Psychological Challenges to Common Sense Philosophy: Illusions of Introspection and Free Will

Brett W. Pelham, Michael Harding, and Curtis Hardin

Human enlighrenmenr has been tightly linked to scientific discovery. Just as Darwin and Mendel helped us understand human origins, Pasteur and Koch helped us understand disease. Newton and Leibniz invented calculus. Einstein used it to help us understand time and space. Further, just as physics has uncovered surprising truths about physical reality, psychological science has uncovered surprising truths about psychological reality. Such truths often defy common sense. As physicists argue that all the matter in the earth could be squeezed into the space of a matchbox,1 psychologists argue that many common sense beliefs are illusory. This chapter focuses on two surprising psychological truths. First, people often have little or no access to their own thought processes. Second, free will is probably a comforting illusion.

1 Philosophical Arguments Against Introspection

Beginning with the first of these points, how well do we know our own thoughts? In Beyond Good and Evil,1 Nietzsche writes of the “harmless self-observers who believe in the existence of ‘immediate certainties’, such as ‘I think’ or ‘I will’”. Nietzsche characterizes such claims as being grounded in “the seduction of words” rather than true self-insight. Arguing against our common sense faith in our own self-knowledge, Nietzsche writes:

Let the people believe that knowing means knowing to the very end; the philosopher has to say: “When I dissect the process expressed in the proposition ‘I think’, I get a whole set of bold claims that are difficult, perhaps impossible, to establish,—for instance, that I am the one who is thinking, that there must be something that is thinking in the first place, that thinking is an activity and the effect of a being who is considered the cause, that there is an ‘I’, and finally, that it has already been determined what is meant by thinking.. . . [T]his ‘I think’ presupposes that I compare my present state with other states that I have seen in myself, in order to determine what it is.3

In Nietzsche’s view, any privileged access to our own inner lives is, at best, debatable. It is implicit in Nietzsche’s arguments that very few people, whether philosopher or file clerk, have the courage to face “a whole assortment of metaphysical questions”. Part of what makes Nietzsche an existential philosopher is his argument that for most people, acknowledging the absence of self-insight or personal agency would have deeply troubling psychic consequences.4

In Nietzsche’s view, it is mainly the seduction of grammar that creates the illusion of self-understanding. Thoughts, he suggests, do not come when we want them to come but when they, metaphorically, wish to come. Specifically, Nietzsche writes,

It is, therefore, a falsification of the facts to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think”. It thinks: but to say the “it” is just that famous old “I”—well that is just an assumption or opinion, to put it mildly, and by no means an “immediate certainty”.5

In Nietzsche’s view, we assume that we are the architects of our thoughts because language suggests so. This ‘seduction of grammar’ causes us to make many assumptions about self-knowledge that are not borne out by experience. Nietzsche was not the first to recognize a disconnect between reality and perception. Plato’s tripartite division of the soul—as presented by Socrates in both the Phaedrus and the Republic—is a good example. Socrates described the soul as a multiplicity of competing forces disguised as a unity. In one metaphor, the soul is a chariot drawn by two horses of different temperaments. In another, it is a “many colored, many headed beast” that is at once both “tame” and “savage”. This beast, Socrates reports, has an “outer shell” that merely “looks like one animal” when it is really many.6

In Nietzsche’s presentation, the soul is more like a many-headed monster than a charioteer pulled by a pair of discordant horses. If introspection were valid, it would thus reveal a roiling mass of different drives. In fact, Nietzsche suggests an even more colorful metaphor for the self that many view as a fee and autonomous agent. He claims that the “I” is akin to “a ball of snakes that never have peace from each other”.7 Each snake in this metaphor is a drive that wants to be tyrant. The self, soul, or will is thus an unhappy confederacy of competing passions. In Beyond Good and Evil,s Nietzsche further argues that the unified will is purely epiphenomenal. It is one of the “illusions or phantasms” of the inner world.9 As we will see, psychological science strongly supports Nietzsche’s idea that

  • (i) introspection is seriously flawed and (ii) much of what we think we choose is grounded in forces other than free will.
  • 2 Psychological Evidence Against Introspection

In their classic studies of introspection, Nisbett and Wilson10 raise serious questions about self-insight. In one study, they asked female shoppers to evaluate four pairs of pantyhose. To make the test blind, they arbitrarily labeled the four pairs of hose A-D. Four times as many shoppers preferred the fourth pair as the first. When asked to explain the reasons for their choices, the shoppers offered a wide range of explanations. Some preferred the subtle shading of their favorite pair; others said their favorite pair felt smoother or seemed more durable. None of these shoppers had any difficulty answering this question. But none answered it correctly. This is because the four pairs of panty hose were identical. The 4:1 preference shoppers showed for pair D over pair A was a ‘shopping around effect’ (an order effect). Nisbett and Wilson refer to such failures of introspection as “telling more than we can know”.11 They argue that when people explain why they have made decisions, they often fall back on lay theories about human preferences—because they have little direct access to their own thought processes. Failures of introspection have now been documented for a wide range of decisions.12

More recently, Johansson, Hall, Sikstrom, and Olsson13 studied failures of introspection using the choice blindness paradigm. In this paradigm, participants must quickly and repeatedly choose between pairs of similar stimuli (e.g., deciding which of two female faces is more physically attractive). Occasionally during these repeated judgments, participants are asked to explain their most recent preference. Typically, each stimulus is presented for four seconds on a card. This, and some sleight of hand, makes it easy for the experimenters to dupe participants by occasionally asking them to justify a decision they did not make. On some trials, that is, participants see the card they did not choose from a pair, and the experimenter asks them why they preferred it. On any given trial, about three-quarters of participants fail to notice this switch (thus the name choice blindness). When people have been duped this way, they readily explain choices that are the opposite of the choice they just made. To further explore this, Johansson et al. asked blind raters to code participants’ explanations for their preferences on three dimensions—emotionality, specificity, and certainty. They reasoned that if people have any awareness that they are confabulating, those reporting on false choices rather than true choices should express less emotion, should be less specific, and should express less self-certainty. No such differences emerged. In a follow-up study, Johansson, Hall, Sikstrom, Taming, and Lind14 coded people’s explanations using linguistic coding software rather than blind judgments. They found virtually no evidence that participants were aware that they were confabulating.

In a classic study that preceded Nisbett and Wilson, Warren and Sherman15 showed that the tendency to edit recent experience affects speech perception. In their work on the phoneme restoration effect, their participants listened to sentences in which a small part of a word was replaced by a short cough. But instead of saying they heard ‘orange-eel’, for example, participants almost always reported having heard ‘orange peel’. But almost no participants could report which exact phoneme was replaced by the cough. Remarkably, this was true when the crucial word that disambiguated the damaged word came several words after the damaged word. The crucial sentences reported in Warren and Warren’s study16 appear as follows.

It was found that the-eel was on the axle.

It was found that the-eel was on the orange.

It was found that the-eel was on the shoe.

It was found that the-eel was on the table.

A variation on this phenomenon happens every time you turn on your car’s radio to listen to National Public Radio. When you do so, you hear things such as “Nonetheless, most Trump supporters say they still believe him”. What you do not ever hear is what first comes out of your radio, which is more likely to be “less, most Trump ...” “theless, most Trump ..or “s most Trump”. Human beings are masters at reconstruction.

Even many fans of introspection concede that introspection has its limits. Hixon and Swann17 showed that when people are asked what is true (“What kind of person are you”?) rather than why it is true (“Why are you the kind of person you are””), introspection may promote predictable decision-making. Nisbett and Wilson18 would presumably agree. They argued that people usually have access to the products of judgment (What did I prefer?) but have little or no access to the judgmental process (Why did I prefer it?). Bern’s self-perception theory19 is built on a similar assumption: People often figure out their own attitudes not via introspection but by observing their own behavior in context. If I told a stranger that a boring task was interesting, and if I was paid very little to do this, I will conclude, as participants in numerous experiments have, that I think the task was not so boring. Self-perception is a route to attitude formation that requires no direct self-insight. In fact, people with severe memory impairments can develop self-views in the absence of any memories for any information that supports their self-views. This means that people who can’t recall a single introverted thing they have ever done might still be able to tell you that they are highly introverted.20

Research in many other areas of psychology reveals sharp limitations on how much conscious access people have to their own thoughts.21 For decades, researchers have distinguished between two different kinds of thinking. As Shiffrin and Schneider noted,22 controlled processes are slow, conscious, optional, and cognitively taxing. But after people have practiced a judgment or skill for a long time, thought processes that were once controlled become automatic—meaning they are fast, unconscious, mandatory, and effortless. The point of a lot of research in social cognition is that many human judgments and preferences are grounded heavily in automatic processes.23 To the degree that any judgment has automatic components, people are likely to have little or no access to the thoughts that led to the judgment.

Some of the most dramatic examples of the disconnect between what people do and why they think they do it comes from work with ‘split- brain’ patients. In most people, the corpus callosum allows continuous communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. A few decades ago, surgeons learned that they could sometimes stop dangerous and debilitating seizures in epileptic patients by severing the corpus callosum. Such split-brain patients possess two independently operating brains, each of which typically directs different cognitive functions. In most right-handed people (split-brain patients included), parts of the left hemisphere are responsible for speech production. In experiments with split-brain patients, one can send a pictorial signal directly to the nonverbal right hemisphere to get patients to engage in a behavior. When asked why they engaged in the behavior, such patients unknowingly concoct false, after-the-fact justifications.24

Critics of studies such as these are quick to note that split-brain patients and patients with severe amnesia are highly unusual people. Perhaps their behavior reveals no information about normal people. We beg to differ. Numerous errors of awareness exist even for people with wholly intact brains. In a study of the timing of motor control, Libet asked participants to move their fingers at will.25 While participants were doing this, Libet measured the brain activity as well as the muscle activity that produced the finger movements. Further, Libet used an ingenious ‘clock’ (a dot of light that moved at a quick and steady pace around a circle) to allow people to report exactly when they decided to move their fingers. Not surprisingly, brain activity always preceded muscle activation—and thus finger movement. A little more than half a second after the initiation of brain activity, people first moved their muscles. No one would expect otherwise. However, Libet also found that people’s self-reports of the exact moment they decided to move their fingers took place only about 200 milliseconds (1/5 second) before they moved their fingers. This is about 300 milliseconds after their brains had already begun the neural activity responsible for finger movements! People are poor observers of many of their own inner mental states.

Critics of Libet’s study argue that it is highly artificial or that his participants had no good reason to want to move their fingers. Like studies of split-brain patients, then, Libet’s study has proven to be controversial. Rather than delving deeply into why we think most critiques of such lab studies are erroneous, we confront such critiques about the artificiality of lab experiments head-on (later in this chapter). To foreshadow a bit, we present data from both lab experiments and field studies showing that regular people with intact brains believe they have conscious control over decisions over which they have no true conscious control.

3 Philosophical Arguments Against Free Will

If human beings are more like puppets than puppeteers, free will may be an illusion. Because the concept of free will has so many interpretations, we should clarify that our focus here is on free will as defined by thinkers such as Clarke.26 Clarke defines free will in terms of personal control over one’s decisions. It is the idea that ‘what you do, when you act freely, is up to you’. In contrast to this idea, psychological science suggests that the causes of much of our own behavior (behavior we believe we freely chose) lie in unconscious forces that are outside our awareness and control. Psychologists are not the first to question free will. Philosophers have long done so. Among the pre-Socratic physiologoi, some of the earliest skeptics were Leucippus and Democritus, who both believed in a fundamental atomistic materialism. Leucippus famously claimed that all things are governed by a logos (an antecedent that pushes a thing toward what it must do).27 Likewise, the tragic poets presented life’s most important outcomes as matters of fate. Where we today might see introspection and choice, the poets often saw the direct promptings of gods. We often assume that people have long believed in free will. However, Frede suggests that this idea only began with Epictetus, who was born in about 55 A.D.28

The question of free will is intimately tied to questions about causality. Aristotle conceived of four possible causes. His four causes are commonly known today as the material, efficient, formal, and final causes. As described in Physics II.3, the material cause denotes the physical stuff of something. The material cause of a statue is the stone or metal from which it was made. The formal cause, in contrast, is the organizational principle that allows a thing to exist. Aristotle suggests that the formal cause is what makes a thing a this.19 Consider a table versus a bookcase. What makes the same boards a bookcase or a table is how they are organized. The third Aristotelian cause is the efficient cause—the source of action that brought a thing into existence. In the case of a table, the efficient cause might be a finish carpenter. The final cause is the telos or the purpose. The purpose of a statue might be to memorialize a hero. The purpose of a bookcase is to hold books. When speaking of living things, Aristotle does not speak of matter and form but of body and soul (psyche). Soul is the organizing and animating principle of all living things. As form makes a non-living thing a this, soul makes a living thing a this.30

Why all the focus on causality? The question of free will is largely dependent upon how we construe causality. Most modern scientists accept only two of Aristotle’s four causes, namely, the deterministic material and efficient causes. Early modern philosophers, especially Thomas Hobbes, focused solely on these two deterministic accounts of causality. For example, in the Leviathan, Hobbes developed an account of human psychology, ethics, and politics grounded solely on matter and motion. Whereas some of Hobbes’s accounts seem quaint today, he moved both philosophy and psychology forward by thinking about people mechanistically rather than metaphysically. Along these lines, Hobbes described the will as being ‘free’ only in the sense that water can be said to be free to descend a channel. The will is ‘free’ only in the sense that it has ‘liberty’, which he defines as the absence of external impediments. Hobbes writes:

[a]s in the water, that hath not only Liberty, but a Necessity of descending by the Channel: so likewise in the Actions which men voluntarily doe; which (because they proceed from their will) proceed from Liberty; and yet because every act of mans will, and every desire, and inclination proceedeth from some cause, which causes in a continuall chaine (whose first link in the hand of God the first of all causes) proceed from Necessity.31

Hobbes also denied that decisions are the end products of a ‘deliberate desire’. In the Leviathan, he claims there are two sorts of motion at work in human behavior. The first is vital motion, which includes natural processes such as cardiopulmonary activity and digestion. The second is animal or voluntary motion, such as speech and arm movements. Animal or voluntary motion is presumably caused wholly by the things we perceive.32 Even perception, imagination, and ‘fancy’, Hobbes argues, are merely motions in the matter of the body caused by the motions of matter outside the body.33 Deliberation, he argues, is simply the end product of desires or aversions. The will is simply the last ‘appetite’ in a deterministic chain of deliberations over which we have no true control. With the benefit of his understanding of Newtonian physics, Nietzsche offered more sophisticated variations on this theme. As suggested previously, Nietzsche conceived of the self as a bundle of lower-order, biologically grounded drives that continually strive against one another. Like Hobbes, Nietzsche was no fan of free will.

The logic of the modern scientific method also poses problems for free will. Virtually all scientists endorse determinism—the idea that everything is subject to orderly, predictable laws.34 This epistemological assumption lias implications that many people find unpalatable. For example, if everything is subject to natural laws, then supernatural gods are not plausible. After all, deities would have to be subject to natural laws. Likewise, whatever people think free will is, it must be subject to natural laws. A second logical problem with free will has to do with the process of scientific discovery. Because modern science is a synthesis of empiricism and rationalism,35 explanations of human behavior must be strictly logical. Appealing to free will as a cause of behavior violates a cardinal rule of logic—which is that one must not beg a question. Logically speaking, begging a question is not merely raising another question (the way the term is used informally). Instead, begging a question is raising the same question once again. If you ask Bea why she did something, you have good reason to be dissatisfied with the answer: “I chose to do it”. Bea’s nonanswer forces you to beg the question and ask, “But why did you choose to do it””

In light of such arguments, it is surprising how popular the belief in free will is—even among avid fans of determinism. A 2015 survey of more than 4,500 readers of Scientific American revealed that 59 percent of respondents said they believed in free will.36 In fact, many philosophers appear to feel that free will is wholly compatible with determinism. This school of thought is known as compatibilism. To summarize our response to compatibilism, we find it unconvincing. In the interest of space, we will critique only one popular compatibilist argument. McKenna and Coates argue for compatibilism by suggesting that scientific laws are variable.37 Beginning with the premise that it is often possible for people to act in more than one possible way, they argue that a person has the “ability to act in such a way that, if she were to so act, some law of nature that does obtain would not” (emphasis in original). Of course, McKenna and Coates do not believe the present influences the past. Instead, they argue, the compatibilist view

tells us that a person who acted a certain way at a certain time possessed abilities to act in various sorts of ways. Had she exercised one of those abilities, and thereby acted differently, then the laws of nature that would have entailed what she did in that hypothetical situation would be different from the actual laws of nature that did entail what she did actually do.38

In our view, this reflects a deep misunderstanding of the laws of nature. Laws are invariable. If a measured force was different today than it was yesterday, no self-respecting physicist would suggest that a different set of laws was at work today than yesterday. Instead, any physicist would assume that the specific levels of the variables that are universally at work in matters of force were different on the two different days: F = ma, period. If F is smaller today than it was yesterday, it is not because

F today = m/a (rather than ma). Not everyone agrees with scientists that everything in the universe obeys orderly laws.39 But virtually all scientists believe that natural laws are constant and invariable. We should not confuse changing the specific level of a variable at work in a situation for the mistaken idea that the laws of nature are variable.

A slightly more reasonable cousin of this argument for compatibilism suggests that the laws of nature do not change. Rather, the particular law that wins the day at one moment, or for one person, may be very different than the particular law that wins the day at a different moment or for a different person. This is merely a corollary of the principle of equifinal- ity: human behavior is subject to a great many laws and principles, and these laws often push people in different directions.40 For example, there are at least a dozen well-documented reasons people behave aggressively. A partial list includes downward social comparisons, scapegoating, competition, reciprocity, hot temperatures, priming, modeling, the culture of honor, and genetics.41 However, the fact that human behavior is complex does not mean that free will is the magical tiebreaker when two psychological forces push people in opposite directions. If the ambient temperature nudges me to punch a person who disagrees with me about compatibilism, while social learning nudges me with equal vigor to be civil, there are a dozen other psychological forces at work that will serve to break what might otherwise seem like an impossible tie. Incidentally, the principle of equifinality also resolves the philosophical dilemma of Buridan’s hungry ass—which finds itself equidistant from two identical piles of hay. Any one of a dozen other reasons why the ass might prefer one pile over the other (e.g., spontaneous alternation) will keep it from being frozen in indecision. Free will does not rescue human decision makers from the dilemma of complexity. In fact, it unnecessarily complicates things. In so doing, free will also violates another scientific canon—which is the canon of parsimony.

4 Psychological Evidence Against Free Will

But is there any psychological evidence suggesting that free will is an illusion? In a word, yes. A growing body of research in implicit social cognition suggests that people make both mundane and important decisions for reasons that are grounded not in free will but in their environments. If forces outside our awareness and control are often the true drivers of our behavior, then free will must often be illusory. Presumably, shoppers who preferred the fourth pair of Nisbett and Wilson’s pantyhose felt they freely chose their favorite pair. But Nisbett and Wilson’s experimentally engineered order of presentation rather than free will was the true reason behind these shoppers’ decisions.

There is a popular rebuttal to this argument. It is this. Yes, in the artificial confines of the lab—where people make unimportant decisions—unconscious forces may nudge people toward a decision. But when people face important decisions, the conscious decision maker takes over, weighs and balances the available evidence, and makes a rational decision. This position is not wholly without merit. Research on dual-process theories in social cognition suggests that when a decision is important, people are more likely to ignore surface cues or gut impulses—in favor of thinking hard about the decision. Thus, studies of the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion show that when people have both the motivation and the ability to think deeply, they are more persuaded by central processes (e.g., rational arguments) than by peripheral processes (e.g., speaker attractiveness).42

But the finding that central processes sometimes rule the day does not guarantee that free will is in the driver’s seat of central processing. Further, even if one assumes that free will matters when it comes to some forms of persuasion, this does not guarantee that free will matters for all forms of persuasion. As Pelham and Neter argued, the logic of good persuasive arguments is almost always obvious.45 Few people have difficulty telling the difference between a weak and a strong argument for raising college tuition. Compare “The dean would like a raise” with “The money will fund job placement programs”. In the case of more complex judgments under uncertainty, however, it is often unclear what normative decision rules one should use. Many judgmental heuristics are so seductive, and so many logical decision rules so demanding, that even experts often rely on heuristics. In fact, Pelham and Neter showed that when people had to make difficult decisions under time pressure, or when using normative decision rules was mentally taxing, increasing people’s motivation to answer a question correctly increased the likelihood that people used unconscious (heuristic) decision rules.44

Bargh made a similar point.43 If people are ever to control for the unintended effects of unconscious influences on their judgment and behavior, they must (i) know about the specific unconscious bias in question, (ii) be motivated to correct for it, (iii) be aware of the direction and magnitude of the unconscious effects in question, and (iv) be capable of doing what is necessary to shrug off any biases. Because all four of these barriers must be overcome if conscious processing is to prevail, this makes unconscious judgmental processes very pervasive. Thus, even if Brook is highly motivated to offer a correct answer to a question, knows that an unconscious bias is at work, and knows its likely magnitude and direction, asking her to find a parking spot on a busy street will usurp enough of her cognitive resources that she will be forced to rely heavily on automatic information processing. Even tasks as mundane as trying to impress a stranger often debilitate controlled processing.46 Overcoming automatic processing is often a very tall order.

A similar problem for advocates of free will and conscious deliberation arises when decisions have a heavy emotional component. Consider incest. In cultures across the globe, incest is considered morally deplorable. If you want a reminder of this, consider the uncomfortable scenario studied by Jon Haidt:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They’re traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience. . . . Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?47

Almost everyone who hears this story agrees that there is something deeply yucky about sex between siblings. But any logical argument judges offer to justify their condemnation has little merit. When people are reassured that there is no chance the behavior could lead to any genetically compromised offspring, this does little to change their minds. Likewise, even though the behavior is legal in France, and even when it seems to have brought these siblings closer, almost everyone agrees it was immoral. Haidt suggests that eons of evolutionary programming have produced a distaste for incest. In fact, he suggests that in many human judgments ‘the tail wags the dog’. We are programmed by evolution to find something deplorable (or delightful). But we justify the conclusion after the fact— accepting the illusion that we (willfully) arrived at the position. Rozin and colleagues have made a similar point about people reacting with disgust to things (e.g., chocolates shaped like poo) that logically should produce no such response.48

Nonetheless, many still insist that when a judgment is important, people settle on a rational, self-determined course of action. Social scientists have leveled exactly this critique at research in implicit social cognition. For example, both Gallucci49 and Simonsohn50 argued that implicit egotism should evaporate outside the laboratory. Implicit egotism refers to an unconscious preference for people, places, and things that resemble the self.M Because most people have positive unconscious associations about the self (one’s name, one’s birthday number, and even one’s earlobe shape), people should gravitate toward things that resemble the self (usually without realizing why). Pelham, Mirenberg, and Jones found that people gravitate toward states and cities whose names resemble their own first or last names (e.g., Cal moves to California, Virginia to Virginia).52 Likewise, Jones and colleagues showed that people are much more likely than one would expect by chance to marry others whose surnames match their own.53 Moving to the lab, Jones et al. showed that people liked an attractive woman more than usual when her arbitrary jersey number had been paired (without their awareness) with their own names.54

Simonsohn suggested two specific reasons why implicit egotism might not exist outside the lab.55 First, some apparent evidence for implicit egotism in the field might be due to confounds—such as ethnic matching. Second, he suggested that implicit egotism is too small an effect to make a difference in most real-world decisions. Specifically, Simonsohn argued that implicit egotism “can tip the balance one way or the other” only when people are relatively indifferent to two or more very similar options (e.g., choosing blueberry ice cream versus cookie dough ice cream—not marrying Beryl versus Cookie).56

In response to Simonsohn’s critiques, Pelham and Carvallo conducted studies that in our view, invalidate his arguments.57 For example, to address concern about ethnic matching in marriage, Pelham and Carvallo looked at both birthday-number matching and birth-month matching in two large sets of state-wide marriage records. Although African Americans are named Johnson more often than they are named Smith, it is unlikely that a disproportionate number of African Americans are born in September, or on the 24th of the month. But people prefer their birthday numbers just as much as they prefer their names.58 Pelham and Carvallo documented reliable birthday number—and birth month—matching effects in all the marriage records they could locate that allowed them to assess implicit egotism in marriage.59 Figure 9.1 shows the findings for birthday number matching in Ohio marriage records.

There was a modest but reliable 6.5 percent bias for people to marry others who shared their birthday numbers. Further, this 6.5 percent bias became a nearly 20 percent bias in the subset of people who seem to have liked their birthday numbers enough to have gotten married on them. Implicit egotism appears to be robust outside the lab. Pelham and Carvallo also provided new data on implicit egotism and career choice. They were able to do so because in April 2013, the 1940 U.S. Census data were released to the public. Before analyzing these records, Pelham and Carvallo identified all 11 of the common male career names (e.g., baker, carpenter) that doubled as exact surnames. This eliminated the need for judgment calls about sampling specific names or careers. Findings from this study appear in Figure 9.2. For each of these 11 male careers, men were at least modestly overrepresented in a career when the career name happened to match their surname. When we used population base rates rather than using this specific set of careers as the comparison standard, these effects grew larger.

Using these same census data, we were able to control for ethnic confounds. This could occur, for example, if Black men in the United States in 1940 were disproportionately named Porter and often worked as porters. The career-surname matching effect was robust not only

Implicit egotism in marriage decisions

Figure 9.1 Implicit egotism in marriage decisions.

People with the same birthday number were disproportionately likely to marry. This effect was much stronger than usual for brides and grooms who got married on their birthday numbers (suggesting that they liked them). The same patterns held for month rather than day of birth. All these effects replicated in a large set of Minnesota marriage records.

Ratio of observed to expected surname-occupation matches for men with common surnames that also serve as male occupation names

Figure 9.2 Ratio of observed to expected surname-occupation matches for men with common surnames that also serve as male occupation names.

Source: 1940 U.S. Census.

for both Black and White men considered separately but also for Black and White men whose level of education was held constant. Using these same operational definitions, we replicated these surname-career matching effects in the 1911 English Census. We also found that these effects waxed and waned in theoretically predictable ways. For example, we knew that single women are not as attached to their maiden names as married women are to their married names. Accordingly, we found that the longer women named Cook had been married, the more strongly they gravitated toward working as cooks. Implicit egotism does not evaporate in the field. Finally, lab studies of implicit egotism show that implicit egotism is, in fact, implicit.60 Virtually none of the participants in any of our lab experiments on implicit egotism were able to report the true reasons for their preferences for stimuli that resembled the self. Instead, like Gaz- zaniga’s split-brain patients, our participants seem to have manufactured after the fact justifications for their unconsciously determined judgments and decisions.

5 Research on Free Will

If such studies were not enough to raise doubts about free will, Wegner and Wheatley specifically argued that free will is illusory.61 Their key idea is that assessing whether we have caused something is much like assessing whether a physical object caused something (e.g., whether one billiard ball made another ball move). We perceive ourselves to be the causes of our own thoughts or behavior only when each of three logical requirements has been met. Wegner and Wheatley refer to these three requirements as priority, specificity, and exclusivity. Priority means causes must precede effects. If we think of a behavior after we have engaged in it, we experience no sense of agency. The second rule is specificity. The consequences must be logically consistent with the thought. If we think of scratching our noses, and spontaneously kick a stone, we have no sense of agency. Finally, exclusivity requires that other forces (confounds) cannot easily account for the observed effect. If either another person or an external force engages in activities that could have produced an effect, people feel limited agency for it. Because unconscious forces are often the true causes of what we think and do, and because Wegner and Wheatley’s three requirements are often fulfilled, the perception that we have willfully engaged in a behavior may thus be a common and forgivable reasoning error.

In support of their position, Wegner and Wheatley provide many examples of how people can either fail to experience a sense of agency for something they themselves have caused or experience a sense of agency for an event they did not cause. Using divining rods to find water or lost objects, using Ouija boards, engaging in ‘automatic writing’, and serving as facilitators in the debunked ‘facilitated communication’ technique are all examples of how a person can cause a behavior and be wholly unaware of having done so. In such cases, Wegner and Wheatley argue, some quirk of the unusual activity in question muddies the waters responsible for the perception of personal agency (see, e.g., Wegner and Wheatley’s analysis of supernatural devices such as divining rods).

Wegner and Wheatley also argued that one can manipulate variables such as temporal priority to create the illusion of conscious will.62 To do so, they asked participants to play a computerized variation on the game I Spy. Participants and a confederated were seated next to a monitor containing images of about 50 objects (e.g., a plastic dinosaur, a swan). The real participants and a confederate (posing as a co-participant) moved a cursor around the computer screen, sharing control of the cursor by using a special mouse. Participants were told that they and their partners would individually and intermittently hear words over a set of headphones. These words would serve as distractions. Further, participants were told that they and their partners would be distracted using different words. On four crucial trials, the confederate alone had complete control of the mouse, and the confederate usually stopped the cursor on an object whose name the real participant had heard most recently (satisfying the condition of specificity). However, the delay between the time the real participant heard the target word and the moment at which the confederate brought the mouse to rest on the named object varied widely. After the real participant heard the name of the object, there was a delay of 30 seconds, 5 seconds, or 1 second before the confederate stopped on the image in question. In a fourth condition, the real participants heard the name of the object 1 second after the confederate had stopped on it. When the real participants (who had no control, of course) heard the name of an object and the cursor stopped on the object either 5 seconds later or 1 second later, participants reported an illusion of control (they said they had more than 50 percent of the control of the cursor). However, when the object was named 30 seconds prior to the time at which the confederate stopped the cursor on it—or was named shortly after the confederate stopped the cursor on it—participants reported that the other participant had been mostly in charge of the action.

Experiments such as these suggest that the powerful feeling that we have free will may be largely, if not completely, illusory. At this point in the early history of the empirical study of free will, we are most comfortable saying that the perception of free will is probably greatly exaggerated. And it seems very safe to say that people do not always have free will. But as advocates of free will such as Nahmias have been quick to point out, saying that people do not always have free will and saying that free will is always an illusion are two different things.63 This distinction is hard to criticize. However, given the long and growing list of unconscious influences on social judgments and decision-making, one can make the case that the edifice of free will is being chipped away, study by study, by hundreds of modern studies on implicit social cognition.

One more example should help clarify both how powerful and how mundane unconscious influences are. In 1996, Bargh, Chen, and Burrows argued that a great deal of goal-directed behavior is influenced by unconscious priming.64 Specifically, they showed that activating social concepts such as personality traits (e.g.,‘politeness’) and stereotypes (e.g., ‘Old people are slow’.) can influence people’s goal-directed behavior. In one study, students unscrambled a list of sentences. In one condition of one pair of these experiments (2a and 2b), most of the sentences referred to old people (e.g., ‘He collected social security’. ‘She forgot her reading glasses’.). In the other condition, none of the sentences made any mention of old people. After thinking they’d been dismissed from the experiment, participants headed for the elevator. Unbeknown to participants, a research assistant kept blind to conditions unobtrusively timed how long it took participants to walk to the elevator. Averaging across two studies, it took participants about 16 percent longer than usual to walk to the elevator when they had recently been thinking about old people.

In another experiment, Bargh, Chen, and Burrows primed students either with the trait of rudeness or the trait of politeness (a control group received neutral primes).65 Participants primed with politeness were more than three times as likely as those primed with rudeness to sit patiently for 10 minutes while an experimenter who was supposed to be helping them explained (and re-explained, and re-explained) some simple instructions to a clueless fake participant. When participants were asked near the end of the experiment what had influenced how long they waited, no one made any connection between the primes and how long they had waited. Presumably participants felt they were the freely acting agents who made these decisions. But most of the agency in this situation rested in the hands of the experimenters.

Behavioral priming studies such as these were initially met with great enthusiasm. Eventually, however, critics argued that these unconscious behavioral priming effects were at best fragile and at worst fraudulent. In one high profile иои-replication, Doyen, Klein, Pichon, and Cleeremans found no effect of their priming manipulation on walking speed—unless the person doing the unobtrusive timing was aware of each participant’s priming condition.66 This study suggested to many that behavioral priming studies may demonstrate the unconscious phenomenon known as experimenter bias67 rather than the unconscious phenomenon known as behavioral priming. In our view, at least, part of the controversy over behavioral priming may stem from the fact that it threatens the popular notion that people have free will.

Like research on implicit egotism, research on behavioral priming may always have its detractors. However, a recent meta-analysis (a mathematical synthesis of multiple studies) strongly suggests that behavioral priming, too, is alive and well. In their summary of 133 studies, Weingarten, Chen, McAdams, Yi, Hepler, and Albarracin argued that behavioral priming is not a statistical or methodological artifact.6S Because this team had access to the results of so many studies, they were able to identify moderators (boundary conditions) of behavioral priming effects. One moderator they identified was how important the goal being activated was (e.g., ‘walk to an elevator’ versus ‘do well on an exam’). If people resist unconscious influences when decisions are important, behavioral priming effects should be smaller than usual for more important goals, perhaps disappearing altogether for very important goals. Weingarten et al. found exactly the opposite.69 Behavioral priming effects are larger for more important goals. Research on implicit egotism suggests a similar conclusion. In a study of preferences for chocolate candy, Brendl and colleagues found that people prefer brands of chocolate that include their own initials.70 On average Mina prefers M&Ms more than Tina does. Brendl et al. also found that these name-letter branding effects were larger than usual for people who reported being hungrier.71 There is thus some reason to suspect that unconscious effects on human behavior may be stronger, not weaker, for more important decisions.

Some advocates of free will are aware of some of the studies reviewed here. For example, Nahmias argues that Libet’s 1985 study simply shows that we probably do not have as much free will as we think.72 One of his arguments is that current neuroscientific technology falls well short of predicting perfectly what people will do a few seconds from now based on their detectable neural activity. In our view, this argument is easily turned on its head. Given the imperfect technology we currently have, we can often predict only modestly from neural activity what people are about to do. But it seems likely that in the future we will be able to predict behavior from neural activity much better than we can now. Further, many existing studies of implicit social cognition reveal surprisingly large effects of unconscious forces under the right conditions.73 The part of human behavior that we cannot yet predict is presumably just as lawful as the part that we currently can.

Nahmias argues that even perfect prediction of human behavior from brain activity would not destroy most people’s confidence in free will.74 Nahmias, Shepard, and Reuter told participants to imagine that neuroscience had progressed so far that scientists could predict a woman’s daily behavior perfectly, even if the woman (Jill) tried to fool the machine that read her brain waves.75 As Nahmias put it, “More than 80 percent of the participants reported that they believed that such future technology was possible, yet 87 percent of them responded that Jill still had free will”.76 In our view, an alternate interpretation of this study is that many human beings report that they would steadfastly refuse to abandon their belief in free will even if they were presented with clear evidence against it. This may say more about the psychological appeal of believing in free will than it does about the likelihood that it is real.

Nahmias makes other arguments for free will.77 He notes that recent research shows that “conscious reasoning improves performance on logical and linguistic tasks” and that conscious self-control helps people behave less impulsively. In our view, it is not at all clear that free will and free will alone prompts the conscious reasoning that may help people make superior decisions. It is not even clear that conscious reasoning (or the unconscious forces that covary with it) leads to the superior decisions in question. Nahmias also argues that it is evolutionarily implausible that conscious thought would have ever arisen if it did not lead to superior decision-making grounded in free will. There are problems with this argument, too. It assumes, for example, that the main adaptive consequence of our large brains was to produce a creature that freely makes superior decisions. But human brains are not general-purpose reasoning machines. Instead, they are the complex results of evolution for social living.78 Social cooperation is greatly facilitated by language, and it is plausible that the illusion of free will is an epiphenomenal by-product of the evolution of language. All languages allow people to refer to both past events and future events.79 Language also allows for deception and abstraction. But there is no reason to assume that language evolved specifically because it allows free will or that free will would lead to superior decision-making relative to a lack thereof. In short, human brains evolved in response to many environmental pressures, and they are capable of many complex activities. Natural selection for brains that possess free will is evolutionarily implausible.

6 Why the Illusion?

If free will does not exist, why do so many believe in it? Psychological research suggests that people are strongly motivated to predict and control their worlds. In fact, when our sense of predictability and control is threatened, we become motivated to restore it. In fact, we often do so by deciding that we can control the uncontrollable. Langer showed exactly this.80 Even in games whose outcomes were determined completely by chance, most people acted as if they could predict or control the outcomes. Thus, people believed they could predict which of two players would win a game of chance. In another study, participants purchased a lottery ticket for $ 1, hoping to win a $50 raffle prize. Half the participants were assigned a lottery ticket at random and half were allowed to select a specific lottery card. When offered the chance to sell their tickets back, both groups of participants behaved as if they had some control over the lottery. Even participants who received their lottery cards at random said they would only sell them if offered about twice what they had paid for them ($1.96). Among participants who had been allowed to choose their own tickets, this average asking price increased to $8.67. Studies have confirmed this ‘illusion of control’ in many other ways, including ways that can have life or death consequences.81

Many other studies offer similar viewpoints. For example, Kay, Whitson, Gaucher, and Galinksy argued that people “protect the belief in a controlled, nonrandom world by imbuing their social, physical, and metaphysical environments with order and structure when their sense of personal control is threatened”.82 Accordingly, Kay et al. showed that after people experienced threats to their sense of personal control, they found superstitious beliefs and conspiracy theories more believable—and they were more likely to perceive order in random events. In the wake of threats to a felt sense of control, people also place more faith in cultural beliefs that promise control, including the belief that God intervenes in human affairs. A growing body of psychological evidence suggests that the notion of free will may soon be added to a long list of comforting beliefs that science has now falsified. The earth is not flat, our planet is not at the center of the universe, and we are not the only animals on the planet that are self-aware. The idea that we have free will may soon be added to this list of comforting but empirically unsustainable beliefs.83


  • 1. Rensberger (1986).
  • 2. Nietzsche (2002).
  • 3. Nietzsche (2002, § 16).
  • 4. Nietzsche (2002, § 16).
  • 5. Nietzsche (2002, § 17).
  • 6. Plato, Republic 588c—e.
  • 7. Nietzsche (2006, “On the Pale Criminal”).
  • 8. Nietzsche (2002, § 23).
  • 9. Nietzsche (2005, “The Four Great Errors”, § 3).
  • 10. Nisbett and Wilson (1977).
  • 11. Nisbett and Wilson (1977).
  • 12. Millar andTesser (1986) and Sabini and Silver (1981).
  • 13. Johansson et al. (2005).
  • 14. Johansson et al. (2006).
  • 15. See Warren and Warren (1970).
  • 16. Warren and Warren (1970).
  • 17. Hixon and Swann (1993).
  • 18. Nisbett and Wilson (1977).
  • 19. Bern (1972).
  • 20. Tulving (1993); see also Lieberman et al. (2001).
  • 21. Banaji and Hardin (1993), Kahneman (2011), and Zajonc (2001).
  • 22. Shiffrin and Schneider (1977).
  • 23. Chartrand and Bargh (1999) and Gilbert (1991).
  • 24. Gazzaniga (2005).
  • 25. Libet (1985).
  • 26. Clarke (2000).
  • 27. Cf. Leucippus, fragment from On Mind, in Taylor (2010).
  • 28. Frede (2011).
  • 29. Cf. Aristotle, On the Soul II. 1.
  • 30. Aristotle, On the Soul II. 1 in general.
  • 31. Hobbes (1994, XXI.4).
  • 32. Cf. Hobbes (1994, VI. 1-2).
  • 33. Cf. Hobbes (1994,1-III).
  • 34. Pelham and Blanton (2018).
  • 35. Birnbaum (1984).
  • 36. Stix (2015).
  • 37. McKenna and Coates (2019).
  • 38. McKenna and Coates (2019).
  • 39. See Pelham and Blanton (2018).
  • 40. Pelham and Blanton (2018).
  • 41. Pelham (2018).
  • 42. Petty and Cacioppo (1986).
  • 43. Pelham and Neter (1995).
  • 44. Pelham and Neter (1995).
  • 45. Bargh (1994).
  • 46. Gilbert, Krull, and Pelham (1988).
  • 47. Haidt (2001).
  • 48. Rozin et al. (1986).
  • 49. Gallucci (2003).
  • 50. Simonsohn (2011).
  • 51. Pelham, Carvallo, and Jones (2005) and Pelham, Mirenberg, and Jones (2002).
  • 52. Pelham, Mirenberg, and Jones (2002).
  • 53. Jones et al. (2004).
  • 54. Jones et al. (2004).
  • 55. Simonsohn (2011).
  • 56. Simonsohn (2011, 19).
  • 57. Pelham and Carvallo (2015).
  • 58. Kitayama and Karasawa (1997).
  • 59. Pelham and Carvallo (2015).
  • 60. See, for example, Jones et al. (2004).
  • 61. Wegner and Wheatley (1999).
  • 62. Wegner and Wheatley (1999).
  • 63. Nahmias (2015).
  • 64. Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996).
  • 65. Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996).
  • 66. Doyen et al. (2012).
  • 67. Rosenthal and Fode (1963).
  • 68. Weingarten et al. (2016).
  • 69. Weingarten et al. (2016).
  • 70. Brendl et al. (2005).
  • 71. Brendl et al. (2005).
  • 72. Nahmias (2015).
  • 73. Pelham and Carvallo (2015).
  • 74. Nahmias (2015).
  • 75. Nahmias, Shepard, and Reuter (2014).
  • 76. Nahmias (2015, 79).
  • 77. Nahmias (2015).
  • 78. Pelham (2018).
  • 79. Hockett (1958, 1960).
  • 80. Langer (1975).
  • 81. See Casarett (2016).
  • 82. Kay etal. (2009,264).

83. We thank Tim Wilson for his encouraging expert feedback on this chapter. We also thank John Bargh, whose encouraging conversations with the first author facilitated the development of this chapter. Please pose questions or comments to Brett Pelham ( This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ).


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