WJEC A2 Psychology PY4 - Controversies: Free Will Vs. Determinism

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Free Will

  • that all behaviour results from a person's own active volition, that is, each person has freedom to control what he or she thinks or does, an individual is seen as being capable of self-determination
  • humanistic psychologists like Maslow believe in free will, eg deciding to kill another person. It is important to realise that free will does not mean randomness


  • position that all human thought and behaviour is determined by forces (internal or external) which are outside of a person's individual control, as opposed to an individual's will to do something
  • these forces can be internal (eg biological - genes like IGF2R that might influence intelligence) or external (eg environment - rewards or punishments) or (more likely) a mixture of the two
  • this means behaviour should be in theory predictable. BUT it may not necessarily lead to predictability, due to a complexity of determinants
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Free Will

1. Subjective Experience

POINT = subjective experience (Qualia) supports idea of free will. Language we use suggests 'we make up our own minds'. Cognitive psychologists argue subjective (perceived, if not real) control is important in resistance and development in stress/depression

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = Langer and Rodin's study of the sense of responsibility amongst old ppl suggested subjective feelings of free will and personal control increased health and longetivity, highlighting the importance of supposedly perceiving that we have free will/being in control of our lives on health and therefore the possibility of free will actually existing

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however, despite subjective sense of having free will, this is not proof of free will and difficult to imagine what would constitute as proof. We may think we are free but that is because causes of our behaviour are hidden from us eg unconscious thoughts/genetic factors. Also if we have free will, what is it that does the willing? Ridley (2003) suggests possibility of part of brain associated with volition: limbic system. If removed, an animal ceases to initiate activity, BUT surely this is a type of determinism (biological) as that part of the brain determines activity

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Free Will

2. People are self-determining

POINT = humanistic approach holds that people are free to choose their own destinies and they have capacity to change. Abraham Maslow, a prominent humanist, believed people are self-determining, and are often burdened or bewildered by importance choices to be made during lifetime eg uni choices. Choices that individuals make are done to try and maximise the meaningfulness of their own existence, but which varies from person to person


  • however, just being able to decide between courses of action is not free will but gives us the illusion of having free will, something which B.F Skinner believed.
  • Idea of self-determination may also be a culturally relative concept and is appropriate for individualist societies only. Collectivist cultures place greater value on behaviour determined by group needs eg arranged marriages are common in collectivist cultures whereas marrying who you choose is typical in individualist societies and an example of self-determination. Therefore it is difficult to accept that self-determination actually exists as it doesn't seem to apply to everyone and is perhaps an illusion in individualist societies, refuting idea of free will = doesn't exist
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Free Will

3. Moral Responsibility

POINT = basis of moral responsibility is that an individual is responsible for own actions i.e they can exercise free will

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = law states that under 10s in Britain (12 in Scotland, raised from 8 in 2011) and those mentally ill don't have (criminal) responsibility but otherwise assumption in our society that 'normal' adult behaviour is self-determined. In other words, humans are responsible for their actions, regardless of genetic/environmental factors

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however, most psych theories of moral develop present moral thinking and behaviour as being determined by internal/external forces. Eg genes may be used as a defence in court more frequently now: case of Bayout (2009) in Italy resulted in sentence being reduced by 4 years due to defence based on MAOA deficiency. Shows that justice system is beginning to base moral responsibility on determining factors, goes against idea of free will and humans being responsible for their actions, which is the essentially basic foundation of criminal system. Raises bigger question: if we base moral responsibility on factors outside of our conscious control how can we ever be punished for a crime we were determined to commit? - ruins the concept of justice system as criminals can't be blamed for their actions

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1. Attempts to measure free will

POINT = it is very difficult to measure free will because a researcher can never be sure if it is the pps making a conscious decision or whether their decision is determined by internal/external forces that the pps are not aware of

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = Libet (1985) conducted a study which supported the idea of determinism and how all our behaviour is determined by forces outside of our control. He found that the brain processes that indicate hand movement occur almost 1/2 a second before the moment a pps reports to consciously choose to move it. This suggests that free will may be an illusion generated by consciousness and that "making a conscious decision" is the last step after a series of processes controlled by internal/external forces that effectively determine your behaviour and any decisions that you make.


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2. Biological Determinism

POINT = if free will is the product of conscious thinking and decision making, then free will can be explained as just another aspect of behaviour determined by brain or brain chemistry

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = eg decisions that may have resulted in violence may have been caused (determined) by excess testosterone. Therefore we can explain behaviours (eg those that are seen as decisions based on free will) as due to a biological determinant

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however, biologically determinist explanations may oversimplify human behaviour. May be appropriate for non-human animals eg the mating behaviour of animals is relatively deterministic and is genetically programmed but what about the mating behaviour of humans? It is argued that human behaviour is less rigid and influenced by many factors, including conscious thinking. Consciousness and self-awareness are often regarded as distinguishing human beings from animals and psychologists more likely to apply determinist position to non-human animals. Means idea of finding a simple formula to explain determinism biologically for humans is unrealistic.

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3. Genetic Determinism

POINT = research into the human genome has increasingly provided evidence of genetic influences on behaviour. The more we discover the more it appears that our behaviours (not just our physical characteristics) are determined by our genes

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = eg, research on intelligence has identified specific genes. Chorney et al (1998) found that individual genes associated with high IQ have been identified (IGF2R on chromosome 6 - insulin-like growth factor 2), showing that genes can determine levels of intelligence

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however, only 46% of super-bright children possessed this gene so it cannot alone explain all intelligence, leaving possibility for other factors which might influence intelligence eg having free will to choose to have drive and motivation which can lead to achieving better (might explain 54% of super-bright children who didn't have gene). Doubtful that 100% genetic determination will ever be found for any behaviour eg Bouchard and McGue (1981) compared 100% identically genetic twins and found about 80% similarity on intelligence, therefore genes do not entirely determine behaviour, leaving room for free will in playing role on behaviour

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  • in conclusion, Psych tends to be mostly deterministic, as most psychologists believe psych should be a science. However approaches in psych do differ remarkably on the extent and type of determinants of behaviour
  • in my opinion, determinism seems from the evidence to be most likely explanation whereas free will is an illusion (but we cannot completely ignore it)
  • I think most realistic stance to explain behaviour is using soft determinism whereby humans have 'mental' free will but this is determined/constrained by 'physical' factors out of our control
  • Regardless of taking this stance or the stance of hard determinism, one cannot deny that all behaviour would seem in some way determined
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