Much of the social psychology literature has focused on the consequences of believing in free will. This line of research generally likes to show that believing in free will has all sorts of positive implications in terms of prosocial behavior (Baumeister, Masicampo, & Dewall, 2009), less cheating (Vohs & Schooler, 2008) and even better job performance (Stillman, Baumeister, Vohs, Lambert, Fincham and Brewer, 2010). But how are those perceptions formed? are those beliefs stable? are they prone to classic social psycholog biases? are they perhaps contextually bound?
This post is a cross post of a quick summary I did titled "Free Will : Interesting Findings in Social Psychology" which includes some of the recent findings regarding the antecedents of belief in free will and the factors that influence these perceptions. I believe this line of research resembles and is linked to some of what experimental philosphers have been doing on lay beliefs of moral responsibility and intent.
The first paper that I’ve read on the topic was the 2010 PNAS paper by Pronin & Kugler arguing that people tend to perceive as though they have higher free will than others. This follows a long line of research in social psychology that shows that people have inherent biases when comparing self to others (e.g. self-serving bias). So that if people consider their own actions they are more likely to attribute those actions to their own deliberate will and intent while attributing other people’s actions to circumstances, personality or genes. You’ll notice that what’s interesting about this paper is that it no longer looks at people as either believing in free will or not believing in free will but as more complex agents that form conceptions and make attributions of free will according to the target being evaluated.
A recent paper by Helzer & Gilovich in PSPB (2012) takes this idea of contextual free will beliefs even further. Though it doesn’t directly discuss free will, it does show that people tend to see their will as more determinant of future events than of past events. When we contemplate the future we feel as though we have a choice and are likely to influence events but when we consider our own past we often feel like most of the things that have happened were out of our control.
Furthermore, free will perceptions are susceptible to priming effects. But what can prime freedom of will? Aarts and van den Bos (Psychological Science, 2011) show that self-agency binding, meaning showing a person that his actions have influence over real life occurrences, primes the feeling of control and free will. When people see that their actions are tied to what actually happens around them then their perceptions of free will change, or at the very least activated.
But perhaps the most curious findings of all are offered by Gray, Knickman and Wegner recently published in Cognition (2011). Their findings argue that people attribute more will to dead people than they do to people in persistent vegetative state (PVS) following a serious accident. The explanation they offer for these results is related to people’s beliefs in the afterlife. People who believe in the afterlife see the soul as disconnected from the body which is therefore capable of having free will, while considering those who lying in a hospital bed in a vegetative state as trapped without the ability to have or to freely exercise their will.
Finally, I can offer some of my own prelimenary findings on the topic from my work with Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs. Two studies show that priming people with the concept of money (Vohs etal. 2006, 2008) - unscrambling sentences regarding money and wealth or merely exposing people to background photos of money - leads to people reporting higher perceptions of self free will (Rakos etal. 2008 scale). Similarily, a person's background (social class, rich or poor), the context/action valence (good or bad) or priming choice also seem to affect how we perceive free will.
Questions, comments and feedback welcome.