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Friday, March 5, 2021

Free to blame? Belief in free will is related to victim blaming

Genschow, O., & Vehlow, B.
Consciousness and Cognition
Volume 88, February 2021, 103074


The more people believe in free will, the harsher their punishment of criminal offenders. A reason for this finding is that belief in free will leads individuals to perceive others as responsible for their behavior. While research supporting this notion has mainly focused on criminal offenders, the perspective of the victims has been neglected so far. We filled this gap and hypothesized that individuals’ belief in free will is positively correlated with victim blaming—the tendency to make victims responsible for their bad luck. In three studies, we found that the more individuals believe in free will, the more they blame victims. Study 3 revealed that belief in free will is correlated with victim blaming even when controlling for just world beliefs, religious worldviews, and political ideology. The results contribute to a more differentiated view of the role of free will beliefs and attributed intentions.


• Past research indicated that belief in free will increases the perception of criminal offenders.

• However, this research ignored the perception of the victims.

• We filled this gap by conducting three studies.

• All studies find that belief in free will correlates with the tendency to blame victims.

From the Discussion

In the last couple of decades, claims that free will is nothing more than an illusion have become prevalent in the popular press (e.g., Chivers 2010; Griffin, 2016; Wolfe, 1997).  Based on such claims, scholars across disciplines started debating potential societal consequences for the case that people would start disbelieving in free will. For example, some philosophers argued that disbelief in free will would have catastrophic consequences, because people would no longer try to control their behavior and start acting immorally (e.g., Smilansky, 2000, 2002). Likewise, psychological research has mainly focused on the
downsides of disbelief in free will. For example, weakening free will belief led participants to behave less morally and responsibly (Baumeister et al., 2009; Protzko et al., 2016; Vohs & Schooler, 2008). In contrast to these results, our findings illustrate a more positive side of disbelief in free will, as higher levels of disbelief in free will would reduce victim blaming.