Psychological Research on Free Will Intuitions: A Critical Review

4. Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal?

Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal?
Hagop Sarkissian, Amita Chatterjee, Felipe de Brigard, Joshua Knobe, Shaun Nichols, Smita Sirker
Mind & Language, Volume 25, No. 3, June 2010, 346–58

Author's Abstract

Recent experimental research has revealed surprising patterns in people's intuitions about free will and moral responsibility. One limitation of this research, however, is that it has been conducted exclusively on people from Western cultures. The present paper extends previous research by presenting a cross-cultural study examining intuitions about free will and moral responsibility in subjects from the United States, Hong Kong, India and Colombia. The results revealed a striking degree of cross-cultural convergence. In all four cultural groups, the majority of participants said that (a) our universe is indeterministic and (b) moral responsibility is not compatible with determinism.


66 undergraduates from University of Arizona and University of Utah (US/50% female); 55 undergraduates from Jadavpur University (India/42% female); 40 undergraduates from Hong Kong University (Hong Kong/~60% female); 70 undergraduates from Universidad Javeriana (Colombia/63% female)

The study authors [Sarkissian et al 2010: §1] begin by recounting how, in early studies on free will, most subjects who were asked about concrete situations gave a compatibilist response. Asking subjects specifically about concrete cases, they suggest, may bias subjects' judgments through triggering an affective response. The authors go on to relate a number of later studies, beginning with Nichols and Knobe [2007], in which subjects were asked more direct, theoretical questions. These studies concluded that most subjects give an incompatibilist response to the abstract question while giving a compatibilist response to the concrete question. As these studies were conducted on American participants, the authors of this study wanted to ascertain how reproducible the results of the earlier research are on a wider international scale.

For this study, the authors presented participants with the same descriptions of a deterministic universe and an indeterministic universe as used in the Nichols and Knobe [2007] experiment. The descriptions offered to participants were as follows:

Imagine a universe (Universe A) in which everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it. This is true from the very beginning of the universe, so what happened in the beginning of the universe caused what happened next, and so on right up until the present. For example one day John decided to have French fries at lunch. Like everything else, this decision was completely caused by what happened before it. So, if everything in this universe was exactly the same up until John made his decision, then it had to happen that John would decide to have French fries.

Now imagine a universe (Universe B) in which almost everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it. The one exception is human decision making. For example, one day Mary decided to have French fries at lunch. Since a person's decision in this universe is not completely caused by what happened before it, even if everything in the universe was exactly the same up until Mary made her decision, it did not have to happen that Mary would decide to have French fries. She could have decided to have something different.

The key difference, then, is that in Universe A every decision is completely caused by what happened before the decision—given the past, each decision has to happen the way that it does. By contrast, in Universe B, decisions are not completely caused by the past, and each human decision does not have to happen the way that it does.

[Nichols and Knobe 2007, quoted in Sarkissian et al 2010: 348]

When asked which kind of universe we inhabit, a majority of participating students in all five universities indicated that they believed that the indeterministic universe (Universe B) is most like ours. Likewise, most answered that it is not possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions in a deterministic universe (Universe A) [§3]. The study authors conclude in §4 that there exists significant cross-cultural convergence around belief in an indeterministic universe and the incompatibility between determinism and moral responsibility.

One concern I have with this study is the limited sample variation. For a study that purports to test the thesis of cross-cultural adoption of indeterminism and incompatibilism, drawing on mostly young university students is a significant methodological failing. The authors themselves admit to this design shortcoming [354].

My other main misgiving with this study also centres on the study design. The question of moral responsibility is set for the study participants within a determinist/indeterminist philosophical framework. But framing the question of moral responsibility within this schema presupposes that that is how ordinary language users demarcate moral actions from non-moral actions. The result is that the way this study sets the scene and frames the questions primes the subjects to view moral discourse exclusively through this lens.

Describing two alternative universes that differ only to the extent that human decision-making is determined primes subjects towards an incompatibilist's interpretation of the free will/moral responsibility question. In particular, for the deterministic universe scenario, subjects were told, 'So, if everything in this universe was exactly the same up until John made his decision, then it had to happen that John would decide to have French fries.' [348] The use of the phrase, 'it had to happen', is an incompatibilistic interpretation of the possibilities open to the agent. This interpretation omits other compatibilist modal renderings, such as those based on epistemic uncertainty, character and coercion. The study authors [349] comment that in previous studies, participants gave the same incompatibilist responses even when this phrasing was removed. Not having reviewed these studies, I can't judge the adequacy of this claim here. However, with this particular study, the point remains that the way the issue is framed for subjects primes them to view the question of moral responsibility through the study authors' own conceptual prism.

Another specific example of how this priming occurs can be found in the description of the indeterministic universe given to subjects. Of an agent who decides to have French fries for lunch, subjects are told, 'She could have decided to have something different.' [348] This possibility of deciding something different is completely omitted from the description of the deterministic universe, even though compatibilists argue that agents could have done otherwise. This is a crucial omission. All sides agree that according to folk intuition, the ability of people to do otherwise is a fundamental requirement for moral responsibility. By the study authors removing this ability in their description of a deterministic world, it is natural then for subjects to think that determinism precludes moral responsibility.


Book cover: Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting by Daniel C. Dennett

The study authors [349] hypothesize about the results of earlier studies in which participants gave incompatibilist responses to an abstract question about moral responsibility in a deterministic universe while giving compatibilist responses to a concrete case of wrong doing. The authors discuss the possible reasons for this stark divergence in response types for the two ways of framing the question.

This divergence in response types ought not be surprising given the metaphysical agnosticism of ordinary language users' judgments ascribing free will and moral responsibility to human agents. Ordinary folk make these kinds of judgment in their everyday, practical lives with no thought as to whether or not an agent's brain states have sufficient physical causes. So, if ordinary folk are free of metaphysical presuppositions about causation, as many compatibilists contend, then we would expect these basic moral judgments to come to the fore when subjects are presented with concrete, everyday cases of wrong doing, even when offered against a backdrop of determinism.

On the other hand, when subjects are asked an abstract question about moral responsibility in a deterministic universe, they are forced to think like a beginner philosophy student. In this instance, questions about moral responsibility are removed from their usual social context. As is common with novice students who are asked to question everything, their thinking can be swayed initially by radical positions. Moral relativism, moral nihilism, epistemic relativism and solipsism are initially attractive to many students. In learning more about the subject and thinking more deeply, novices then tend towards more nuanced views, such as one of the types of compatibilism adopted by most professional philosophers. This initial bias towards radical interpretations is even more pronounced in the study. Unlike what occurs in the philosophy classroom, study subjects are not presented with options on how an agent could have decided otherwise in a deterministic universe.

I suggest that it's most probably the case that the study participants were treated to this kind of bias. As the study authors themselves admit, these are participating students 'who have probably never been instructed on the topic of causal determinism' [354]. So, it should not surprise us that philosophically naïve experimental subjects tend towards incompatibilism when first introduced to determinism and asked to think theoretically about its ethical implications. When faced with this possibility, that the subjects are only stating their theory about moral responsibility, the authors give a surprising answer. First, they admit this possibility [349f], but then go on to assume, without question or argument, that this is the subject's implicit theory.

Regarding the earlier studies discussed by the authors, from what I have said above, it is not at all clear that incompatibilism was implicit in these subjects' moral judgments before they entered the study. That subjects offered a compatibilist response when the question was about a concrete scenario strongly hints that incompatibilism can't be underpinning their day-to-day moral judgments. Far from concrete cases elucidating an affective bias, it seems that it is these cases that reveal subjects views through successfully sidestepping the priming embedded in the design of these earlier studies.

poor methodology from priming and restricted sample set
Study results:
strongly supports incompatibilism
weakly supports incompatibilism

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