Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Devil Made Me Do It: Disbelief in Free Will May Lead to Unsocial Behaviors

Those of us old enough to remember the comic Flip Wilson also remember his alter ego Geraldine. When Flip Wilson dressed up as Geraldine, it was hard to forget. Geraldine was a vivacious, amazingly funny, energetic woman who never took responsibility for her own actions. Her classic line after a lewd remark or action was “the devil made me do it.” And since she believed she had no control over her actions she’d just laugh and carry on.
One of the crucial elements of achievement, success and personal greatness is the belief that you are in control of your choices and actions. Individuals who have higher degrees of success take the actions they need because they believe they are in control of their choices no matter the circumstances around them. They will admit that sometimes the choices aren’t balanced or equal, but they still have a choice. In my workshop Roadmap to Personal Greatness the first exercise I offer is one designed to help people understand what is behind their choices and most importantly, that they have free choice no matter what is going on.
Do we have free will? Can we make a free decision at a crucial moment to alter our own actions? There are some psychologists and sociologists who would clam that we don’t have a choice. They claim we are primed for certain behaviors. These behaviors become constant either because of the genetic wiring in our brain or because of the habitual reflexes we develop. The researchers make a good case that we often react without consciously choosing what we are doing. Some philosophers go further by trumpeting determinism where all our actions are pre-determined anyway and we are just acting out a preassigned role. I’m not going to argue about free will. However there is recent research that disbelief in free will may cause some disruptive behaviors.
Using texts that argued against free will, researchers first had volunteers read the texts (the control group read neutral texts) and then gave the volunteers various activities to participate in. Vohs and Schooler found that those induced to disbelieve in free will were more likely to cheat on a test, they were more aggressive and less social than others, whereas those who strengthened their belief in free will fostered a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy to accomplish a task. Overall the researchers found that our personal belief about free will affects job performance and career attitudes based on having control over our actions.
Most of us believe we have free will, but it is more of a philosophical thought. When I ask people what gets in their way of achieving their goals, too often they blame others or circumstances on why they can’t make the choice. Yet in every moment of every day, we have the choice to decide how we will act. It’s not always easy and it’s not always fair, but we always have a choice. Otherwise, we may as well just blame our actions on the devil.

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