Belief in Free Will

Another line of research in the lab has investigated the impact of manipulating free will beliefs on subsequent behaviors and beliefs. Vohs & Schooler (2008)  found that participants who were told that science had ruled out free will believed less in free will and were more likely to cheat on various laboratory tasks. However, in a subsequent study, we demonstrated a possible benefit of discounting free will.  Specifically, we found that people appear to be less retributive in their sentencing judgments (Shariff et al., 2009) when exposed to the message that free will is an illusion. This research along with a more theoretical exposition of science’s role in informing the free will debate is discussed in a recent chapter (Schooler, 2010).

Most recently, we developed a study using an economic contribution game under varying time constraints to elucidate whether reducing belief in free will allows one to justify negative behavior or if the effects occur at a more intuitive level of processing (Protzko, Ouimette, & Schooler, 2016). Here we showed that although people are intuitively cooperative, challenging their belief in free will corrupts this behavior, leading to impulsive selfishness. If given time to think, however, people are able to override the initial inclination toward self-interest induced by discouraging a belief in free will. This study followed a previous line of research investigating the contribution of free will beliefs in supporting attributions of moral responsibility. Four studies investigated this relationship using both measured and manipulated free-will beliefs. Study 1 found that people with weaker free-will beliefs endorsed less retributive, but not consequentialist, attitudes regarding punishment of criminals. Subsequent studies showed that learning about the neural bases of human behavior, through either lab-based manipulations or attendance at an undergraduate neuroscience course, reduced people's support for retributive punishment (Studies 2-4). These results illustrate that exposure to debates about free will and to scientific research on the neural basis of behavior may have consequences for attributions of moral responsibility.

As these studies show, regardless of whether free will exists, believing that it does affects one's behavior.


Selected Publications


Jonathan Schooler

My lab’s research takes a “big picture” perspective in attempting to understand the nature of mental life, and in particular consciousness. Combining empirical, philosophical, and contemplative traditions, we address broad questions that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries.

James Elliott

James Elliott, Ph.D, is a cognitive neuroscientist with a background in behavioral, EEG, and fMRI methodologies. He has a keen interest in exploring how traditional meditation techniques can be used to help inform a scientific understanding of consciousness. 

John Protzko

Protzko is an Assistant Professor at Central Connecticut State University, Director of the ASSUMPTION lab, and Associate Director of the Psychological Science Accelerator. He studies underlying assumptions of people, scientists, and society. This work is primarily in metascience, social psychology, and cognitive psychology.

Jinny Kim

My name is Jinny Kim, and I am a 3rd year Biopsychology major and Applied Psychology minor. I am assisting James Elliott regarding fluctuations of experience and EEG during meditation. My specific interests are dream analysis and psychotherapy for criminals.

Kiana Sabugo

Kiana is interested in the relationship between meditation, mind wandering, and belief in free will. She completed an honors thesis with advisor James Elliott and graduated from UCSB in June of 2022 with a B.S. in Psychological & Brain Sciences and a B.A. in Philosophy. She is currently the assistant at UCSB's Brain Imaging Center.

Research Collaborators

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