Another update on one of our favorite topics: Free Will and the Lack Thereof. This time from a Psychology Today article published in May, entitled “Is Free Will Real? Better Believe It (Even If It’s Not)”. The article is less interested in contesting the fairly widespread agreement among scientists, philosophers and theologians that free will, at least in the “master of your own destiny” sense, is largely an illusion, and more interested in asking whether, real or not, such a belief is helpful to us personally or as a society. A recent study seems to suggest that it is.

If it sounds like an all-too-common and all-too-flimsy defense of belief in God (almost verbatim what the Mormons in South Park said in that timeless episode!), well, that’s because it is, just coming from an unexpected corner. Curiously, the study does not mention how belief in free will correlates to happiness or stress levels. And even so, it fails to take into account that even those of us who might reject the notion of free will still act as if we don’t! Which is precisely the problem, is it not? Alas, the human wheels go round and round:

“…A large body of neuroscientists [...] think that the mind is only an ephemeral by-product of the brain, that the mind is ‘reducible’ to only the brain. It’s like the physicist’s search for the ultimate particle. The trouble with this stance is it makes the idea of human agency false, or at best an illusion. Because it’s an illusion, the logic goes, we shouldn’t believe in it. There’s another group of people also fighting against the idea of free will. If you are a deeply religious person of certain faiths, then you might believe that god knows everything, in which case there is not much role for free will either.

There’s a whole new angle on this free will debate that I personally find really freeing (pun intended). Instead of wondering if free will is ‘real’ or not, a range of new research is pulling apart the question of whether a belief in free will is, well, helpful. If believing in free will has intrinsic value. The answer appears to be ‘quite likely’. Beaumeister’s study showed that a belief in free will correlated with increased work performance, both by self-rated measures (based on expectation of career success) as well as by objectives measures of performance by a manager. He proposes in the study that a belief in free will, ‘facilitates exerting control over one’s actions’.

This is where it gets interesting. Self-regulation, the ability to inhibit yourself from doing the wrong thing, appears to be deeply important for human performance.


So now a new question starts to arise. It appears that a belief in free will may make people smarter, better at learning, better on the job, more ethical and more helpful to others. If more people believed in free will it appears the world would be a better place. So maybe we should be putting more energy into a question of greater utility than whether free will is ‘real’ or not, and trying to work out how to get more people to believe in free will? Unfortunately, a lot of activity in science and religion seems to be working in the opposite direction. [ed. note: Ha!]