Study ‘Shows’ You Don’t Have Free Will. Choose Not to Believe It

By William M Briggs Published on May 5, 2016

Here’s the overdrawn headline from the UK newspaper the Independent: “Free will could all be an illusion, scientists suggest after study shows choice may just be brain tricking itself.” The article quotes the authors of a new study who say “that even our most seemingly ironclad beliefs about our own agency and conscious experience can be dead wrong.”

The study itself is titled “A Simple Task Uncovers a Postdictive Illusion of Choice” by Adam Bear and Paul Bloom, found in the journal Psychological Science, and opens with this bit of science: “A large literature in psychology suggests that people are powerfully influenced by the situations in which they find themselves.” Who knew?

The authors then warn that “people can feel as if they make a choice before the time at which this choice is actually made.” Meaning your brain really made the choice for you.

This proposal is rooted in research suggesting that people become conscious of an event a short time after it actually occurs; hence, their conscious experience of an event can be influenced by experiences that seem to follow that event in time, but have already been processed unconsciously.

People cannot, of course, become conscious of an event before it actually occurs, because there’s nothing to be conscious of before anything happens, so I’m inclined to think researchers are on to something when they say awareness follows events.

Anyway, even if the authors’ theory had some validity, it’s not as important as it sounds. Why? Who’s had this experience? You walk to the neighborhood pub to wash away the memory of reading some research paper you wish you hadn’t, and, while on the way, did not remember choosing where to place each and every step?

If this has happened to you, it means your body (brain and nervous system) chose the steps for you, and, in the logic of this study, means you don’t have free will. Bear and Bloom:

When we lift our arms to grab objects, when we type with our fingers on a keyboard, when we switch from one activity to the next, we experience ourselves as agents consciously guiding our decisions moment by moment. Perhaps, in these cases, our sense that we make a choice well in advance of our actions is an illusion, making us feel it’s more in control of ourselves than we actually are.

But it’s not at all obvious that we can’t make free will choices at a subconscious level. And more to the point, free will isn’t about consciously controlling every aspect of our body (can you imagine having to consciously choose each breath and heartbeat?). Free will involves those deliberate, judged acts in the face of choice, particularly moral choice, choices everybody, even Bear and Bloom, know we all make. The only curious thing is why any scientist would deny these obvious truths.

Perhaps love of some theory, which for the authors is “that people may systematically overestimate the role that consciousness plays in their chosen behavior.” To gauge this, they did two experiments.

In the first experiment, five white circles flashed on a screen, and 25 persons were asked to guess which of the five would turn red. After the circle changed color, people were asked (nobody checked) whether they guessed correctly or whether they didn’t have enough time to guess. The delay between when the white circles first appeared and one turned red was varied in specified increments between 0.05 and 1 second.

When the delay between color changes was 0.05 seconds, 27% said they didn’t have enough time to choose, but as the time lengthened to 1 second, only about 1% said they didn’t have time. Of those who said they did have time, at 0.05 seconds 31% said they guessed the right circle; 23% claimed to be correct when the delay was 1 second.

Since the people did not know the algorithm which picked the red circle, and assuming the pattern where the red circles appeared was not readily deducible (each person did the experiment 280 times), then we’d expect the guessing success rate to be around 20% (it would be 20% exactly only by coincidence). Yet here we have people claiming success rates up to 31%. What’s happening?

People might have lied. Especially when time was short, people might have said to themselves, “I had a feeling that was the one” and they therefore gave themselves credit for their clairvoyance.

Maybe “lying” is too strong a word. Perhaps corrective perspicacious self-assuredness is better: people award themselves what they feel they deserve, especially under “unfair” conditions where the color change was fast. This theory, which is mine and not the authors’, accords with the commonsense view of human nature.

The authors discount and do not investigate lying, though, because they claim that “the incentives to lie or make weak commitments to one’s choices were the same for all delay conditions in the experiment.” This doesn’t follow because, as I mentioned, it’s at least possible some would consider shorter delays less fair. The Lying Theory also predicts honest people would claim they didn’t have enough time to answer at shorter delays, a prediction also supported by the data.

In the setup of the second experiment, which used only two circles, the authors make this striking admission:

If participants were less confident in choices they made more quickly, they might have been prone to choose relatively randomly between the “y” and “n” response options in short delay trials. Such a random pattern of responding would have biased participants’ reports of choosing the red circle toward .50 (because there were only two response options), and would have resulted in greater-than-chance reports of choosing the red circle for these shorter delays (because chance was .20 in Experiment 1).

The same patterns were found in results of the second experiment. Shorter delays had claims of greater success rates and greater proportions of folks saying they didn’t have time; and the longest delay (1s) had success rates of what would be expected by guessing and a very low percentage of claims of insufficient time.

The authors draw the conclusion, “Our experiments suggest that people can have the subjective experience of having made a choice before their choice was actually made.” That’s one interpretation, but it ignores the Self-Reward or Lying Theory that I outlined.

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