Greater Understanding but Less Choice? The Decline of Free Will

Every human’s behaviour is constrained. Legal or social censure, theological or other conceptions of morality, and physical restrictions all affect our agency. The idea of any of us having true free will is contested.

Technology and biological research have just accelerated the debate. For example, in less than six months, you will likely have advertising delivered to your cell phone based on your geographical position. (“Did you know that sweaters are on sale at the Macy’s you just walked past?”) In less than a year, service alerts and other helpful information will likely be added. (“Don’t take King Street on your way home; there is a traffic snarl up by the freeway entrance.”) If you use Google as your primary search engine, you already see only a fraction of all the search results available for your query, because predictive search technology has selected only the ones it thinks will be most relevant to you, based on your location and search history.

If not direct constraints, these are certainly strong determining factors in our behaviour. It’s the world, curated especially for us. Choices are made for us, about what we want, and should do and see, that are continually narrowing our conceptual field of vision. Spontaneity, and serendipity, in an online world where our doings are tracked and analyzed, may be a thing of the past.

Nudge, Nudge

Greater understanding of human brains and decision-making also explain the choices we make, and can be manipulated to affect them. The nudge theory of behaviour – popular with the Obama and Cameron governments, who think of it as a way to combine paternalism and libertarianism – advocates providing incentives to subtly change behaviour toward a more rational course. Give people tax credits for eco-friendly home improvements, and they’re more likely to go with the low-flush toilet and reflective window coating. Place the salad bar in a prominent location closer to the entrance of the cafeteria than the mac ’n’ cheese and you may end up with diners making healthier food choices. There is even a group dedicated to implementing such “nudges” within the UK government.

Recycling bins

Here’s a nudge toward recycling more – in Toronto, recycling and organics bins are free, while larger garbage bins cost more money

Successes claimed by nudge theorists include everything from a reduction in traffic fatalities (on curves where the lines are pained in such a way as to unconsciously encourage drivers to slow down) to less urine in public toilets (where an insect is painted on the men’s urinals to attract attention). And yet nudge theory has come under fire from various libertarian groups, who believe we should at least be aware of having our perception manipulated so it is less of an infringement upon our conscious choices. Some philosophers even argue that free will is not free without knowledge of the potential outcomes from different choices.

And yet, so many of our choices seem to be unconscious. Recent neurological research into what is called “haptic sensation” has inexorably chipped away at any concept of free will we may have had. Studies indicate that holding a warm mug of tea or coffee while interviewing a candidate, or having his/her resume presented on a heavy clipboard, can lead to a more favourable outcome for the interviewee than iced tea and a flimsy page. Soft furniture in a conference room can lead to more harmonious meetings than wooden benches. Sitting in a hot room can amplify anti-social tendencies like aggression.

Similarly, priming female students before math tests to consider their gender results in a much poorer performance than prompting them to consider more positive characteristics, such as their attendance at an elite school. The fear of conforming to gender stereotypes (“women are worse at math than men”) affects performance, in a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” The same effect has been shown on test-takers who are members of visible minority groups.

Why bother studying those limit laws when a few spoken words or a poorly placed demographics question before an exam can have significant negative effects?

Who is guilty when nobody is responsible?

Better understanding of human emotions and the human brain has already significantly affected our conception of human accountability and the choices we make. So what happens when everything can be explained away, or rationalized with a new theory of behaviour? The first verdict of “diminished responsibility” paved the way for a trend of exculpatory evidence that now encompasses hundreds of conditions rendering us unaware of, or unable to control, our actions. Everything from brain tumors to hormonal imbalances have been shown to lead to often drastic, out-of-character bevahiour.

This is often where politics draws a line between more conservative advocates for “punishment” and liberal advocates for “rehabilitation” of anti-social behaviours. And free will is an essential part of the argument, mainly because it is often linked with morality. Kant says that actions cannot be moral without being free: if we are not in control of our own actions, how can we choose to be moral or otherwise?

If you fail to slow down where nudging lines have been drawn closer together on the road, are you an unsafe driver, or merely someone on whom the psychological trick didn’t work? Should a manager be sued if he failed to hire the “better” candidate because he was sitting on too firm a chair during the interview? If two medications interact in an unprecedented way and you assault someone, are you culpable?

3d speed bumps

Slow down for the fake speed bumps! Or else?

A middle path

Perhaps there is a way to be somewhat but not entirely responsible. Many people view free will as an illusion, and consider the lack of it as a freeing, positive experience. The well-known atheist writer Sam Harris, who wrote a book on free will in 2012, argues on his blog  that in fact believing in the absence of free will lessens unhelpful emotions like pride and hatred by chalking up a good portion of the cause of our actions to unconscious reflexes and brain chemistry. If we focus less on hating “bad” people for their actions, he argues, we can spend more time meting out appropriate punishments to ensure they do not reoffend. And yet, he still leaves room for persistence, hard work and other actions that enable success and prosperity in the longer term.

The theme of intentional long-term, repetitive choices being a proxy for free will (if not the same thing) jives with another discussion I read researching this post. It mentioned religion, still the prevailing global codification of human morality, as essentially acting in one’s long-term self-interest (that is, ensuring one’s place in heaven). And really, this is what almost all morality comes down to: ensuring the harmonious relations of the species so we don’t all kill each other, couched in terms of individuals keeping those around them happy by not stealing from them, lying to them, killing them, deceiving them, etc. It is enlightened self-interest to foster mutual support networks. In this light, all historical constraints on free will (such as laws) are for “our own good.”

Perhaps the increasing awareness of the restrictions on our consciousness – and manipulations of them – are actually prosocial. Perhaps they, like morality, have given us a way to preserve the real-life networks by encouraging rehabilitation over punishment and understanding over mystery. It is certainly possible that as more behaviours are justified or explained (away), society will become more liberal in meting out criminal “justice”. Many will consider this moral progress.

Will the passage of time and progress of science eventually explain all actions we take? Will we be living in some real-life version of “Minority Report”? Will Google ever be able to know when I need a good game of trivia and be able to tell me where I have the most fun (and win)?

Perhaps – the jury is still out.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments below – do you think free will exists? Does it matter?


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