Freewill vs Determinism in Psychology

Do you believe in free will? Do you freely choose to make all of your decisions?

These are some big questions, and the answers from philosophers and psychologists may upset you. And it won’t help if I tell you that your upset feelings are not something that you chose to feel, either.

But that’s the nature of psychology’s biggest debate: free will and determinism.

What Is Free Will Vs. Determinism?

Psychologists have spent centuries debating how much control humans have over their thoughts, emotions, and actions. On one side of the spectrum is complete free will; on the other side is a world where everything is determined for us before it happens. 

What Is Free Will?

You may have heard the term “free will” before. It comes up quite a bit in the Christian religion – many Christians are taught that God gave them the free will to sin or not to sin. In psychology and philosophy, free will isn’t a gift from God but just how the world operates.

Examples of Free Will

We feel free when we decide to go to the park or buy a new backpack. After all, we had the options of going to the swimming pool or saving our money. Free will is the ability to make a choice when other options are present. Nothing is predetermined. Instead, we create our own destiny and have the power to make any decision at any given time.

Can Free Will and Determinism Coexist?

You may believe that free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe. You may believe that free will and determinism are completely separate and that free will reigns supreme. In this case, you would consider yourself a libertarian free will. (This has nothing to do with the political party.)

However, it’s easy to argue that free will doesn’t really extend beyond human behavior. Certain chemicals will react when they interact with other chemicals – they don’t have the free will to do otherwise. When lightning strikes, thunder doesn’t have the option of taking the day off. All of these physical factors could also limit our choices.

But according to free will, there is a difference between physical causation and agent causation. Not everything is completely random, however, we have the ability to take control (as an agent) and start a new causal chain of events.

As you’ll learn, it’s easy to argue against free will. But there is certainly something to be said for the fact that when we decide to go skateboarding or have breakfast for dinner, we feel like we are in complete control.

But are we?

What Is Determinism?

Now let’s talk about determinism. If free will lives on one end of a spectrum, determinism lives at the completely opposite end. Determinism is the idea that we have no control over our actions. Instead, internal and external factors determine the choices that we make. Our behavior is completely predictable. We have no sense of personal responsibility, because all of our actions are dictated by other things.

Some of the things that cause is to act are external: weather, media, our parents, etc. Some of these things are internal. We’ll go more into that a bit later.

This can make us feel uncomfortable, sure. But start to think about some of the decisions you made in the past week. Were they caused by something before it? Most likely, yes. Maybe you decided not to play baseball because it was raining outside or because you left your cleats at a friend’s house. Or you left a party early because your stomach hurt. You paid rent because you signed a lease because you were taught that it was important to live in a home.

Studies on Determinism in Psychology

The causes of our actions can go all the way back to our childhood. Take Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment. Children either observed an adult hitting a Bobo doll or being gentle with the Bobo Doll. The children did not choose which adult they would be observing. The children who observed the aggressive adult were more likely to be aggressive. This experiment was one of many that shaped Behaviorism and linked the “cause” of certain actions and behaviors to conditioning. Ivan Pavlov was able to make dogs uncontrollably drool through conditioning. What have we been conditioned to do?

What Causes Determinism?

There are a few factors that you can play around with to pinpoint the causes of your actions and decisions. Some psychologists believe that your actions are caused by a combination of factors, including:

  • Beliefs
  • Desires
  • Temperaments

Let’s use the example of buying a backpack. You believe that a backpack would be a worthy investment and that it is superior to another type of bag. You desire a backpack for yourself after carrying around a ripped bag and seeing everyone at work with nice backpacks. At the time you decide to buy, your temperament is pleasant and you’re in the mood to do some shopping.

A similar theory about our decisions and prompts can be found in Tiny Habits. This book, written by Stanford researcher BJ Fogg, discusses his Behavior Model. He believes behaviors are caused by:

  • Motivation
  • Ability
  • Prompt

It’s easy to see the similarities between these two.

Different Levels of Determinism

If you’ve been on my page before, you know how powerful beliefs are. You also know that it’s entirely possible to change your beliefs and change the course of your life. Are these changes also pre-determined, or are they something that we can control through free will?

You don’t have to answer that by choosing one end of the spectrum. There are ideas that blend both free will and determinism to form theories that aren’t so extreme.

Soft Determinism

One of these ideas is soft determinism. Soft determinism is the idea that all of our actions are predetermined or self-determined. The difference is that self-determined actions, or actions caused by internal factors, are considered free. If you believe that the choice to knock out limiting beliefs is your choice, then you probably feel more comfortable with the idea of soft determinism.

Compatibilism

The idea that free will and determinism can exist together is called compatibilism. When thinking about our ability to make our own choices versus the choices that are pre-determined for us, compatibilism seems like a feel-good compromise. But it doesn’t always help philosophers and psychologists when thinking about responsibility. When are we responsible for our actions? Can internal factors, like a mental illness or intoxication, free us from responsibility? How does that work when someone chooses to alter these factors? Or did they really make that choice in the first place?

We Don’t Have All the Answers

Want to hear more thoughts on free will vs. determinism? Psychologists, philosophers, and even Reddit users continue to weigh into this debate.

Quotes on Free Will and Determinism

  • “Man, what are you talking about? Me in chains? You may fetter my leg but my will, not even Zeus himself can overpower.” -Epictetus
  • “Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in faces—though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.” –Herman Melville, Moby Dick
  • “For we do not run to Christ on our feet but by faith; not with the movement of the body, but with the freewill of the heart. Think not that thou art drawn against thy will: the mind can be drawn by love.” – Augustine of Hippo
  • “Humans have an amazing capacity to believe in contradictory things. For example, to believe in an omnipotent and benevolent God but somehow excuse Him from all the suffering in the world. Or our ability to believe from the standpoint of law that humans are equal and have free will and from biology that humans are just organic machines.” –Yuval Noah Harari

The Debate Continues On Reddit!

Below are just a few thoughts from Reddit users on the entp subreddit!

u/Destrh0 said

There is no such thing as actual free will, only a remarkable facsimile of free will. At our core, we are truly unable to make any completely free choice. It is tantamount to being able to make a completely random decision. We aren’t even consciously aware of any decision being made until well after it has been made. And anyone with severe PTSD will tell you that they really don’t have a choice in a lot of their reactions. Free will is a joke.” 

They were met with a rebuttal from u/ENTP-one: “I actually thought about it a lot lately. I come up with an thesis that to stop everything being pre descent you have to do something only from the need of changing the path. If your 100% you want to do something not doing it and choosing something that you 100% not wanna do will change the destination. Of course the idea only works if what’s predestination does not account for you knowing it and actively doing something just to mess it up. But at the moment you do it the new path is created and again we are stuck in this predestined path.” 

u/Musikcookie said:

“I believe in both. Humans have this weird conception, that free will would somehow be apart from the world it exits. But what would this even mean? Even apart from our world a free will will have to be based on what happens in this world, so it would still run into the same problems. This is because a free will needs to have some sort of logic to it. If we stop setting unreasonably high bars for what a “free will” has to accomplish, we can see, that our complex ability to change things can pass as a free will.” 

u/fridge_escaped said:

“I have to do what any self-respecting ENTP would do, when proposed two options: provide a third (albeit popular one). I believe that we have both, but on different scales. From my surface knowledge of statistical mechanics and chaos theory even in completely chaotic environment we can define a trend, which the system follows, but locally its actions could be totally non-deterministic. So we have an option to choose what path to take, but in the end most of this choices lead us to singular ending.

Quick tangent there: we are always “governed by internal or external forces we cannot control” – physics provides tons of examples. I think what matters is what you do in the face of circumstances you cannot change. You can always settle for obvious options and weep “The system is rigged!”, or you can try to find/make a way. Isn’t it who we are?”

Want to read the whole debate? You can, on Reddit!

There is a lot to unpack when we think about free will and determinism. There is no definite answer that everyone can agree on. But that is why we continue to observe behavior, conduct experiments, and study how humans behave and make choices.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.