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Free Enough: Human Cognition (And Cultural Interests) Warrant Responsibility



The conscious deliberation over multiple possibilities and the mental simulation of possible future outcomes enable individuals to make better choices. Humans likely evolved the ability to deliberate about their choices and simulate the possible outcomes of different actions. This ability is also likely to have adaptive value for human decision-making irrespective of whether the future is metaphysically indeterministic (or metaphysically open). This mental deliberation may be a unique human capacity that justifies at least some variants of responsibility both in the minds of everyday people (i.e., everyday people have an intuition that this human capacity justifies holding other humans responsible) and pragmatically (i.e., accepting this intuition might be beneficial for societies). We will suggest that although people likely do not have coherent conceptions of free will, beliefs in free will and the capacity for human responsibility broadly may be advantageous both for individual and societal-level functioning. Believing that oneself freely chooses and, thus, is responsible for one's own behavior may promote self-control and more moral decision making. And believing that others freely choose their own behaviors facilitates the ability to hold others morally responsible. Although moral judgment and punitiveness can be misused for oppressive or self-aggrandizing reasons, such tendencies likely evolved because they promoted moral behavior within human social groups. Free will belief and the corresponding belief in responsibility may, therefore, be a crucial ingredient for fostering large-scale cooperation.
Free enough: Human cognition (and cultural interests) warrant responsibility
Cory J Clark
University of Pennsylvania
Heather M Maranges
Wake Forest University
Brian B Boutwell
The University of Mississippi
University of Mississippi Medical Center
Roy F Baumeister
University of Queensland
Reference: Clark, C. J., Maranges, H. M., Boutwell, B. B. & Baumeister, R. F. (2022). Free
enough: Human cognition (and cultural interests) warrant responsibility. In S. Murray & P.
Henne (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Action. London, UK: Routledge.
The conscious deliberation over multiple possibilities and the mental simulation of possible
future outcomes enable individuals to make better choices. Humans likely evolved the ability to
deliberate about their choices and simulate the possible outcomes of different actions. This
ability is also likely to have adaptive value for human decision-making irrespective of whether
the future is metaphysically indeterministic. This mental deliberation may be a unique human
capacity that justifies at least some variants of responsibility both in the minds of everyday
people (i.e., everyday people have an intuition that this human capacity justifies holding other
humans responsible) and pragmatically (i.e., accepting this intuition might be beneficial for
societies). We will suggest that although people likely do not have coherent conceptions of free
will, beliefs in free will and the capacity for human responsibility broadly may be advantageous
both for individual and societal-level functioning. Believing that oneself freely chooses and,
thus, is responsible for one's own behavior may promote self-control and more moral decision
making. And believing that others freely choose their own behaviors facilitates the ability to hold
others morally responsible. Although moral judgment and punitiveness can be misused for
oppressive or self-aggrandizing reasons, such tendencies likely evolved because they promoted
moral behavior within human social groups. Free will belief and the corresponding belief in
responsibility may, therefore, be a crucial ingredient for fostering large-scale cooperation.
Keywords: counterfactual reasoning, free will, blame, experimental philosophy
Ongoing debates about the existence of free will (e.g., Baumeister et al., 2015; Dennett,
2004; Pereboom, 2006) have compelled debates about definitions of free will (e.g., Frankfurt,
1969; van Inwagen,1983; Wolf, 1990) and how everyday people conceptualize free will (Feltz et
al., 2009; Knobe et al., 2012; Nahmias et al., 2006; Nichols & Knobe, 2007). We doubt very
much that all of that will be settled anytime soon, in part because such debates are often
normative rather than empirical (e.g., the level of freedom needed to warrant moral
responsibility) and in part because everyday people likely lack a coherent, stable conception of
free will and perhaps even the ability to comprehend relevant components of free will debates
(such as determinism; Clark et al., 2019; Murray et al., 2021). However, these debates and
corresponding research make clear that people care about the existence of free will, that ordinary
people believe in free will (Dennett, 2015; Nahmias et al., 2005; Sarkissian et al., 2010), and that
scholars and ordinary people alike have intuitions that the existence of free will matters (Kane,
1998; Shariff et al., 2014).
Although there is no universally agreed upon definition of free will, one commonality
among varying definitions is that exercising free will requires choosing among more than one
possible outcome, whether the possible outcomes are real or imagined. For example, many
compatibilists define free will in a way that presumes the ability to act on the basis of rational
deliberation over epistemically possible actions in the absence of coercion (Kapitan, 1986;
Pereboom, 2008); many incompatibilists define free will in a way that presumes the ability to act
on the basis of rational deliberation over metaphysically possible actions in the absence of
coercion and deterministic constraints, entailing the genuine possibility of acting in different
possible ways even given identical causal histories (Haggard et al., 2015; Taylor, 1963; Van
Inwagen, 1983); and when everyday people are asked to generate definitions of free will, they
mention the ability to make decisions or choices (Monroe & Malle, 2010).
Deliberations about multiple possible futures (regardless of whether those multiple
possible futures truly exist) cause human behavior at least as part of a string of other causes
(Baumeister et al., 2018a, 2018b). Unlike a Labrador Retriever with an impulse to eat all
available food as quickly as possible with minimal capacity for reflecting on possible negative
consequences of doing so, humans can often imagine the intensity and duration of pleasure they
would enjoy from indulging in a high calorie treat, anticipate possible negative consequences of
indulging (e.g., physical discomfort, putting on weight), and use that tradeoff calculation as an
input into the decision of whether to indulge. Thus, humans are able to simulate mentally various
possible choices and anticipate the likely consequences of those choices (e.g., De Brigard et al.,
This capacity may be unique to humansat least in its level of sophisticationand may
justify conceiving humans as uniquely responsible for their behavior. This capacity may be
evolutionarily advantageous for individual humans by promoting decisions with better long-term
outcomes. For instance, people can observe others’ use or failure to use this capacity to make
better choices (e.g., exercising self-control in personal and professional domains) and choose to
affiliate with and reward those who exhibit high self-control and avoid and punish those who
exhibit low self-control. This tendency can incentivize better behavior within individuals because
risks of punishment and reputational costs cause people to behave more cooperatively (Gächter
& Fehr, 1999; Engelmann & Fischbacher, 2008; Van Vugt & Hardy, 2010). Thus, the capacity to
simulate possible futures and associated beliefs in free will and moral responsibility may
promote more desirable behavior within human societies broadly as well as contribute to more
socially advantageous decision-making for individuals.
In the present chapter, we discuss recent research in experimental philosophy and related
disciplines that support the significance of perceptions of choice, control, multiple possibilities,
and free will for understanding human behavior, promoting better individual decision-making,
and fostering large-scale cooperation within human societies. We first discuss the significance of
counterfactual reasoning and prospection about the future for facilitating better decision-making,
self-control, and more prosocial behavior. We argue that such human capacities may be
sufficient to warrant conceiving of humans as responsible for their behavior. Last, we argue that
conceptions of responsibility may help facilitate more prosocial behavior and cooperation in
human social groups. When an individual creates costs for the social group (e.g., by behaving
selfishly or impulsively), blaming and attributing responsibility to that individual creates costs
for the individual thus disincentivizing behavior that is socially costly. This creates benefits for
society (because people behave more prosocially) and for the individual (because prosocial
behavior is rewarded with social benefits). So although we do not claim to settle any definitional
or metaphysical disputes about free will, we argue that conceptions of free will and responsibility
serve crucial social and cultural functions. These reflections may help explain why people care
so much about what free will is and whether it exists.
Causal Calculations and Counterfactual Reasoning
The mathematician and computer scientist Stan Franklin once asserted that a mind’s chief
function is to answer the question of “what do I do now” (Franklin; 1995; p.233). What we might
refer to as “Franklin’s question”, and the mind’s strategies for solving it, remain poorly
understood. It is clear, however, that these strategies involve a flood of informational processing
carried out by the brain, including many tasks that are essential to life but outside the arena of
conscious awareness (e.g., Baumeister et al., 2017). Maintaining homeostasis by regulating
respiration, modulating hormone levels, along with a host of other duties are all varieties of
“what do I do now” that come in a “never-conscious” form and are handled well outside of our
volitional reach (Baars, 1983; Baars and Franklin, 2009).
More pertinent to this discussion are decisions made in the wake of what others have
referred to as a conscious broadcast (Baars, 1983; Baars and Franklin, 2003). When Baars and
Franklin (2003; p.170) define the concept, they did so in an intuitive fashion, simply noting that:
This broadcast is hypothesized to correspond to phenomenal consciousness” (see also Baars,
1983; 1988; Baars & Franklin, 2009). The conscious thought experienced during a broadcast,
then, is considered to be a necessity for many of the most sophisticated human behaviors, such as
communication and group decision making (Baumeister et al., 2018a), that are responsible for
facilitating complex human culture (Baumeister, 2005). Conscious contemplations often involve
morally tinged choices (Baars & Franklin, 2009; Franklin, 2003) and the creation of imaginary
worlds (Pearl, 2009; Pearl & MacKenzie, 2018).
These alternative worlds encapsulate paths that we might travel, with a variety of
consequences that might play out creating a menu of mental options. Among other things, it
seems that consciousness enables humans (and possibly non-humans) to engage in mental
simulations in order to make predictions about the future, to evaluate the likelihood that certain
effects will result from possible causal events, and to mentally undo certain events to predict
what could have happened in alternate realities (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). This type of
deliberative contemplation implies a need to “simulate” a variety of different scenarios which
could unfold in unique ways depending on what choices are made. This type of psychological
world-building and imagination allows individual actors to mentally experiment with different
actions, without actually undertaking them in the real world.
Considered as more formal concepts, these psychological simulations of what might
happen in the future or what could have happened in the past bleed seamlessly into the
philosophical and scientific conception of a counterfactual (Byrne, 2016; De Brigard et al., 2019;
Pearl, 2009). Or, the notion that B will only happen if I do A, so failing at A means missing out
on B. Counterfactuals are thoughts about what could have happened in a given situation (as
opposed to what did happen). Such thoughts form a basis for evaluating one’s satisfaction with
reality because one can compare reality to imagined alternative possibilities (both positive and
negative) (see De Brigard et al., 2019). Consequently, counterfactual thinking can lead to
negative affect, a temporarily displeasing state, which can motivate persistence, planning, and
better decision making in the future (Boninger et al., 1994; Markman et al., 1993; 2008).
Anticipation of negative counterfactuals, for instance, reduced intentions to engage in future
unethical behavior (Celuch & Saxby, 2013). Counterfactual thinking is believed to help people
prepare for the future and learn from past mistakes (Alquist et al., 2014; Byrne, 2016; Smallman,
It is possible that other strategies (besides counterfactual forms of thinking) are employed
in causal reasoning. Put another way, it is not a foregone conclusion that counterfactual thinking
is always required for humans to make judgements about causality, and indeed others have
proposed alternative models (see Kelley, 1973; Wolff, 2006). Something akin to raw
correlational analysis, for example, could be the mind’s primary way to record, catalogue, and
track data about the world. Not unlike a formal correlational analysis, a mental correlation
analysis would function to link events in the world that co-occur at high frequencies
(Gerstenberg et al., 2017). Observing that some trees produce more fruit following a rainy
stretch, for example, may lead to the assessment that fruit usually follows rain, without an
explicit counterfactual assessment. Indeed, associational data alone can be used to build a
prediction model and may serve individuals quite well in terms of anticipating what outcomes
are likely given certain circumstances (see Gerstenberg et al., 2017).
But likely both processes inform our causal judgments, with counterfactual logic used
alongside correlational insight. Gerstenberg and colleagues (2017) endeavored to better
understand which cognitive approach might be deployed and when. In setting the stage for their
study, the authors described an area of human cultural life where counterfactually based
cognitive processing seems essential: sports. Adopting their example, (American) football limits
the extent to which defensive players can attempt to prevent an offensive player from catching a
pass. Overly aggressive obstruction is penalized; a key caveat, however, is that the pass intended
for the receiver must be “catchable.” This provision implies that a pass far over the receiver’s
head would render the interference moot. Counterfactual thinking requires imagining what might
happen were the quarterback to throw a variety of different passessome of which might be
catchable and others not. From these imagined alternative worlds, one can impose a causal
assessment as to whether defensive interference did indeed cause the receiver to miss the catch.
Pondering the role of counterfactual thinking in areas beyond sports, Gerstenberg and colleagues
(2017; p.1731) observed:
Of course, counterfactuals arise not only in sports. We use them to make sense of history
(Ferguson, 2000), to determine causation in the law (Hart & Honoré, 1959/1985), and to
understand our own and other people’s actions and emotions (Alicke, Mandel, Hilton,
Gerstenberg, & Lagnado, 2015; Kahneman & Miller, 1986; Roese, 1997). We ponder
over near misses (Kahneman & Varey, 1990) and regret decisions that could have turned
out better (Loomes & Sugden, 1982; Zeelenberg et al., 1998).
Participants in the study were fitted with eye-tracking equipment, watched various
scenarios in which billiard balls collided with one another, and they were asked to make
judgments about possible outcomes of colliding balls if certain things were to change, such as if
one billiard ball was removed from the table. Participants’ eye movements revealed that
participants were cognitively simulating probable locations of the target ball in these
counterfactual scenarios, suggesting that people rely on counterfactual thinking when making
causal judgments. A single study is far from dispositive, but outside of the laboratory,
counterfactual logic has long been foundational in areas of high societal consequence, especially
in criminal justice and assessing the culpability of offenders (Gerstenberg et al., 2017; Niemi et
al., 2016). Had some person not acted violently, we reason that their victim would be unharmed.
Had someone not acted recklessly, some innocent person would have avoided injury
(Gerstenberg et al., 2021). There is an assumption that different responses to the same situation
were possible (Byrne, 1997), that these differences would have caused different outcomes (some
causing harm and some not), and that moral culpability depends on those differences. Beyond
these lofty legal principles, of course, reside our daily appraisals of significant life choices (De
Brigard et al, 2019). Whether we chose the right college major, took the right job, or married the
right partner are all of great import, and each are bound up in counterfactual thinking about
where we would be now had we made different choices then.
Such considerations enable humans to do something that perhaps no other animal can:
use fictional realities about possible futures as inputs into one’s own decision-making (Pearl &
MacKenzie, 2018; Phillips, Morris, & Cushman, 2019). Whereas other animals may have the
capacity to learn from events of the past (e.g., by forming associations) and alter future behaviors
accordingly, humans can learn in a proactive manner by imagining possible futures and using
those to-date unrealized possibilities to better their decision making. Moreover, basing one’s
decisions today on expectations about long-term outcomes facilitates human culture by
encouraging short-term costly investments that turn into much larger long-term rewards (e.g.,
investments in agriculture, education, infrastructure, governments, criminal justice systems).
Deliberating about possible actions by imagining different outcomes seems to be a
fundamental psychological ability for humans, one enriched by using counterfactual logic,
directed toward the goal of figuring out what the appropriate next action should be. None of this
suggests that humans always or even frequently make well-informed, well-reasoned decisions.
Any particular bit of reasoning, counterfactually underpinned or not, may be warped and bent by
our current level of self-control, to mention just one example. Overall though, counterfactual
reasoning appears capable of facilitating better decision making at the individual level, which
can then promote group coordination on a societal level by helping people learn from the past
and prepare for the future (Byrne, 2016). And by benefiting society, individuals receive the
social benefits of acceptance and affiliation in a prosperous society.
Prospection, Self-Control, and Decision-Making
Humans likely evolved the ability to prospect, to mentally simulate the future in order to
consciously deliberate over multiple, alternative possibilities, because it conferred advantages to
individual and group decision making. Prospection allows analysis of one’s possible decisions
and actions and the possible results of those decisions and actions, enabling better right now
choices that will lead to better later outcomes. For example, if a person has an 8 am meeting
tomorrow, they can anticipate that binge watching Netflix until 3 am will likely cause a rather
painful morning, decide they would like to avoid that outcome, and go to bed earlier.
A key function of consciousness may be to allow people to conceptualize the future as a
matrix of maybe (Baumeister et al., 2018)that is, as containing multiple alternative
possibilitiesand thus as highly changeable and dependent on one’s own choices and behavior.
When people consciously consider the future, they believe that they can change it by their own
volitional will (Helzer & Gilovich, 2012). That belief likely motivates conscious prospection and
planning and thinking through “If, then” scenarios to behave in ways likely to bring about
desired future outcomes. Indeed, most prospective thinking is planning, to narrow the field of
possible undesirable futures or to grow the field of desirable futures. The vast majority (75%) of
peoples’ thoughts about the future entail considering what might be and actively devising
strategies to reach their goals via future actions, choices, and performances (Baumeister et al.,
The ability to represent the future also facilitates an essential function of the human
selfinformation agency (Baumeister et al., 2018). Information agency is the process by which
individuals in a group contribute to building the group’s shared knowledge. Living as a member
of a cultural group confers many advantages to survival and reproduction, including shared
knowledge and resources, division of labor and specialization, and protection in numbers.
Cultural groups (and individuals) are stronger to the extent that they can function on a shared
store of knowledge and beliefs (Fernbach & Light, 2020) and form joint intentions (Engelmann
& Tomasello, 2018), such that interactions from basic exchanges with strangers to large scale
cooperation are made easier. To maintain collectively held beliefs and knowledge what we
follow the sociologist Bourdieu (1977) in calling the “doxa” – individuals within the group act as
information agents: each person seeks out information, communicates one’s knowledge to
others, passes along knowledge received from others, and criticizes and refines information.
Given that power comes with widely shared beliefs, they also maintain shared reality (often by
prioritizing consensus over truth [Clark & Winegard, 2020]), disseminate false information, and
strategically withhold information. For example, people might choose to withhold information
from others because they believe that information has potential to cause harm (e.g., Clark et al.,
2021; Davison, 1983; Gunther & Mundy, 1993; Rojas et al., 1996). Deciding which information
and beliefs are important for the cultural group, cooperation, and one’s own interest thus requires
that people consider possible futureswhat effects are desired, what effects are undesired, and
what ideas will increase the likelihood of the desired ones and decrease the likelihood of the
undesired ones. Imagining the potential impact of information enables maintenance of shared
reality and avoidance of pernicious narratives.
Also conferring advantages to the cultural group is self-control, individuals’ ability to
regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, to act volitionally according to their will, goals,
or important norms, and to suppress short-term desires to attain longer term goals (Baumeister,
2018). Self-control varies across people and predicts normative decision making across many
contexts (e.g., health, academics, relationships, criminal behavior, career outcomes; Tangney et
al., 2004). After intelligence, self-control might be the second most important individual
difference variable for predicting positive life outcomes across numerous otherwise unrelated
domains (Baumeister, 2018; although the two are also positively correlated [Meldrum et al.,
Self-control may have evolved to mediate between one’s own desires, interests, and goals
and the wellbeing of the group. Self-control may enable people to overcome impulses with short-
term benefits (e.g., laziness and crime) to obtain longer-term benefits by contributing to the
social group (e.g., working hard to obtain prestige and status) (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990).
Indeed, people higher in self-control less often lie, cheat, and steal to benefit themselves at the
cost of others, and this is explained by stronger internalization and automatization of the morally
right inclination and reduced moral temptations (Maranges et al., 2021). People higher in self-
control also engage in more other-focused complex moral decision making that balances the
wellbeing of the individual and the group on moral dilemmas (Maranges et al., 2021). Moral
dilemmas are cases in which doing some harm, often to one individual, may maximize outcomes
for many people, or increase overall wellbeing. Consider a dilemma in which a doctor must
decide whether to give community members a vaccine. For most people, the vaccine will have
no side effects and will keep them safe from a deadly disease, but for some people, the vaccine
will cause severe side effects. Researchers can measure both the tendency to avoid harm (i.e.,
refusing to give the vaccine; consistent with deontological ethics) and the tendency to maximize
outcomes (e.g., giving the vaccine; consistent with utilitarian ethics) (Conway & Gawronski,
2013). People higher, versus lower, in self-control demonstrate both tendencies to a greater
extent (minimizing harm and maximizing outcomes), largely because they integrate empathetic
feelings and deliberate reasoning (Maranges et al., 2021). Volitional control, then, facilitates
normative decision making that benefits both individuals and the cultural group. And because
people give status and awards to beneficial group members, this then feeds back to give more
benefits to the individual (e.g., Buss et al., 2020; Clark et al., 2021; Durkee et al., 2020).
These abilities to prospect, plan, socially coordinate, and consciously forego short-term
benefits for long-term ones are not free will necessarily, a human capacity many regard as a
prerequisite for responsibility (Frankfurt, 1971; Shariff et al., 2014; Van Inwagen, 1983; Wolf,
1990). However, these abilities are unique to humans in their level of sophistication, which may
justify conceiving humans as uniquely responsible for their behavior. Moreover, holding humans
responsible likely encourages better behavior in others, and so regardless of whether it is truly
justified (which is more of a normative than an empirical question anyway), holding humans
responsible may be necessary for a thriving society.
Facilitating Responsibility
Because humans evolved to detect, blame, and punish costly members of the social group
(Axelrod & Hamilton, 1981; Fehr et al., 2002; Kurzban & Leary, 2001; Nowak & Sigmund,
1998; Trivers, 1971) humans also evolved to manage their reputations as prosocial and valuable
members of their social groups in order to avoid punishment and ostracization (Clark et al.,
2021; Fehr, 2004; Sperber & Baumard, 2012; Tennie et al., 2010; Vonasch et al., 2018). When
people know their reputations are imperiled (e.g., because their behavior is publicly visible), they
behave better (Wu et al., 2016a, 2016b). Consequently, making reputational judgments about
other people effectively punishes and discourages certain behaviors in other people, and judging
that other people are responsible for their bad behavior likely is a key ingredient in making these
reputational judgments (Clark, 2021).
One could imagine an alternative reality where transgressions were generally treated with
sympathy and understanding (e.g., “Well, I am not happy that you stole my car, but it’s not your
faultyour genes made you do it. Tough break for both of us.”). Possibly in some cases
(especially those in which the offender was already unlikely to reoffend), this might be a suitable
reaction. But adopted at large, it seems it would be less effective at deterring future
transgressions (in both the perpetrator and third-party observers of the transgression response)
than more reputationally damaging reactions (e.g., labeling the perpetrator a criminal and
publishing the transgression in the public record). People likely evolved to make reputational
judgments and assign morally disparaging labels to harmdoers (such as liar, cheater, thief, crook,
scoundrel, scalawag, lowlife, knave, fink, jerk, miscreant, hoodlum, rapscallion, ne’er-do-well,
buttface, meanie, asshat) in part because they were and are effective deterrents for antisocial
behavior, which creates a more prosperous environment for humans on whole. This fact may
explain why humans are less inclined to make moral reputational judgments toward harmdoers
who have little concern for preserving their moral reputations (e.g., we have never heard anyone
describe a baby’s or animal’s misbehavior as morally wrong), because moral judgments would
not be particularly effective in such cases (Clark, 2021). Although assigning responsibility to an
individual actor may communicate many things (e.g., regarding the actor’s presumed intentions
and obligations; Murray & Vargas, 2020), responsibility-laden reputational judgments may
ultimately function as a means of deterring undesirable behavior in both the transgressor and
third-party observers of the transgression response.
Consistent with this possibility, judgments about how much freedom and control people
have over their behavior appear motivated by desires to hold others morally responsible for their
bad behavior. Motivated reasoning refers to the tendency for people’s reasoning, and
consequently, judgments and beliefs, to be influenced by their desires. Rather than
dispassionately and objectively observing the world and drawing the most rational and accurate
conclusions, it often seems that reasoning is motivated to pursue certain goals (e.g., to justify
preferred beliefs and conclusions, to conform to local beliefs; e.g., Baumeister & Newman, 1994;
Ditto et al., 2019a; Ditto et al., 2019b; Ditto & Lopez, 1992; Haidt, 2001, 2012; Kunda, 1990;
Mercier & Sperber, 2011).
A useful metaphor often invoked is that sometimes people seem to
Although see also Pennycook & Rand, 2019; Monroe & Ysidron, 2020.
reason more like lawyersstarting with a desired conclusion and then organizing the evidence to
support that conclusionthan like (ideal) scientistsevenhandedly piecing the evidence
together to come to the most accurate conclusion.
In the context of attributions of responsibility, people attribute more intentionality,
freedom, free will, choice, and causal control to others for behaviors with harmful outcomes than
for very similar or identical behaviors with helpful or neutral outcomes (e.g., Alicke, 1992; 2000;
Clark et al., 2015; 2017; 2018; Cushman et al., 2008; Everett et al., 2020; Knobe, 2003, 2006;
Knobe & Fraser, 2008; Leslie et al., 2006; Reeder & Spores, 1983; Walster, 1966). For example,
people attributed greater causal control to a speeding driver who caused a car accident when he
was said to be speeding home to hide a vial of cocaine than when he was said to be speeding
home to hide an anniversary present (Alicke, 1992). These and many similar findings (e.g., Clark
et al., 2014; Everett et al., 2020) suggest that desires to blame and punish harmdoers motivate
perceptions that harmdoers are morally responsible for their bad behavior.
Similarly, when faced with others’ harmful behaviors, people also report stronger beliefs
in free will in general, are more likely to reject science that challenges free will, and seek to
uphold human moral responsibility broadly (Clark et al., 2014; 2019; 2021). For example, in one
study, students in a psychology course were randomly assigned to receive different emails from
their professor shortly after a midterm exam. One set of emails informed the students that one of
their classmates had cheated on the exam, whereas the control email simply informed the
students that there would be an activity in the next class. All emails contained a link directing the
students to a survey which included a measure of free will belief and a brief questionnaire about
how severely students should be punished for cheating on exams. Students who believed one of
their classmates had cheated thought cheaters deserved harsher punishments and believed more
in free will than students who believed they were completing the measures as part of a class
activity (Clark et al., 2014). Such findings suggest that upholding free will and moral
responsibility is particularly crucial when dealing with the harmful norm-violating behaviors of
The Don Corleone Principle (Clark, 2021) describes a tendency for people to have such
pro-blame biases (to view others are more responsible for bringing about harmful outcomes than
neutral or positive outcomes) because under-blaming is evolutionarily costly. Not holding people
morally responsible for their bad behavior can signal to others that one is easily exploitable, and
that selfish behavior may be tolerated. Not only can under-blaming incentive perpetrators to
reoffend, it can demonstrate to third party observers that the rewards of selfish behavior
outweigh their costs. On a large scale, diminishing responsibility for harmful outcomes could
normalize selfish, antisocial behavior.
Although free will and other responsibility judgments might be motivated by desires to
blame others for their harmful behavior, these are likely minor adjustments on top of otherwise
more rational processes. In many cases, people assess how much freedom and control people
have, and update judgments of blame and punishment rationally and systematically on the basis
of receiving new evidence (e.g., Guglielmo et al., 2009; Malle et al., 2014; Monroe & Malle,
2019). Moral judgments vary with attributions of free will, and attributions of free will vary with
the history of the agent being evaluated. For example, across studies in which Mary, a
perpetrator of harm (i.e., killing her neighbor), had desires, values, and beliefs that made her
want to commit that harm, people judged her as having free will and being morally responsible
and blameworthy (Taylor & Maranges, 2019). However, when those same desires, values, and
beliefs emerged because scientists had implanted them or a tumor was causing them in Mary’s
brain, people viewed Mary as less morally responsible and blameworthy. These judgments were
accounted for by perceptions of attenuated free will, both in terms of freedom to act and freedom
to develop (two lay conceptions of free will, Gill & Cerce, 2017). Similarly, people judge
harmdoers less harshly and attribute less free will when agents cause harm after becoming
addicted to some substance and while seeking out that substance (Taylor et al., 2021).
Responsibility and blame judgments are even further diminished when the harmdoer did not
consent or was forced to consume the addictive substance in the past, and this is partially
explained by perceptions that the actor had little free will (Taylor et al., 2021).
In general, perceptions of intentions and desires to cause harm increase blame (e.g.,
Cushman, 2008; Monroe & Malle, 2017; Monroe & Ysidron, 2020; Schein & Gray, 2018), and
those who are believed to have choice and causal control over their behavior and outcomes are
blamed more harshly. Indeed, perceptions of choice and causal control are correlated with moral
wrongness and blameworthiness judgments for homosexuality (Haider-Markel & Joslyn, 2008),
obesity and schizophrenia (Chandrashekar, 2020), pedophilia, drug addiction, psychopathy,
having a fetish, being racist, being transgender, and depression (Mercier et al., 2019). When
people perceive such behaviors, conditions, and life outcomes as controllable, the expression of
them may be viewed as a marker of self-control (or a lack thereof), and people may use these
markers to judge the morality and cooperative partner value of others. People judge others
stereotyped as having lower self-control (e.g., people with obesity) as less moral and less
trustworthy and are less interested in working with such people than those with more moderate
body weight when given the choice of cooperative partner (Maranges & Ainsworth, 2021).
People may use superficial cues of self-control as personality indicators to affiliate with
disciplined others who are likely to benefit the self. And although these cues are not perfect
indicators of underlying traits (and people may occasionally cause overestimations of how much
control people have over their expression), they may not be completely useless either insofar as
self-control really is correlated with various undesirable behaviors and outcomes. Consistent
with this line of reasoning, Righetti and Finkenauer (2011) found that people have higher trust in
others who exhibit better self-control.
In turn, awareness that one is being judged for expressions of self-control (or expressions
of failed self-control) likely contributes to some degree of behavioral regulation by encouraging
people to make better choices without the need for interventions from authorities. For example,
the stigmatization of cigarette smoking appears to have contributed to the decline in tobacco use
(Bayer, 2008). Social judgmentalthough often viewed as an inherent badcan promote more
desirable decisions among individuals, which generally also contributes to the public good,
without paternalistic top-down impingement on peoples’ freedom (e.g., by outlawing smoking).
At the same time, people may seek ways of dodging responsibility for their own harmful
behavior by downplaying their own abilities to regulate their behavior and outcomes. This may
explain why people report having less free will and personal responsibility when they have
caused harmful outcomes themselvesthey may want others to interpret their harmful behaviors
as caused by external factors rather than their own lack of self-discipline. For example, in one
study, participants wrote about a time their addictive behavior led to harmful consequences or
more neutral consequences and then reported how much free will they had themselves. Those
who wrote about the harmful consequences of their addictive behavior downplayed their free
will more than those who wrote about neutral consequences (Vonasch et al., 2018). People who
engage in harmful behaviors might prefer to explain their own harmful behavior as the result of
external forces to dissociate it from their personal characteristics and minimize blame and
reputational judgments. This same set of studies also found evidence for a self-fulfilling
prophecy: reducing beliefs in one’s own free will increased perceptions of how addictive various
substances and activities were and lowered perceptions of one’s own self-control. Thus,
minimizing perceptions of one’s own free will could lead to feelings of defeat over short term
impulses and reduced self-control in ways that are harmful to the person seeking to avoid
On concrete constructs related to free will, it appears that reduced feelings of personal
responsibility are associated with undesirable outcomes, or conversely, that high feelings of
personal responsibility are associated with desirable ones. For example, perceived regulatory
self-efficacy was associated with scholastic achievement, prosocial behavior, and reduced
vulnerability to feelings of futility and depression (Bandura et al., 1996), higher job satisfaction
and performance (Saragih, 2015), and perseverance (Gist, 1987). Taking responsibility for
wronging others was associated with more prosocial responses to the wrongdoing (Fisher &
Exline, 2004), and feelings of personal responsibility can promote well-being (Langer & Rodin,
1976). In the experimental psychology and philosophy literatures, however, it remains unclear
whether and how much decreasing free will beliefs influences prosocial behavior on average
(Baumeister et al., 2009; Genschow et al., 2021; Nadelhoffer et al., 2020; Vohs & Schooler,
2008). Not only have there been failures to replicate the impact of reduced free will beliefs on
prosocial behavior (Nadelhoffer et al., 2020), current methodological attempts to reduce free will
beliefs may be largely ineffective (Genschow et al., 2021). Reducing free will beliefs may not be
possible, especially if they are held with the conviction of other kinds of moral and religious
beliefs. But attempting to identify ways to reduce free will beliefs (at least temporarily) may be
useful to better explore whether scholars’ intuitions about the potential consequences of reduced
free will beliefs are borne out.
More research is needed to understand the full range of possible consequences of
minimizing feelings of personal responsibility, but these findings do raise an interesting
dilemma. Often, arguments against free will treat perpetrators as victimsvictims of their
personal life circumstances, of their genes, of the luck-based lottery of life (e.g., Caruso, 2016).
And there is some merit to this perspective. After all, human behavior is caused by a
combination of genes and environments, and people have little control over either (Clark, 2020).
It can thus seem harsh and unjust to hold people responsible for their behaviors and life
outcomesthey did not choose the genes and environments that ultimately caused them to
commit their transgressions. From a practical perspective, however, it is worth considering
whether responsibility judgments, on whole, improve the lives and well-being of most people
(perpetrators, victims, and broader society). People likely evolved pro-blame biasesattributing
more free will, responsibility, and causal control to those who cause harm than to similarly
situated actors who cause neutral or helpful consequencesbecause it effectively deters others
from causing harm. Just as a person might avoid speeding while driving next to a police officer
who might issue a pricey ticket, people might avoid committing selfish or harmful behaviors in
front of others who might judge them and smear their reputations. Indeed, criminal justice
systems are one cultural solution to promoting group cooperation and cohesion, but they are
costly, complicated, and limited. Tendencies to blame and morally judge harmdoers are one of
perhaps many psychological adaptations that similarly promote socially advantageous behavior
without the need for complex and expensive institutions.
At the same time, people likely evolved to consider how much freedom and control
harmdoers had when deciding how much blame is warranted because harm caused under
conditions of greater freedom and control are more malleable (i.e., capable of being deterred)
and more diagnostic of harmdoers’ underlying characteristics and cooperative partner value. The
risk of being evaluated negatively likely incentivizes use of self-control to make decisions more
beneficial to the social group (which in turn benefits the self).
Insofar as responsibility judgments (and corresponding punishments) incentivize
prosocial behavior, deter antisocial behavior, and motivate people to avoid risky short-term
benefits (such as criminal behavior and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors) to obtain long-term
benefits, upholding human responsibility may help most people come closer to the best versions
of themselves. And minor improvements in each individual can have large and widespread
benefits for society as a whole. In other words, social environments that emphasize personal
responsibility may create more individual-level and group-level prospering. Perhaps ironically, if
humans lack free will because their behaviors are fully caused by their genes and environments,
we should treat people as though they have free will because such an environment may facilitate
more socially productive decision making (Clark & Winegard, 2019; Smilansky, 2000). The
belief in free will is an environmental feature that positively influences human behavior.
Although scholars may never agree upon a single definition of free will or whether the
causes of human behavior warrant the label free will, human cognition has numerous unique
capabilities that may warrant conceiving of humans as uniquely responsible for their behaviors.
By consciously imagining alternative past outcomes and simulating likely future outcomes of
various behaviors, people can use such calculations to make better decisions. Whereas other
animals may make decisions by relying on intuitions and learned associations from the past,
humans can use their imaginations of past and future possibilities to forego short-term benefits to
obtain longer-term rewards. Insofar as humans are often aware of likely future outcomes of their
behaviors before engaging in them (e.g., if I shoplift, I may get arrested, which creates costs for
taxpayers, and I will almost certainly contribute to higher priced goods for non-shoplifters), it
may not be unreasonable to consider humans as responsible for the outcomes caused by their
behaviors (at least in some cases).
Moreover, treating people as though they have free will and are responsible for their
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through earned social status and affiliations (and disincentivizes socially undesirable behavior,
which protects against status and affiliation losses). When those who generate costs to the social
group (e.g., by harming others or consuming resources without pulling their weight) are viewed
as responsible for those costs and subsequently viewed negatively by others, this creates costs to
the individual, which incentivizes a purely self-interested person to behave in ways that benefit
the group. Thus, responsibility narratives may be the solution to a critical problem: how to make
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The Blame Efficiency Hypothesis applies insights from evolutionary psychology to resolve the apparent conflict between rationalist and intuitionist perspectives on moral judgment. First, people reserve moral condemnation for actors and actions that are likely to be deterred by moral condemnation. This includes intended and controllable actions (consistent with rationalist perspectives that highlight how considerations of intentionality and causal control influence blame judgments) because blame cannot deter intentions that never existed in the first place, nor can it alter unalterable actions. And this includes actors who care about their moral reputations (i.e., cognitively competent and mentally healthy humans), because moral condemnation cannot deter those with no regard for their moral reputations. Second, moral judgment is subject to error management principles. Failing to condemn a morally responsible harmdoer signals exploitability, and so it would be more costly to erroneously not blame a harmdoer who could have been deterred by blame than to erroneously blame a harmdoer who could not have been deterred by blame (called The Don Corleone Principle). In contrast, no obvious cost asymmetry exists for overestimations or underestimations of moral responsibility for helpful or neutral actions. Therefore, in ambiguous cases, people should err on the side of assuming harmdoers are morally responsible (consistent with intuitionist perspectives which highlight how punitive desires influence judgments of intentionality and moral responsibility). Blaming efficiently means that people attribute moral responsibility to those who appear capable of controlling their behavior in future situations and to those who appear controllable—likely to change their behavior in response to harsh moral judgment, with a small bias toward ascribing responsibility in ambiguous cases of harm to minimize the costly error of under-blaming.
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“They all pose as though their real opinions had been discovered and attained through the self-evolving of a cold, pure, divinely indifferent dialectic… whereas, in fact, a prejudiced proposition, idea, or ‘suggestion,’ which is generally their heart's desire abstracted and refined, is defended by them with arguments sought out after the event. They are all advocates who do not wish to be regarded as such, generally astute defenders, also, of their prejudices, which they dub ‘truths,’—and VERY far from having the conscience which bravely admits this to itself...” --Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Scientists are humans. They are smart, ambitious humans, with a peculiar desire to explain and understand the world and a set of principles and procedures that help steer them toward truth. They are humans nonetheless. Their psychology is therefore human psychology. Psychological discoveries in the social sciences—human errors, heuristics, biases, motivations, psychological needs—all apply to scientists in similar if not equal (or possibly even greater) measure.
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Clark and colleagues (2014) proposed a theory of motivated free will beliefs, according to which at least part of free will beliefs and attributions are caused by a desire to hold moral transgressors responsible. Recently, this theory has been challenged. In the following article, we examine the evidence and conclude that, although not dispositive, much of the evidence seems to support the motivated account. For example, in 14 new (7 preregistered) studies (n=4,014), results consistently supported the motivated theory; and these findings consistently replicated in studies (k=8) that tested an alternative (counternormative) hypothesis. In addition, three meta-analyses of the existing data (including eight vignette types and eight free will judgment types) found support for motivated free will attributions (k=22; n=7,619; r=.25, p<.001) and beliefs (k=27; n=8,100; r=.13, p<.001), which remained robust after removing all potential confounds (k=26; n=7,953; r=.12, p<.001). However, the size of these effects varied by vignette type and free will belief measurement. We discuss these variations and the implications for different theories of free will beliefs and attributions. And we end by discussing the relevance of these findings for past and future research and the significance of these findings for human responsibility.
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Significance Social status is a universal and consequential dimension of variation within human groups. Multiple prominent theories have been proposed to explain how status is allocated, but extant evidence is insufficient to adjudicate between their conflicting predictions. Here we show that distinctions between each theory hinge on the relative importance of four key affordance dimensions: benefit-generation ability, benefit-generation willingness, cost-infliction ability, and cost-infliction willingness. Each theory makes a different prediction about the role of each affordance in status allocation. We test these competing predictions to explain status allocations across 14 nations. We found that benefit-generation affordances uniquely predicted status allocations across nations, whereas cost-infliction affordances were weak or null competing predictors.
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People's belief in free will is shown to influence the perception of personal control in self and others. The current study tested the hypothesis that individuals who believe in free will attribute stronger personal blame to obese people and to people with mental illness (schizophrenia) for their adverse health outcomes. Results from a sample of 1110 participants showed that the belief in free will subscale is positively correlated with perceptions of the controllability of these adverse health conditions. The findings suggest that free will beliefs are correlated with attribution of blame to people with obesity and mental health issues. The study contributes to the understanding of the possible negative implications of people's free will beliefs.
People view addiction as a source of diminished free will and moral responsibility. Yet, people are also sensitive to the personal histories of moral actors, including, perhaps, the way by which people became addicted. Across two studies (N = 806), we compare people’s moral intuitions about cases in which the actor becomes addicted by force or by choice. We find that perceptions of reduced free will partially mediate an association between choice (vs. no choice) in addiction and moral blame for a bad act (Study 1). We replicate this pattern and show that blame judgments are stronger when the bad act is related (vs. unrelated) to obtaining the addictive substance (Study 2). Our work is novel in demonstrating that lay people evince relatively nuanced intuitions about the role of free will in addiction and morality—they track direct and indirect paths to choices when making free will and blame judgments.
People frequently entertain counterfactual thoughts, or mental simulations about alternative ways the world could have been. But the perceived plausibility of those counterfactual thoughts varies widely. The current article interfaces research in the philosophy and semantics of counterfactual statements with the psychology of mental simulations, and it explores the role of perceived similarity in judgments of counterfactual plausibility. We report results from seven studies (N = 6405) jointly supporting three interconnected claims. First, the perceived plausibility of a counterfactual event is predicted by the perceived similarity between the possible world in which the imagined situation is thought to occur and the actual world. Second, when people attend to differences between imagined possible worlds and the actual world, they think of the imagined possible worlds as less similar to the actual world and tend to judge counterfactuals in such worlds as less plausible. Lastly, when people attend to what is identical between imagined possible worlds and the actual world, they think of the imagined possible worlds as more similar to the actual world and tend to judge counterfactuals in such worlds as more plausible. We discuss these results in light of philosophical, semantic, and psychological theories of counterfactual thinking.