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belief in free will, gratitude and trust

If those who give you things do not have free will why be grateful to them?  In a piece published in November’s Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, MacKenzie, Vohs, and Baumeister addressed this question with several studies, including three experiments.  For instance, in one study some subjects read a modified passage from Crick, including “Everything people are and do is the product of simple, physical processes in their brain.” and “There is no need for the existence of free will to explain how we behave.”  Others read a piece in favor of free will, such as “Everything people are and do is mostly a product of the decisions they make and their free will.”  Afterwards they were told they would have to do a really, really tedious task. But then they found out they would not have to.  Those who had read the Crick beforehand were less grateful for being relieved of this obligation.  In another study with this same manipulation those who read the Crick reported they would be less grateful to a hypothetical stranger who gave them change when they did not have enough money.  This seems to be due to a reduction in the belief that the benefactor has free will and so a reduction in the belief that the motivations of the benefactor are sincere.

Reducing ourselves to our brains seems to reduce the inclination to be grateful. (I wish I’d known of these studies when I wrote my chapter with Courtney Forbes!)

Meanwhile in a paper in October’s Psychological Science, Twenge, Campbell, and Carter examined responses to the General Social Survey from 1972 to the present.  They focused on the degree to which people think others can be trusted. Sadly the years with the most trust were 1972-1992.  Every year since there has been less trust than that first 21 years, with the lowest trust in 2006.  This decline is not due to birth cohort, but older people do tend to trust others more than younger.

I wonder if these two findings are related.  The reflexive use of “the brain” to explain behavior seems to me to be on the rise, though I don’t have good data. (Someone needs to do some content analyses of explanations to see if this is so!) More and more I find myself needing to explain to students how it can be that I can teach a full semester of introductory psychology without relying on any real discussion of the brain.  (There have been wonderful advances in neuroscience. Those are discussed in other courses.) Have we created, here in America, a culture in which people turn naturally to the idea that what they do is caused by their brains?  A place where the solutions to life’s problems is found in creative pharmacology? By emphasizing neuroscience have we made people less inclined to turn to the idea of free will?

And if so, does that turn from the idea of free will diminish social capital such as trust?  Given the importance of gratitude for social relationships, has the loss of a sense of free will eroded not only trust but the gratitude that leads people, in Sara Algoe’s words, to “find, bind, and remind,” that is, to identify, tie ourselves to, and remember those who are trustworthy relationship partners?

I don’t know the answer to these last questions, though I suspect in each case it is “yes.”  If so, how can we foster a culture that emphasizes multiple levels of causality?  One that can simultaneously marvel at advances in understanding of the brain and think of those factors that act upon the brain as also of causal importance.  Including our freely made choices.

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