• Psychology, neuroscience and a fundamental lack of free will

    I am presently reading an absolutely superb book by David Eagleman called Incognito:

    The book is a popular foray into psychology and neuroscience and synthesises a host of different studies into things brain. I wanted to just bring up a few fascinating studies which cast doubt upon the idea that we have fully fledged, or even remotely authored, conscious free will. It even talks about chicken sexers, which is nice. Rather than produce notes, I have tried to directly link the claims.

    Implicit Egotism


    Heaps of work has been done on psychological priming and how it drives our choices. For an amazing video, watch this:

    It is one of my favourite videos.

    • People with high disgust sensitivity are more likely to vote Republican and vice versa.
    • People who have a displeasurable stimulus (smell, sight, taste etc) or even have a sign saying “Please wash your hands” are more likely to judge an act as morally bad than the control.

    Incognito mentions other priming studies, and this kind of priming is even evident in amnesiacs with short term memory issues:

    • Lots of word priming studies have been done (which I talk about in my free will book, available from the side bar). E.g., if I wrote chi___ se___ and asked you to think of two words that would fit, you would most likely think of chicken sexers because I mentioned the phrase earlier.
    • Mere exposure effect: this is the effect that merely hearing a name or idea, or seeing a face etc will predispose you to favour that idea or person. In other words, the maxim “any publicity is good publicity” is actually quite right! If you were to see a picture, even subconsciously, of someone before viewing a number of pictures of people’s faces and were asked to rate them for attractiveness, you would more likely rate them a higher attractiveness than if you hadn’t already seen their face.
    • Illusion-of-truth effect: similar to the last, but with perhaps massive ramifications, you are more likely to rate as true something you have seen or heard before. Yes, think young earth creationism, evolution as false, political claims as true etc. To test this, experimenters asked subjects for the validity of a bunch of sentences every 2 weeks, including occasionally ones which the subjects had forgotten but had already heard and been tested on before. They rated ones they had heard before higher than when they first heard them, even though they swore blind that they had never heard them before. Imagine repeatedly hearing a falsehood. It would only serve to reinforce its truth value!
    • Subliminal pairing takes place in connecting two ideas. For example, in Bush’s TV campaign against Al Gore, “the  Gore prescription plan” on the screen was simultaneously shown with the word RATS, which eventually became the word BUREAUCRATS. The idea being that the two concepts would be subliminally linked.


    We tend to have hunches. Intuitions. We think that we just kind of ‘know’ things. However, it is more often than not a case that our subconscious brain is working overtime in making connections, using prior knowledge to predict or ascertain present claims or knowledge.

    • Silhouette plane spotters in WW2 and chicken sexers in China were so accurate at predicting German vs British planes, or the sex of chickens, that they trained other people. However, they couldn’t teach them because they had no conscious idea of how they were deciphering – their subconscious was doing the calculations. This is because our conscious brain can’t handle being in charge of most tasks in our lives. Our brains would melt. Thus these teachers ended up saying yes or no to their students without being able to explain why until their students intuitively learnt how to decipher without being able to consciously explain their knowledge.
    • In an experiment with 3 decks of cards, two good, two bad, subjects began to become consciously aware of this by about the 25th draw. However, their autonomic (fight or flight) nervous system as measured by their skin conductance response picked this up by about the 13th draw. Basically, brain activity spiked subconsciously when the subject picked from a pack but this did not register consciously. The subconscious brain had worked out the advantageous strategy before the conscious brain. Think Benjamin Libet style experiments.
    • Furthermore, patients who had this ‘gut feeling’ part of their brain damaged were unable, even after consciously learning the strategy, to make the advantageous decisions. They needed the gut reaction part of the system to conscious;y make the advantageous decisions. For further information, see the somatic marker hypothesis and Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling Of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness.

    I’ll leave it here for now. But hopefully this is a nice spread of studies which show that we are very limited in the freedom, if it exists at all, with which we approach decisions. And none of this talks about environmental and genetic factors the likes of which we would normally connect to the illusion of free will.

    Category: FeaturedFree Will and DeterminismPsychology


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce