The Correlates and Consequences of Believing in Free Will
Research has indicated that weakening people’s belief in free will may likewise weaken their belief in moral responsibility and potentially license them to morally transgress. Recent studies in social psychology suggest that diminished belief in free will is associated with a range of anti-social or otherwise negative outcomes. For example, cheating, unjustified aggression, and less prosocial helping behaviour. In response to these findings, illusionist philosophers have recommended that even if scientists somehow conclusively showed that free will does not exist it might nevertheless be necessary to foster widespread belief as a useful-fiction. In the opposing camp, free will disillusionists maintain that belief in free will has a dark side that we would be better off without. The problem they say, is the close connection between free will and the belief that people justly deserve what they get. So rather than having the instrumental benefits that illusionists claim, belief in free will is too often taken to justify treating people in severe and demeaning ways. Who then is correct? I report empirical results comparing the beliefs and attitudes of free will sceptics and people naïve to the debate. Results are consistent with the claims of disillusionists. Free will sceptics are more compassionate, and are less likely to believe in just deserts and harbour retributive attitudes.