Psychological Research on Free Will Intuitions: A Critical Review

1. Overview

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2016. Psychological Research on Free Will Intuitions: A Critical Review, URL = <>.

Man controlled by puppeteer and man wound up like a clock

Hard determinists and libertarians claim that the ordinary person means by 'free will' an undetermined will or uncaused will. Compatibilists like me, on the other hand, argue that the concept of 'free will', as ordinarily understood, sits comfortably with the idea that all human actions have sufficient physical causes. The incompatibilists complain that compatibilists are seriously mistaken.

In my essay, Free Will and Compatibilism [Allan 2016], I make the argument that in ordinary discourse and in our law courts, freedom of the will is treated as a characteristic of an autonomous, conscious agent who can reason and deliberate about alternative courses of action. Such a person is constituted by their character and that within the bounds of this character, the agent faces a range of options on how to act in a given situation. When this range is encumbered or restricted by either subverting the person's character or compromising their capacity for rational deliberation and action, the person's freedom is diminished. I support my argument with a range of examples of ordinary use in a variety of every day contexts as well as with examples of judicial reasoning.

In contrast, incompatibilists point to a number of psychological studies on how people think about free will and that purport to support their reading of the concept. In this review, I will summarize the studies I have surveyed so far and evaluate them critically. I will outline any methodological concerns I have and indicate the strength of each study's support for either the incompatibilist or the compatibilist position. Here, I have listed the studies in order of their publication date, with the most recent appearing first.

E. Nahmias, J. Shepard and S. Reuter 2014. It's OK If 'My Brain Made Me Do It': People's Intuitions about Free Will and Neuroscientific Prediction

O. Deery, M. Bedke and S. Nichols 2013. Phenomenal Abilities: Incompatibilism and the Experience of Agency

H. Sarkissian et al 2010. Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal?

E. Nahmias and D. Murray 2010. Experimental Philosophy on Free Will: An Error Theory for Incompatibilist Intuitions

Of the four studies I review in this essay, my summary conclusion is this: two studies strongly support compatibilism while two studies weakly support incompatibilism.

In my review of each study, I make methodological criticisms of the study design. I have given some thought to how a robust study design would look. These ideas are not meant to supersede the good methodologies of past studies. My suggestions here are simply meant as alternative approaches to the task of elucidating the common person's understanding of free will.

Some studies, for the sake of expedience, draw their subjects from a pool of university students. My first suggestion is to draw the subjects randomly from the general population, appreciating that this will add to the cost of the study. Subjects need to be above the age of 20 years in order to exclude people who have not been exposed to 'free will' language in their day-to-day lives. Unless the study team has access to expert translators, it is also prudent to limit the subjects to those who are fluent in English.

Book cover: Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzanig

On method, I suggest experimenters present scenarios to the subjects depicting paradigm cases of people acting freely and not acting freely. Here, short videos depicting the scenarios may be more effective compared with written descriptions. Once subjects have viewed the scenarios, the researchers conduct patterned interviews with each of the subjects to ascertain whether the subject thought each action was freely done or not freely done and the reasons why the subject thought so. Similar questions can be asked about whether the subject thought the agent was morally responsible for their action.

I advise against the use of simple tick-the-box questionnaires here as these are too coarse to uncover the subjects' thought processes. For each response, the interviewer asks follow up questions with the aim of digging down further to get to the subject's base level reasons for making the judgments they make. Each subject's responses are analyzed for the presence or absence of metaphysical presuppositions, such as dualism, contra-causality and physicalism, and psychological criteria, such as coercion and cognitive competence.

There are many other studies in this area that I have not reviewed here. Some of these other studies worth examining include the following:

  • Mele, Alfred 2012. Another Scientific Threat to Free Will?, The Monist 95/3: 422–40, URL = <>.
  • Monroe, A. E., K. D. Dillon and B. F. Malle 2014. Bringing Free Will down to Earth: People's Psychological Concept of Free Will and Its Role in Moral Judgment, Consciousness and Cognition 27: 100–8, URL = <>.
  • Monroe, A. E. and B. F. Malle 2010. From Uncaused Will to Conscious Choice: The Need to Study, Not Speculate About People's Folk Concept of Free Will, Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1/2: 211–24 URL = <>.
  • Murray, D. and E. Nahmias 2014. Explaining Away Incompatibilist Intuitions, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 88/2: 434–67, URL = <>.
  • Nahmias, E. 2014. Is Free Will an Illusion? Confronting Challenges from the Modern Mind Sciences, in Moral Psychology, vol. 4, Freedom and Responsibility, ed. W. Sinnott-Armstrong, Cambridge: MIT Press: 1–25.
  • Nahmias, E., S. Morris, T. Nadelhoffer and J. Turner 2006. Is Incompatibilism Intuitive?, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 73/1: 28–53 URL = <>.
  • Nichols, S. and J. Knobe 2007. Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions, Noûs 41/4: 663–85, URL = <>.
  • Shepard, J. and Reuter, S. 2012. Neuroscience, Choice, and the Free Will Debate, American Journal of Bioethics: Neuroscience 3/3: 7–11, URL = <>.
  • Stillman, T. F., R. F. Baumeister and A. R. Mele 2011. Free Will in Everyday Life: Autobiographical Accounts of Free and Unfree Actions, Philosophical Psychology, 24/3: 381–94, URL = <>.

If you have read one of the above studies, let me know your thoughts. Or if you would like me to review a particular study, send me your evaluation and I will endeavour to assess it. You can send your requests and comment on this essay at one of these discussion portals:

Copyright © 2016

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