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Belief in free will is a pervasive phenomenon that has important consequences for prosocial actions and punitive judgments, but little research has investigated why free will beliefs are so widespread. Across 5 studies using experimental, survey, and archival data and multiple measures of free will belief, we tested the hypothesis that a key factor promoting belief in free will is a fundamental desire to hold others morally responsible for their wrongful behaviors. In Study 1, participants reported greater belief in free will after considering an immoral action than a morally neutral one. Study 2 provided evidence that this effect was due to heightened punitive motivations. In a field experiment (Study 3), an ostensibly real classroom cheating incident led to increased free will beliefs, again due to heightened punitive motivations. In Study 4, reading about others' immoral behaviors reduced the perceived merit of anti-free-will research, thus demonstrating the effect with an indirect measure of free will belief. Finally, Study 5 examined this relationship outside the laboratory and found that the real-world prevalence of immoral behavior (as measured by crime and homicide rates) predicted free will belief on a country level. Taken together, these results provide a potential explanation for the strength and prevalence of belief in free will: It is functional for holding others morally responsible and facilitates justifiably punishing harmful members of society. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved).
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ATTITUDES AND SOCIAL COGNITION
Free to Punish: A Motivated Account of Free Will Belief
Cory J. Clark
University of California, Irvine
Jamie B. Luguri
Yale University
Peter H. Ditto
University of California, Irvine
Joshua Knobe
Yale University
Azim F. Shariff
University of Oregon
Roy F. Baumeister
Florida State University
Belief in free will is a pervasive phenomenon that has important consequences for prosocial actions and
punitive judgments, but little research has investigated why free will beliefs are so widespread. Across 5
studies using experimental, survey, and archival data and multiple measures of free will belief, we tested the
hypothesis that a key factor promoting belief in free will is a fundamental desire to hold others morally
responsible for their wrongful behaviors. In Study 1, participants reported greater belief in free will after
considering an immoral action than a morally neutral one. Study 2 provided evidence that this effect was due
to heightened punitive motivations. In a field experiment (Study 3), an ostensibly real classroom cheating
incident led to increased free will beliefs, again due to heightened punitive motivations. In Study 4, reading
about others’ immoral behaviors reduced the perceived merit of anti-free-will research, thus demonstrating the
effect with an indirect measure of free will belief. Finally, Study 5 examined this relationship outside the
laboratory and found that the real-world prevalence of immoral behavior (as measured by crime and homicide
rates) predicted free will belief on a country level. Taken together, these results provide a potential explanation
for the strength and prevalence of belief in free will: It is functional for holding others morally responsible and
facilitates justifiably punishing harmful members of society.
Keywords: free will, moral reasoning, moral responsibility, motivation, punishment
Supplemental materials: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0035880.supp
Today we no longer have any pity for the concept of “free will”: we know
only too well what it really is—the foulest of all theologians’ artifices,
aimed at making mankind “responsible” in their sense.... Wherever
responsibilities are sought, it is usually the instinct of wanting to judge
and punish which is at work. (Nietzsche, 1889/1954,p.499)
Philosophers have debated the existence of free will since before
Aristotle (O’Connor, 2011), and in recent years, empirical social
psychology has begun to have an important voice in this millennia-
long conversation. Thus far, social psychological research has
focused on the question of whether and in what sense free will
exists (e.g., Bargh, 2008;Baumeister, in press;Wegner, 2003) and
on identifying the downstream consequences of diminished belief
in free will (Baumeister, Masicampo, & DeWall, 2009;Shariff et
al., 2013;Vohs & Schooler, 2008). The present investigation shifts
the focus from whether free will exists to why people believe free
will exists—and from the consequences to the causes of such
beliefs. More precisely, we tested Nietzsche’s hypothesis that free
will beliefs flow, at least in part, from a fundamental desire to hold
people morally responsible for their wrongful behaviors (see also
Earp, 2011). We report five studies using experimental, survey,
and archival data to test this motivated account of free will belief.
In these studies, we seek to provide a potential explanation for the
strength and prevalence of free will beliefs and support the view
that belief in free will can be driven by social motives.
Free Will Belief
Despite Nietzsche’s (1889/1954) assertion that people no longer
have “pity” for the concept of free will, research has demonstrated
Cory J. Clark, Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, Univer-
sity of California, Irvine; Jamie B. Luguri, Department of Psychology,
Yale University; Peter H. Ditto, Department of Psychology and Social
Behavior, University of California, Irvine; Joshua Knobe, Department of
Philosophy, Yale University; Azim F. Shariff, Department of Psychology,
University of Oregon; Roy F. Baumeister, Department of Psychology,
Florida State University.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Cory J. Clark
or Peter H. Ditto, Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, 4201 Social
&BehavioralSciencesGateway,UniversityofCalifornia,Irvine,Irvine,CA
92697-7085. E-mail: clarkcj@uci.edu or phditto@uci.edu
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 501–513
© 2014 American Psychological Association 0022-3514/14/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0035880
501
that the vast majority of people do believe in free will (Nahmias,
Morris, Nadelhoffer, & Turner, 2005), across cultures (Sarkissian
et al., 2010) and at all ages (Nichols, 2004). But why are free will
beliefs so pervasive? One hypothesis is that there is a strong
subjective experience that human thoughts and actions are freely
and intentionally enacted (Wegner, 2002). Indeed, past research
indicates that having thoughts prior to corresponding actions can
lead one to infer causal responsibility for those actions, sometimes
erroneously (Wegner, 2003;Wegner, Sparrow, & Winerman,
2004;Wegner & Wheatley, 1999). It has also been proposed that
free will is inferred by observing constraints, or the lack thereof,
on others’ behavior (Nichols, 2004). However, like many other
commonly held beliefs and attitudes, there are likely multiple
reinforcing factors involved, some of which may be motivationally
driven. To be clear, we neither affirm nor deny that free will
actually exists. Instead, we seek to elucidate the psychological
factors that promote the belief that it does.
Free Will and Moral Responsibility
One aspect of Nietzsche’s hypothesis that has received clear
support from social psychological research is the intimate connec-
tion between free will and moral responsibility—specifically, that
free will is a prerequisite for holding people morally responsible
for their actions (e.g., Nichols & Knobe, 2007;Sarkissian et al.,
2010). The capacity to do otherwise has long been an assumption
underlying the assignment of moral responsibility (Aristotle, 1980;
Kant, 1781/2005,1785/1998), and this same assumption is clearly
reflected in legal systems: If a person’s capacity to do otherwise is
weakened or diminished (e.g., by a psychological disorder, intense
emotional upset at the time of the action, juvenile status, external
constraints), punishment and moral condemnation are similarly
reduced. Empirical work confirms that weakening free will beliefs,
either in general or by offering evidence of a specific perpetrator’s
diminished decisional capacity, leads to less punitiveness (Aspin-
wall, Brown, & Tabery, 2012;Monterosso, Royzman, & Schwartz,
2005;Pizarro, Uhlmann, & Salovey, 2003;Shariff et al., 2013).
Similarly, reduced belief in free will has been found to affect
feelings of responsibility for one’s own behavior, resulting in more
dishonesty and cheating (Vohs & Schooler, 2008), increased ag-
gression and reduced helpfulness (Baumeister et al., 2009), and
less recycling (Stillman & Baumeister, 2010).
To condemn and punish someone who misbehaves, it is useful
to attribute some degree of free action to that person. Condemna-
tion and punishment are based on the conclusion that a person
should have acted differently—and asserting that a person should
have acted differently assumes that a person could have done so.
Motivated Free Will Belief
The rational norm to hold others responsible only for actions
that are within the agent’s control has deep roots in philosophical
and legal reasoning, and is also firmly embedded in both general
models of causal attribution (e.g., Heider, 1958, Chapter 4; Jones
& Davis, 1965;Kelley, 1973) and specific normative models of
responsibility and blame attribution (Alicke, 2000;Fincham &
Jaspars, 1980;Shaver, 1985;Weiner, 1995). But moral reasoning
does not always conform to rational guidelines, and is often shaped
by intuitive and affective processes that tip the scales in support of
desired conclusions (Ditto, Pizarro, & Tannenbaum, 2009). In
other words, reasoning is more like arguing than rational deliber-
ation (Mercier & Sperber, 2011), and people tend to think more
like intuitive lawyers than intuitive scientists (Baumeister & New-
man, 1994;Ditto et al., 2009;Haidt, 2012). Although people prefer
to see their reasoning as bottom-up, from evidence to conclusions,
a large body of research suggests that the process flows the other
way as well, with desired conclusions organizing judgment pro-
cesses from the top-down in a way that privileges evidence for the
conclusions people prefer (Ditto & Lopez, 1992;Haidt, 2001;
Kunda, 1990;Liu & Ditto, 2013).
Research on attributions of intentionality and control has con-
sistently demonstrated this motivated, top-down pattern: The de-
sire to hold actors morally responsible for their behavior can lead
to judgments that that behavior was intended and controllable (e.g.,
Alicke, 2000;Walster, 1966). For example, Knobe and colleagues
have consistently found that people perceive more intention and
personal causality for behaviors that produce harmful conse-
quences than for behaviors that produce helpful consequences
(e.g., Knobe, 2003;Knobe & Fraser, 2008;Leslie, Knobe, &
Cohen, 2006). Similarly, Alicke (1992) found that greater causal
control was attributed to a driver in a car accident that was said to
have occurred when he was speeding home to hide a vial of
cocaine from his parents than when he was said to be speeding
home to hide their anniversary present. Researchers have explored
a number of different ways of making sense of these findings
(Guglielmo & Malle, 2010a,2010b;Uttich & Lombrozo, 2010),
but one prominent explanation is that the desire to blame the agent
increases attributions of intention and causation (e.g., Alicke,
2000;Ditto et al., 2009).
The current research sought to investigate whether a similar
top-down process occurs in generalized judgments about the ex-
istence of free will. The rational (bottom-up) process of inferring
moral responsibility from free will has been shown a number of
times (e.g., Shariff et al., 2013;Vohs & Schooler, 2008). Our goal
was to explore the reverse (top-down) causal process: that people
will affirm free will beliefs most strongly when they are motivated
to hold others morally responsible for their actions. Such findings
would suggest that free will beliefs are situationally dependent.
Moreover, they would indicate that people respond to immoral
actions not merely by altering their one-time judgments about
specific actions, but by shifting their broad beliefs about all hu-
mankind.
Moral Responsibility, Punishment, and Social Control
Why should people be motivated to see others as morally
responsible for wrongful behaviors? As social beings with limited
resources, humans face a fundamental adaptive challenge to sup-
press selfish behavior and promote group cooperation and coordi-
nation (Haidt & Kesebir, 2010;Henrich et al., 2006). Unfortu-
nately, people often try to contribute less than their share or take
more than their share in group-based tasks (e.g., Kerr, 1983;Kerr
& Bruun, 1983;Latané, Williams, & Harkins, 1979;Orbell &
Dawes, 1981). Such antisocial behavior not only has its own
immediate consequences, but can infect an entire group with
selfish, uncooperative tendencies, making it all the more urgent to
punish and prevent such actions. Broken windows theory (Kelling
& Wilson, 1982) argues that when environmental cues suggest
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502 CLARK ET AL.
high levels of crime (e.g., because of graffiti), people are more
likely to commit crimes themselves, and this view has been sup-
ported by empirical research (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990;
Kerr et al., 2009). Moreover, people perceive cooperation as more
of a moral obligation when punishment is a possibility (Mulder,
2008) and are more inclined to behave selfishly when they know
they will not be punished (Fehr & Gächter, 2002). Punishing
transgressors is thus important not only to prevent a specific
transgressor from committing further crimes, but also to shape
joint expectations about appropriate behavior (Henrich et al.,
2006).
One explanation for the impulse to punish is that it is rooted in
material self-interest. Many theorists have argued, however, that
humans have evolved to have a stake in the successful functioning
of their social group (e.g., Haidt, 2012) and are therefore punitive
toward rule breakers regardless of whether the infractions directly
harm the self (e.g., Baumeister, 2005;Fukuyama, 2011). Indeed,
Fehr and Gächter (2002) showed that people will punish rule
breakers even when it comes at a clear cost to the punisher’s
self-interest, indicating that the motive to punish wrongdoers is
deeply rooted in the human psyche.
In order to flourish, societies need to make the costs of rule
breaking outweigh its benefits. Moral responsibility is a construct
that permits societies (and individuals) to blame and punish others
for their misdeeds. Insofar as free will is a prerequisite for moral
responsibility, ascribing free will to criminals or other miscreants
provides a crucial justification for punishing them for their actions.
We propose that the pervasive belief in free will partially flows
from a desire for moral responsibility in order to justify punishing
others for their antisocial behaviors. Therefore, when there is a
desire to punish, people should be motivated to believe in free will.
Immoral Behavior
The argument that “bad is stronger than good” (Baumeister,
Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001) may be particularly pow-
erful when it comes to moral judgment. In principle, free will is
equally relevant to praiseworthy and blameworthy behaviors
(O’Connor, 2011), but as outlined earlier, previous research has
repeatedly shown that morally bad behaviors have a larger impact
on perceptions of responsibility and control than neutral or morally
good behaviors (e.g., Alicke, 1992;Cushman, Knobe, & Sinnott-
Armstrong, 2008;Knobe & Fraser, 2008;Young & Phillips,
2011). This is consistent with other research showing that people
fail to discount situational constraints on immoral behavior
(Reeder & Spores, 1983), and that individual instances of immoral
behavior are more heavily weighted in personality assessment than
individual instances of morally good behavior (Reeder & Brewer,
1979;Reeder & Coovert, 1986). At a more practical level, research
has also demonstrated that juveniles whose crimes resulted in
severe consequences were judged to be more competent than
juveniles who committed identical acts with less severe conse-
quences (Ghetti & Redlich, 2001).
Some suggestive evidence of a similar effect has also been
found in the free will literature. Nichols and Knobe (2007) asked
participants to imagine a deterministic universe and then asked
whether people in that universe could be held morally responsible.
When the question was framed abstractly, participants affirmed
that moral responsibility was incompatible with a deterministic
universe. In contrast, when presented with a concrete instance of
immoral behavior, participants judged the wrongdoer to be morally
responsible even in a deterministic universe.
The moral valence of actions and outcomes seems to have a
unique impact on moral responsibility judgments. Specifically,
immoral behavior, more so than morally good or neutral behavior,
evokes a desire to regard the behavior as intended, controllable,
and caused by the actor. Our primary hypothesis was that consid-
erations of morally bad behavior would motivate people not only
to attribute a greater degree of free will to the specific actor, but to
believe more in the free will of people generally.
The Present Studies
Four experiments and one correlational study tested our hypoth-
esis that a key factor promoting belief in free will is a fundamental
desire to hold others morally responsible for their wrongful be-
haviors. Study 1 was designed to test our basic hypothesis that
people would believe more in free will after consideration of
immoral behavior. Study 2 tested whether this effect was due to
increased punitive motivations. Study 3 was a field experiment that
manipulated whether an immoral act was punished and measured
both desire to punish and free will beliefs. Study 4 used an indirect
measurement approach to test whether immoral actions would lead
to biased processing of scientific research arguing against the
possibility of free will. Last, Study 5 investigated the link between
free will beliefs and immoral behavior outside the laboratory to
determine whether countries with higher crime rates also have
higher country-level free will belief. Together, the studies repre-
sent a methodologically diverse test of our motivational account of
free will belief.
Study 1
Study 1 served as a basic test of our hypothesis that free will
beliefs are motivated by consideration of immoral behavior. Par-
ticipants read either a newspaper article about a corrupt judge or a
control article about a job search, and then reported their belief
about the general existence of human free will. We predicted that
free will beliefs would be higher after reading about the corrupt
judge than after reading the control article.
Method
Participants. One hundred and seventy-one participants (86
females; M
age
!34.48 years) participated in a study on Amazon’s
Mechanical Turk in exchange for a small payment.
Procedure. Participants were told that they were participating
in a study about memory and were randomly assigned to read one
of two newspaper articles. Participants in the immoral condition
read a newspaper article that was based on a true scandal that
occurred in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. The article described a
corrupt judge who was caught jailing children in exchange for
kickbacks from privately run juvenile detention centers. Partici-
pants in the control condition read an article that described a search
for a new school superintendent in the same county.
Participants were then asked to fill out several “personality
scales.” To avoid suspicion, participants were first asked to fill out
a shortened version of the Social Desirability Scale, which asks
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503
A MOTIVATED ACCOUNT OF FREE WILL BELIEF
participants to rate four sentences like “I sometimes feel resentful
when I don’t get my way” (Reynolds, 1982). Then participants
reported their free will beliefs on the Free Will and Determinism
Scale (FAD–Plus; Paulhus & Carey, 2011). The free will subscale
consists of seven items designed to capture beliefs about people’s
general capacity for free action (e.g., “People have complete free
will,” “Strength of mind can always overcome the body’s de-
sires”), each rated on a 5-point scale from strongly disagree to
strongly agree ("!.86).
Because the news article in the immoral condition was based on
a real event, participants in the immoral condition were then asked
whether they had heard of the case before. Lastly, participants
filled out a demographic questionnaire.
Results
Sixteen participants indicated that they had previously heard of
the case. Because having previously heard about the corrupt judge
might constrain people’s responses, these participants were re-
moved from our analysis. Participants who read about the corrupt
judge reported significantly higher levels of free will belief (M!
4.01, SD !0.66) than those who read about the job search (M!
3.72, SD !0.70), t(153) !2.65, p!.009, d!0.43.
1
Discussion
In line with our main hypothesis, people believed more in free
will after exposure to an immoral action than a morally neutral
action. Extending work that has demonstrated motivated attribu-
tions of responsibility to specific perpetrators of immoral actions,
Study 1 showed that immoral behavior can motivate broad beliefs
about free will. Supporting our core prediction, reactions to mis-
deeds by others seemed to cause mental shifts that went beyond the
specific incident to invoke broad assumptions about human nature
and responsible action in general.
Study 2
Study 2 expanded upon Study 1 in a number of ways. First, a set
of vignettes describing closely matched immoral and morally
neutral behaviors was used in Study 2 to confirm the replicability
of the effect of immoral behavior on free will belief found in Study
1. Second, to further explore the robustness of this effect, we asked
participants in Study 2 to rate their degree of belief in free will
generally and to make target-specific judgments about the freedom
of action exhibited by the actor in the vignettes. That is, we
obtained ratings of both general and specific free will. Third, and
most importantly, in Study 2, we sought to illuminate why im-
moral behavior motivates free will belief. As proposed by Nietz-
sche, we hypothesized that this effect is due to participants’ desire
to punish immoral actors. Accordingly, Study 2 tested whether
participants’ self-reported desire to punish the perpetrator medi-
ated the influence of immoral behavior on free will belief.
Method
Participants. Ninety-five undergraduates (79 females;
M
age
!20.13 years) participated in an online study in exchange
for course credit.
Procedure. Participants were asked to read a hypothetical
scenario about an immoral behavior (a man robbing a home) or a
morally neutral behavior (a man taking aluminum cans out of a
recycling bin):
Immoral: Sam, a special education teacher, wakes up one morning
and finds that someone robbed his home while he was sleeping. His
window is broken and all of his valuables are missing. After a police
investigation, he learns that the robber is unemployed, has two chil-
dren, and sold all of his belongings on eBay.
Morally neutral: Sam, a special education teacher, wakes up one
morning and finds that someone rooted through his recycling bin at
the end of his driveway while he was sleeping. There is no mess, but
all of his aluminum cans are missing. After talking to his neighbors,
he learns that the person is unemployed, has two children, and sells
the cans to a recycling company.
After imagining the scenario, participants rated the perpetrator’s
free will by responding to three items (whether the action was
freely chosen, whether the actor could have made other choices,
and whether the actor exercised his or her own free will), each
rated on a 7-point scale from not at all to very much so ("!.68).
After rating the perpetrator’s free will, participants reported the
extent to which they thought the actor should be punished on a
7-point scale from not at all to very severely. Finally, participants
reported their general free will beliefs on the FAD–Plus (Paulhus
& Carey, 2011) and completed a demographics questionnaire.
Results
Replicating the results of Study 1, participants believed signif-
icantly more in free will after reading about the robber (M!3.68,
SD !0.70) than the aluminum can forager (M!3.38, SD !0.62),
t(90) !2.23, p!.029, d!0.47. The same pattern emerged for
target-specific free will attributions: Participants attributed signif-
icantly more free will to the robber (M!5.33, SD !1.29) than
to the forager (M!4.67, SD !1.31), t(93) !2.47, p!.015, d!
0.51.
Participants also wanted to punish the robber (M!4.98, SD !
1.07) more than the aluminum can forager (M!1.96, SD !1.05),
t(93) !13.87, p#.001. Two bootstrap mediation analyses (5,000
resamples; Preacher & Hayes, 2004) revealed that the desire to
punish mediated the influence of the condition on both attributions
of free will (99% CI [0.68, 2.36]) and general free will beliefs
(95% CI [0.14, 1.07]; see Figure 1).
Discussion
Study 2 replicated the results of Study 1 with a different im-
moral action, on measures of both specific free will attributions
and general free will beliefs. More importantly, it demonstrated
that a heightened desire to punish accounts for the heightened
levels of both specific free will attributions and general free will
belief. Past research has shown that individuals who behave im-
morally are regarded as acting with a greater degree of control and
intention than individuals behaving in virtually identical but more
morally benign ways (Alicke, 1992;Knobe, 2003). Studies 1 and
1
With all participants, t(169) !2.05, p!.042.
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504 CLARK ET AL.
2 extend these findings by showing that immoral behavior has
analogous effects on beliefs about the human capacity for free
action in general. Moreover, both the conditional differences and
the mediation analyses from Study 2 provide initial evidence to
support our contention that punitive motivations underlie the
strength of free will beliefs.
2
Study 3
The main goal of Study 3 was to take the research beyond the
laboratory into a more realistic judgment context. In a field exper-
iment, psychology students received one of three e-mail messages
from their professor after a midterm exam. A control message
merely stated that there would be a class activity at the next
meeting. The other two messages stated that an incident of cheat-
ing had been uncovered on the exam and that the class would be
discussing it at their next meeting. The latter two messages dif-
fered, however, as to whether it was said that the cheater had been
caught and punished or that the cheater’s identity remained un-
known. We expected that providing punishment information
would decrease participants’ desire to punish relative to partici-
pants who were told that the cheater was unknown and therefore
unpunished. This would enable us to test the role of punitive
motivations experimentally.
In all conditions, the students were asked to complete an at-
tached survey that included a measure of free will belief as well as
questions about how severely a cheater should be punished. Thus,
all participants responded to the same abstract questions about
punishing cheaters, but some did so after being led to believe that
someone had actually cheated in their class. Having all participants
report their desire to punish identical cheating behaviors allowed
us to determine whether becoming aware of a specific instance of
immoral behavior actually increased the desire to punish (com-
pared to the control condition), and whether knowing that the
cheater had already been punished would mitigate this desire. We
predicted that the impulse to punish (and consequently belief in
free will) would be highest in the condition with the unpunished
cheater, lower in the case of the punished cheater, and lowest when
no actual cheater was involved.
Method
Participants. Two hundred and seventy-seven undergradu-
ates in a social psychology course participated as part of a class
exercise.
Procedure. Two days after the students had taken a midterm
exam, they received one of three e-mail messages from their
professor stating (a) that a cheat sheet was found in the room after
the exam but the cheater was unknown (unpunished cheater con-
dition), (b) that a cheat sheet was found and the cheater had been
caught and appropriately punished (punished cheater condition), or
(c) that they would be participating in an activity in the next class
session (control). In all three conditions, participants were asked to
complete an attached survey in order to facilitate discussion in the
next class. The survey included the free will subscale of the
FAD–Plus (Paulhus & Carey, 2011) and two punishment recom-
mendation questions: how severely a student should be punished
for using a cheat sheet on an exam (on a 5-point scale from not at
all to very severely) and what the appropriate punishment is for
using a cheat sheet on an exam (on a 6-point scale from no
punishment to fail the class and be put on academic suspension
from the University;r!.60, p#.001).
Results
Analysis of variance revealed a significant effect of condition on
the desire to punish, F(2, 284) !20.84, p#.001. Bonferroni post
hoc tests revealed that participants in the unpunished cheater
condition (M!4.23, SD !0.75) and the punished cheater
condition (M!4.09, SD !0.75) gave significantly higher pun-
ishment recommendations than participants in the control condi-
tion (M!3.54, SD !0.79; ps#.001). The predicted difference
between the two cheater conditions in the desire to punish, how-
ever, did not emerge (p!.58).
An analysis of variance also revealed a significant effect of
condition on free will belief, F(2, 276) !8.72, p#.001. Mirror-
ing the pattern seen in punishment recommendations, Bonferroni
post hoc tests revealed that participants in the unpunished cheater
condition (M!3.76, SD !0.62) and the punished cheater
2
We also ran an unreported study with the same immoral and neutral
actions as in Study 2 that also manipulated the target of the actions.
Specifically, participants read about the immoral or neutral act directed
toward either a morally good other (as in Study 2), the self, or a morally
bad other (a sex offender). We then measured attributions of free will to the
perpetrator and free will beliefs on the FAD–Plus (Paulhus & Carey, 2011)
and the Stroessner libertarianism subscale (Stroessner & Green, 1990).
Replicating the results of Study 2, when the target was the good other,
participants believed more in free will on the FAD–Plus (p!.001) and the
Stroessner scale (p!.004) and attributed marginally more free will (p!
.069) in the immoral condition than the morally neutral condition. In line
with our predictions, when the target was morally bad himself, there were
no differences between the immoral and neutral action on free will attri-
butions or free will beliefs (ps$.15). As we suggest that motivated free
will beliefs are socially—not selfishly— driven, our predictions for actions
directed toward the self were less clear. However, we hypothesized that
free will attributions and beliefs would likely be higher after considering an
immoral action than a morally neutral action directed toward the self
(similar to the results for the good other), but the results were mixed. When
the target was the self, participants attributed more free will to the perpe-
trator in the immoral condition than the neutral condition (p!.001), in line
with our predictions, but there were no differences in free will beliefs
between the immoral and neutral conditions (ps$.30). Further research is
needed to determine the reason for the discrepant findings between the free
will attributions and free will belief measures when the target was the self.
Nonetheless, this study replicated our findings when the target was the
good other, extended our findings to another measure of free will belief,
and demonstrated that the effect does not occur when the target of the
harmful act is himself morally challenged.
Figure 1. Influence of the condition on free will beliefs mediated by the
desire to punish in Study 2.
!
p#.05.
!!
p#.01.
!!!
p#.001.
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505
A MOTIVATED ACCOUNT OF FREE WILL BELIEF
condition (M!3.68, SD !0.58) believed significantly more in
free will than participants in the control condition (M!3.39,
SD !0.64; ps#.001 and !.005, ds!0.59 and 0.47, respec-
tively). As with the desire to punish, there was no significant
difference in free will beliefs between the two cheater conditions
(p!1.00, d!0.13).
A bootstrap mediation analysis treating the condition as a cat-
egorical variable and the control condition as the reference cate-
gory (5,000 resamples; Hayes, 2013;Preacher & Hayes, 2004)
revealed that the desire to punish mediated the influence of the
condition on free will beliefs (95% CI [0.012, 0.053]).
Discussion
Study 3 replicated the findings of Studies 1 and 2 with an
ostensibly real event. Participants who had just learned that a
fellow student in their class cheated on their midterm exam re-
ported greater belief in free will than participants who believed
they were completing the measure as part of a class exercise. This
shows that the present findings of increased free will belief in
response to immoral behaviors are likely to be present and relevant
in the real world, not merely the laboratory.
Another goal of the study, however, was to provide additional
evidence that heightened punitive motivation is the mechanism
that links immoral behavior to free will beliefs. On this score,
Study 3 had mixed success. It was hoped that exposing participants
to an already punished cheater would reduce the desire to punish
relative to the unpunished cheater condition and, consequently,
reduce free will beliefs. Unfortunately, the desire to punish was not
significantly lower in the punished cheater condition than in the
unpunished cheater condition. This precluded our ability to dem-
onstrate mediation experimentally. However, in both immoral be-
havior conditions, the desire to punish and free will beliefs were
higher than in the control condition. More importantly, punishment
recommendations mediated the influence of the condition on free
will beliefs. Overall then, the results of Study 3 are consistent with
the results of Study 2, suggesting that punitive motivations influ-
ence free will beliefs, although future research is needed to con-
firm this relation more conclusively.
Aquestionthatremainsiswhypunishingacheaterwasunsuccess-
ful in diminishing the desire to punish. One possibility is that students
wanted to justify the punishment that had already been administered.
The just world hypothesis argues that people have a need to believe
that the world is a place where people tend to get what they deserve
(e.g., Lerner & Miller, 1978). When participants were told that the
cheater had been punished, they may have maintained their belief that
the person should be punished, rather than reduced it, so as to signify
their approval that punishment was justified. This is another issue that
could be addressed with future research.
Study 4
Thus far, we have measured free will beliefs by directly asking
participants to rate their belief in free will on face-valid items and
scales. However, due to their transparency, such explicit measures
are vulnerable to demand characteristics and consistency pres-
sures. For this reason, in Study 4, we sought to replicate the effect
using an indirect measure of free will belief, thus decreasing the
likelihood that participants would be aware of the experimenter’s
intentions.
A large body of research has found that people are more critical
evaluators of scientific information that challenges rather than
supports their prior beliefs (Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979;Munro &
Ditto, 1997). A person’s beliefs can therefore be inferred from his
or her evaluation of scientific information that challenges or sup-
ports a particular position. Study 4 used this technique to indirectly
measure free will beliefs. Participants read about an immoral or a
morally neutral action, and then were told about the current debate
in psychology over the existence of free will and read an argument
for the anti-free-will side. We predicted that participants who had
previously read about an immoral action would evaluate the pas-
sage more negatively.
Method
Participants. Two hundred and twenty-four participants were
recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. When asked whether
they had taken the study seriously, 11 participants indicated that
they had not and were therefore removed from analysis, yielding a
final sample of 213 participants (85 females; M
age
!30.80 years).
Procedure. Participants were told they would be participating
in a study about how people encode and remember information,
and were asked to read, imagine, and remember one of two
scenarios involving Sam, a special education teacher, in vignettes
adapted from Study 2. Half the participants read about Sam having
his valuables stolen in a home robbery (immoral condition),
whereas the other half read about Sam having his aluminum cans
taken (neutral condition).
Participants were then told that there was a current debate in
psychology about the existence of free will. They were informed
that they had been assigned to read one side of the debate and were
told to remember the information, ostensibly because they would
be asked about the information later. All participants were given an
anti-free-will debate passage, which discussed real research in
psychology on automaticity and unconscious processes. The de-
bate excerpt focused primarily on the aspect of choice in free will
and did not mention moral responsibility. Participants were asked
to evaluate the anti-free-will argument by responding to seven
questions ("!.80): how convinced they were by the argument,
how much they wanted to read more about the research mentioned,
whether they thought the psychologist believed his or her argu-
ment, whether the psychologist was purposefully being controver-
sial to get his or her name in the papers (reverse scored), how
important research on automaticity and unconscious processes is,
whether this type of research should receive more funding, and
whether it should be a central area of research within psychology.
Each question was answered on a 7-point scale from not at all to
extremely. Lastly, participants completed a demographic question-
naire and indicated how seriously they filled out the survey on a
5-point scale from not at all to extremely. As indicated above,
those who did not indicate a 4 or higher (n!11) were removed
from the analyses.
Results
There was a significant effect of condition, t(211) !2.02, p!
.045, d!0.37.
3
As predicted, participants who had previously
3
With all participants, t(222) !1.78, p!.077.
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506 CLARK ET AL.
read about the immoral act rated the debate and research on
automaticity more negatively (M!4.29, SD !1.05) than those
who read about the morally neutral act (M!4.68, SD !1.04).
Discussion
Study 4 demonstrated that consideration of immoral behavior
led people to be relatively skeptical when evaluating an anti-free-
will scientific argument. Based on past research showing moti-
vated skepticism toward arguments that challenge current beliefs
(e.g., Lord et al., 1979), skepticism regarding an anti-free-will
argument can be taken as an indirect measure of free will belief.
These findings suggest a potentially important downstream con-
sequence of the motivation to believe in free will: It may affect
people’s evaluations of the scientific merit of psychological find-
ings that challenge intuitive conceptions of freely chosen action.
Study 5
Study 3 provided some evidence that the hypothesized link
between others’ wrongful actions and beliefs about free will occurs
outside the confines of the psychological laboratory. Study 5
examined whether additional support for our hypothesis could be
found with actual crime rates and nation-level survey data. We
predicted that people living in nations with relatively high rates of
misbehavior (i.e., violent crime) would also have relatively strong
beliefs in free will.
Method
Free will data were drawn from the 1981–1984, 1990 –1993,
1994 –1999, 1999 –2004, and 2005–2007 waves of the World
Values Survey (World Values Survey Association, 2009) using
Item a173:
Some people feel they have completely free choice and control over
their lives, while other people feel that what they do has no real effect
on what happens to them. Please use this scale where 1 means “none
at all” and 10 means “a great deal” to indicate how much freedom of
choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out.
A single average score (range: 4.68 8.28) was created for each
nation from that nation’s respondents (the number of respondents
per country ranged from 405 [Dominican Republic] to 8,556
[Mexico]). Per capita homicide rates across nations were drawn
from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2011). For
each country, the most recent available year of data was used
(range: 2004 –2010).
Several covariates were included in order to discount alternative
explanations. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and the
Gini index of income inequality, both of which have been tied to
crime rates, were drawn from the 2011 World Factbook (Central
Intelligence Agency, 2011; latest available estimates were used
where 2011 estimates were not available). GDP per capita values
were log transformed. In order to control for cross-national differ-
ence in political freedom, government type, and levels of educa-
tion, three additional measures were included: the World Bank’s
Index for Voice and Accountability (Kaufmann, Kraay, & Mas-
truzzi, 2009); the Economist’s Regime Type Coding (Economist
Intelligence Unit, 2013), which uses a composite of indicators to
classify governments from authoritarian to full democracy; and
finally literacy rates as a proxy for education levels (Central
Intelligence Agency, 2013). Data were all pulled from the latest
available year.
To determine whether higher levels of immoral behavior predict
greater free will beliefs on a country level, we regressed national
free will beliefs on national homicide rates. As recommended by
Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn (2011), separate regressions
with and without covariates were run. Regressions employed list-
wise deletion, such that only and all nations that had data for each
variable were included in the analysis (n!74 countries).
Results
Consistent with predictions, national homicide rates predicted
free will beliefs, such that countries with higher homicide rates
showed stronger beliefs in free will (%!.27, p!.018). This
effect held after controlling for the covariates listed above (%!
.26, p!.042).
Similar analyses were run with an index of other crimes (aver-
aging zscores of robbery, rape, kidnapping, assault, theft, child
sexual assault, burglary, auto theft, and human trafficking, all
drawn from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011),
yielding similar results (n!59, %!.55, p#.001; after including
covariates, %!.39, p!.007). However, it should be noted that
cross-national comparisons of these crimes are not deemed to be as
reliable as those for homicide because of significant cross-national
differences in how crimes other than homicide are defined and
how frequently they are reported, detected, and recorded (Neopoli-
tan, 1996). Thus, though these results can be illustrative, they
should be interpreted with caution. The results for both homicide
rates and the index of other crimes are reported in Table 1.
Discussion
Countries with higher murder rates have higher levels of belief
in free will compared to other countries with lower murder rates.
In parallel fashion, countries with relatively high overall crime
Table 1
Free Will Belief Regressed on Homicide Rates and Relevant
Controls; and Free Will Belief Regressed on Nonhomicide
Crime Rates and Relevant Controls in Study 5
Variable FR
2
%tp
Free will belief (model) 5.98 .39 #.001
Homicide rate .26 0.208 .042
GDP per capita (log) .44 2.43 .018
Gini coefficient .32 2.64 .010
Voice of accountability &.15 0.34 .734
Regime type .36 1.29 .203
Literacy &.04 0.27 .789
Free will belief (model) 6.37 .48 #.001
Nonhomicide crime index .39 2.79 .007
GDP per capita (log) .24 1.24 .221
Gini coefficient .27 2.30 .026
Voice of accountability &.38 0.79 .433
Regime type .47 1.87 .068
Literacy &.27 1.94 .058
Note. GDP !gross domestic product.
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507
A MOTIVATED ACCOUNT OF FREE WILL BELIEF
rates also have relatively high belief in free will. These findings are
consistent with our contention that belief in free will is stimulated
in part by exposure to others’ harmful behaviors and the associated
impulse to punish.
Our experimental studies provide evidence of a causal link
between immoral behavior and free will belief, but their samples
and artificial stimulus materials limit their external validity. In
contrast, Study 5’s use of real crime and economic statistics
provides a higher level of external validity but cannot rule out
alternative causal scenarios. In particular, one could speculate
that causation goes in the other direction with this data set, such
that belief in free will contributes to higher crime rates. Against
that view, however, prior research has repeatedly found that lower
free will beliefs lead to more immoral behaviors (e.g., Baumeister
et al., 2009;Vohs & Schooler, 2008). Hence, it could be argued
that if causation went from free will belief to violent behavior, we
should have found a negative relationship between crime rates and
free will beliefs rather than the positive relationship that we
obtained.
Still, perhaps some third factor accounts for the observed rela-
tion between crime rates and free will beliefs. Comparisons across
countries are fraught with potential confounds as countries vary on
many dimensions that have been known to contribute to crime
levels. To address this, we repeated our analyses controlling for a
number of variables that have been linked to crime, including per
capita wealth, wealth inequality, literacy/education, government
type, and measures of political freedom. The links between violent
crime and belief in free will remained significant, thereby boosting
confidence that the link is not an artifact of other variables.
Another lingering issue is that the general crime index might be
confounded by variations in how certain crimes are defined and
how regularly they are reported. Homicide statistics, however, are
much less susceptible to such variations in definition and report-
ing, which increases confidence that violence and beliefs about
free will are indeed linked. The homicide correlation showed
almost no change when the covariate controls were applied,
whereas the general violent crime index lost some power when the
controls were applied (though it remained significant, p!.007).
In sum, despite the inability to draw confident causal inferences
from the data in Study 5, the most plausible and parsimonious
interpretation is that causation operated as in our other studies,
with perceived harmful actions increasing free will beliefs.
General Discussion
Five studies provided evidence that free will beliefs are situ-
ationally motivated by considerations of others’ immoral behavior.
The effect of moral misdeeds was broad and robust. Levels of free
will belief were higher after reflecting on the immoral actions of
others than after reflecting on morally neutral actions (Studies
1– 4). This was true across different types of immoral behavior,
including corruption (Study 1), robbery (Studies 2 and 4), and
cheating (Study 3). We found motivated changes in beliefs about
the free will of a specific perpetrator (Study 2), changes in general
beliefs about the capacity of all people to behave freely (Studies
1–3), changes in general beliefs about the capacity of one’s self to
behave freely (Study 5), and changes in skepticism about free will
research (Study 4). We found the effect in laboratory studies using
both a real immoral action (Study 1) and hypothetical misdeeds
(Studies 2 and 4), and outside the lab in response to an immoral act
that participants believed to have actually occurred (Study 3). We
also found converging evidence linking the free will beliefs of
entire national populations with their crime and homicide rates,
using large-scale survey data and official crime statistics (Study 5).
The consistency of our findings across a diverse array of method-
ological approaches (lab experiments, field experiments, surveys),
a range of different samples (college students, Mechanical Turk
workers, respondents to cross-national surveys), and across mul-
tiple measures of free will belief (target-specific free will attribu-
tions, a well-validated scale of belief in free will, skepticism about
anti-free-will research, a one-item measure from the World Values
Survey) provides strong empirical support for our core contention
that exposure to immoral acts evoke a heightened sense that human
behavior is freely chosen and thus subject to moral evaluation.
Rational norms dictate using a person’s degree of choice and
control to determine the appropriate punishment; when people
believe that someone could not have done otherwise, they punish
less (Shariff et al., 2013). Our findings, along with a wealth of past
research (Alicke, 2000;Knobe, 2003;Walster, 1966), suggest that
people may respect that principle by increasing their perception of
intentionality, control, and even the human capacity for free action
in order to justify the desire to punish by constructing morally
culpable wrongdoers. This pattern of post hoc belief construction
is the hallmark of research on motivated reasoning (e.g., Ditto et
al., 2009;Haidt, 2001;Kunda, 1990) and coherence-based infor-
mation processing (Read, Vanman, & Miller, 1997;Thagard,
2004), and may be particularly pronounced in moral judgments
because of their highly affective nature (Ditto et al., 2009). For
example, research has shown that people are held morally respon-
sible for immoral behavior even when the harmful consequences
of the action are clearly described as an unintended side effect
(Knobe, 2003;Leslie et al., 2006) and when the evaluator is asked
to assume that the untoward action occurs in a completely deter-
ministic universe (Nichols & Knobe, 2007). Particularly important
in the current context, our research shows that the desire to assign
moral responsibility goes beyond the attribution of intention and
control to one particular individual in one particular instance, to
affect belief in free will as a general construct. In other words, the
novel insight our research contributes to the literature is that when
faced with a specific immoral action, people are not only likely to
say that the wrongdoer had free will, but also likely to increase
their belief that people in general (themselves included) have free
will. As such, the current research shows that free will belief,
which has traditionally been viewed as a stable worldview, can be
situationally motivated.
The Role of Punitive Motivation
Nietzsche’s insight was to recognize that the desire to ascribe
moral responsibility for human action, particularly to blame and
punish actions viewed as undesirable, was a driving motivational
force supporting belief in free will. The results of the current
studies are all generally consistent with Nietzsche’s argument, and
some provide specific support for the role of punitive motivations
in increasing free will beliefs. Study 2 demonstrated that an in-
creased desire to punish a wrongdoer accounted for motivated
increases in free will belief following contemplation of an immoral
behavior compared to a morally neutral behavior. Study 3 provided
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508 CLARK ET AL.
additional evidence by demonstrating that both free will beliefs
and the harshness of punishment recommendations for cheating on
an exam were higher after hearing about an actual incident of
cheating than when the measures were completed as part of an
ostensible class exercise. Again, punishment recommendations
mediated the relation between the experimental conditions and free
will beliefs. We also attempted to decrease punitive motives by
including a scenario in which the cheater was already punished,
but providing punishment information did not decrease punitive-
ness, as we had anticipated, precluding our ability to test mediation
experimentally. Future research should explore other ways of
decreasing or increasing the desire to punish experimentally to
more fully explore the role of punitive motivations in increasing
free will beliefs.
Why Do People Believe in Free Will?
One goal of the present research was to begin to understand why
free will beliefs are so strong and widespread, despite long-
standing scientific and philosophical doubts. Wegner (2002,2003)
demonstrated that a key part of the answer lies in the powerful
subjective experience that one spends one’s days thinking, choos-
ing, and acting. The core of our argument is that this subjective
experience of free will gains motivational reinforcement by facil-
itating the assignment of moral responsibly, which in turn supports
the crucial social task of punishing individuals who act in ways
that are detrimental to cohesive group functioning.
Previous research has demonstrated that the capacity to hold
others morally responsible and the subsequent capacity to punish
delinquent members of a social group is beneficial for group
functioning (e.g., Fehr & Gächter, 2002;Henrich et al., 2006), and
that free will beliefs underpin moral responsibility and punishment
(e.g., Baumeister et al., 2009;Nichols & Knobe, 2007;Sarkissian
et al., 2010;Shariff et al., 2013;Stillman & Baumeister, 2010;
Vohs & Schooler, 2008). Punitiveness extends beyond immediate
personal concerns and material self-interest to reflect a general
preference for just outcomes (Carlsmith, Darley, & Robinson,
2002;Lerner, 1980) and a desire to defend groups against antiso-
cial rule breakers (Baumeister, 2005;Fukuyama, 2011;Haidt,
2012). For example, the phenomenon of altruistic punishment
reveals that people punish norm violators even at cost to them-
selves and without any direct benefit (Fehr & Gächter, 2002). In
conjunction with these findings, the present results suggest that
free will beliefs are not solely about feelings of personal control
and self-interest, but also about the social and cultural regulation of
action (Baumeister, in press). For example, in Studies 1, 2, and 4,
free will beliefs changed in response to reading about immoral
actions directed toward other people that had no direct bearing on
the self but instead victimized valued members of the culture
(juveniles and a special education teacher).
Typically, motivational effects appear for attitudes and beliefs
directly relevant to one’s own self-interest (e.g., illusory superior-
ity, correspondence bias, confirmation bias). However, the present
results demonstrated that free will beliefs increase when others do
bad things to other people. Though in need of further confirmation,
our effects appear to flow less from the kind of egoistic, self-based
motivations that have typically been the focus of social psycho-
logical research than from the more socially based moral motiva-
tion we propose.
People generally believe in free will in their everyday lives (e.g.,
Nahmias et al., 2005;Sarkissian et al., 2010). Our findings indicate
that these beliefs are strengthened by situations in which it may be
beneficial to punish: when others perform immoral behaviors.
Study 5 demonstrated that the national prevalence of criminal
behavior predicts free will beliefs (comparing across countries).
These results suggest the possibility that criminal behavior within
society may contribute to the strength of general day-to-day beliefs
about free will. Though our studies were not designed to examine
the original emergence of free will beliefs, our findings indicate
that the strength and resilience of these beliefs may partially reflect
a general desire to invest the world with moral significance—to
hold people morally responsible for their actions by seeing them as
having choice.
Theoretical Implications and Applications
Compatibilism versus incompatibilism. There is a deep
philosophical divide over whether free will is compatible or in-
compatible with a deterministic universe. Compatibilists define
free will as the ability to perform actions on the basis of rational
deliberation, whereas incompatibilists define free will as having
two or more options for action, even holding constant past events
(Kane, 2011). Some researchers have found that laypeople tend to
define free will as having options for action, being able to choose
without (or even despite) external pressure, and having the ability
to do otherwise (Nichols, 2004;Nichols & Knobe, 2007;Stillman,
Baumeister, & Mele, 2011), supporting the incompatibilist side of
the debate. Others have found that laypeople hold compatibilist
intuitions about free will (e.g., Monroe & Malle, 2010;Nahmias et
al., 2005;Woolfolk, Doris, & Darley, 2006).
As our research focuses specifically on self-reported free will
beliefs, it is the lay conception of free will that is invoked in our
studies, regardless of whether the lay conception is compatibilist or
incompatibilist. Across our four measures of free will beliefs, only
one of the individual items was clearly incompatibilist: “To what
extent could this person have made other choices . . .” (one of the
items from the free will attributions in Study 2). Other items were
more ambiguous (e.g., “People have complete free will,” “To what
extent did this person exercise their own free will . . .”). This
means that our participants were free to report free will beliefs
based on their own personal definitions of the concept.
Of course, a central point of our analysis is that free will beliefs
vary across situations, as the motivation to assign responsibility
and punishment varies, so it makes little sense to talk about the
nature of people’s stable free will beliefs. In fact, our findings may
provide a possible explanation for the discrepant findings found by
researchers regarding the compatibilism versus incompatibilism
debate.
A common method employed by researchers is to present par-
ticipants with an immoral behavior and either information about
external constraints or a description of a deterministic universe,
and then measure whether participants perceive the person as
“free” or “responsible.” For example, Woolfolk et al. (2006)
demonstrated that people assign responsibility to others even when
their behavior is under constraint. However, the behavior of inter-
est was an immoral one. Exposure to immoral behavior may have
unintentionally increased participants’ free will beliefs, thus ex-
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509
A MOTIVATED ACCOUNT OF FREE WILL BELIEF
plaining why participants still assigned moral responsibility to an
actor despite the presence of external constraints.
Similarly, Nahmias et al. (2005) presented participants with a
deterministic universe and then provided an example about Jer-
emy, who either robs a bank or saves a child. Though Jeremy is
judged equally responsible in both cases (supporting compatibil-
ism), the majority of participants believed that Jeremy, the bank
robber, could have chosen not to rob the bank, while the majority
of participants believed that Jeremy, the child saver, could not
have chosen not to save the child. Viewed through the lens of the
present findings, these results may indicate that participants were
more motivated to believe in free will after reading about Jeremy’s
immoral behavior than about Jeremy’s morally good behavior, and
were therefore less compelled by the deterministic description.
When researchers provide examples of immoral behavior, they
may be unwittingly evoking a desire to believe in free will, which
may interfere with participants’ ability or willingness to accept
deterministic descriptions. Therefore, compatibilist findings may
not necessarily show that laypeople are compatibilist, but rather
that the motivation for moral responsibility is so strong after
consideration of immoral behavior that participants are temporar-
ily willing to disregard important aspects of the experiment or
perhaps even disregard their own intuitions about the requirements
for moral responsibility. Future research attempting to determine
whether lay intuitions about free will are compatibilist or incom-
patibilist may consider avoiding the use of scenarios that lead to
increased beliefs in free will and taking greater measures to ensure
that participants are actually understanding and accepting deter-
ministic descriptions.
Manipulating free will beliefs. To our knowledge, no prior
research has shown that free will beliefs are susceptible to moti-
vational influences; however, there is some evidence that free will
beliefs are at least somewhat malleable. Whereas previous research
has successfully altered free will beliefs through priming and
argument techniques (e.g., Baumeister et al., 2009;Vohs &
Schooler, 2008), the present work sought to change those beliefs
by altering the motivational context, and reading about immoral
actions appears to be an effective method of altering free will
beliefs. Previously, only attempts to decrease free will beliefs
versus a control condition have been successful, presumably due to
ceiling effects, as most people already believe in free will. The
present findings of increased belief in free will may be especially
remarkable in the context of these prior failures and open up new
avenues for future research by demonstrating a relatively easy and
potent way of manipulating free will beliefs.
Alternative Explanations and Limitations
It may be argued that immoral behaviors increase attributions of
responsibility (as shown by past research) and that these respon-
sibility judgments simply spill over to free will beliefs. Though
Study 2 may be susceptible to this criticism because participants
attributed free will to the perpetrator before reporting their general
free will belief, participants never explicitly contemplated the
freedom or responsibility of the perpetrator in the remaining stud-
ies. Further, Study 4 avoided the limitations of self-report mea-
sures and found that participants who read about an immoral
behavior tended to criticize and reject scientific research that
argued against the reality of free will more than participants who
read about a morally neutral behavior. Because people selectively
recruit information that supports what they want to believe (or
criticize contrary arguments), these findings indicate that immoral
behaviors motivated participants to believe more in free will and to
maintain such beliefs. Though correlational, the results of Study 5
also cast doubt on this alternative explanation. Real-world levels of
crime and homicide predicted country-level free will beliefs. Par-
ticipants were likely not simultaneously attending to their country-
level crime rates while reporting their beliefs; rather, the chronic
moral state of one’s nation appeared to have an independent
influence on beliefs about the capacity for free action.
Unlike responsibility and control, free will is a capability, not a
temporary conditional state (though the present results demon-
strate that free will beliefs are conditional). In the present research,
participants are not merely attributing greater freedom, responsi-
bility, intention, or control to the perpetrator at the specific time of
the incident, but to all people in general—including the self—at all
points in their lives.
Another potential limitation of the current research has to do
with the measurement of free will beliefs. The FAD–Plus (used in
Studies 1–3) is perhaps the most widely used free will belief scale
in psychological research, but it can be criticized for the overlap it
contains between beliefs about free will and beliefs about moral
responsibility. Scale items such as “People must take full respon-
sibility for any bad choices they make” and “Criminals are totally
responsible for the bad things they do” (Paulhus & Carey, 2011;
Paulhus & Margesson, 1994) confound not just free will and moral
responsibility generally, but free will and moral blame for “bad”
behavior specifically. In a sense, the fact that researchers include
aspects of responsibility and blame into their operational definition
of free will can be taken as additional evidence of the deep
psychological association between these constructs, but the con-
ceptual slippage makes the FAD–Plus a less than optimal measure
for research examining relationships between them. Despite this
limitation, our use of multiple measures to tap free will beliefs
make the current research less susceptible to the criticism that our
findings are bolstered by methodological overlap between our
independent and dependent variables.
Conclusion
There is no consensus among scientists and philosophers regard-
ing the actual existence of free will or what form it might take, yet
the vast majority of laypeople believe in free will (Nahmias et al.,
2005). Moreover, recent empirical findings have shown that free
will beliefs have behavioral consequences, mostly along the lines
of making people act in accordance with cultural values (e.g.,
Baumeister et al., 2009;Vohs & Schooler, 2008). The findings that
free will beliefs are so pervasive and have important behavioral
consequences highlight the importance of understanding the fac-
tors that influence people to hold affirming versus skeptical beliefs
about free will. We have reported five studies aimed at testing one
explanation for the causation of free will beliefs. Specifically, we
tested an idea dating back to Nietzsche (1889/1954): the idea that
free will is embraced, at least partly, in order to justify holding
others morally responsible for their wrongful behaviors. Our in-
vestigation has supported Nietzsche’s hypothesis with multiple
findings, diverse methods, and different populations.
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
510 CLARK ET AL.
There seems little doubt that the subjective experience of choos-
ing and acting supports people’s belief in free will, but our findings
suggest another powerful motivating factor: the human impulse to
blame and punish. People believe in free will—at least in part—
because they wish to affirm that people who do immoral things
could have and should have acted differently. Though questions
remain, to our knowledge, the present research is first to demon-
strate that free will beliefs can be motivated by situational factors
and first to demonstrate a powerful and consistent way of increas-
ing free will beliefs.
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... For the purpose of the current study, we developed a factorial vignette study that we describe in more detail in the next section. Experimental vignette studies have been extensively used in different fields (including human computer interaction, psychology, experimental philosophy, business ethics) to elicit participants' explicit ethical judgments in a variety of hypothetical scenarios [2,3,18,36,42,52,53,66,73]. Our study follows calls for more survey-based AI computer vision ethics [85] and more experimentally-informed AI ethics in general [55]. ...
... Rather, we want to point out that free will, despite not being a direct object of sociological questioning (Durkheim, 1966), is of interest in a transdisciplinary debate on penal abolitionism. Free will, in addition to being a metaphysically refutable concept, is a functional idea to achieve social control, as it serves as a justification for holding others morally responsible and facilitates punishment (Clark et al., 2014). This is not only applicable to criminal matters, Nietzsche (1968) argued that the idea of free will, despite being false, served as a narrative for Christianity and priests, for punishment, and therefore, for social control and the maintenance of the status quo. ...
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Baumeister discusses determinism and reductionism with emphases on self-regulation and conscious and meaningful causation of behavior. Baumeister concludes that freedom exists but can only be seen by looking at the proper level of analysis. In their comments, Holton questions some of Baumeister's philosophical moves, and then Payne and Cameron suggest new psychological methods (centrally the process dissociation procedure) to better understand conscious intentions and their causal roles. Baumeister responds appreciatively but defends his claim that “rational choice deserves a role in a psychological theory of free will.”
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The Oxford Handbook of Free Will provides a guide to current scholarship on the perennial problem of free will-perhaps the most hotly and voluminously debated of all philosophical problems. While reference is made throughout to the contributions of major thinkers of the past, the emphasis is on recent research. The articles combine the work of established scholars with younger thinkers who are beginning to make significant contributions. The book is divided into eight parts: Part I (Theology and Fatalism), Part II (Physics, Determinism, and Indeterminism), Part III (The Modal or Consequence Argument for Incompatibilism). Part IV (Compatibilist Perspectives on Freedom and Responsibility), Part V (Moral Responsibility, Alternative Possibilities, and Frankfurt-Style), Part VI (Libertarian Perspectives on Free Agency and Free Will), Part VII (Nonstandard Views: Successor Views to Hard Determinism and Others), and Part VIII (Neuroscience and Free Will). Taken as a whole, the book provides a roadmap to the state of the art thinking on this enduring topic.
Article
This second edition of the Oxford Handbook of Free Will is a sourcebook and guide to current work on free will and related subjects. Its focus is on writings of the past forty years, in which there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional issues about the freedom of the will in the light of new developments in the sciences, philosophy, and humanistic studies. Special attention is given to research on free will of the first decade of the twenty-first century since the publication of the first edition of the text. This edition contains new articles surveying topics that have become prominent in debates about free will recently, including new work on the relation of free will to physics, the neurosciences, cognitive science, psychology, and empirical philosophy, new versions of traditional views (compatibilist, incompatibilist, libertarian, etc.) and new views (e.g., revisionism) that have emerged. The twenty-eight articles cover a host of free-will related issues, such as moral agency and responsibility, accountability and blameworthiness in ethics, autonomy, coercion and control in social theory, criminal liability, responsibility and punishment in legal theory, issues about the relation of mind to body, consciousness and the nature of action in philosophy of mind and the cognitive and neurosciences, questions about divine foreknowledge, providence and human freedom in philosophy of religion, and general metaphysical questions about necessity and possibility, determinism, time and chance, quantum reality, and causation and explanation.