Beliefs on free will can affect ethics

Those who do not believe in free will may be more likely to cheat, a study finds.

Tom Moran

Free will may exist – or not.

Either way, a University professor is researching how students’ opinions on the subject can affect how often they cheat.

Dr. Kathleen Vohs, University McKnight Land-Grant professor, published a hypothesis that people are more honest if they accept the belief of free will, in the January issue of Psychological Science.

In the experiments, Vohs and her partner, Jonathan Schooler of the University of California-Santa Barbara, tested how changing deterministic beliefs of undergraduates would affect their ethical behavior.

Students who were exposed to scientific arguments that free will does not exist were more likely to cheat on a test and to reward themselves for incorrect answers when they scored themselves, the experiment showed.

“When you tell people they don’t have free will, they become apathetic,” Schooler said.

He said most students in the experiment and most people believe in free will. However, Schooler said he thinks many people may become comfortable with a belief that people are “biological robots” without free will as scientific evidence grows.

With ethics on the line, the experiment adds fuel to a long-debated issue with many differing opinions on campus.

Paul Hartquist, a University alumnus, said he thinks he controls his own future, but hasn’t always thought that way. While attending the University, Hartquist said he felt a sense of entitlement.

“I’ve sure used my brain more as I’ve grown older,” he said.

Quang Dinh, a material science junior, said he believes he has absolute control over his destiny, but popular opinion of free will is different in his native country of Vietnam.

Dinh said in Vietnam people believe the position they are born into is their fate because of actions in previous lives and they cannot do anything to change their position – similar to the idea of karma.

Journalism junior Pablo Garcia-Ortiz said he thinks humans don’t have free will, for the most part.

Garcia-Ortiz said he thinks most choices people make are determined by their past experiences, and free will decisions have very limited impact.

For example, Garcia-Ortiz said growing up with a single mother was a large reason for his recent decision to pursue a higher income and become a marketing major.

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” he said. “It’s almost like we’re conditioned.”

He said he thinks people have less free will as they grow older because they have more life experiences to influence their decisions.

Schooler, who attended an annual meeting between psychologists and philosophers to discuss free will, said there is disagreement on this subject between the two groups and even within each faction.

“Personally, I’m skeptical we’ll be able to definitively resolve this issue,” he said. “Ultimately the decision on free will is something each individual needs to make their own decision about.”