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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The developmental and cultural psychology of free will

Tamar Kushnir
Philosophy Compass
Originally published July 12, 2018


This paper provides an account of the developmental origins of our belief in free will based on research from a range of ages—infants, preschoolers, older children, and adults—and across cultures. The foundations of free will beliefs are in infants' understanding of intentional action—their ability to use context to infer when agents are free to “do otherwise” and when they are constrained. In early childhood, new knowledge about causes of action leads to new abilities to imagine constraints on action. Moreover, unlike adults, young children tend to view psychological causes (i.e., desires) and social causes (i.e., following rules or group norms, being kind or fair) of action as constraints on free will. But these beliefs change, and also diverge across cultures, corresponding to differences between Eastern and Western philosophies of mind, self, and action. Finally, new evidence shows developmentally early, culturally dependent links between free will beliefs and behavior, in particular when choice‐making requires self‐control.

Here is part of the Conclusion:

I've argued here that free will beliefs are early‐developing and culturally universal, and that the folk psychology of free will involves considering actions in the context of alternative possibilities and constraints on possibility. There are developmental differences in how children reason about the possibility of acting against desires, and there are both developmental and cultural differences in how children consider the social and moral limitations on possibility.  Finally, there is new evidence emerging for developmentally early, culturally moderated links between free will beliefs and willpower, delay of gratification, and self‐regulation.

The article is here.

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