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Belief in free will

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Some individuals believe that human behavior is determined by genes, luck, family background, and the environment. They feel that both they, and other people, cannot control their own lives and destiny. Other people, in contrast, believe that humans can control their lives and destiny, called the belief in free will. According to Rigoni, Kuhn, Sartori, and Brass (2011), belief in free will is similar to self efficacy, but includes more metaphysical beliefs about the causes of behavior, such as assumptions about genes, fate, and the environment.

According to several studies, this belief in free will increase the tendency of individuals to devote effort into their activities and thus override their natural inclinations or impulses (see self control). For example, when individuals believe in free will, they become more likely to act altruistically and less inclined to act aggressively (Baumeister, Masicampo, & DeWall, 2009).

Consequences of belief in free will

Pro-social behavior

Free will, when manipulated by contrived articles written by experts, is related to the extent to which participants would offer help in hypothetical scenarios, such as to a homeless person (Baumeister, Masicampo, and DeWall, 2009). In addition, free will is inversely related to the inclination to act aggressively towards another person after feeling rejected (Baumeister, Masicampo, and DeWall, 2009). A belief in free will also reduces the likelihood of cheating (Vohs & Schooler, 2008). Hence, free will seems to evoke cooperative behaviors.

Yet, this free will may also reduce conformity, because individuals feel more independent and autonomous. That is, when granted free will, people do not feel as reliant on their social environment. COnsistent with this possibility, as Alquist, Ainsworth, and Baumeister (2013) showed, after people were encouraged to feel that free will is an illusion--and that genes or the environment control behavior--they were more inclined to conform. Their responses to a question, for example, was more likely to be influenced by the answers of other people.

Control of impulses

Conceivably, when individuals believe in free will, they feel confident they can control their behavior. This confidence mobilizes the effort that is needed to fulfill their goals.

The proposition that free will enhances the capacity to override impulses is consistent with the findings observed by Martjin, Tenbult, Merckebach, Dreezens, and de Vries, 2002). These authors showed that individuals can longer squeeze a handgrip successfully for several minutes after they need to inhibit or suppress their emotions. Importantly, however, this problem dissipated if participants were informed that discipline and effort is not limited in capacity. That is, if individuals felt they could access an unlimited supply of energy to undertake demanding tasks, they most likely experience a sense of control or free will. This free will enhanced their capacity to inhibit their inclinations even after devoting this effort to other tasks that demand such energy.

Learning from traumas and challenges

The extent to which individuals believe in free will--that is, the degree to which they believe they can override genetic and environmental factors--also enhances the positive effect of negative emotions on learning. Specifically, according to indirect causation theory (Baumeister, Vohs, DeWall, & Zhang, 2007), emotions evoke specific cognitions, which in turn affect behaviour. Specifically, negative emotions tend to foster reflection. To illustrate, after individuals experience guilt, they contemplate the incident, resolving to behave more sensitively in the future. After individuals experience sadness, they reflect upon alternatives that could have unfolded (Johnson-Laird & Oatley, 2000), called counterfactual thinking, to uncover more effective courses of action. Thus, negative states facilitate learning.

Nevertheless, according to Stillman and Baumeister (2010), if belief in a free will is diminished, negative emotions are not as likely to translate into learning. That is, some individuals assume their actions are governed by genetics, fate, experience, or other sources that preclude choice and autonomy. Hence, they do not feel they can readily control their status or success. They do not feel that personal reflection and contemplation will significantly impinge on their fate and curb negative emotions. To conserve mental energy, these individuals do not reflect upon their lives comprehensively and thoughtfully. In these individuals, therefore, negative emotions might not foster insight and reflection.

Stillman and Baumeister (2010) conducted three studies to assess this proposition. In one study, some participants pondered a series of statements that reinforce the possibility of free will, such as "I am able to override the genetic and environmental factors that sometimes influence my behavior". Other participants pondered a series of statements that, instead, reinforce the possibility of determinism, including "A belief in free will contradicts the known fact that the universe is governed by lawful principles of science". Next, participants contemplated an event in their life that provoked guilt. They also rated the intensity of this guilt. Finally, the extent to which they felt they learned from the event was assessed.

In general, the intensity of guilt was associated with the perception they learned from the event. Nevertheless, if individuals had read statements that reinforce determinism instead of free will, this association diminished. Guilt did not often translate into learning.

The second study was similar, except some participants were asked to reflect upon times that evoked fear or pride. In addition, participants wrote about the insights they gained from this emotional event. Independent judges then rated the extent to which these essays indicate that participants learned valuable insights from these episodes and resolved to change their behavior. The same pattern of results emerged: Intense negative but not positive emotions enhanced learning, as assessed by evaluations of the essays. However, determinism curbed these associations.

The final study also showed that negative emotions did not only enhance learning but also facilitated commitment to some change. Furthermore, even when free will was primed, elevated levels of psychopathy reduced this association between negative emotions and volunteering. That is, psychopathy might curb the capacity of individuals to override their dominant response or experience profound emotions, curbing their capacity to learn.


If individuals believe in free will, and thus feel that people could have reached other choices, they are more likely to experience gratitude. That is, they recognize that kind acts were chosen rather than inevitable (MacKenzie, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2014). They perceive the motivations that underpin this kindness as sincere and altruistic. This finding is consistent with the notion that gratitude depends on the extent to which the act was helpful, costly to the benefactor, and sincere.

For example, in one study, conducted by MacKenzie, Vohs, and Baumeister (2014), participants completed the Gratitude Questionnaire, comprising 6 items, such as "I am grateful to a wide variety of people". In addition, they completed a series of items that reflect believes about free will, epitomized by items like "People have complete control over the decisions they make". Gratitude was positively associated with free will.

In a subsequent study, free will was manipulated experimentally. That is, participants read sentences that highlight that either free will is an illusion or free will can be exercised. Next, participants wrote about three events for which they are grateful to someone, and then rated the degree to which they feel grateful. If free will was primed, participants reported more gratitude towards the first event they recalled, even after controlling mood. Another study showed that free will was also related to motivational sincerity, or the extent to which people assume the motivations were altruistic.

Neurological effects of belief in free will

As Rigoni, Kuhn, Sartori, and Brass (2011) showed, this belief in free will can affect activation of brain regions that correspond to the intention to undertake some action, such as the pre-supplementary motor area. Furthermore, this belief affects these regions even before participants are aware of their intentions.

Specifically, in this study, some participants were informed that free will is an illusion. Other participants did not receive this information and, thus, were more likely to believe in free will. Next, participants performed a version of the Libet task. In this task, a schematic illustration of a clock appeared on a screen. Then, a cursor revolved around the clock, in a clockwise direction. Participants could press a button whenever they liked. About a second later, the cursor stopped. Participants reported when they decided to press the button.

About two seconds before the movement is executed, EEG recordings exhibit a potential, called the early readiness potential. This component is assumed to represent the preparation of a movement and is generated by the pre-supplementary motor area. About half a second before the movement, a later component, called the late readiness potential, is evoked. This component is assumed to represent the programming and execution of an action, underpinned by the primary motor cortex and supplementary motor area proper. The early component, but not the late component, is modulated by the extent to which the action is intentional. That is, when individuals do not feel their action was executed willfully, this component diminishes.

Consistent with this premise, if participants did not believe in free will, this early component was limited in amplitude. Furthermore, this component was evoked a second or so before participants were aware of their intention. Hence, free will seems to affect a sense of intention or agency unconsciously.

Manipulations and measures of free will

Manipulations of this belief in free will

Several protocols have been applied to manipulate free will. In some studies, participants receive information that reinforces beliefs in free will or determinism (e.g., Baumeister, Masicampo, & DeWall, 2009& Vohs & Schooler, 2008). To vindicate free will, participants read sentences such as "I am able to override the genetic and environmental factors that sometimes influence my behavior". To reinforce determinism, participants read sentences like "Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion".

Measures of this belief in a free will

One measure, called the free will and determinism scale, has been developed (Paulhus & Margesson, 1994, 2008, as cited in Baumeister, Masicampo, & DeWall, 2009). The scale comprises four dimensions, such as belief in fate (e.g., "I believe that my future has already been pre-determined by fate"), belief in biological (e.g., "Your genes determine your future") or environmental (e.g., "Bad behavior is caused by bad life circumstances") causes of behavior, belief in randomness (e.g., "Chance events seem to be the major cause of human history"), and belief in free will (e.g., "People have complete control over the decisions they make").

A similar set of items can instead be divided into two facets (see Rakos, Laurene, Skala, & Slane, 2008& Rigoni, Kuhn, Sartori, & Brass, 2011). One of these facets represents the extent to which people feel that humans in general are granted free will (e.g., "Human beings actively choose their actions and are responsible for the consequences of those actions"). The other facet represents the degree to which participants feel that perhaps they themselves can control their behavior and inclinations (e.g., "My decisions are influenced by a higher power").


Alquist, J. L., Ainsworth, S. E., & Baumeister, R. F. (2013). Determined to conform: Disbelief in free will increases conformity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 80-86. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.08.015

Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E. J., & DeWall, C. N. (2009). Prosocial benefits of feeling free: Disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 260-268.

Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., DeWall, C. N., & Zhang, L. (2007). How emotions shape behavior: feedback, anticipation and reflection rather than direct causation. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 167-203.

MacKenzie, M. J., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2014). You didn't have to do that: Belief in free will promotes gratitude. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(11), 1423-1434. doi: 10.1177/0146167214549322

Rakos, R. F., Laurene, K. R., Skala, S., & Slane, S. (2008). Belief in free will: Measurement and conceptualization innovations. Behavior and Social Issues, 17, 20-39.

Rigoni, D., Kuhn, S., Sartori, G., & Brass, M. (2011). Inducing disbelief in free will alters brain correlates of preconscious motor preparation: The brain minds whether we believe in free will or not. Psychological Science,22, 613-618. doi:10.1177/0956797611405680

Stillman, T. F., & Baumeister, R. F. (2010). Guilty, free, and wise: Determinism and psychopathy diminish learning from negative emotions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 951-960.

Vohs, K. D., & Schooler, J. W. (2008). The value of believing in free will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Science, 19, 49-54.

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Last Update: 7/18/2016