:

Have you ever noticed that when you’re driving, anyone going slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?

Comments (6)

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jen Deaderick. Jen Deaderick said: Probably you. RT @brainshow: Who has more free will? Me or you? http://thebeautifulbrain.com/2010/12/freer-wills/ [...]

  2. [...] Free(r) Wills (thebeautifulbrain.com) [...]

  3. [...] is a tough topic in cognitive science.  The neuroscience research that goes into answering questions of agency and free will is complicated and can be interpreted in so many [...]

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