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Friday, December 8, 2023

Professional Judges’ Disbelief in Free Will Does Not Decrease Punishment

Genschow, O., Hawickhorst, H., et al. (2020).
Social Psychological and Personality Science,
12, 357 - 362.


There is a debate in psychology and philosophy on the societal consequences of casting doubts about individuals’ belief in free will. Research suggests that experimentally reducing free will beliefs might affect how individuals evaluate others’ behavior. Past research has demonstrated that reduced free will beliefs decrease laypersons’ tendency toward retributive punishment. This finding has been used as an argument for the idea that promoting anti-free will viewpoints in the public media might have severe consequences for the legal system because it may move judges toward softer retributive punishments. However, actual implications for the legal system can only be drawn by investigating professional judges. In the present research, we investigated whether judges (N = 87) are affected by reading anti-free will messages. The results demonstrate that although reading anti-free will texts reduces judges’ belief in free will, their recommended sentences are not influenced by their (manipulated) belief in free will.

Here is my take:

The results showed that the judges who read the anti-free will passage did indeed have a reduced belief in free will. However, there were no differences in the recommended sentences between the two groups of judges. This suggests that judges' disbelief in free will does not lead them to recommend lighter sentences for criminals.

The study's authors suggest that this finding may be due to the fact that judges are trained to uphold the law and to base their sentencing decisions on legal factors, such as the severity of the crime and the defendant's criminal history. They also suggest that judges may be reluctant to reduce sentences based on metaphysical beliefs about free will.

Key findings:
  • Reading anti-free will messages reduces judges' belief in free will.
  • Judges' disbelief in free will does not lead them to recommend lighter sentences for criminals.