Believing in Free Will: Consequences

One thrust of much of our recent laboratory work, including the research sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, has been to illuminate some of the effects of believing versus disbelieving in free will. This line of work was opened by Vohs and Schooler (2008), who found that experimentally reducing free will beliefs increased the likelihood that participants would overstate their performance on a subsequent task, thereby effectively stealing money from the experimenter, as participants were paid based on successful performance. A subsequent study by Baumeister, Masicampo, and DeWall (2009) showed that disbelief in free will contributed to higher rates of aggressive behavior and lower rates of helpful behavior.

More recent work has found additional consequences. Consistent with the view that free will is linked to autonomy, we have found that lowering belief in free will leads to conformity (Alquist, Ainsworth, & Baumeister, 2013). The conformity appeared to be a rather lazy way of avoiding the effort of thinking for oneself rather than a strategy to attach oneself to a group. Conformity operates as a shirking of responsible autonomy.  

Counterfactual thinking likewise responds to changes in beliefs about free will. Alquist, Ainsworth, Vohs, and Baumeister (2013/unpublished) had people reflect on a prior misdeed from their lives (or, in one study, a hypothetical offense) and make a list of things that could have happened differently. Disbelief in free will reduced the number of counterfactual thoughts people generated, whereas affirming free will increased it. In particular, thoughts about what a person could have done to produce a better outcome were particularly affected by the manipulation. Trait-style measurement of people’s habitual level of belief in free will showed similar effects, such that people who believed more in free will generated more counterfactual thoughts than other people.

It is tempting to regard the findings on counterfactual thought as stemming from a naïve incompatibilism. That is, determinism insists that only one outcome is possible in each situation: For something different to have happened, the causal chain would have to have been different all the way back to the origin of the universe. Disbelievers in free will therefore might simply assert on principle that nothing could have gone differently. But we think that interpretation is unlikely. More plausibly, belief in free will motivates people to think and act autonomously, and so they put in the mental effort to consider alternative courses of action that could have brought different consequences. Conversely, disbelief in free will may offer an appealing excuse for people to be lazy and not bother to consider alternative actions and outcomes.

The studies with counterfactuals also suggested a link between free will beliefs and moral responsibility. The procedures involved reflecting on misdeeds such as hurting another person. Indeed, much of the evidence about beliefs in free will involves moral behavior (e.g., Vohs & Schooler, 2008).

In any case, counterfactual reflection on one’s misdeeds is an important way that people learn to behave properly in human society and to improve their interpersonal relations and performances (Roese, 1997). We have depicted free will as a capability that evolved to enable people to participate in culture. Learning rules and consequences and then adjusting one’s behavior on that basis presumably constitute important aspects of that process. The finding that belief in free will contributes to people’s counterfactual thinking is thus very consistent with the view that people use free will to behave in socially and culturally useful ways.

The idea that beliefs in free will support culturally useful action patterns received further support in a series of studies on forgiveness by Shariff et al. (in press). They reasoned that blame is often motivated by the belief that one could have acted differently and is mitigated insofar as the offending action could not have been helped. Therefore, disbelief in free will should promote lesser punishments and greater forgiveness toward offenders. Consistent with that view, a series of studies found that disbelief in free will led to lesser punishments for hypothetical offenders and lesser advocacy of revenge and retributive punishment.

One study by Shariff et al. (in press) had people recall incidents from their own lives in which they had been mistreated or victimized and assessed how much they had forgiven the transgressor. The less they believed in free will, the more they indicated they had forgiven the other person. However, that effect depended on the closeness of the relationship to the other person. In close relationships, the effect disappeared. Other work has even pointed in the other direction, namely, that positive belief in free will is associated with forgiving others (see Baumeister & Brewer, 2012, for review).

The link to relationship closeness is revealing about the functions of belief in free will. When dealing with strangers and other people with whom one does not have a close, ongoing relationship, what matters is upholding the morals and values of the group. Free will is a basis for holding people responsible, which broadly promotes the sorts of actions useful for the culture. Therefore, belief in free will leads to calling for miscreants to be punished, so as to protect the cultural system. In contrast, when an intimate partner misbehaves, the goal is presumably to preserve the relationship. In such a case, one wants to believe that the other can change (so that the misdeed will not be repeated). Belief in free will is therefore conducive to forgiveness in close relationships, even if it is detrimental to forgiving crimes and misdeeds in society more generally. Put another way, one protects the culture by punishing those who violate its rules, but one protects a close relationship by forgiving partners who sincerely want to change for the better. Belief in free will supports both patterns.

The link between free will beliefs and moral responsibility is broadly evident (Baumeister & Brewer, 2012). It has led some thinkers into condemning the idea of free will as a rationalization for oppressing others (Miles, 2013). Against that view, Vonasch and Baumeister (2013) found that believers in free will were generally compassionate toward the poor and downtrodden. They felt more sympathy than others for poor people who were trying to improve their lot, and they had more belief in upward social mobility.

Last, some recent studies have shown that belief in free will contributes to finding life meaningful (Crescioni & Baumeister, 2013). Not only are people’s stable beliefs in free will correlated with rating life as more meaningful, but experiments showed that decreasing belief in free will caused a decrease in the perception of life as meaningful. In another experiment, increasing belief in free will caused people to set more meaningful goals, and did so with time frames extending further into the future, compared with other participants.

The meaningfulness findings are broadly consistent with the view of free will as the deliberate use of meaning to guide behavior. To be sure, they are based on beliefs about free will, and these could be mistaken or misguided, so they do not prove anything about the actual operation of free will. Still, if the findings had gone in the opposite direction, it would be difficult to maintain the view that free will involves using meaning to guide action.

The link between free will and finding life meaningful suggests a reason that many people are interested in the question of free will. Apparently, life loses some of its value and richness if one embraces the view that people are not making free choices but rather merely acting out preordained scripts.

One methodological concern emerges from the link between meaningfulness and free will. The manipulations of free will designed by Vohs and Schooler (2008) and used by others (including ourselves) have been criticized as ambiguous. It is possible that the operative part of the procedure is not specifically its attack on free will but rather a broader effect of taking away an important value. Against that view, however, Alquist et al. (2013) included in one study a condition involving a threat to life’s meaningfulness, and its results did not resemble the anti-free will condition. That is, telling people they had no free will caused an increase in conformity, but telling people that their lives were meaningless did not cause any such increase.


Baumeister, Roy F., Cory Clark, and Jamie Luguri. “Free Will: Belief and Reality,” chapter 4 of Mele, Alfred R., Surrounding Free Will: Philosophy, Psychology, Neuroscience (Oxford Scholarship Online, posted November, 2014), pp. 17–21. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199333950.003.0004.