Does moral behaviour draw on a belief in free will? Of course, most of us would say. And yet the idea propagated by some scientists that behaviour is determined by our genes, the "wiring" of our brains and the environment we live in is catching on. Whether determinism is a belief or just a handy excuse for the average person is not altogether clear, but a study carried out among Canadian university students shows that it has an effect — and an undesirable one at that. It made the young people much more likely to cheat.

In this interview with MercatorNet Dr Kathleen Vohs, who led the research, talks about its findings and their implications.

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MercatorNet: The idea that human beings are free to choose, and ought to be treated that way, is one of the great themes of history, and especially of recent times. Yet people now seem quite happy with the idea, promoted by neuroscientists, that we are essentially not free, that we are determined by our genes and our environment. What do you make of that?

Kathleen Vohs: It seems that people selectively adopt the "determined" position and the "freedom" position, depending on the domain. If there is something that is problematic, then it seems that lay determinism beliefs are strong. But if there is a decision that yields benefits or is positive (or even neutral), the default seems to be that people have free will. Perhaps the existentialist philosopher Sartre was right when he said: "We are always ready to take refuge in a belief in determinism if this freedom weighs upon us or if we need an excuse."

MercatorNet: Is there hard evidence that belief in free will is being eroded? What are the practical ways in which this is happening?

Dr Vohs: There is research that measures what we call "locus of control" scores, that is, people's beliefs about whether internal (personal) or external (situational) factors are responsible for what happens in a person's life. J M Twenge and colleagues analysed such studies from the 1960s to the 1990s and discovered that the belief we do not control our own outcomes had jumped significantly during those decades.

We could put this down to the fact that many scientists now regard free will as a by-product of genetic, chemical and environmental processes — a view which is naturally spreading from scientific journals and books through the popular media, often on the initiative of scientists themselves. The idea that environmental factors can be used to "explain away" delinquency and crime is well-established, and the biological sciences have given support to that view. In law there is the famous Twinkie defence in which eating too much of a certain snack food was argued as part of a diminished responsibility defence against a murder conviction. More and more, it seems, we can explain behaviour using external forces. 

MercatorNet: Your own study showed that it is not difficult to sway people on this issue. Can you describe briefly what you found in terms of belief?

Dr Vohs: We conducted two experiments to test whether a belief in free will or determinism would influence ethical behaviour — in this case, cheating. In the first experiment, participants — 30 undergraduate students — read either a text that encouraged belief in determinism, or a neutral text, before doing tasks where it was possible to cheat. In the second experiment, 122 students were assigned to various conditions: some read a series of statements that promoted either free will, others read deterministic statements, and others again read neutral statements.

Regarding beliefs, we found that the students who read deterministic statements were more likely to report a decreased belief in free will. So while free will was the default belief, we found people's views on this topic quite pliable. Even brief exposure to messages arguing against free will was enough to change their minds.

MercatorNet: Do these beliefs — in free will or in determinism — actually affect people's ethical behaviour? What did your study show?

Dr Vohs: In both experiments we found that weakening free will beliefs reliably increased cheating. In the first, there was a situation where people could passively allow themselves to benefit from a mistake — similar to receiving too much change — and here there was a strong negative relationship between weaker free will beliefs and cheating. This means that the more that participants reported being skeptical of the notion of free will, the more dishonesty they exhibited. In the second experiment we measured active cheating in a situation where participants could pay themselves for each correct answer on a difficult test.

To preserve anonymity in the second experiment we did not measure the amount of money each individual took, but we do know that the average take-home pay was far greater for participants in the deterministic condition than for those in other conditions — including two in which participants scored and shredded their own tests. It is worth noting also that participants who read deterministic statements claimed to have solved more problems correctly than those in comparison condition who read the same deterministic statements but whose true scores were known. In other words, anonymity increased the effect of deterministic beliefs.

This all ties in with evidence that cheating is on the increase. A researcher, F Schab, who has been studying cheating for decades found that self-reports of cheating amongst students increased from 34 per cent in 1969 to 68 per cent in 1989. There are many possible reasons for this, but our study shows that free will beliefs are among them.

MercatorNet: Cheating by students is a relatively modest form of immoral behaviour compared with robbery, adultery or physical violence. Is it possible that deterministic ideas would have less influence on more serious ethical choices? Is it likely?

Dr Vohs: We don't have direct data on more serious ethical behaviours, but our data show that people will take advantage of the opportunity to grab a benefit without paying proper dues. So at the underlying psychological level there would appear to be a relationship between cheating and other forms of unethical behaviour. But we don't have those data directly.

MercatorNet: Is there an ethical and social "upside" to the new awareness of genetic and environmental influences on individuals?

Dr Vohs: There is evidence that viewing behaviour as a consequence of environmental and genetic factors could encourage compassion for the mentally ill and also discourage a punitive attitude to offenders. Other research suggests that a deterministic outlook may make a person more sensitive to subtle influences that affect their own goals and actions.

Against this we have to weigh the evidence of links between determinism and unethical behaviour and make sure that the public is protected from this danger. We have to understand better why dismissing free will leads to amoral behaviour. Does it induce a certain passivity, a "why bother?" mentality, by undermining our sense that we are moral agents. Or perhaps, as Sartre suggested, does it simply provide the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes?

MercatorNet: Even if evolutionary scientists convince us that free will does not exist, will we have to invent it? Wouldn't a world without free will become a jungle where physical advantage (good genes and environment) rather than ethics rules?

Dr Vohs: Well, remember that much of ethics is built on the desire to promote one's genes and ward off suspicious others (see James Q Wilson, The Moral Sense). So I don't see the jungle occurring. But many good things about human life and society would be gone, that's for certain.

Kathleen D Vohs is McKnight Land-Grant Professor in the Department of Marketing, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. The study discussed above is published in the January issue of Psychological Science (Volume 19, Number 1) under the title, "The Value of Believing in Free Will".