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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Free will beliefs are better predicted by dualism than determinism beliefs across different cultures

Wisniewski D, Deutschländer R, Haynes J-D 
(2019) PLoS ONE 14(9): e0221617. 


Most people believe in free will. Whether this belief is warranted or not, free will beliefs (FWB) are foundational for many legal systems and reducing FWB has effects on behavior from the motor to the social level. This raises the important question as to which specific FWB people hold. There are many different ways to conceptualize free will, and some might see physical determinism as a threat that might reduce FWB, while others might not. Here, we investigate lay FWB in a large, representative, replicated online survey study in the US and Singapore (n = 1800), assessing differences in FWB with unprecedented depth within and between cultures. Specifically, we assess the relation of FWB, as measured using the Free Will Inventory, to determinism, dualism and related concepts like libertarianism and compatibilism. We find that libertarian, compatibilist, and dualist, intuitions were related to FWB, but that these intuitions were often logically inconsistent. Importantly, direct comparisons suggest that dualism was more predictive of FWB than other intuitions. Thus, believing in free will goes hand-in-hand with a belief in a non-physical mind. Highlighting the importance of dualism for FWB impacts academic debates on free will, which currently largely focus on its relation to determinism. Our findings also shed light on how recent (neuro)scientific findings might impact FWB. Demonstrating physical determinism in the brain need not have a strong impact on FWB, due to a wide-spread belief in dualism.


We have shown that free will beliefs in the general public are most closely related to a strong belief in dualism. This was true in different cultures, age groups, and levels of education. As noted in the beginning, recent neuroscientific findings have been taken to suggest that our choices might originate from unconscious brain activity, but see, which has led some to predict an erosion of free will beliefs with potentially serious consequences for our sense of responsibility and even the criminal justice system. However, even if neuroscience were to fully describe and explain the causal chain of processes in the physical brain, this need not lead to an erosion of free will beliefs in the general public. Although some might indeed see this as a threat to free will (US citizens with low dualism beliefs), most will not likely because of a wide-spread belief in dualism (see also [21]). Our findings also highlight the need for cross-cultural examinations of free will beliefs and related constructs, as previous findings from (mostly undergraduate) US samples do not fully generalize to other cultures.