I tweeted this link all over the internets the other day, and not surprisingly, it got picked up a lot. And why not? Free will is one of those subjects that is particularly interesting to, well, just about everyone. It's one the deep philosophical questions pondered by philosophers, and high people everywhere: DO we really have final control over our own actions? Or are we just meaningless automatons carrying out predictable sequences of events, who just walk around thinking we're so clever?
Sci's main thought on this is: in the main, cosmic sense of things...why does it matter?
But anyway. It doesn't matter whether we HAVE free will or not, our daily lives seem to make us FEEL that we have it. We make many decisions, consider many options every day, some big, some small, but in most of them, we feel like we have a choice, and that we are making that choice of our own free will.
But what's funny is that we don't seem to feel that way about OTHER PEOPLE. While we often feel we have free will in our choices, we don't really feel like our friends do. "Of course she got into Harvard, she's from a really smart family", "Of course he'll do X, it's the way he was brought up". It's been shown time and time again that while WE feel like we have free will, we feel like other people have less of it than we do.
But how are you going to test this?
One of the first tests that show this kind of effect is the 'actor-observer' phenomenon. Basically, people will think they their actions are caused by a given situation, while their friend's actions in the same situation are the result of their friend's personality. That sounds kind of funny, you might think if you feel you are reacting to the situation, you have less free will, but it doesn't have to be interpreted that way. You can ALSO interpret it as you having a careful, intentional response to a changing situation, while viewing your friend's response as merely fated, the result of their personality. Since we generally see personality as something that's pretty fixed about a person, this may mean that people believe they have more free will than the other people around them.
The idea of believing you have more free will than other people makes a lot of sense, actually. It's one of the hallmarks of a healthy mind to think more of your own actions than you should, even to the point of influencing something totally unconnected in a "magical" way (think of the lucky outfits that some people put on when watching football games. To believe that your outfit makes the Pats win or lose is completely silly, but it doesn't stop Uncle Louie and his "lucky underwear"...). But somehow, this doesn't translate over to people other than you. It won't matter if Uncle Louie's bud wears his squid hat, what MATTERS is that Louie has his underwear on!
Now, we all seem to know this anecdotally, but no experiments had ever been done to really prove it. So these authors devised four experiments to show that people view themselves as having more free will than their friends. To do this, take a bunch of college students (perhaps this group is biased? Aren't college students known to be more narcissistic? ), and ask them questions about themselves...and their roommates.
Experiment 1: This experiment tested the idea that, if you believe you have more free will than other people, you will view your own actions as LESS PREDICTABLE than theirs. Because you believe they have less free will, their actions will be predictable ("of course they would do that") while yours would be independent. To test this, they asked the students to describe life events of themselves and their roommate (both past and possible future). Then they had them rank to see how predictable they thought the life events were. The students believed that their own life events were less predictable than their roommate's, indicating that they thought they had more indeterminism, the idea that your actions cannot be predicted uniformly and thus spring from free will.
Experiment 2: Another important aspect of free will is the aspect of choice. We need to feel that we have more than one possibility to choose from to feel that we are making our decisions independently. This is a really easy idea to test, just ask participants (in this case, waiters) how many future options they have for something, and then ask how many they think their coworker has.
This is what they got. You can see that people view themselves as having more potential options over all three areas (home, job, lifestyle), while believing their coworker has less options (but there was no difference in the desirability of the options, so people weren't inflating their own possibilities by saying they'd be king of Mars or something). Not only that, the waiters thought it was more likely that their coworker would continue along the path they were on already, while they themselves were more likely to run off and start the next great startup company (or do something different than what they were on the path for at the moment).
Experiment 3: This test was to look at self-enhancement. Do you believe your life holds more possibility? Or do you believe it holds more good stuff? They asked students questions like "will you have a good job?" with options like "yes, no, both are possible". In reference to themselves, students were far more likely to pick the "both are possible" option. In fact, they picked it more often than they picked the positive options, which indicates that they felt their lives had more CHOICE than that of their friend's.
Experiment 4: This final test was a test for agency, the idea that you can overcome your situation and personality when making a choice, and that your intention is more important. To test this, they had the students draw. They had them draw boxes for a Saturday night for both them and their roommate. They had four conditions: situation, personality, desires and intentions, and past behavior. They had to size a box for each condition, where the size of the box indicated how important it was in determining what they or their roommate would do on a Saturday night.
You can see here the results based on box size. The students made bigger boxes for situation and desires for THEMSELVES, but for their roommates they gave a bigger box for personality, indicating that they thought they were more capable of overcoming situation and personality to follow their own desires.
All of this points to the idea that we all believe we have more free will and our actions have more influence than the guy sitting next to us. But you know what? HE believes he has more free will than YOU do. But the next question is this: are you INFLATING your own free will? Or devaluing theirs?
Pronin, E., & Kugler, M. (2010). People believe they have more free will than others Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1012046108