Hi, I am new here and this blog post will be about my Bachelor’s thesis in experimental philosophy/social psychology, which was titled ‘The prosocial benefits of a multidimensional belief in determinism’. Its main focus is how a belief in determinism can be construed cognitively as a bidimensional concept. Moreover, I examined whether there are certain prosocial benefits to a belief in determinism.
In a way, one impetus to conduct this study was the controversy of the free will/determinism debate itself. One the one hand, mainstream science assumes that hard determinism (the thesis that ‘‘at any instant exactly one future is compatible with the state of the universe at that instant and the laws of nature”) is valid and this does not leave any room for free will. On the other hand, this is hard to believe for most people and I hypothesized that this is because there is such a strong subjective feeling (or illusion) of free will. If subjective feeling of free will really is the main reason for having free will beliefs, one might argue that it should be easier for people to be convinced that others are determined than to be convinced that they themselves are determined. In order to test this, I conducted an experiment in which three groups of people read different texts and later answered a questionnaire as a dependent measure. The participants in the two experimental groups were the ‘You [are determined]’ condition and the ‘People [are determined]’ condition. In both conditions participants read almost identical essays both explaining and arguing in favour of determinism.
The only difference between the texts was that the ‘You’-condition text addressed the reader in a direct way, whereas in the ‘People’-condition statements about determinism referred to “People” in general and was not self-referential. For instance, one sentence from the ‘You’-condition reads “[…] if you would have been planted on this earth as somebody else with the same genes and at the same time and the same place, then you would have acted exactly the same way as the other person would have”. In the other condition the same sentence reads: “[…]if someone would have been planted on this earth as somebody else with the same genes and at the same time and the same place, then that person would have acted exactly the same way as the other person would have.” (there was no emphasis added in the texts that participants read). [Incidentally, if you look at many texts about determinism one often notices that authors write like in the ‘you’- or ‘people’-condition (though, not necessarily in a systematic fashion).] The control group read a text about consciousness that did not deal with determinism, but the text was matched in length and complexity. My first hypothesis was that participants in the ‘People’-condition would be more convinced that determinism is valid for people in general, however, they would not agree more than the other groups that determinism is valid for the self. Participants in the ‘You’-condition should be neither convinced that determinism is valid for the self nor for others (and have the same beliefs like people in the control condition). This was confirmed by the later questionnaire, however, group differences were only approaching significance.
Another reason for conducting the study was that two recent articles in psychology apparently found that beliefs in determinism cause certain anti-social behaviors like stealing, cheating, and aggression. My thesis features criticisms of these studies and I argue that they are flawed both conceptually and methodologically. Moreover, in contrast to those studies, I hypothesized that the deterministic beliefs about others that were induced in the ‘People’-condition should actually have several prosocial benefits, e.g. in the form of more liberal attitudes. Indeed, participants in the ‘people’-condition had significantly lower scores on the “Belief in a just world for others”-scale, which has been shown to correlate negatively with prosocial behaviors like donating to homeless people and liberal attitudes. Scores on the “Belief in a just world for the self”-scale didn’t differ. In conclusion, this suggests that people can be persuaded in believing in a more deterministic world for other people only and that this makes them believe less in a just world for others- which in turn one could speculate makes them more prosocial and liberal.
You can download the thesis here: https://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0B-ky1zIxhwx_MzBiZjliMWYtNTQ3YS00NmM0LTg0MGUtNTY2NzQyOTliNWFh&hl=en
I would welcome criticism, feedback, comments, reading suggestions etc. I would also send the dataset to people who are interested. There are some statistical and methodological issues with the thesis, too, but I would like to follow up on this experiment and am searching for potential collaborators.
I still think the methodology of an experimental manipulation that is actually trying to convince people of determinism in a deeper way and not just prime/expose them to the idea is very appealing, but I feel that all experiments on lay people's beliefs in determinism suffer from some weaknesses.
For instance, it is very hard to convince someone of determinism completely within the restrictions of a psychological experiment and to completely overwrite preexisting, ‘chronic’ beliefs held formerly. Because of this I feel that when philosophers talk about the experiments that deal with deterministic beliefs, then this data is not really shedding light on what philosophers think of as beliefs in free will/determinism (the same holds true for data analysis of surveys e.g. the World value survey features a lot of determinism questions).
Some philosophers see those beliefs as rather clearly distinguished in a binary, either/or fashion- whereas lay people’s beliefs are on a (seemingly illogical) continuum between free will and determinism, that might not be so meaningful to analyze, especially in the view of making a recommendation on whether deterministic beliefs should be propagated. Most philosophers also do not take into account the bidimensionality that I have proposed above. Also, in a similar vein, I think that people doing research in this area rarely take into account that lay people can hold many seemingly contradictory beliefs - especially in this domain. A solution to address these questions could be to look at not such controlled/structured experiments, but rather to study the problem in fashion similar to those of assessing effectiveness of new school curricula or psychotherapy. One could, for instance, compare the political views and moral judgments of participants of two different undergraduate 'free will problem' courses that have different conclusions provided by the lecturer.
One other related idea that I currently have is creating models of when people believe that decisions are free and when they think they are determined. I think one main predictor here would be the perceived complexity and thus predictability of a behavior, which influences in how far people think that agents in a particular situation have free will i.e. could have acted differently and are not so determined by external forces. For instance, while the self is usually judged as having free will because of high complexity and low predictability, decisions of the past self are often said to be more (mono-)causally determined, because the behavior is highly predictable and does not appear so complex any longer.