Morality under threat as science debunks our sense of free will

Science is uncovering the myriad causal pathways that lead to us to behave the way we do, and it seems free will isn't one of them. Where does that leave people's sense of moral responsibility? Under threat, is the answer from Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler. Their new study shows that students exposed to arguments against the existence of free will are more likely to cheat.

Thirty students answered maths problems on a computer. A feigned technical glitch meant that they had to press the space bar each question to stop the computer from giving the answers away. Crucially, before the test, half the students read a passage from the late Francis Crick's book about consciousness, in which he argues that free will is an illusion. These students pressed the space bar less often than the students who hadn't read about free will - in other words, they cheated more.

In a second experiment, dozens of students were exposed to either pro free will, anti free will or neutral statements prior to performing a series of mental tests. Afterwards, the students were allowed to score their own answers, shred them for anonymity, and then award themselves a dollar for each correct answer. The students previously exposed to anti free will messages awarded themselves significantly more money than the other students, probably because they cheated more. It's unlikely they had truly performed better. Two further groups of students, one of which was also exposed to anti free will statements, had their answers marked by the researchers and neither of them performed as well as the first group of anti free will students claimed to have done.

These findings complement survey research showing that people's sense of how much control they have over their own lives is diminishing, as well as data from academia showing that cheating is on the increase. "If exposure to deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions", the researchers said, "then identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchVohs, K.D. & Schooler, J.W. (2008). The value of believing in free will. Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Science, 19, 49-54.
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