A puppet is free so long as he loves his strings.
What do you desire? What are your deepest goals for life? Some desire marriage, while others value the independent life. Still more want children; others, none. One desires success, while another simply wants to enjoy themselves.
Why do we differ so much? More to the point, where do these desires came from? Do we sit down and consciously choose them?
Chances are, you don’t. In fact, you likely have as much choice over your desires as you do over your height, IQ, sexual orientation, or hair/skin color.
We subconsciously convince ourselves that we desire something.
In psychology, this principle is called confabulation. It can occur when someone asks you a question, assuming you should know the answer. To save face, you may provide a plausible answer, subconsciously convincing yourself of your own certainty, simply because you verbally stated it.
We all do this to some degree, though more vivid cases would be people with schizophrenia, dementia, brain damage, or after undergoing hypnosis. If you ask them to explain their behaviour or recall the events during a period they can’t recall, they’ll tell you a story. Though, it may not be factually true, it is their truth in that moment. You’ll find more examples at the bottom of this article, sandwiched between book suggestions and citations.
A shocking neuropsychological experiment elaborates this effect, raising troubling questions about our role as conscious agents of our own actions:
Physiologist, Benjamin Libet, used EEG scans (also later using fMRI scans) to watch participants’ brains while they waited to hit a button. A special clock allowed them to indicate when they had decided to act. Meanwhile, the experimenter monitored their brain activity. On average, their brain made its decision ~300ms before the participant had consciously decided to move. That may not seem like a lot of time, but it’s huge when viewed in terms of events in the brain. Later research used Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to sway the participant toward a choice. People typically chose to use their dominant hand 60% of the time, but when influenced by the TMS, they could cause the participant to switch to their off hand 80% of the time. When asked why they changed their choice at the last moment, they often offered that they simply “changed [their] mind”. Indeed.
After the first instance of that experiment, it sent out sizable shockwaves among the philosophical and academic communities. It has been replicated many times by many different people with different equipment – and has been successfully replicated in abundance. People may disagree whether this has any implications on will. Perhaps our brain has free will, but our conscious self doesn’t. That’s still personal freedom, right?
In another psychological experiment, there were two large ropes hanging from the ceiling, one at each end of the room. Participants were tasked with tying the ropes together, but neither was long enough to simply walk it over to the other. Participants had a hard time working out a solution until the experimenter entered the room and “accidentally” bumped into the rope, causing it to sway subtly. Afterwards, when the participants found the solution by swinging one of the ropes, they were asked how they came to this solution. Most gave a plausible explanation, but practically none credited the professor’s “accidental” bump that was actually pre-planned to sway their thinking.
We think we make our own choices, but simply being asked about them will cause us to conjure plausible reasons because we feel we should have reasons. And we believe them, even if there are objective, external explanations outside of our awareness. As Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga put it:
Our conscious self is simply an interpreter that spins plausible stories for our behaviour after the fact. Many times these stories are right.
Our explanations for our behaviour is often no better than a semi-informed observer might venture. Generally, we collectively don’t even have a very good track record guessing how something will make us feel.
Those experiments, on their own, land some hard blows to free will. A brain scan can say what we’re going to do before we’re even aware of it, some magnetic interference can change that decision, and outside forces can influence our decisions without us knowing. Are we actually choosing or are we like antennae, receiving signals from outside our awareness? Perhaps we make decisions in the same sense that our bodies “choose” to make red blood cells or breath while we sleep.
Let’s take one last swing at this downed horse. There was a study where participants had to unscramble word jumbles. One group had words that were related to the elderly, while the other group had words unrelated to the aged. The words weren’t explicit in their meaning, but were associated with being old, such as “florida”, “grey”, etc. Disguised to measure cognitive ability, the experimenters were actually timing the participants as they walked down the long hallway back to the main office. People in the elderly-related group walked significantly slower. If asked, would they even notice that they had walked slower? If they did, would they say it was due to thinking about the elderly? (In case you’re wondering, the experimenter’s interpretation was that this effect is an evolutionary mechanism for people to move more slowly in contexts with older people because moving quickly could be dangerous for them.)
Does free will even exist?
“When you explain a behaviour with one of these disciplines, you are implicitly invoking all the [biological] disciplines. Any given type of explanation is the end product of the influences that preceded it. It has to work this way. If you say the behaviour occurred because of the release of neurochemical Y in the brain, you are also saying the behaviour occurred because of the heavy secretion of hormone X this morning increased the levels of neurochemical Y. You are also saying the behaviour occurred because the environment in which that person was raised made her brain more likely to release neurochemical Y in response to certain types of stimuli. And you’re also saying because of the gene that codes for that particular version of neurochemical Y. And if you’ve so much as whispered the word ‘gene’, you’re also saying ‘and because of the millennia of factors that shaped the evolution of that particular gene’. And so on.”
-Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave (2017)
This leads us to the classic philosophical debate between free will and determinism. Of the many choices in life, can any of them be chosen without the direct causal influence of past events and experiences?
Long before you were even an idea, the world existed. That same environment, with your parents and your social group, all raised you. These “background” factors play the largest environmental role on who you came to be, and you chose exactly none of them. Sure, you may have chosen some minor details within the constraints of these tiny boxes, but that’s like an ant choosing to eat from one of two piles of food within a sealed glass box. So much choice!
I used to think of this in relation to the idea of God. People say God created all of us and knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows us so well that he knows what we’ll do in every situation – even ones we’ll never be in. If that’s the case, what kind of jerk created and placed people like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, or any other countless killers in history? Who would they have been under different circumstances?
Even removing the Big Man from the picture, these people were still had little choice in temperament or environment. If given the choice, would any of us choose to become serial killers, rapists, pedophiles, or bigots? Hardly. And yet they continue to exist.
Our genes (and other biological factors) affect us more than you may think.
Among the challengers of free will, biodeterminism is a contender. It is the idea that biological factors shape who we are and the choices we make. “Genes!” you may compulsively scream at your screen, and you’d be partially right. But it goes deeper than that, including the things we ingest, and any other factor that might influence how our bodies (re)act. Let’s begin with the gene angle though:
There are incidences of identical twin separated at birth and raised in different households. Decades later, the twins reunite to see their womb-mate sporting the same fashion, hairstyle, and facial hair. It doesn’t stop there. No, some even have similar looking spouses, the same dog breed who happens to have a similar (if not same) name. One example even had this strange twitch they did with their nose that they both called “squidging”.
Another pair were Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein. To their surprise, they discovered at age 35 that they had both edited their high school newspapers, studied film at university, and became writers (their book’s wiki page here). They had been separated deliberately by a Yale University researcher as a part of a controversial study. The study has been sealed until 2066, and will remain that way despite some of the twins/triplets themselves pushing to have the research released. Fun fact: some of the 13 children still don’t know they have a twin. One of the book writing twins told the Telegraph:
Since meeting Elyse, it is undeniable that genetics play a huge role, probably more than 50 percent. It’s not just our taste in music or books; it goes beyond that. In her, I see the same basic personality. And yet, eventually we had to realize that we’re different people with different life histories.
That’s nothing compared to Oskar and Jack. Jack was raised by his Jewish father in Trinidad, while Oskar was raised in Germany… in the 1930’s. That’s right, one labored on an Israeli kibbutz, while the other was a Hitler youth. They couldn’t have been raised in more different situations, yet still came to be quite similar: both were considered short-tempered, meticulous, and drank heavily. As you might guess, when they first met in their 20’s, they could barely speak to one another. They didn’t meet again until into their 50’s. The similarities were striking, as this article by Tracy Reppert puts it:
They wore the same rimmed glasses, the same neatly trimmed mustaches, the same quirky shirts with epaulets and four pockets on the front, the same collection of rubber bands on their wrists. Now in their 50s, they were in the mood to laugh about the similarities that kept coming all week: Both always flushed the toilet before using it, read magazines back to front, dipped buttered toast in coffee, liked to bring a book to restaurants, loved spicy food. And they both still had tantrums, and now anxiety attacks.
To be sure, there were differences. Oskar suffered from narcolepsy, and Jack didn’t. And there was a moment that week when Oskar told Jack that as a boy he admired Hitler. This time, Jack wanted to understand how that is possible. “It shows what a smooth propaganda machine can do to children’s minds,” he said.
Sure, that’s covering the DNA angle. We knew it played a large role in our lives, but I doubt any of us ever wanted to think it played a role this large.
Let’s look at other environmental factors. Think about the times when you are cranky because you’re hungry or dehydrated. You may recognize this and fix the situation, but even then, as Sam Harris put it, you’re simply acknowledging your puppet strings and learning to tug them in a slightly new direction.
We’ve all heard of the studies in schools where the cafeteria chose to remove deep fried foods from the menu and replaced them with healthier options, such as salads and vegetables instead of fries. This is hearsay as the only research I seem to be able to find is on cognitive effects of better nutrition on kids. We all know fast food is bad for us, so who makes a habit of visiting McDonald’s when they value their health, right?
A post on Slate Star Codex goes into details about how levels of lead, Omega-6 (with low Omega-3) fatty acids, and lack of lithium can all contribute to crime in significant, measurable levels. How responsible is someone for committing a crime when their diet is stacked in such a way that their brain makes them more violent and less prone to impulse control?
Then there are people with mental disorders that are helped through medication. In cases of depression, people who respond successfully to medication sometimes question who their “real self” is, given that their natural state is the depressed one. Typically, this worry dissipates as they’re just happy to be able to live their life. Can’t argue with the results, after all.
Now let’s imagine you’re riding your bike. You’re too cool for helmet hair, which you soon regret after going head first into concrete. You survive, but find yourself with strange new impulses that happen to clash with the law. Clearly, you are a victim of circumstance.
That’s almost exactly what happened back in 2000, where a man who suffered from severe epilepsy underwent surgery to fix it. It was successful, but with rather significant, unforeseen side-effects known as Klüver-Bucy Syndrome. He presented obsessive eating afterwards… as well as hyper sexuality towards images of children. He would spend hours obsessively downloading illicit images onto his computer at night. Once apprehended, he received half the sentence the prosecutor had recommended because the judge determined the man had “presented free will” by abstaining from downloading images on his work computer. As Robert Sapolsky (Behave, 2017) asks:
If a person with Tourettes is able to suppress their tics throughout the work day only to have an explosion of tics as soon as they leave work, does that mean they are choosing to have fits of shouting and tics those other times? Likewise with “Sundowners Syndrome” in cases of dementia: are they choosing to not remember their name at the end of the day, despite being coherent in the morning?
Our reason takes a back seat to our emotions.
In his fantastic book, The Righteous Mind (2012), Jonathan Haidt explains the state of the literature around moral psychology and how it affects our political perspectives. Among his many insights in the book, one particular study involved evoking a sense of disgust in a person, causing them to become situationally more conservative – no matter their original political stance. They varied their form of disgust, but my favourite was that they performed surveys with or without several quick (unseen) spritz of “fart spray”. The noxious smell made people significantly more conservative in all cases.
In case you’re wondering what sort of questions they asked people to tell their political leanings, there were such gems as this:
“Some U.S. states allow first cousins to marry each other. The state you live in does not currently permit first-cousin marriages but is considering legalizing them. What do you think about such legislation?”
Through his research, Haidt explains that Hume’s theory of “The Will and The Passions” was most correct according to modern research. Hume stated:
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
Haidt took this and made a more modern metaphor comparing reason to a press secretary. The press secretary is not in charge; their job is to take what the president decides and form it into a palatable argument as best he can to sell to the press. In this metaphor, the passions are the president. The passions/president makes all the decisions, and the press secretary must rationalize them, making our desires and drives appear reasoned and sensible.
We may think we have come to a rational decision, but we’re often simply being fooled by our own rationalization that occurs after the fact. This feeds back into the genetic/biodeterministic argument, as the environmental/biological factors will continually shape our drives. Just as seen in the psychological experiments, we feel like we are in control, but in fact have not recognized the true cause of our own behaviour. We rationalize after the fact, conjuring illusions of control.
Another study (which I regrettably can’t locate), described a scenario where a man is standing in Times Square pronouncing the benefits of communism. I believe this was in a period when the red scare was more prominent in people’s minds. Regardless, they asked the participants one of two questions: “should we allow this man to preach about communism?” Or “should we stop this man from preaching communism?”
Depending on the question asked, they received a different majority answer. To frame it as “allowing” the man to continue is to say that he doesn’t have an inherent right of free speech. It’s something that must be given to him from the powers that be. In that framing, the majority said that no, we should not allow him to to speak openly about communism.
In the framing of “stopping” the man from expressing himself, he has the right and we are taking it away from him. In that framing, the majority answered that yes, we should allow him to speak his mind because it’s wrong to take his right away. Simply rewording the question in subtle ways can significantly affect the response.
How culpable are murderers?
Imagine a man who was raised by loving parents, had a happy childhood, and an overall great life. One day, he guns a woman down in broad daylight, and is arrested. His explanation is that it seemed like a fun thing to do. What do you think of this man?
Of course, nearly everyone would say he’s a goddamn monster, and we’d feel justified in clawing his eyes out before dragging him naked through the streets.
But what if we discover that there’s a tumor the size of a golf ball in his brain that affects the decision making and moral centers of the brain? He instantaneously transforms from a villifiable monster to a victim worthy of pity, not vengeance.
In fact, such an example did actually exist and tragically occurred in 1966 with the case of Charles Whitman, a man who had before been relatively normal, but on August 1st, he had murdered both his wife and mother, then proceeded to the University of Texas to eventually kill 17, and injure 31 before being gunned down himself by the police. Luckily, he had left a note, a portion of which read:
I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average, reasonable, and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks.
Now, despite the horrors he committed – which he felt compelled to commit – he was not fully in control of himself. If asked some time before whether he’d wish this fate upon himself, what are the chances he would recommit to them?
Most of us wish we could change some things about ourselves, but hardly any of us would wish to change what is at our absolute core of ourselves. As pointed out in The Mind Club (2016), the core of our selves is located in our morality. Change a person’s tastes, preferences, mannerisms, and appearance – so long as their morality remains intact, people say they are still the same person. We often wish to continue being who we feel we are, regardless of whether it is for our detriment or betterment. This applies as much to the god-fearing man as the sadist who tortures woodland creatures for fun. How many among us would choose to change what defines us?
But I want to take the argument further still: how can we hold the tumorless man more responsible than the man with the tumor, despite neither man actively, consciously choosing the factors that led him to do these things?
I’m not saying the act was right, nor that we shouldn’t lock both men up because their actions and intents signify what they’ll do in the future. We absolutely should lock them up. But it does, however, force us to reconsider exactly how we deal with each man once they are in the system.
As Robert Sapolsky, author of Behave (2017), said:
If a car’s brakes are faulty, you don’t let it out on the streets. It’s going to kill somebody. You fix it if you can, and if you can’t fix it, you put the car in a garage for the rest of time[.] No one would sit there and say the car had a rotten soul or it’s deserving the punishment by putting it in seclusion in the garage. It’s a mechanical problem. If somebody says ‘wow, that’s so dehumanizing to view us as biological machines’, it’s a hell of a lot better than sermonizing us into having bad souls.
What to do about legal systems?
The only actionable point I can think to take away from these observations is regarding how we treat our criminal and prison populations. After all, our legal system is based on the assumption that we are free to make our own choices, and thus deserve to be punished for breaking the law. I’ve often argued that our penal systems should be geared more toward rehabilitation and less about sheer punishment. Why would we want people in prisons to simply be in a terrible situation, unimproved by the punishment, then released without skills or means to avoid re-offending?
This applies to the vast majority of criminal cases. What about the heinous examples where the victim’s family wish for the perpetrator to suffer? This is entirely understandable. I still maintain that we should aim to fix them, if possible. Even if they are curable, the causes of unthinkable acts will not be fixed over night. But what if they could be?
Suppose there was a pill to fix a psychopathic murderer’s brain so that he was, conclusively, a normal, repentant, healthy human being. Should we refuse to give him this pill for the sake of punishment? It would be like denying a man insulin because he went into a diabetic coma.
A common counterpoint I’ve heard is that we shouldn’t reward people for committing offences by giving them a better life in prison than the honest people who work hard and don’t commit crimes. This is a false dichotomy. How many of you would rather be in prison, with limited freedom and rigid structure, than living a healthy, happy, productive life of freedom? If one wants rigid structure and orders on how to live, they would just join the military. Only people crippled from living too long in jail, ill-equipped for life and set up to fail, would re-offend for the security and familiarity that comes with prison.
We are primates, and we need to recognize that we all respond well to systems of rewards and punishments. The law still needs to be there in order that people will act in the best interest of the whole. It does not require us to have free will for us to logically conclude that we need to have a system that encourages behaviours we want and discourages behaviours we don’t. The main element should always be in favor of healing, lest re-offence occur and cause someone else to experience the same pain that’s been thrust upon victims and their families.
In the past, we used to gather a mob of people to beat a person to death for doing horrible things. Eventually the government stepped in, taking over that responsibility for us. After that, we had crowds of people enjoying public executions to see that justice is done. Now, hardly anyone shows up to executions. We will eventually be required to adjust past this addiction to vengeance. As Robert Sapolsky (Behave; 2017) put it:
[People need to view it] like a bear or a hurricane. We’re able to do that when it’s absolutely clear that it’s unintentional on the person’s part … and they’re crippled with remorse. We will simply have to expand that further.
We need to rid ourselves of the notion that the majority of people who have done bad things only deserve to be treated badly, as they’ve likely been treated badly their entire lives. If there’s some way to repair the damage done, get them back on their feet, and living a fulfilling life, that should be the course we take. If there’s nothing we can do for them, such as in the cases of psychopaths, then we should put them away with no hope of release. Their lives shouldn’t be miserable pain, but we should see them for the pitiable souls they are, having been ill-equipped before being sent into the world. Psychopaths are born with brain problems and do questionable things; do we blame people without fingers for not being able to play piano?
Before we leave the topic of crime, it should be pointed out that experiments have shown people commit more immoral behaviours (cheating on tests, etc) when made aware of the lack of free will. That in mind, don’t excuse yourself from your own morality. Interestingly though, believing we don’t have free will made women act more forgiving in another experiment, though it showed no significant effect for men.
How can we define ourselves?
There is some irony making these arguments, given that a large part of my spare time revolves around writing advice pieces and reading psychology, business, and other books intended to help me get ahead in life. Just another choice I suppose I didn’t make.
And even after making all these arguments – even if I’ve changed your mind – we all still feel very much in control of our lives. The hallucination persists. Right now, I wanted to write this article, so I wrote it. I feel like I chose to do so.
And, in the end, maybe that’s all that matters.
The Passions and The Will – David Hume
Stumbling Upon Happiness – Daniel Gilbert (2006)
Free Will – Sam Harris (2012)
Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt (2012)
The Mind Club – Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray (2016)
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst – Robert M Sapolsky (2017)
Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely
You Are Now Less Dumb – David McRaney
Vodka Taste Testing
I once tricked my friend into tasting two kinds of vodka. He rated the one as terrible, acrid, and gave it a score of about 4. The other was light, flavorful, and enjoyable – a definitely 8 or 9. They were the same vodka. He’s by no means stupid, either, this is just to prove that all of us can be tricked.
Participants were presented with a choice between Kate Upton and Kate Moss. After choosing, participants are then shown the opposite choice they had just chosen. They are then asked to explain why they chose the woman in the photo, more than 70% of people didn’t notice the switch, and were then able to give reasons of why they chose her.
-Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray, The Mind Club (2016)
Like the models experiment, participants were approached in a supermarket for a taste test. They make their choice from two jams: cinnamon apple and grapefruit. After choose a preference between the two, which the experimenter recorded. Participants were asked to sample their favorite jam again and asked to describe why they liked it. Just like the model study, they actually swapped the jams. Fewer than 30% of participants detected the switch, while the rest then came up with explanations for why they liked it.
“An influential 1977 paper by Richard Nisbett and Timothy D. Wilson suggests – with respect to processes, not content – our access to what’s going on in our heads may be no more privileged than our access to what’s going on in our livers. In one experiment, Nisbett and Wilson arrayed four pairs of pantyhose on a table in a bargain store, and, in a “Customer Evaluation Survey”, asked customers to say which pair they preferred, and why. People made their choice, typically plumbing for the one on the right, and had no problem explaining their choice with reference to its particular features: the knit, the elasticity, the sheerness, and so on. Which is all very well – except that the researchers had previously discovered that people tended to favor items on the right side of the display, and all the pairs of pantyhose were, in fact, identical.”
-Anthony Appiah, Experiments in Ethics (2008)
If people have just read a paragraph containing the word “Ocean”, they’re more likely to choose Tide, and then explain its cleaning virtues. -Sapolsky, Behave (2017)
Post a picture of eyes on a bus stop (control image was flowers) and people are more likely to pick up litter. Placed in a workplace coffee room and the honor system payment goes up in triplicate. Shown in a computer screen and people become more generous in economic games.
Probably the most famous case of brain damage to ever take place, Phineas had received severe brain damage when an explosive misfired while he was working, sending a railway spike up through his eye socket and out the top of his skull. The mild-mannered, well-liked man became violent, verbally abusive, and seemed unable to control his sexual impulses. He lost his job, his wife left him, and his reputation was ruined. Years after the incident, his brain appeared to have healed somewhat, enabling him to return to something of a normal life, successfully holding down jobs.
R v. Craddock (1980)(bottom of the first page):
Craddock was a barmaid with a lengthy criminal record: thirty prior sentences for theft, arson and assault. Charged with murdering a co-worker, years of diaries and institutional records indicated a cyclical pattern to her violent behaviour. She was found guilty of manslaughter based on a plea of diminished responsibility; that PMS ‘turned her into a raging animal each month and forced her to act out of character’ (Benedek 1985 p. 24). Sentencing was delayed for three months to see if she would respond to progesterone. Subsequently, the judge also considered PMS as a mitigating factor. As a result, Craddock was placed on probation and court ordered progesterone treatment.
Later that year, Craddock who never had clear recollections of her crimes, received no progesterone for four days. On the fourth day, having fasted, she threw a brick through a window and reported herself to the police. She was arrested, received progesterone and was released by the Magistrate’s Court.
Then, in 1981, Craddock who had changed her surname to Smith, began to receive a lower dosage of progesterone. In April, she attempted suicide, wrote a threatening poison pen letter to a police sergeant and waited behind the police station with a knife. Charged with carrying an offensive weapon, Smith’s defence was the claim of automatism. The judge directed the jury that there was no question of considering this plea because there was no evidence that she had acted unconsciously. Again, the sentence was reduced to probation due to Smith’s PMS.
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6Wheatley, T., & Haidt, J. (2005). Hypnotically induced disgust makes moral judgments more severe. Psychological Science, 16, 780-784.
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10Caspar, E. et al. (2017). The Influence of (Dis)belief in Free Will on Immoral Behavior. Front. Psychol., 17, January 2017.