[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:12.4] MB: Welcome to The Science of Success. I’m your host, Matt Bodnar. I’m an entrepreneur and investor in Nashville, Tennessee and I’m obsessed with the mindset of success and the psychology of performance. I’ve read hundreds of books, conducted countless hours of research and study and I am going to take you on a journey into the human mind in what makes peak performance tick, with the focus on always having our discussion rooted in psychological research and scientific fact, not opinion.
In this episode, we go deep on free will. Does free will exist? How does quantum physics impact the existence of free will? We look at the neuro science behind the concept of free will and look at whether conscious decision making exists at all or if all of our decisions arise from within the subconscious with Dr. Alfred Mele. When I say we go deep on this episode, fair warning to our listeners, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds on this one but there are some fascinating takeaways.
The science of success continues to grow with more with more than 750,000 downloads. Listeners in over a hundred countries, hitting number one new noteworthy, and more. I get listener comments and emails all the time asking me, “Matt, how do you organize and remember all this incredible information?” A lot of our listeners are curious about how I keep track of all the incredible knowledge you get from reading hundreds of books, interviewing amazing experts, listening to podcast, and more.
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In our previous episode, we discussed how you can tap into your subconscious mind and reprogram it, the eight step process for overcoming anxiety and conquering your fears, how to stop a panic attack in real time, how to get deeper sleep, the power of hypnosis and much more with Justin Stenstrum. If you want to conquer fear and anxiety, listen to that episode.
[0:02:21.8] MB: Today, we have another fascinating guest on the show, Al Mele. Al is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University. He’s the director of philosophy in science of self-control project. The previous director of the big questions and free will project. He is also the author of over 200 articles and 10 books including Free Will and Luck, Self-Deception Unmasked, and Free: Why science hasn’t disproved free will.
Al, welcome to the science of success.
[0:02:50.0] AM: Thanks.
[0:02:50.6] MB: We’re super excited to have you on the show today. For listeners who may not be familiar with you, tell us a little bit kind of about yourself, your story, and fill in some gaps from that bio that I wrote.
[0:03:01.1] AM: Let’s see. I was an undergrad first at Kalamazoo college for a year, it was a little too preppy for me I guess so I went back to Detroit where I’m from and went to Wayne State University as an undergrad. That’s where I got interested in philosophy. Then for grad school, I moved down to the University of Michigan.
I wrote my dissertation on Aristotle’s theory of human motivation, and my first job which I had for 21 years was at Davidson college in North Carolina, a wonderful place and I moved to Florida State University in 2000.
[0:03:38.5] MB: One of the topics that you’re obviously a big kind of expert in, you’ve written a lot about, talked a lot about is freewill, which is something that I find to be really fascinating. How do you define the concept of freewill?
[0:03:50.6] AM: Well, that itself is a disputed matter, what I have done, especially in my book Free, a book for the general public, is to offer three different ways of thinking about what are the expression “free will” means. I use a gas station model. We have regular gas, and mid-grade gas, and premium gas. We could think of three different grades of freewill.
At the regular level, what would be sufficient for making a free decision for example or we could say “exercise in freewill in making a decision” is just that the person is sane and rational, well informed, not deceived, not compelled by anything or anyone and makes a decision on basis of good information. That would be an up for regular freewill.
Then to move on to the next level, the mid-grade level, what you need is this certain kind of openness. I call it “deep openness” and one way to think about it anyway is, you need to be able to have decided otherwise holding the entire past of the universe and all the laws of nature fixed. How do you picture that? Well, maybe you can imagine rolling back time a bit and then rolling it forward to the moment of decision and on this rewind, the person makes a different decision than he made the first time.
Maybe the first time he decided to have dinner at McDonalds and the next time he decided to have dinner at Chez Pierre and everything else was the same up until that time. For it to be like that, the laws that govern relevant brain activity would have to be, we say “probabilistic” as opposed to exceptionalist. There would have to be real indeterminism in the brain. For the mid-grade freewill, then you add that deep openness to the mix that I described sanity, rationality, well informedness and so on.
Then you bump up to mid-grade freewill. Then, the third conception I offer and it’s out there in the world, it’s far from being the dominant conception. Adds something else to that mix and what is added is some sort of soul or immaterial mind. Something that really transcends the natural order. Some people think you need that in order to have freewill.
That’s a conception of freewill I don’t say a lot about in anything I’ve written but it is out there in the world, as I said.
[0:06:37.6] MB: I’d love to hear a little bit more kind of about the concept of deep openness and how that relates to indeterminism or determinism.
[0:06:46.0] AM: Yeah, you know, you might wonder, well why do some people require deep openness for free will? It’s because they’re thinking that in order for a decision to be free, just to focus on decisions for now, you need to have been able to do otherwise than make that decision. Then, they need to think about what it is to be able to do otherwise. In this mid-grade way of thinking, what it is that the whole world up until then and all the laws of nature left opened alternative possibilities, other ways you could have decided.
Now, how is that going to be? How is it going to be left open? Well, only if the way the world works actually includes this kind of openness and the openness needs to be in the brain. Maybe another way to get at it is by thinking about what’s called determinism. Now, there’s a whole school of philosophy and a dominant school in this area, according to which determinism is compatible with freewill.
Now, what some people mean by determinism, I can tell is well whatever that thing is, that renders freewill impossible, whatever that thing is that precludes freewill. Obviously, compatibilists aren’t thinking of determinism in that way because then they couldn’t be compatibilists.
Here’s the way to think about determinism, this is the most common way in the freewill literature and it’s the way it’s thought about in physics too. A universe is deterministic if a complete description of all the laws of nature and a complete description of the universe at any given time entails all other truths about the universe so that if you have a super intelligence who knew all the laws of nature and knew the state of the universe at any time.
That person could deduce from that knowledge, everything that whatever happened. The deep openness people are saying, if a universe is like that, there can’t be freewill in it. In order for there to be freewill, those complete lists of the laws and of a description of the universe at a time, have to leave open different possibilities for decision makers.
[0:09:15.5] MB: Is that where sort of quantum physics potentially kind of keeps the door open from sort of a purely physical and deterministic standpoint for the possibility that sort of because the quantum world itself is indeterminant, the possibility for free will remains?
[0:09:32.9] AM: Yes, it does. I mean, what you would need to do then is to have the thought that quantum indeterminacy isn’t only out there outside of our heads in that part of the world, it’s also in that part of the world that is us and our brains.
What you would need is something like quantum indeterminacy in the brain.
[0:09:57.4] MB: I think these concepts are interrelated, tell me about the difference between kind of the dualistic conception of freewill and the more naturalistic conception of it.
[0:10:07.1] AM: Yeah, so when philosophers talk about dualism, it’s usually what’s called substance dualism that they have in mind and substance dualism is the idea that there are two different kinds of thing in the world or two different kinds of entity in the world.
There are all the physical things including our bodies and then there is a different kind of thing that isn’t physical. It’s soul or a mind, a nonphysical mind. Dualistic conceptions of freewill would be at that premium level in the freewill gas station.
[0:10:47.1] MB: What about a more sort of naturalistic conception of freewill in the sense of our biology and our environment impacts whether or not we’re sort of truly free and independent decision makers?
[0:10:59.9] AM: Right. Both of the first two kinds of freewill are naturalistic. The regular kind is naturalistic, it just depends on this natural things that I mentioned, sanity, rationality being uncompelled, un-coerced, well informed and so on and the mid-grade freewill, at least on my conception of it, is also naturalistic. It doesn’t depend on anything nonphysical. One thing it does depend on is that the laws that govern brain activity are not, some people say, deterministic or exception less. It depends on their being probabilistic.
Now, you can try to mix something that isn’t really naturalistic into that second conception of free will but that’s not my way of doing it. Oh, and by the way, I have written now an 11th book that will be out in the spring, they’re saying April or May. Again by Oxford University Press and it’s aspects of agency and the main task in that book, though not the only task is to motivate this mid-grade conception of freewill and to try to solve the main theoretical problems for it.
[0:12:18.4] MB: Within that book, what is your take on kind of the idea that are we able to have — this is kind of awkwardly phrased, but are we able to have decided otherwise or does our environment sort of prime us to really make decisions in a way that we already would have made them?
[0:12:38.6] AM: Yeah, that’s a good question. The way I think of freewill on any of this conceptions really is that although we are strongly influenced by upbringing, learning history environment, et cetera, there is some room left for freedom. So it’s not as though there are all those forces out there and then they just somehow go through us and generate decisions, we’re actively involved in some of the decision making. On the mid-grade conception of freewill, sometimes that active involvement is such that we could have decided otherwise than we did holding everything else fixed.
Now, there is no powerful evidence that the brain is indeterministic in that way but there is also no powerful evidence that the brain is deterministic in that way, where determinism is understood in the sense I explained earlier. Science, as far as I can see, leaves open the mid-grade freewill. Science doesn’t strongly support it, but it doesn’t also strongly go against it. It’s a wide open possibility.
[0:13:55.7] MB: We’ve examined sort of the three major models of freewill and we’ve kind of started touching on whether or not they exist. I’m curious, where do you land on each of those models and whether or not we have freewill?
[0:14:10.5] AM: Okay good. The first kind of freewill, the regular kind, I’m very confident that we have and if you think of the conditions again, all you have to do is ask yourself whether you and other people in your opinion ever satisfy those conditions. Again, these are just sufficient conditions. I’m not saying they’re even required for freewill, but if you satisfy them, you have all you need.
Sane; are and I sane? Well, yes. Rational? Largely so. Well informed? Sometimes. Undeceived? Sometimes. Do we make decisions sometimes on the basis of good information? Yes, we do. We can tell that those decisions were good sometimes too because things play out the way we planned and we and others benefit from our decisions. We achieve our goals. So, regular freewill I have no doubt about, it exists.
The mid-grade, I don’t know. As I mentioned, I think it’s wide open scientifically but I don’t know that the brain works in the way it would need to work in order for us to have that deep openness and this is something I think we won’t know for a very long time. To know it, we’d have to be able to do brain physics at a level at which we can’t do it now. Maybe later, maybe there will be a time.
The third kind of freewill really does depend on something supernatural. I’m an evidence-driven person and I can’t say there’s good evidence for these supernatural powers that we would need in order to have the third kind of freewill.
[0:15:56.5] MB: Now, you’re obviously a philosopher but you’ve done a lot of research and studied deeply the neuroscience are around freewill. What does the science say in terms of the existence of freewill?
[0:16:08.7] AM: Well, it’s often said that the science shows that there is no freewill but to explain why it doesn’t, I can describe an early experiment that got this ball rolling in the neuroscience literature and then explain why it doesn’t show that there is no freewill. Actually, I can describe this experiment for you in probably three minutes.
The subject’s task was to flex their risk whenever they wanted and then after they flexed, they were supposed to report where the spot or hand was on a very fast clock when they first felt the urge to flex right then. They’re hooked up to two machines so EEG ratings are taken from the scalp and that gives you a measurement of changes in electrical conductivity on the scalp and then measurements were taken from the wrist muscle.
When subjects were regularly reminded to be spontaneous, that it’s not to think about when to flex and not to plan in advance when to do it, you got an EEG ramp up about 550 milliseconds, a little more than half a second before muscle motion. But the average time of first reported awareness of the intention or urge or whatever to flex right then was just 200 milliseconds, two tenths of a second before muscle motion.
The scientist who did this work, Benjamin Libet said, “Well look what’s going on is that minus 550 milliseconds, the brain is deciding and the person doesn’t become conscious of the decision for about another third of a second.” Then he said, “Well look, if decisions are unconscious then they’re not free. They need to be conscious in order to be free,” and then he generalized from his judgment about this case of decision making to all cases and claimed that all decisions are made unconsciously so no decisions are free. These are decisions to do things in particular.
That experiment really got the ball rolling. It was much discussed in the mid-1980’s, it was done a little bit earlier than then but there was a famous behavioral and brain science paper published in 1985 by Libet. Then interest sort of died out for a while and then it was all brought back by Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist in London, who did newer Libet style experiments with better technology, also EEG. Then other scientists subsequently did studies like this using FMRI, which measures changes in blood flow in the brain or depth electrodes with epilepsy patients.
In this case, sometimes epilepsy patients have a condition so bad that it can’t properly be treated by drugs and they opt for surgery. Part of the skull is removed to do diagnostics and if they like, they can participate in neuroscience experiments. Some experiments were done with epilepsy patients using depth electrodes or electrode grids directly on the brain. You get readings directly form the brain, which are much more accurate than EEG.
All this studies have been claimed by some people at least, to show that there is no freewill because the studies claim to show that decisions in them, in those studies are made unconsciously and therefore not freely. If you go back to Libet, you do have a question, what happens at minus 550 milliseconds? Is that when a decision to flex right then is made or is something else going on? Once you ask that question, you should ask, well how long does it take a decision to do something now with your hand to cause muscle motion in the hand? Does it take a little over a half a second or does it take some other amount of time?
You know, there are ways to get evidence about that. For one thing, you could look for or do them yourself if you have a lab. Look for reaction time studies in which people are watching a clock that would make it pretty similar to Libet’s experiment. In reaction time studies, subjects know what they’re supposed to do when they get a go signal and what they’re supposed to do is do that thing right away. So you could do reaction time study where you say, “Hey look, when this clock face changes from white to red, what I want you to do is to flex right then. Or when you hear a tone, while you’re watching the clock, I want you to flex as soon as you can after the tone.”
Now, studies like this have been done and in some of them, the mean time between the sounding of the go signal and muscle motion is 231 milliseconds. But if the way it works is, you hear the tone and hearing it or detecting it generates an intention to do the action, which then generates muscle motion, the intention to do that action right then is going to arise after 231 milliseconds before muscle motion.
That indicates that the time at which the intention to do the thing now, I call this proximal intentions, arises is much closer to the time of muscle motion than Libet thought and in fact, it’s very close to the average time of first reported awareness, around 200 milliseconds.
Another study that was done recently and this is a study that’s actually better than one that I suggested in my book, Effective Intentions, because the technology now is better. You tell people, “Either press the left button or the right button and it’s going to be up to you but I don’t want you to decide which one to press until you get a signal and treat that signal as a decide signal.” It says, “Okay, go ahead and decide now and then do it.”
Now, that signal Libet was detecting from the EEG is called the type two readiness potential. So it’s got a certain shape. I could draw it for you if we had video. He was measuring from a lot of the brain. You can also do lateralized readiness potential. You measure from the left side of the brain or you measure from the right side of the brain and in the case of hand motions, of course, the left side of the brain controls the right hand. The right side of the brain controls the left hand.
In this study that I’m talking about now that use lateralized readiness potentials. What they discovered is that there was no difference in the EEG before the tone in cases in which people pressed the left button and cases in which they pressed the right button. That’s evidence that a decision hadn’t yet ben made because if it had it would have shown up in the EEG and the meantime between the go signal and muscle motion was about a 150 milliseconds, which indicates that decisions to do things now don’t arise until about a 150 milliseconds before muscle motion when we’re talking about hand movements anyway.
But then, that too goes very strongly against Libet’s argument that he has shown that brains in his studies are making decisions unconsciously, it looks like the decisions aren’t made until about 150 milliseconds before muscle motion and that’s well within the time of average reported awareness of the urge or decision or intention or whatever. So this kind of problem arises for all of the neuroscience studies that have been claimed to show that there’s no freewill because our decisions are made unconsciously.
[0:24:09.3] MB: To kind of sum this up or explain it in a way that listeners can really simply grasp, the research or much of the neuroscience, people like Libet and some Haggard and some of the others, showed that, or at least their initial finding was that when people said they made a decision, the 500 milliseconds before that, their subconscious was doing something that may have been the decision.
Explain to me why that’s not necessarily an accurate representation of kind of how people think?
[0:24:39.6] AM: Well, I think just to keep it really short and simple, our evidence indicates that even in the experiments like this, the actual decisions or intentions arise much closer to muscle motion than Libet, Haggard, and so on thought and the reason they thought this decisions or intentions were unconscious is they thought they were popping up over half a second before muscle motion. But the evidence actually indicates that they pop up much later, about 150 milliseconds before muscle motion. That’s around the time people say they were aware of their decisions or intentions.
So if you treat those awareness reports seriously, what you should be thinking is, “Oh, this decisions and intentions are consciously made.” But if their consciously made, the whole argument for no freewill goes away. Because the argument rested on the plane that the decisions and intentions in these studies were unconsciously made.
[0:25:42.9] MB: What was Libet picking up that was happening 500 milliseconds before somebody moved their hand?
[0:25:48.5] AM: I think preparation to move. These subjects only had one thing to do really and it was flex their wrist from time to time and then try to keep track of where the spot was on the clock when they became aware of their urge to do it. So after a while if you haven’t flexed for a while, you’re going to be getting ready to do it even if you haven’t decided exactly when you’re going to do it and that getting ready will show up in the EEG. Actually, if we were to do an EEG experiment where you know what I’m going to do, when I get a go signal like you know that I’m going to flex my right wrist.
When you see the go signal you’re going to show some EEG and it won’t be as powerful as mine, the ramp won’t be as high but it will be similar in shape and what does that indicate? Well you’re expecting something to happen and somehow you’re reacting to it in a certain way, a certain measurable way. Well, I was once a subject to the Libet style experiment, I guess it was 11 years ago now and I knew that sooner or later, I was going to be flexing because in these studies you have to do this at least 40 times what you did back then to get data that you could use.
And so, I figured I was preparing from time to time for a flex pretty soon without yet having decided exactly when that would happen and that preparation will show up in the EEG. So the short version is, I think what Libet detected is a part of a process that sooner or later would result in an intention to do the thing right then. Oh, you know I should add one more thing because sometimes as I go on about this, people wonder, “Well aren’t brain events of which you’re ultimately unconscious among the causes of your decisions or intentions anyway?” and I say, “Yes definitely they are.”
I can’t imagine decisions and intentions that aren’t caused by brain events, or at least I have the very hard time getting my mind around that. So there is of course a brain process going on that’s going to result in a decision or intention in these studies but the question is are those decisions or intentions made unconsciously? And the answer is, they don’t have good evidence that they are and in fact the evidence seems to indicate that they are made consciously.
You might wonder, “Why does it matter if they are made consciously if they’re caused by brain events?” Well, it mattered to Libet and Wagner and Haggard and so on because their argument was, because they are made unconsciously, they are not made freely.
[0:28:41.2] MB: So one of the distinctions here that I am curious about that I see you delineating is the difference between conscious and unconscious decision making and how that impacts the definition of free will but side stepping the question of, “Well then what impacts our conscious decision making and do we have control of that?” Right? And that’s where we give back into the loop of the discussion about deep openness and determinism in terms of infinite regression of questions about, “How many things could have impacted my conscious thought that I don’t have control over and how does that determine whether or not I have free will?”
[0:29:18.4] AM: Okay, good. Now in these experiments that I’m talking about, as you can tell, what the subjects are doing is randomly picking. They’re randomly picking the time to begin flexing and Libet studies and in studies where they press one button or the other many different times, they’re randomly picking which button to press this time and then reporting it when they became aware of their urges or intentions to do it.
Now human beings have automating tie breaking mechanisms that are really very useful in lots of situations. So you go into a supermarket and you have your shopping list and maybe you have a 16 ounce jar of Planter’s peanuts on your shopping list and you get to the Planter’s peanut display and you see hundreds of jars all the same and you just reach out and pick one. So there no conscious thought that goes into which one to pick. It’s an arbitrary picking, you’re lucky that you have an automatic tie breaking mechanism, otherwise you’d be stuck there clueless about what to do.
So those pickings are driven by brain events. We don’t really know ourselves as agents why we’d pick exactly the jar we picked. There are some theories about why we do. It has to do with the dominant hand and how high your eyes are and where the stuff is in the display. So there, there is no real place for conscious reasoning about what to do. But now switch over to another domain like the work place and so maybe you have a really good job and somebody offers you a job that looks like it might be better.
And maybe you live in a place you really like and this other job is in a place that isn’t so nice, in your opinion, and now things are complicated and you’re thinking about where your family is and so on and you try to weigh up factors so that you can make the best decision for you and people you care about. Now here, a lot of thinking goes into it and of course you are influenced by your upbringing, your environment, what you care about and so on. But in the end, you’re going to make a decision and it might well be a rational decision.
So decisions like this are really not much like the decisions being studied in these neuroscience experiments. Here the influence on you is enormous of things, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no place left for you to exert an influence on how your life goes. So I think maybe some people think if you have free will then you’re just not influenced by anything when you make decisions, and I don’t think of freewill any way like that. Of course, we’re part of the world we’re influenced by all kinds of things and I think that’s quite compatible with free will.
[0:32:17.8] MB: And I think that’s the idea that trips me up in the conception of the existence of free will, thinking more about these bigger decisions. I guess what you’re saying is the notion of having a “totally independent decision” is really impossible and doesn’t exist but perhaps despite all of the factors influencing us, our environment, our upbringing, the subconscious biases, tendencies, we can make decisions despite all of those influences that are still, to some degree, free.
[0:32:50.9] AM: Yeah, that’s the idea. So we could say “still to some degree free”. In fact that’s perfect. Or “still to some degree up to us”. As I mentioned, I have a very naturalistic conception of freewill. There’s nothing magical or spooky in it. One way to think about it might be in sort of a courtroom context and we might think, “Well is this guy guilty of this crime?” and you might think, “Well he’s sane and rational. Nobody forced him to do it,” and so on.
“Yes, he is,” you might say. “But if he didn’t do it freely then how could he be responsible? How could he be guilty?” And so if you think of free will in that kind of context, it doesn’t seem all that magical at all. It’s just part of ordinary life and that would at least put us at the regular level of free will. We don’t want courts to try to decide whether people have deep openness. That’s a difficult theoretical and scientific question. Or another way to bring free will down to earth is to tie it to a moral responsibility.
And moral responsibility really is a matter of deserving some credit from a moral point of view for a good thing you do or some blame from a moral point of view for a bad thing you do and we might ask ourselves, “So do people ever deserve a little moral credit or do they ever deserve a little moral blame at least?” So we ask, “Are they sane and rational and so on. Could they help what they did?” And when we come to an answer, we might think, “Oh sure. They sometimes deserve moral credit, sometimes moral blame.”
Then your next question might be, “So, does deserving moral credit and deserving moral blame depend on free will?” A very natural answer to that question is, “Yes.” Well natural in the sense that it is very common. So you might think, “Oh no free will, then no moral responsibility, then no deserved credit or blame,” and if you think about freewill from that perspective sort of the real world, down to earth, just moral credit and moral blame, you might be thinking, “So free will doesn’t require anything magical or mystical or supernatural.”
[0:35:12.8] MB: In the vein of moral responsibility, I’d love to hear about the studies showing how people’s perception of whether or not they have free will can impact how they behave.
[0:35:24.3] AM: Oh yeah. Now these are interesting studies and we funded some with the big questions and free will project too. So if you diminish people’s confidence and freewill with certain manipulations, their behavior gets worse. Let me tell you about one of those studies. The first one that was done that I know of any way was done by Kathleen Voss and Jonathan Schooler and they divided their subject group into three groups.
One group read passages saying “there’s no free will”. Another group read passages saying “there is free will” and the third group read neutral passages and then their next task was to take a math quiz and they were told that the programmers messed up so that if they didn’t press the space bar right after the question showed up then the answer would show up right on the screen, in which way of course they could cheat and the group that read the “no free will” passages cheated significantly more often than the other two groups.
The other two groups behaved essentially the same which is evidence that belief in free will is a default belief for default assumption. They did a version of this in which subjects were paid a dollar for every correct answer. So by cheating you’re stealing and the people who read the “no free will” passages then stole more often than the other people. My friend and colleague at Florida State, Roy Baumeister published a study a year later in which the design was similar.
He had though just two groups, one group read “no free will” passages and the other group read neutral passages and then their next task was to serve snacks to people who were about to walk into the room and they were told two things about these people. They have to eat everything you put on their plate and they all really hate spicy food, and the group that read the “no free will” passages doled out way more of the spicy salsa option than the other group did.
You might wonder, “Well what’s going on there?” And maybe tacitly these subjects are thinking, “Hey no free will, you can’t blame me. I guess I’ll go for it,” and so they had an urge to do something a bit aggressive and they did it. So there, decrease in confidence in free will is causing aggressive behavior, making it more likely in any case.
Then there are studies done where people take a survey indicating how high their level of belief in free will is and then there are other measures like happiness measure, success measures, and so on — how satisfied they are at their job, how well they do at their job — and it turns out belief in freewill is correlated with positive things, success, happiness, long term relationships and so on. So at least believing in it is a useful thing. That’s what the evidence points, but I also think that we don’t have any good evidence to show that we shouldn’t believe in.
[0:38:33.3] MB: I wonder what it says about the existence of free will that are belief in free will or not can substantially change our behavior.
[0:38:41.6] AM: I don’t think you can infer directly from that that we do have free will. I mean what it indicates is that a belief in free will is useful and then too, you really want to know what these people are believing in when they’re believing in free will. So you want to know what they mean by free will too. I actually did a study myself a very simple survey style study to test the hypothesis that most people think that freewill requires souls or immaterial minds.
I’ll tell you how the study was set up; I had some control conditions I’ll leave them out because that makes it more complicated, and I’ll tell you what the main result was. So what I did was to present naïve subjects — we’ll call them subject with no background in this area — with the following story:
“It’s a certain year in the future and scientist have finally discovered that everything is physical, nothing is non-physical so decisions and intentions are brain events and they’re caused by other brain events which are caused by other events all the way back. John Jones saw a $20 bill fall out of the pocket of the person in front of him, he thought about returning it but he decided to keep it. Did John have free will at the time?”
That was one of the questions I asked anyway and 75% of people said yes. So what they’re saying, given that they understood the simple story, which I’m confident they did is that even though there is nothing non-physical or spiritual in John’s universe, he had free will when he made his decision.
So this is evidence, and there’s a lot of evidence for this actually, that a view of freewill that requires something supernatural of this kind is a minority view not a majority view and it’s evidence that the majority of people think of free will in a naturalistic kind of way. A kind of way I’ve been trying to persuade you is a reasonable way to think about it.
[0:40:49.1] MB: Let’s change gears completely. I’d love to dig in a little bit about the concept of self-deception. You wrote the book Self-Deception Unmasked, tell me a little bit about that?
[0:40:59.8] AM: Yeah, okay I’ll start with the old puzzle that drove early literature on self-control. What the old puzzle was, was based on a two person model of deception. So if I’m going to deceive you into believing some proposition P to believe that P is true, let’s say like that I own a Cadillac. So what I’ve got, I know that that proposition isn’t true and then I adopt a strategy to get you to believe that it is true. Like I’d go outside, find a Cadillac, have somebody take a picture of me looking like I’m about to go in and drive it.
Okay, but now imagine that we move all of this into one head. We think, “Oh we should model self-deception on interpersonal deception.” So now we have me say trying to deceive myself into believing that I own a Cadillac. Well how the heck am I going to do it? I know that I don’t, I could come up with a strategy, but how will it work given that I know that I don’t? So one thing that I did in that book Self-Deception Unmasked and in earlier work too, journal articles, was to argue that that really isn’t the model we should use for trying to figure out what self-deception means.
One way to go is you look at stock examples of self-deception and these stock examples include things like this: “There’s a man who overtime is getting more and more evidence that his wife is having an affair but he just doesn’t believe that she is and neighbors and friends can all tell, given the same evidence he’s got really, but he doesn’t believe.” So that would be one kind of case. Or, “There are parents who are getting a lot of evidence that their 13 or 14 year old kid is using illegal drugs but the parents just don’t believe it. Somehow they block out the evidence, they believe the other way.”
So those are stock examples of self-deception. One question to ask is, “Well, does that require that the person really knows the truth and then gets himself to believe the opposite?” No, I don’t think so and I think what’s going on in cases like this is what I call motivationally biased false believing. So what they’d like to be true is that wife isn’t having an affair, the kid isn’t using drugs and because they’d like that to be true, they focus more on evidence that is in support of their belief and they pretty much ignore, for the most part, evidence that goes against it.
Here, what I did because I don’t like this just to be pure theory. It’s supposed to be an explanation of how something happens, what I did was to look at the psychological work on belief formation and it turns out there’s lots of evidence that what you’d like to be true has an influence on what you believe is true and there are ways to see how it happens. There’s the confirmation bias for example.
So if you are testing a hypothesis, you’re more likely to notice evidence that confirms it than evidence that goes against it. So if the husband is testing the hypothesis that his wife is faithful as she always has been, he’s going to be much more likely to notice evidence for it than to notice evidence against it and the same thing with the parents and the young teenager.
[0:44:30.0] MB: So how do we combat or notice self-deception in ourselves?
[0:44:34.4] AM: Well I think one way to combat it is to try to force one self to be vigilant about things that are important to one and once we know about the confirmation bias, we can get ourselves to test the opposite hypothesis, the one that we would not like to be true and see what happens then. I think the more we know about how we work and our biases, the better able we will be to do away with the biases and to make more rational decisions and have more rational beliefs.
Here’s more evidence of self-deception; I report this early on in Self-Deception Unmasked. So there was a study on university professors done and the question was, “How good are you as a professor, how good are you at your job?” And 94% of the professors rated themselves as above average for professors and of course if average is about 50, it can’t be anything like 94% of people who are above average.
In a study of over a million high school students, one question was, “Rate yourself in ability to get along with others.” And all of them rated themselves above average in getting along with others, which is impossible of course and amazingly, 25% of the high school students rated themselves as in the top 1% of ability to get along with others. So what’s going on there?
Well, they’d like it to be true, the professors that they’re better than average and the students that they’re really good at getting along with others and that causes them, when they see the question, to focus on evidence of the truth of what they’d like to be true and not pay much attention to contrary evidence and so we get this powerful statistical evidence of self-deception.
[0:46:28.8] MB: For somebody that’s listening to this podcast, what’s one piece of homework that you would give them?
[0:46:34.8] AM: Oh, well if they’re interested in free will and they’re not a specialist in the area, I would recommend reading my little book, Free. It’s really very short, it’s easy to read, it’s Free: Why science hasn’t disprove free will, and I kept it simple and straight forward and I hope interesting. What happened really at that point was my dad who’s 92 now kept telling me — so he was 90 back then — “Why don’t you write something I can read and enjoy?” Because my writing tends to be technical.
And I said, “Okay dad, I’ll do it,” and with him in view — he’s a retired mailman — I wrote this book and then we had many conversations. He lives in Michigan, I live in Florida so most of him on the phone, sometimes in person about the book and he understood it very well and I think of the book as a public service, given that we keep seeing headlines online that scientist have shown that there is no freewill given that it’s not true that they have shown it and given that the news that there’s no free will seems to have bad effects on people, I see that little book as a public service of mine. I like thinking I’m public spirited and so that I would recommend to people interested in free will.
[0:47:54.4] MB: And where can people find you and the book online?
[0:47:57.7] AM: If they just Google my name, they will find my homepage. They should Google “Alfred Mele” though not Al Mele because if it’s Al Mele, it’s going to be Italian desserts and maybe me too, and there’s a link to the Oxford University Press page on all of my books published with them or they could just go to Amazon.com and type in the title of any of my books, or type in my name.
[0:48:25.6] MB: Well Al, this has been a fascinating conversation and definitely leaves me thinking a lot of things about free will and I think there’s a lot of stuff that I really need to do some thinking on my own about all of these different concepts. It’s so fascinating. I just wanted to say, thank you very much for being on the Science of Success.
[0:48:43.4] AM: Oh thank you and you know one more thing I should mention is there’s a PBS documentary on my big questions in Free Will Project. It’s in the Closer to Truth Series. It’s online now, I don’t know how long they’re going to keep it online but if people were to Google “big questions in free will” I’m pretty sure that will show up.
[0:49:03.5] MB: Great, well we’ll include all of that stuff in the show notes which you can just get at scienceofsuccess.co, so all the studies we’ve talked about, the documentary, the book and everything will all be linked up there for anybody that’s listening.
[0:49:15.3] AM: Sounds good.
[0:49:17.1] MB: All right, well thank you very much. We really appreciated having you on the show.
[0:49:20.0] AM: Thank you.
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