Are Guys Who Don't Believe in Free Will More Likely to Cheat?

A new study suggests people's moral compasses are more relaxed if they think it's all up to destiny.

Do you believe in free will? You know, the idea that we humans have complete control over our lives, and can freely choose our actions? That we can, by force of will, determine the shapes and details of our lives? Or do you think our lives are predetermined — by the gods, our genes, our childhood, the accidents we've had, or the past choices we've made before?

The ancient Greeks and Romans seemed to think it was a mix of the two: that humans had some control over a lot of their quotidian decisions and actions but that their ultimate fates were decided by the capricious gods. (So if the folks up in the heavens decided, say, your ship was going to get blown off course while you were on your way to founding Rome, that would happen one way or the other, whether or not you spent a little time shacking up with Dido, Queen of Carthage — if your name was Aeneas, that is, and Venus was your mama.) Most religious people, these days, probably have a similar outlook: The god they believe in has the last say about what's going to happen to you, but you can alter your fate by freely choosing to do whatever your religion says is "the right thing." Meanwhile, a lot of people seem to think free will is all that's required.

Many shrinks and neuroscientists — not to mention those contentious evolutionary biologists — would argue that we really don't have free will. Why? We can't choose our parents, or our DNA, and these two factors (nurture and nature) have an overwhelming impact on our development and our futures.

But a recent piece in The New York Times makes the point that "regardless of whether free will exists, our society depends on everyone's believing it does," as John Tierney writes. "The benefits of this belief have been demonstrated in other research showing that when people doubt free will, they do worse at their jobs and are less honest."

He continues:

"In one experiment, some people read a passage from Francis Crick, the molecular biologist, asserting that free will is a quaint old notion no longer taken seriously by intellectuals, especially not psychologists and neuroscientists. Afterward, when compared with a control group that read a different passage from Crick ... these people expressed more skepticism about free will — and promptly cut themselves some moral slack while taking a math test.

Asked to solve a series of arithmetic problems in a computerized quiz, they cheated by getting the answers through a glitch in the computer that they'd been asked not to exploit. The supposed glitch, of course, had been put there as a temptation by the researchers, Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara. … This behavior in the lab, the researchers noted, squares with studies in recent decades showing an increase in the number of college students who admit to cheating."

Tierney was talking about cheating on tests, but if you ask me, it's easy to extrapolate the argument to dating: I think people who tell themselves that free will is an illusion — and that they therefore have little or no control over their primitive hormonal urges or their bad behaviors — they're a lot more likely to break promises, sneak around, and generally behave badly.

Tierney quotes one study by Vohs and Schooler like this: "Doubting one's free will may undermine the sense of self as agent. Or, perhaps, denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes."


So perhaps it's good to know that, as Tierney notes, "there is also a school of philosophers — in fact, perhaps the majority school — who consider free will compatible with their definition of determinism. These compatibilists believe that we do make choices, even though these choices are determined by previous events and influences. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer, 'Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.'"

Anyway, all this makes me think we've landed on a great first date conversation. Discussion topic for your next get together with your guy: free will! What do you think?