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Study Notes

Issues & Debates: Evaluating Free Will & Determinism


Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Humanist psychologists argue against the determinism view, claiming that humans have self-determination and free will and that behaviour is not the result of any single cause. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence to support humanist psychologists. For example, identical twin studies typically find an 80% similarity in intelligence scores and a 40% similarity in the likelihood of depression. However, as identical twins share 100% of their genes, these results suggest that 20% is caused by other (environmental) factors. This demonstrates that biological determinism is unable to explain any particular behaviour, in this case, depression and intelligence. The same evidence indicates that no behaviour is completely environmentally determined. If identical twins only show an 80% likeness in terms of intelligence, it is therefore assumed that only 20% is caused by the environment.

While Freud appears to support a deterministic point of view, in that he argued that the unconscious controls our actions and our thoughts, the goal of psychoanalysis is to help patients overcome that force. This insight has been taken up by several neo-Freudians, and one of the most influential has been Erich Fromm (1941). He argued that all of us have the potential to control our lives but that many of us are too afraid to do so, which means we give up our freedom and allow our lives to be governed by circumstance, other people, political ideology or irrational feelings. However, determinism is not inevitable, and Fromm sees the essence of human freedom in being the choice between good and evil.

Many psychologists, theorists and legal experts do not favour a deterministic point of view. If behaviour is determined by outside forces, that provides a potential excuse for criminal acts. For example, in 1981 Stephen Mobley argued that he was ‘born to kill’ after killing a pizza shop manager because his family had a disposition towards violence and aggressive behaviour. An American court rejected this argument. Therefore, a truly determinist position may be undesirable as it provides an ‘excuse’, allowing people to mitigate their own liability and could lead to vexing legal issues regarding the nature of responsibility and intent (mens rea).

However, the idea of free will has attracted similar criticisms. Some psychologists, such as Skinner, argue that free will is an illusion. Skinner insisted that our behaviour is in fact environmentally determined, even if we are unable (or unwilling) to admit it. Also, more recent evidence provides some support for Skinner’s claim. For example, Libet et al. (1983) found that the motor regions of the brain become active before a person registers conscious awareness of a decision, i.e. the decision to move the finger was actually a pre-determined action of the brain. This strongly suggests that many responses are biologically determined and that although we may believe that we have free will, Skinner’s claim that free will is an illusion, may be correct.

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