• Psychology, neuroscience and a fundamental lack of free will

    I am presently reading an absolutely superb book by David Eagleman called Incognito:

    The book is a popular foray into psychology and neuroscience and synthesises a host of different studies into things brain. I wanted to just bring up a few fascinating studies which cast doubt upon the idea that we have fully fledged, or even remotely authored, conscious free will. It even talks about chicken sexers, which is nice. Rather than produce notes, I have tried to directly link the claims.

    Implicit Egotism


    Heaps of work has been done on psychological priming and how it drives our choices. For an amazing video, watch this:

    It is one of my favourite videos.

    • People with high disgust sensitivity are more likely to vote Republican and vice versa.
    • People who have a displeasurable stimulus (smell, sight, taste etc) or even have a sign saying “Please wash your hands” are more likely to judge an act as morally bad than the control.

    Incognito mentions other priming studies, and this kind of priming is even evident in amnesiacs with short term memory issues:

    • Lots of word priming studies have been done (which I talk about in my free will book, available from the side bar). E.g., if I wrote chi___ se___ and asked you to think of two words that would fit, you would most likely think of chicken sexers because I mentioned the phrase earlier.
    • Mere exposure effect: this is the effect that merely hearing a name or idea, or seeing a face etc will predispose you to favour that idea or person. In other words, the maxim “any publicity is good publicity” is actually quite right! If you were to see a picture, even subconsciously, of someone before viewing a number of pictures of people’s faces and were asked to rate them for attractiveness, you would more likely rate them a higher attractiveness than if you hadn’t already seen their face.
    • Illusion-of-truth effect: similar to the last, but with perhaps massive ramifications, you are more likely to rate as true something you have seen or heard before. Yes, think young earth creationism, evolution as false, political claims as true etc. To test this, experimenters asked subjects for the validity of a bunch of sentences every 2 weeks, including occasionally ones which the subjects had forgotten but had already heard and been tested on before. They rated ones they had heard before higher than when they first heard them, even though they swore blind that they had never heard them before. Imagine repeatedly hearing a falsehood. It would only serve to reinforce its truth value!
    • Subliminal pairing takes place in connecting two ideas. For example, in Bush’s TV campaign against Al Gore, “the  Gore prescription plan” on the screen was simultaneously shown with the word RATS, which eventually became the word BUREAUCRATS. The idea being that the two concepts would be subliminally linked.


    We tend to have hunches. Intuitions. We think that we just kind of ‘know’ things. However, it is more often than not a case that our subconscious brain is working overtime in making connections, using prior knowledge to predict or ascertain present claims or knowledge.

    • Silhouette plane spotters in WW2 and chicken sexers in China were so accurate at predicting German vs British planes, or the sex of chickens, that they trained other people. However, they couldn’t teach them because they had no conscious idea of how they were deciphering – their subconscious was doing the calculations. This is because our conscious brain can’t handle being in charge of most tasks in our lives. Our brains would melt. Thus these teachers ended up saying yes or no to their students without being able to explain why until their students intuitively learnt how to decipher without being able to consciously explain their knowledge.
    • In an experiment with 3 decks of cards, two good, two bad, subjects began to become consciously aware of this by about the 25th draw. However, their autonomic (fight or flight) nervous system as measured by their skin conductance response picked this up by about the 13th draw. Basically, brain activity spiked subconsciously when the subject picked from a pack but this did not register consciously. The subconscious brain had worked out the advantageous strategy before the conscious brain. Think Benjamin Libet style experiments.
    • Furthermore, patients who had this ‘gut feeling’ part of their brain damaged were unable, even after consciously learning the strategy, to make the advantageous decisions. They needed the gut reaction part of the system to conscious;y make the advantageous decisions. For further information, see the somatic marker hypothesis and Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling Of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness.

    I’ll leave it here for now. But hopefully this is a nice spread of studies which show that we are very limited in the freedom, if it exists at all, with which we approach decisions. And none of this talks about environmental and genetic factors the likes of which we would normally connect to the illusion of free will.

    Category: FeaturedFree Will and DeterminismPsychology


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    3 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Great post, JP.

      This is because our conscious brain can’t handle being in charge of most tasks in our lives. Our brains would melt.

      Technically true, but I’d say it’s more the case that functions are non-conscious when there was no adaptive benefit to them being conscious, whether it would be a burden or not.

      In an experiment with 3 decks of cards, two good, two bad…
      4 decks.

      • 1) that would be a much more accurate way of putting it, yes!

        2) who needs maths (oh, I suppose it might have an adaptive function…)… thanks though!



    • labreuer

      Jesus’ statement that “the truth shall set you free” seems quite apropos. We are virtually enslaved until we understand the nature of the slavery, such that we can transcend it.

      This also reminds me of Hari Seldon’s psychohistory—have you read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series? The idea was that given enough (quadrillions) people and enough knowledge of psychology and good enough math, one could predict the future of a space mega-civilization. There was, however, one key restriction: the people couldn’t know about psychohistory, lest they change their behavior and no longer become predictable. The truth would set them free from being predictable—at least until someone else comes along and comes up with some more complicated model which started predicting again.

      • Thing is, with cognitive biases and heuristics, whilst knowing of them mitigates the effect, one can never be free of them.
        As we have discussed before, not only is libertarian free will philosophically impossible, it is also empirically unviable.

        • labreuer

          Thing is, with cognitive biases and heuristics, whilst knowing of them mitigates the effect, one can never be free of them.

          This seems tantamount to saying that we’ll never reach the point where our minds are perfectly free from all rules (which would seem to be complete irrationality) or the point where we are perfectly rational (which is not clearly optimal, given that scientific hypothesis may not be generated via pure rationality). The important ability we humans seem to have is to approach perfection, even though ‘perfection’ may be infinite in description—making said approach one that will take infinitely long.

          As we have discussed before, not only is libertarian free will philosophically impossible, it is also empirically unviable.

          That’s fine, but I think I’ve established that there exists a possibility that there could exist spontaneous ‘eruptions’ of order which cannot be explained by ‘globally active’ physical laws, nor quantum + thermal noise. So I say it is logically possible that we never need to be ‘imprisoned’ within any finite ‘slice’ of reality.

          Put this way, understanding how we tend to operate is absolutely key to changing how we operate—hopefully for the better! And yet, your post seems to argue that we are somehow ‘imprisoned’ by our inclinations. It is this idea which I really mean to debate.

    • Raul

      Interesting stuff. What other books would you recommend that address similar topics such as nature vs. nurture and mind brain dependence? What do you think about the works of Pinker, Gazzaniga, Ramachandran, Ridley et al?

      • Good question. Pinker’s How the Mind Works is good. Have been tempted to read Gazzaniga, but having written my own book on the subject, there is less point for me (my Free Will? book is available from the sidebar).

    • Pingback: On psychology as science, and straw men | A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: The extreme right: UKIP and the evolution of ideas | A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: Guest Post: Losing the Belief in Free Will is for the Best – ‘Trick Slattery | A Tippling Philosopher()