Recent research on free will: Conceptualizations, beliefs, and processes

This chapter summarizes research on free will. Progress has been made by discarding outmoded philosophical notions in favor of exploring how ordinary people understand and use the notion of free will. The concept of responsible autonomy captures many aspects of layperson concepts of free will, including acting on one's own (i.e., not driven by external forces), choosing, using reasons and personal values, conscious reflection, and knowing and accepting consequences and moral implications. Free will can thus be understood as form of volition (action control) that evolved to enable people to live in cultural societies. Much work has shown that belief in free will (as opposed to disbelief) is associated with actions that are conducive to functioning well in culture, including helpfulness, restraint of aggression, learning via counterfactual analysis, thinking for oneself, effective job performance, and appropriate gratitude. Belief in free will increases in response to misdeeds by others, thus emphasizing the link to personal responsibility. Research on volition indicates that self-regulation, intelligent reasoning, decision making, and initiative all deplete a (common) limited energy source, akin to the folk notion of willpower and linked to the body's glucose supplies. Free will is thus not an absolute or constant property of persons but a variable, fluctuating capability—one that is nonetheless highly adaptive for individuals and society. The notion that people have free will has been invoked in multiple contexts. Legally and morally, it explains why people can be held responsible for their actions. Theologically, it was used to explain why a supposedly kind and omniscient god would send most of the people he created to hell (Walker, 1964). Yet, for such an important concept, there remains wide-ranging disagreement and confusion over its existence and its nature. For example, philosophers still debate whether humans truly have free will and, if so, under what conditions human volition deserves to be considered free (Kane, 2011). In psychology, most theorists believe that humans engage in self-control, rational choice, planning, initiative, and related acts of volition. The debate is not whether these things occur but merely whether these should be called free will. This chapter will provide an overview of recent psychology experiments concerned with free will. There are three main and quite distinct sets of problems, each with associated lines of research. The first is concerned with how people understand the idea of free will. The second concerns the causes and consequences of believing in free will. The third focuses on the actual volitional processes that guide human action.
Keywords free will  volition  self-regulation  decision making
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