Free Will in Social Psychology
The topic of free will has challenged thinkers and inspired debate across multiple disciplines for centuries. What can social psychology contribute? Social psychology is unlikely to provide a convincing answer to questions about whether people have free will. However, social psychology can provide considerable information about the inner processes and the control of behavior. To thinkers who believe in free will, social psychology provides vital evidence about how it happens and is used. To thinkers who disbelieve in free will, social psychology can provide evidence about what real phenomena are mistaken for it.
Free will is worth studying regardless of whether you believe in it. In fact, I think it is not even especially important to decide whether you believe in it. There are many different definitions and concepts of free will. I suspect that some of them are correct and others are not, so simply saying “I believe in free will” or the opposite is not terribly informative. Some definitions are indeed as simple as believing that people genuinely make choices, in the sense that they are capable of acting in different ways in a given situation. Free will in that sense seems difficult to reject (though some thinkers do reject it). Other definitions require lavish metaphysical assumptions, such as that people have souls that intervene into biological processes to alter the course of behavior. Those versions of free will are difficult to accept (though some thinkers do accept them). Personally I suspect that a middle path and moderate view is most likely to be correct, but I am not yet fully convinced about what the truth is. I am, however, fully convinced that there is plenty for social psychology to do. Let’s take a look.
What is Free Will in Practice?
Most social psychologists have some understanding of human beings as social animals with advanced intelligence, who make choices and guide their behavior in complicated ways. Humans respond to situational influences but also plenty of internal influences such as expectations, motivations, prejudices, and self-concepts. They manage their behavior so as to set and reach goals within the opportunities and constraints presented by their social world.
In that context, free will is most likely a set of inner capabilities for controlling action. It is the inner faculty that makes choices. Freedom means the ability to resist various particular influences, such as external pressure or strong inner impulses.
My own interest in free will emerged from my research on self-regulation. Many animals have some limited capacity for controlling themselves, but in humans this capacity is marvelously advanced and powerful (though not as powerful as we might like!). Self-regulation is essentially the capability to change oneself or one’s responses, such as one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. The term to regulate means more than random change, however: It entails change that is designed to reach some sort of goal or standard. Human culture is awash with standards of all sorts, and people are remarkably flexible and capable in altering themselves to fit these.
Thus, one important version of freedom is inherent in the idea of self-regulation or self-control. (I use the terms interchangeably.) If you override one response, you interrupt the flow of behavior and prevent something from happening. That allows you to do something else instead. Stifling the prepotent response to enable a different response is thus an important and highly adaptive form of freedom. Without that capability, human animals would always act on the first or strongest impulse. Self-regulation frees them from doing that, thereby producing the great flexibility and diversity of human behavior.
Experimental studies on self-regulation carried out by my colleagues have gradually revealed vital things about how it functions. The folk notion of willpower appears to have considerable validity. That is, self-control depends on a form of energy (the will’s power) whose amount fluctuates. In our lab studies, after people exert self-control in one context, they tend to perform worse on a subsequent act of self-control, even if it seems completely unrelated to the first. For example, after people try to control their emotional reactions, their physical stamina is reduced, as an early study showed (Muraven, Tice, & Baumeister, 1998). In that study, participants watched a video and were told either to amplify or stifle their emotional responses, or they were given no instructions and just let their emotions happen. Compared to the no instructions condition, participants who had tried to change their emotional response later showed deficits on a handgrip endurance test.
Likewise, after participants resist tempting foods, they give up relatively easily on a difficult, frustrating task (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998). In that study, hungry participants who resisted the temptation to eat chocolates and cookies and instead made themselves eat radishes later gave up faster on a difficult, frustrating task.
The implication of such laboratory findings is that people use up some of their willpower on the first task. That explains why they perform worse on the second task. For present purposes, the key point is that there is some energy resource that underlies self-control and thus one core form of free will.