Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Monday, June 24, 2019

Motivated free will belief: The theory, new (preregistered) studies, and three meta-analyses

Clark, C. J., Winegard, B. M., & Shariff, A. F. (2019).
Manuscript submitted for publication.


Do desires to punish lead people to attribute more free will to individual actors (motivated free will attributions) and to stronger beliefs in human free will (motivated free will beliefs) as suggested by prior research? Results of 14 new (7 preregistered) studies (n=4,014) demonstrated consistent support for both of these. These findings consistently replicated in studies (k=8) in which behaviors meant to elicit desires to punish were rated as equally or less counternormative than behaviors in control conditions. Thus, greater perceived counternormativity cannot account for these effects. Additionally, three meta-analyses of the existing data (including eight vignette types and eight free will judgment types) found support for motivated free will attributions (k=22; n=7,619; r=.25, p<.001) and beliefs (k=27; n=8,100; r=.13, p<.001), which remained robust after removing all potential moral responsibility confounds (k=26; n=7,953; r=.12, p<.001). The size of these effects varied by vignette type and free will belief measurement. For example, presenting the FAD+ free will belief subscale mixed among three other subscales (as in Monroe and Ysidron’s [2019] failed replications) produced a smaller average effect size (r=.04) than shorter and more immediate measures (rs=.09-.28). Also, studies with neutral control conditions produced larger effects (Attributions: r=.30; Beliefs: rs=.14-.16) than those with control conditions involving bad actions (Attributions: r=.05; Beliefs: rs=.04-.06). Removing these two kinds of studies from the meta-analyses produced larger average effect sizes (Attributions: r=.28; Beliefs: rs=.17-.18). We discuss the relevance of these findings for past and future research and the significance of these findings for human responsibility.

From the Discussion Section:

We suspect that motivated free will beliefs have become more common as society has become more humane and more concerned about proportionate punishment. Many people now assiduously reflect upon their own society’s punitive practices and separate those who deserve to be punished from those who are incapable of being fully responsible for their actions. Free will is crucial here because it is often considered a prerequisite for moral responsibility (Nichols & Knobe, 2007; Sarkissian et al., 2010; Shariff et al., 2014). Therefore, when one is motivated to punish another person, one is also motivated to inflate free will beliefs and free will attributions to specific perpetrators as a way to justify punishing the person.

A preprint can be downloaded here.