c’mon, you’d “cheat” too

Steven Krause links to and discusses the psychological research discussed in “Morality under threat as science debunks our sense of free will.” This article discusses research conducted in which some participants read arguments against free will and then, lo and behold, those participants were more likely to “cheat” on math tests. From the article:

Thirty students answered maths problems on a computer. A feigned technical glitch meant that they had to press the space bar each question to stop the computer from giving the answers away. Crucially, before the test, half the students read a passage from the late Francis Crick’s book about consciousness, in which he argues that free will is an illusion. These students pressed the space bar less often than the students who hadn’t read about free will – in other words, they cheated more.

Krause questions whether this is actually “cheating.” He writes:

Okay, but wait– what if the students who read this passage and “cheated” more weren’t so much cheating as they were saying “Oh yeah? I’ll show that Crick dude. I’ll do whatever the hell I want with this and skip the space bar. No free will, my ass!”

I think Krause is right. This study isn’t necessarily about morality (though, of course, honesty plays in, so it is in part), but more about stubbornness. Told (by a book or paper no less) that they don’t have control over their choices, it seems that these test subjects stubbornly asserted their choice. Choosing to “cheat” and not to “cheat” are both equally acts of will. Importantly, (at least as the article presents it) the study didn’t address motivation or interpretation. Did the test subjects view this as cheating, or retribution? Not that I think intent is necessarily important in all issues of morality, but I think how the subjects viewed this test and their answers are important. As the title suggests, science is “debunking” our sense of free will. What if, instead, this science the participants read re-affirmed their free will. We don’t believe everything we read, after all.

I probably would have “cheated” too, because, hey, I can do what I want. That, and there was money involved!

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