Free Will

Topics: Psychology, Free will, Mind Pages: 15 (5161 words) Published: December 6, 2012

Free Will in Scientific Psychology
Roy F. Baumeister Florida State University

actions are freer than others, and the difference is palpably important in terms of inner process, subjective perception, and social consequences. Psychology can study the difference between freer and less free actions without making dubious metaphysical commitments. Human evolution seems to have created a relatively new, more complex form of action control that corresponds to popular notions of free will. It is marked by self-control and rational choice, both of which are highly adaptive, especially for functioning within culture. The processes that create these forms of free will may be biologically costly and therefore are only used occasionally, so that people are likely to remain only incompletely self-disciplined, virtuous, and rational.


What shall I do? Why did you do that? Are people captains of their fate, or are they mere products of their times and victims of circumstances? Should they be held responsible for their actions? These and similar questions pertain to the psychological problem of free will, also known as freedom of action. At the core of the question of free will is a debate about the psychological causes of action. That is, is the person an autonomous entity who genuinely chooses how to act from among multiple possible options? Or is the person essentially just one link in a causal chain, so that the person’s actions are merely the inevitable product of lawful causes stemming from prior events, and no one ever could have acted differently than how he or she actually did? My thesis is that free will can be understood in terms of the different processes that control human action and that, indeed, these differences correspond to what laypersons generally mean when they distinguish free from unfree action. To discuss free will in the terms of scientific psychology is therefore to invoke notions of self-regulation, controlled processes, behavioral plasticity, and conscious decisionmaking.

Address correspondence to Roy F. Baumeister, Department of Psychology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306; e-mail:

The extreme positions on free will have been staked out through centuries of philosophical debate. On the negative side, the deterministic position can be traced from Democritus through Spinoza, Comte, and Freud. It leaves no room for free human choice. Everything that happens is the unavoidable product of prior causes. The universe resembles a giant machine, grinding along exactly as it must. There is no difference between the categories of possible and actual in this view: Everything that happened was inevitable, and nothing else was ever possible. The subjective impression that when you make a choice you really can choose any of several options is an illusion, because forces outside your consciousness are in motion to determine what you will choose, even if you do not know until the last minute what that choice will be. On the other side, Jean-Paul Sartre (1943/1974) argued passionately in favor of human freedom. He contended that people are always, inevitably free—‘‘condemned to freedom,’’ in his famous phrase. Life is a series of choice points, and at each choice point, you could have chosen differently than you did. (Thus, the category of the possible is far, far more vast than the category of the actual, in this view.) When people say they could not help acting as they did, they are engaging in self-deception (bad faith, in Sartre’s term), because they could actually have acted otherwise—could have held their tongue, walked another step, resisted the temptation, and so forth. Other outcomes really were possible. In between those extremes, many thinkers have proposed limited or partial freedom. Kant (1797/1967) proposed that people have a capacity for free action but only use it sometimes....
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