Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The value of believing in free will.

Vohs and Schooler do an interesting experiment in which they ask whether believing in free will versus determinism influences moral behavior. I have free access only to the abstract of the article, so can not spell out the details of the experiments. Here is that abstract:

Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.

1 comment:

derekjames said...

Interesting, though I'd of course like to see more of the details. I'd especially like to see samples of the kinds of passages that would encourage a belief in determinism or free will. I'm having a hard time imagining what those might sound like. Arguments from famous philosophers, maybe?

Also, I find the subtext of the experiment problematic. Right now the issue of free will is mostly in the domain of philosophers, though science does have contributions to the discussion. But the fact that a a particular aspect of the universe has moral or societal repercussions doesn't mean it's not the truth, and scientists should follow the truth wherever it leads them. If the same effect were found for a well-established theory (e.g. evolution), would we argue that we shouldn't teach evolution because of its negative societal influence?

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