Free will is the belief or the idea that humans have free choice over their actions and the ability to act in different ways. It refers to our ability to choose from different options and probable courses of action in an unrestricted way.
What Is Free Will?
In human beings, free will refers to the capacity and power to act in a specific way in a given situation independently, without any social or natural limitation. It refers to the idea where humans are endowed with the ability to determine their own fates. According to a 2016 study 1 “Free will is a perception that people have that they choose to make their movements. This perception includes a sense of willingness for the movement and self-agency that they are responsible for the movement.” Given the fact that the concept is derived from philosophy and even theology, it is one of those few concepts that scientists have not been able to define. This definitional crisis has led to controversies regarding this concept as different individuals use the term to refer to different things.
A 2016 study 2 defines the concept under three circumstances. The first one is the condition defined as the “ability to do otherwise.” This is an inherent concept that highlights to feel free, ”one must have at least two alternatives or courses of action between which to choose”. The second condition is known as the “control over one’s choices.” The person who acts must be the same one who decides what to do. To be granted with independent will, one must be the owner of his/her choices, without the intervention of others or mechanisms outside of one’s reach. This is also termed as an agency, being and feeling like the “owner” of one’s decisions and actions. The third condition is the “responsiveness to reasons” where a decision ”is not free” if it is the effect of a random choice. In other words, it must be rationally motivated.
A 2007 research paper 3 defines the concept as “a necessary element for self-determination and for attributing personal responsibility for one’s actions.” However, another 2019 study 4 states that the ‘’concept can be defined as the ability to be free from one’s past and yet to simultaneously act in accordance with one’s will.” This is a paradox as it requires the process to be ahistorical regulated by “a historical identity.”
Understanding Free Will
”People generally act as if they possess free will, and they certainly act as though they believe in their own free will”, says a study 5 . Here the study explains that humans are not robots and neither do they treat others like one. While some people may recognize multiple external and internal factors that influence their behavior building and that of others, one must stop somewhere and that somewhere is necessarily an important part of each person (whether one calls it a soul, or personal identity, or a sense of personal responsibility). Additionally, humans are always not entirely responsible for their behavior as at times it depends on the situation they are in. However, in general, people inherently assign a sense of agency, and of this idea, to themselves and others.
According to a long-established philosophical tradition, if someone was not “free” when they did something, they were not held responsible for their deed. Also, the freedom in question is both “social” freedom (linked to restrictions forced by our peers or by external factors), and the one indicated by the concept in question.
Free Will Vs Determinism
Determinism is the opposite to the concept of free will. According to the concept of determinism, every action is fully caused or determined by prior events. The question of unrestricted will has long challenged philosophers and religious thinkers, and scientists have examined the problem from psychological and neuroscientific perspectives as well. According to a 2019 study, determinism sees this idea as an unreal concept and believes that every event and action has a cause.
Determinism is divided into two categories- hard and soft determinism.
1. Hard Determinism
Hard determinism is a concept whereby outside forces, beyond one’s control, influences one’s behavior. Hard determinism is viewed as ”incompatible” with free will.
2. Soft Determinism
Soft determinism, on the other hand, portrays a middle ground where people have a choice, but that choice is compelled by external or internal factors.
The debate of unconfined will vs determinism revolves around the fact human behavior is the result of forces that are beyond one’s control. Additionally, the debate also throws light on the fact whether individuals are capable enough to make decisions for themselves or whether to act or behave in a certain way. Psychologists who believe in this concept consider that determinism removes freedom and dignity, and devalues human behavior. They are of the opinion that by establishing general laws of behavior, deterministic psychology undervalues the uniqueness of human beings and their freedom to choose their own destiny. On the other hand, the deterministic interpretations of behavior reduce individual responsibility.
According to a 2019 study, the deterministic approach also shares significant relationships with psychology as a science. Just like scientists are intrigued to discover laws that can be used to predict events, similarly, psychology attempts to do the same thing, to generate laws to predict behavior. If we argue against determinism, we are in effect, rejecting the scientific approach to explaining behavior. However, it must be noted that a pure deterministic or free will approach is not relevant when studying human behavior. While most psychologists use the concept of will to express that individuals actively respond to internal and external forces, soft determinism is often used to describe that human behavior is always subject to some form of biological or environmental pressure.
Free Will & Mental Illness
Freedom of the will and mental health can be thought to be associated with each other as it adds more constraints on the freedom of a person’s will. This can be in the form of stringent thought patterns or compulsions, that are beyond the usual factors shaping one’s thinking and behavior pattern. Belief in this notion may contribute to the stigma attached to mental illness by disguising the role of underlying biological and environmental causes. According to a 2016 study 2 , while the concept is hard to define, it is vital to both individual and social life. The study observed that this idea can be the reason why someone is not sent to jail during a trial upon appealing to insanity. ”The subject was not “free” when they committed the crime, not because someone was pointing a gun to their head, but because a psychiatric illness prevented them from controlling their actions”, adds the study.
A 2010 study 6 highlights the link between mental disorder and freedom as mentioned in the introduction of the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV 7 ). In DSM-5, it is mentioned that “an important loss of freedom” is one of the potential defining traits of a mental disorder. In another 2018 study 8 , experiences of free will were evaluated across 295 patients with a lifetime OCD diagnosis. According to the results, one hundred and thirty subjects (44.1%) had reported that their most obvious symptom was an obsession, whereas 67 subjects (22.7%) had reported that their most prominent symptom was a compulsion. Thus, the study concludes that lower experience of freewill was found in OCD patients associated with core clinical characteristics-illness duration and severity, insight, and quality of life.
In another 2016 study 9 , the relationship between free will perceptions and psychiatric symptoms in patients with a diagnosis of schizophrenia were examined. Thirty-two participants were interviewed using the Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale to assess symptom severity and according to the results, as hypothesized, a negative association was found between these perceptions and total symptom severity. However, it appeared that this was mainly accounted for by positive symptoms. The study also suggested that holding a freewill perspective may alleviate psychiatric symptoms in patients with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Reasons To Believe In Free Will
Psychologists have examined the relationship between free will beliefs and people’s perspectives about decision-making, blaming, and other variables of consequence. However, most psychologists and neuroscientists suggest finding a strong middle ground between both “free will” and “determinism.” Additionally, believing in this is significant for our psychology and mental health. Here are the 5 reasons to believe in this idea.
1. Fosters Self-Control
Believing in this idea encourages self-control in an individual. According to a 2012 study 10 , impairing an individual’s belief in free will led to a decrease in self-control and willpower.
2. Makes an Individual Pro-Social
According to another 2009 study 11 , disbelief in free will also leads to an increase in aggression and decline of helpfulness toward others. People who induced disbelief in this idea showed anti-social tendencies along with impulsiveness.
3. Enhances Job Performance
A recent 2010 study 12 also shows that a belief in this idea predicts better career attitudes and overall job performance.
4. Makes One Honest
A 2010 study had concluded that believing in free will prophesied better career attitudes and actual job performance. Results showed that employees who believed in this idea were given better work performance evaluations than those who disbelieve in the concept, probably because belief in free will facilitated exerting control over one’s actions.
5. Makes Brain Less Automatic
A 2011 study 13 reveals that the concept of freewill makes our brains less automatic.
Free Will Fosters Power, Responsibility & Control
The topic of free will has come under the limelight of social psychology research because of its serious implications and relevance to diverse lines of thought and investigation. The unbelievers argue that the subjective sense of this idea is an ”illusion”. However, many researchers as well as ordinary people still believe in freewill, even if they recognize that some choices are partly developed by energies outside one’s control.
According to a 2016 study, this idea is defined as an elusive but crucial concept. For years, the working of the human brain was associated with the belief that humans have freedom of the will but also with the existence of this concept in itself. However, the overall belief in this idea is very important in taking more responsibility, power, and control over our behaviors, and the results we get in life.
- Hallett M. (2016). Physiology of free will. Annals of neurology, 80(1), 5–12. https://doi.org/10.1002/ana.24657
- Lavazza A. (2016). Free Will and Neuroscience: From Explaining Freedom Away to New Ways of Operationalizing and Measuring It. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 10, 262. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00262
- Tancredi LR. The neuroscience of “free will”. Behav Sci Law. 2007;25(2):295-308. doi: 10.1002/bsl.749. PMID: 17393401.
- Hills T. T. (2019). Neurocognitive free will. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 286(1908), 20190510. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.0510
- Baer, J., Kaufman, J. C., & Baumeister, R. F. (2008). Introduction: Psychology and free will. Are We Free?, 3-9. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195189636.003.0001
- Meynen G. (2010). Free will and mental disorder: exploring the relationship. Theoretical medicine and bioethics, 31(6), 429–443. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11017-010-9158-5
- van Oudheusden, L.J.B., Draisma, S., van der Salm, S. et al. Perceptions of free will in obsessive-compulsive disorder: a quantitative analysis. BMC Psychiatry 18, 400 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-018-1985-3
- Weisman de Mamani, A., Gurak, K., Maura, J., Martinez de Andino, A., Weintraub, M. J., & Mejia, M. (2016). Free will perceptions and psychiatric symptoms in patients diagnosed with schizophrenia. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 23(3-4), 156-162. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpm.12293
- Rigoni, D., Kühn, S., Gaudino, G., Sartori, G., & Brass, M. (2012). Reducing self-control by weakening belief in free will. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(3), 1482-1490. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2012.04.004
- Baumeister RF, Masicampo EJ, Dewall CN. Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2009 Feb;35(2):260-8. doi: 10.1177/0146167208327217. PMID: 19141628.
- Stillman, T. F., Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., & Brewer, L. E. (2010). Personal philosophy and personnel achievement: Belief in free will predicts better job performance. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1(1), 43-50. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550609351600
- Rigoni D, Kühn S, Sartori G, Brass M. Inducing disbelief in free will alters brain correlates of preconscious motor preparation: the brain minds whether we believe in free will or not. Psychol Sci. 2011 May;22(5):613-8. doi: 10.1177/0956797611405680. Epub 2011 Apr 22. PMID: 21515737.