The Studies that “Disproved” Free Will (and why it may not even matter)

Do we have free will when it comes to our actions and behaviour? A series of neuroscience experiments linked to the predictive brain led scientists to question this notion, sparking an intense scientific debate. This post breaks down and discusses these experiments, and, most importantly, the implications of whether or not we believe free will exists.

Neuroscientific “Evidence” against Free Will

In the 1980’s neurobiologist Benjamin Libet[1], [2] measured participants’ brain activity. He used EEG (whereby electrodes are attached to participants’ heads to monitor brain activity), and asked them to perform a simple task: press a button whenever they felt like it, while looking at a timer. Critically, he asked them to indicate the EXACT moment that they made the conscious decision to move.

The outcome of this experiment is what Libet, and later other scientists, would come to use as evidence against the notion of free will: Libet consistently found unconscious brain activity prior to the conscious decision to move, seen by a change in EEG signal. That is, the brain activity predicted the subsequent decisions, prior to the participants being consciously aware of this decision. [3]

Several studies have since confirmed this finding: What neuroscientists refer to as ‘readiness potential’, a measure of activity in the brain prior to voluntary muscle movement, was found before the person decided to move their finger. If unconscious brain activity can predict our actions even before we make the conscious decisions to perform those actions, is free will just an illusion?

Criticisms of the Experiments

While a wave of researchers continued to build on the work of Libet, numerous scientists have pointed out problems with the experiments (and the researchers’ conclusions):

Millisecond Recording
One prominent criticism has been whether we can really measure intentions on a millisecond time scale. For example, imagine that I asked you to indicate when you have your next conscious thought to move your finger, while you look at a clock that displays milliseconds. Do you think you could indicate this intention precisely, not just to the second, but thousandth of a second?

Brain Preparation
If you know you are going to move your finger (because you were asked to), will your brain not subconsciously prepare for this? Researchers Jeff Miller and Judy Trevena at the University of Otago ran modified versions of the experiments, where participants could decide whether or not to move (after hearing a tone)[4]. Here, they found that the readiness potential recorded in the brain was no different for either decision, suggesting that the change in brain activity may just represent the brain paying attention, not a decision to move.

Free Won’t?
A wave of researchers have also argued that perhaps what we really have is “free won’t”: We have instincts, but also, we have the conscious power to prevent ourselves from performing such actions. This would explain why the brain prepares for certain actions prior to our conscious awareness. Yet, once we become consciously aware of this intention, we can either execute it or inhibit it.

While there are numerous criticisms of Libets’ experiments and the conclusions made based on these types of studies, perhaps the more interesting question to ask is: What impact do our beliefs have on our behavior?

Implications of Believing in Free Will

Perspectives on free will play a significant role in how we view morality and responsibility. Indeed, our legal systems are built on the assumption of free will. Researchers have investigated how our beliefs in free will correlate with and influence behavior and outlook on life.  For instance, studies have found that if you tell participants that scientists have confirmed free will does not exist, they are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior such a cheating, acting aggressively towards others, and being less likely to help others[5],[6].

Researchers have also looked at how beliefs in free will link to aspects of personality. Crescioni and colleagues found that stronger beliefs in free will correlate with a multitude of positive aspects of personality including more gratitude, greater life satisfaction, and lower perceived life stress7. Even experimentally manipulating disbelief in free will has been found to cause a reduction in perceived meaningfulness of life, and inducing stronger beliefs in free will led people to set goals that were more meaningful[7]. Overall, it seems, believing in free will is associated with a range of positive factors and outcomes, both personal and behavioral.

So, while studying the predictive brain gives us an indication of the underlying mechanisms of the mind and indeed our behavior, perhaps regardless of what (some) scientists claim, we are all better off believing that we are completely in control of and responsible for our actions.

 

[1] Libet, B., Gleason, C., Wright, E. and Pearl, D. (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activites (readiness-potential): The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain, 106(3), pp.623-642.

[2] Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8(04), p.529

[3] Bode, S., Murawski, C., Soon, C., Bode, P., Stahl, J. and Smith, P. (2014). Demystifying “Free Will”: The Role of Contextual Information and Evidence Accumulation for Predictive Brain Activity. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, pp.636-645.

[4] Trevena, J. and Miller, J. (2010). Brain Preparation before a Voluntary action: Evidence against Unconscious Movement Initiation. Consciousness and Cognition, 19(1), pp.447-456.

[5] Baumeister, R., Masicampo, E. and DeWall, C. (2009). Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(2), pp.260-268.

[6] Vohs, K. and Schooler, J. (2008). The Value of Believing in Free Will. Psychological Science, 19(1), pp.49-54.

[7] Crescioni, A., Baumeister, R., Ainsworth, S., Ent, M. and Lambert, N. (2015). Subjective Correlates and Consequences of Belief in Free Will. Philosophical Psychology, 29(1), pp.41-63.

 

Author:

Cecille is an assistant researcher at Collective Intelligence Unit, Copenhagen Business School

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