Home Mental Health & Well-Being The Psychology of Free Will

The Psychology of Free Will

Published: Last updated:
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Every person must occasionally do things automatically, without noticing or commit acts that they shouldn’t have on impulse. However, we cannot excuse murdering someone if the murderer says ‘I didn’t know what I was doing’. Or can we? In short, are we our own free agents or are our actions determined by something out of our control, a higher power?

Right now, a lot of people lean towards atheism and related scientific explanations of why we act the way we do. Most of these explanations tend to assign free will to people, as opposed to assuming that people’s actions are based on what God (or Gods) wants. 

However, science has in fact discovered that in some cases, we do not display ‘free will’ in the folk psychology definition of that phrase.

When we say ‘free will’, we usually mean voluntary actions, whereupon one will say to themselves ‘I want to switch off the light’ and then walk over to the switch and move their hand to do so. However, one study found that an increase of electrical activity in the brain (a readiness potential) occurs just before people are aware of wanting to act. That means that it might be argued that brain activity which in unconscious takes place before having a conscious intention of wanting to do a voluntary action. 

This is converse to the lay person belief that people think first and then act (which would be related to frontal lobe executive activity before actions, which was not found). The readiness potential is thought to be endogenous, which means that this is an internal process, which takes place before action but isn’t related to consciousness.

An alternative view of free will which is also not related to conscious awareness is the somatic marker theory. This is a theory which explains how emotional processes might influence behaviour. Unlike readiness potentials, somatic markers are not endogenous, they are reactions to what is happening around us.

Somatic markers are the associations people have with their physiological emotional state and the way they must act. Somatic markers are used when there is an overload of the cognitive systems, such as in high pressure situations with a lot of choices to make like gambling, playing chess or naturalistic decisions like those made by a firefighter. Even though somatic markers are associations that are external, the choices people make based on somatic markers are usually very quick and people are unlikely to have a conscious awareness of them. 

It is likely that the reason people have unconscious intention followed by action, with conscious intention and awareness lagging behind is that quick responses were necessary when people were fighting predators and the weather conditions during the  environment of evolutionary adaptedness.

One might reduce this further and take a behaviourist stance that we are animals who are governed by unconscious instincts and that we use awareness and conscious intention to explain to ourselves why we did what we did. Otherwise, we’d live in a state of constant confusion about our actions. But if we say to ourselves ‘It’s getting cold, let’s switch on the heating’, we can accept that this is why we turned on the heating knob. 

While it is unlikely that we have no free will because we are governed by complex processes either in the brain or in our emotions and physiology which we have no awareness of, it is likely that for certain simpler tasks, no awareness is necessary, just training, whereas for tasks which are related to our feeling of morality and happiness and which have consequences, deeper consciousness and awareness is required.

Dr Elizabeth Kaplunov carries out research on healthcare communication in deaf and general populations.

© Copyright 2014–2034 Psychreg Ltd