In one of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character eventually gets so frustrated with the inevitability of living the same day again and again that he stops caring. With his fate seemingly sealed, he no longer worries about his actions.
It makes sense that, faced with no control over our lives, we may become careless, or even reckless, an idea echoed in several behavioral studies. How our belief in free will – or lack thereof – unfolds neurologically is newer scientific territory. In a new study, researchers have found that a disbelief in free will alters how we process our mistakes: We become less concerned about erring.
“We show for the first time that challenging free will can impact brain processes that are crucially involved in the control of our behavior,” says Davide Rigoni of Ghent University, who published this new work in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Rigoni and co-authors Gilles Pourtois and Marcel Brass were inspired to conduct the study by research in social psychology, specifically a 2008 study that found that people who did not believe in free will were more likely to cheat in a lab task. “We reasoned that these behavioral changes may be partially linked to a reduced concern for the negative consequences of their behavior,” Rigoni says.
Rigoni and colleagues went on to conduct work that showed that disbelieving in free will influences not only social behavior but also on basic brain mechanisms underlying voluntary actions. In this latest study, the research team specifically looked at error processing, using a neural marker called “Error-Related Negativity” or ERN.
ERN is an electrical signal generated by neurons in the frontal area of the brain. It acts as an “alarm bell,” monitoring our actions to make sure that what we do corresponds to what we intended to do. When our actions do not match our intentions, the neurons create the ERN signal, akin to an “’Ouch!’ reaction of the brain that accompanies performance errors,” Rigoni explains.
When we are trying to make money, for example, and make a mistake, the ERN is high – a big difference between our intentions and actions. But if we don’t care about making a mistake, the ERN is low. This “malleability to the ‘subjective value’ of errors” makes the ERN a good metric for testing the link between free will and behavior, Rigoni says.
In the new study, the researchers asked participants to carefully read an excerpt from a book that either scientifically challenged the idea of free will or did not, telling them they would later be tested on the material. Then, while wearing EEG caps to record electrical signals, participants performed a standard cognitive task of pushing, waiting, or not pushing a space bar in reaction to specific color cues.
The participants who were primed with the disbelief in free will showed reduced ERN when making mistakes in the task compared with those not primed. These results support the idea that a reduced concern for errors is partially responsible for the behavioral changes linked to a disbelief in free will.
“In a very broad sense, this research indicates that believing in free will is associated to a greater concern for the consequences of actions,” says Brass, the paper’s senior author. “Conversely, diminishing this belief leads people to care less about whether they made the correct action or not.”
The work also supports previous research that suggests that people who believe in free will are more successful: “If you believe you are in control of your own actions, you are likely to invest more effort and to be more concerned about the consequences of your own actions,” Rigoni says. “This in turn may reinforce your belief in free will, but this idea is still speculative.”
The study looks only at the short-term effects of these beliefs, Rigoni notes. And it looks at our beliefs as manipulated through written material. Next, the researchers would like to explore the link by manipulating the feeling of how much control we experience in our everyday life – to get closer to understanding how Murray’s Groundhog Day character felt day after day.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz