Free Will and Determinism [22]

Discuss the question of free will & determinism in respect of human behaviour [22]

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Define “Free Will” & "Determinism"

Define “Free Will”

The view that our behaviour is determined by our own will rather than by other forces. Individuals have an active role in choosing their own behaviour. They are free to choose any course of action, and are not determined by internal and external pressures.

Define “determinism”

The view that an individual’s behaviour is shaped or controlled by internal or external forces, rather than an individual’s will to do something. This means that behaviour should be predictable, and an effect should be attributable to a cause.

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Skinner & Bandura

Determinism states that we have little or no control over our behaviour, whether internal or external. Most approaches in psychology are determinist to an extent.. E.g. genes, evolution, our biological system, our cognitive system, the social environment, the cultural environment, events in childhood, personality, mental health etc.

One of the main assumptions of the behaviourist approach is that psychology should be scientific and empirical and consequently vote for a hard determinist side of the debate because science also believes that all events are caused. Behaviourists assume that all behaviour is determined by past experiences and is controlled by external forces in the environment. It sees people as a product of their environment and of conditioning. This is environmental determinism. Skinner saw free will as an illusion; the environment governs our behaviour.

The behaviourist theories of operant and classical conditioning are good examples of hard environmental determinism

Skinner argued that we repeat behaviour which is reinforced, and don’t repeat behaviour which is punished; Consequently, Skinner suggests that we should abandon our belief in freewill. He argued that the way to change human behaviour is to structure society so that people are rewarded and punished accordingly, leading to behaviour modification, and by ignoring what he saw as meaningless notions like freedom and dignity.

Bandura pointed out a serious limitation with Skinner’s approach. He argued that if people were truly only determined rewards and punishments, that people’s behaviour would change like a “weather vane”, constantly shifting depending upon the rewards and punishments received. However, we know that this is not the case, and that in humans in particular, we are more driven by long term goals.


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Freud believed that all physical phenomena were determined by the principles of causality, and so were predictable.He used the term psychic determinism to express the idea that all behaviour is motivated by the unconscious. The libido is an unconscious drive which is inborn and therefore it inevitably determines much of our behaviour. Freud claimed that none of our behaviour just happens. Even what would appear to be unintentional behaviour such as calling someone by the wrong name would be driven by unconscious impulses (these slips of the tongue he called Freudian slips)

There is evidence that some aspects of behaviour are governed by things beyond our control. For example Motley et al (1983) obtained evidence for Freudian slips. Male participants had to say out loud word pairs that could easily be turned into sexual words. When the experimenter was an attractive woman, the men were more likely to make Freudian slips, for example cool-**** instead of tool-kits. It would be difficult to explain these findings in terms of free will.

Freud developed a lot of his theories on his work as an analyst with people suffering from mental disorders. This may be the reason why he assumed that behaviour was determined by forces beyond their control. His conclusions and theories therefore may only apply to specific types of behaviour (i.e. mental illness).

 Again, similarly to Skinner, Freud’s theories ignore other possible things that could determine behaviour. His focus was on unconscious forces.However, the psychodynamic approach, although mainly deterministic, believed that there is a potential for free will. Freud stated that psychoanalysis is based on the belief that people can change their behaviour. 

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Biological Determinism...Evolutionary Explanations

Biological determinism, is the idea that behaviour is under the control of internal biological factors including genetics, neurochemistry, brain structures and the hormonal system. The biological approach explains all behaviour and mental disorder in terms of these factors. 

Often, a high concordance rate is found between genetically similar people, which suggests a genetic basis for particular behaviours or mental illnesses.  Linked in with genetic explanations are evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. This assumes that our behaviour can be explained by the inheritance of physical and psychological characteristics. This must be so as only inherited characteristics can be naturally selected and passed on to the next generation. A key example of this is the research carried out by Buss, who argued that human mating behaviour is best explained through evolutionary adaptation. Also, Bennett-Levy and Marteau argues that we are genetically predetermined to fear some animals more than others.

An issue with evolutionary explanations is that they cannot explain a lot of behaviour that appears to go against what evolutionary psychology would predict. For example, evolutionary explanations describe human mating behaviour as being driven by the desire to reproduce. However, while it may be that we can determine some mating behaviour through evolution, the fact that humans use contraception to deliberately avoid reproduction suggests some aspect of free will to our behaviour.

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“the butterfly effect”

On the other hand, determinism is essentially unfalsifiable. If a cause cannot be found for some aspect of behaviour, this is not to say that a cause does not exist, but simply that it hasn’t yet been discovered and falsifiability is a prerequisite for a scientific method.

Hard determinism has been applied extensively in other sciences (especially physics). In physics, this initially seemed like a sensible approach to take, as it was assumed by early physicists that we would eventually have the means to make very accurate cause and effect predictions. However, Chaos theory (Hilborn 1994) suggested that very small changes in initial conditions can produce major changes later on. This was summed up in the famous example known as “the butterfly effect”; a butterfly can flap its wings in New York, and it would ultimately cause a tornado in San Francisco. Such a chain of events doesn’t lend itself to prediction, and so we can’t show that an approach based on hard determinism is appropriate. More generally, it is impossible to test directly the assumptions of hard determinism. 

The moral implication of assuming hard determinism means that people, including criminals, cannot be held responsible for their actions. This poses certain ethical questions. If someone commits a crime, can we punish them if their behaviour was the result of forces beyond their control? This would have important implications for methods of punishment such as prison. For example, Stephen Mobley in 1981, As such, determinism is inconsistent with society’s ideals of self-control and responsibility that underlie all our moral and legal assumptions. Only extreme examples of determinism are taken into account (e.g. insanity).

It could be argued that Freud and Skinner’s deterministic theories take the responsibility of behaviour away from the individual, and places it on parents/society. This could have ethical and moral implications. 

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Free Will

Evidence in favour of free will is subjective experience. Most people believe they have free will, and it fits with a common sense view of the world. However, just people believe that they have free will it does not necessarily mean that they do. If Skinner is right, free will is an illusion! Also, the concept of self-determining (being able to make your own decisions) may be culturally relative. It may be more appropriate for an individualistic than collectivist culture.

Another argument in favour of free will it that it fits with society’s view that people should accept responsibility for their actions, and should expect to be punished if they break the law. Our legal system is built on the principle that people can be held accountable for their own actions, and this concept is always adhered to except in cases where it may be argued that the individual was not responsible (mentally handicapped people and children for example).

 Determinism is based on the assumption that all behaviour has a cause, and therefore it could be argued that free will implies that behaviour is random and without cause. However, very few people would want to argue for such an extreme position. If free will doesn’t imply that behaviour has no cause, then we need to know how free will plays a part in causing behaviour.  If we have chosen to do a particular behaviour, where did that choice come from?

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Free Will ...

As well as free will is unscientific. All sciences are based on the assumption of determinism. It may be possible that determinism applies to the natural world, but does not apply to humans. If that is true, it has enormous implications for psychology. Similarly to determinism, free will is unfalsifiable.

The issue of free will vs. determinism is unlikely to be solved for many years, if ever for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is still not clear what we actually mean by free will. It is hard to provide a precise account of what is meant by free will. If free will has an effect on human behaviour, we should be able to define it precisely.

Secondly, this issue is more philosophical than scientific, as it is almost impossible to design an experiment to decide whether free will influences human behaviour, although there have been some attempts. The experimental situation forces a whole of host of determinants for behaviour onto the participants; Thus, we may never know whether an individual’s behaviour would have been different if they so willed it. 

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Valentine (1992) “Determinism seems to have the ed

Thirdly, the whole topic of free will vs. determinism may be artificial and of less concern to psychologists than previously thought. If free will is the product of conscious thinking and decision making and we can explain such processes in terms of brain activities, then free will can be explained as a part of a determinist network. In other words, free will is an aspect of behaviour determined by the brain. In this way, we could argue that free will and determinism are essentially the same thing, and trying to argue for one over the other is pointless!

The issue of free will vs. determinism was considered in detail by Valentine (1992). In spite of its various criticisms, she came to the conclusion that “Determinism seems to have the edge on this difficult debate.” 

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Tina Patel


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