There is an idea floating about that people should be encouraged to believe in free-will even if it is not a sensible thing to believe. This is not the way science should work. Why upset people by telling them that the earth goes around the sun? How upsetting! Why tell them that they are descended by evolution from animals? They will act badly if they think they are animals. Why tell them that the world is billions of years old? That would only disturb their faith in the truth of the Bible. And here we go again. Why tell people how they make decisions with their brains? Why tell people that consciousness is not as it appears? Why not just lie about the impossibility of free-will? They may become criminals.
This is not how science is supposed to work. Science is about making our model of the world more and more correct and publishing the improvements. The task is to find a more and more clear picture of the workings of the brain, not to tell convenient lies.
So Vohs and Schooler (see citation) have published a paper that shows that being primed to think of determinism prompts people to cheat more. This one paper appears with no replication to date and yet there is discussion of abandoning scientific ideals. I have four reasons to suspect the paper but even if it turns out to be strong evidence, it does not justify telling people that free-will exists in the sense that they understand it. Libet’s experiments have been replicated and have stood up to attempts to disprove them for a few decades. His was a disproof of free-will as ordinary people used the term. We should not tell people otherwise.
The first thing that bothered me about the Vohs paper was the particular quotation they used to prime people towards determinism. It is about the most negative way to present the issue that can be imagined. What a depressing way to say that your brain makes decisions! There is nothing in this essay from the Astonishing Hypothesis that is not factual. But it is written in a way that makes one feel doomed. It starts: “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons. I don’t know what was used for the free-will or neural primers but I assume that they were not depressing.
Then I noticed that there was all of 30 subjects and the results were not dealt with individually but as averaged results. That can hide a lot of outliers and data spreads much larger than the average effect. This is just not the sort of statistical analysis that gives me a lot of confidence. By that time I was setting aside the paper as something that needed corroboration by other experiments.
Finally I saw a posting in the Why Evolution is True blog (here) discussing some unpublished work by Rolf Zwaan (here) which failed to replicate the Vohs results and pointed out some flaws that were not obvious to me, such as the subjects being predominately Mormon.
The Vohs/Schooler paper seems to have been accepted without much criticism by many – so have papers by Baumeister, Stillman, Wegner. But there is some criticism. One paper by Miles (citation below) is particularly useful for its broad and deep treatment of the issues.
Here is the abstract and part of the conclusions:
Over the last few years, a number of works have been published asserting both the putative prosocial benefits of belief in free will and the possible dangers of disclosing doubts about the existence of free will. Although concerns have been raised over the disservice of keeping such doubts from the public, this does not highlight the full danger that is presented by social psychology’s newly found interest in the ‘hard problem’ of human free will. Almost all of the work on free will published to date by social psychologists appears methodologically flawed, misrepresents the state of academic knowledge, and risks linking social psychology with the irrational.
Of course, even if we were to begin to acknowledge the moral and intellectual downsides to the free will myth, this would not suggest that Vohs and Baumeister were right to claim that belief in free will may also have prosocial upsides. We have seen that Vohs and Baumeister appear as yet to have shown no such thing, because all they have been studying appears to have been the effect of an acceptance of fatalism, not disbelief in free will. Contrary to the claims made in social psychology journals, we appear to have seen no evidence to date that disabusing people of the myth of free choice encourages anti-social behaviour, yet significant evidence that the myth of free choice encourages immoral, unjust, prejudiced, and anti-intellectual behaviour. If nothing else, this paper should stand as an important corrective within the psychological literature on free will.
This seems to put the nature of this work in a nut shell. I am not surprised that Vohs has won a Templeton prize.
Vohs KD, & Schooler JW (2008). The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological science, 19 (1), 49-54 PMID: 18181791
Miles J.B. (2013). ‘Irresponsible and a Disservice’:The integrity of social psychology turns on the free will dilemma British Journal of Social Psychology, 52, 205-218 : 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02077.x