Free Will, And Why You’re not in Control…

FREE WILL: the control you exercise over your own life, depending on the relationship between yourself and the rest of Society’s ideas of rules and responsibility… Do we, as individuals, really truly think and act freely?

arti9Rene Descartes reasoned that you have free will only if under identical circumstances you could have acted differently. This is the popular view that most would accept as being accurate. Good old Descartes, he had such a way with simplicity (ref: I think, therefore I am.)

You walk into a bar and order Drink. You decided before you went in there that tonight, you are going to drink only in moderation. The barman pours your single brandy into a tumbler. Not a tall, straight glass mind you, but a short, wide one. You hear the clink of ice as it’s added to your favourite evening tipple before it’s placed, lovingly, on a coaster and slid toward you. But there’s a problem. Drinks served in tumblers fool your brain into thinking that you are not getting as much as if you were served with a tall, straight glass. It’s a simple optical illusion, and the result is that you drink more. That’s right. It’s the truth. Psychologists have done this experiment many times. People who get their drinks in tumblers drink more. So… what happened to your free will? Your own brain has screwed you over on this one!

You are happily married, secure in a loving relationship. Then one day at the office, you meet someone new, someone exciting, different, and attractive. Before long, a smile, and before you know what’s happened, you find yourself engaged in mild flirting. Then you share a joke via the office email, and before you know it, you are timing your breaks so you accidentally on purpose set up the secret moment together you have been longing for all day. Suddenly you find that you can’t concentrate on your work anymore because you’re now counting the hours and the minutes before your ‘chance’ encounter (oh joy of joys) at the end of the shift when you both walk out of the building together. Maybe you will go to some quiet bar for a drink. You become insanely jealous when if you see the obscure object of your desire talking to Geoff from Accounts. Inside, you know it’s wrong because you have a loving wife and two beautiful children at home, and yet… Before you realise what’s happened, all logic and reason has flown out of the window as this woman takes possession of your every waking thought and temptation exerts an ever more powerful leverage on your so-called free will.

The problem with free will is that it’s a bitch of a mistress and harder to control that a pack of randy ferrets down a Yorkshireman’s trousers. Nonetheless, the decision you are about to make, utilising your own free will of course, is about to change many lives.

Either way, the choice you are about to make, the free will you are about to exercise, is gut wrenching, maybe for you – for your family, and that includes extended family, friends of family, work colleagues. Your life as you have known it may cease to exist and it will almost certainly cost you dearly in financial terms. Add to that the risk that Ms obscure object of your desire might well dump you for the personal trainer some time in the near future, and you may as well resign yourself to your fate right now. Free will, free will; wherefore art thou?

What about the serial offender with a record as long as your arm, paraded through the courts on a depressingly regular basis? The majority of them plead something along the lines of “but I never had a chance, because my father was a wife beating alcoholic who abused me as a child and my mother was a drug addict who spent all her time at the bingo hall, when she wasn’t on the game!” Did he at any time as a result of his unfortunate upbringing have the opportunity to exercise his free will? What about the heroin addict who promises himself that he really will go cold turkey… after just one more fix. What happened to his free will?  Or the defendant who claims Diminished Responsibility as a defence? After all, he was suffering severe depression at the time of his offence against decency? Did he have a moment to ponder his free will, or the free will of his victim?

What about the ten year old child, riding his bicycle home, gunned down by warring drug dealers on a Liverpool street? Did he have free will? Or the millions of AIDS infected babies in Africa, or the starving millions, or the billion condemned to a life of never-ending poverty? Or the millions alive today, caught up in the ferocity of civil war, where gang rape is an everyday occurrence? Where is their free will?

Or is free will purely a Western concept, reserved for the financially comfortable with a decent income? They say that money doesn’t buy happiness and that is undoubtedly true, but it does make most things bearable, and that’s a fact! And wealth certainly has an effect on our ability to exercise free will, for obvious reasons. A good friend of mine used to say whoever thinks money can’t buy freedom is shopping in the wrong store. Maybe he was right, or at least a little bit right.

Is it possible that the only constraints on free will are those that we impose upon ourselves? We all strive to live our lives without constraints (I have always had a problem with the constraints of pointless bureaucracy) but that is not always possible. We often impose constraints upon ourselves for the benefit of our fellow human beings. Most people don’t abuse the environment by dumping their rubbish in a secluded country lane. Those that do could be said to be exercising their own free will, but to the detriment of others; in which case, has the perpetrator’s free will been curtailed by lack of education or the kind of poor upbringing, which lacks social responsibility? It is not my belief that people can be excused bad behaviour simply because ‘they did not know any better’ – everyone knows the difference between right and wrong, even if the only benchmark they have in life comes from watching repeats of Columbo. So much then for the way in which the free will of the great unwashed is limited.

But what about the rest of us law-abiding citizens? We are all bound by rules and regulations, understandable in a modern and complex society because we need rules to protect ourselves and each other – we need the rules that protect our personal and civil rights, and rules that are at least designed to keep us safe in our beds. We are constantly and consistently told by airport security personnel, by health and safety officials, by council jobsworths, that the decisions they make on our behalf, are “for your own comfort and safely.” The problem is, what may seem on the surface reasonable, is actually an assault on our own ability to exercise our own free will. We are losing control and allowing others to assume control. We acquiesce to this without the slightest consideration of the consequences. The most annoying thing about it is that we have accepted that we are too stupid to work things out for ourselves or to make our own informed decisions.

The real problem lies in our inability to think straight. Freud (him again) thought of the unconscious as inaccessible to the rational conscious mind; that’s the irrational unconscious mind, the repository of ‘repressed’ memories and inappropriate sexual fantasies about one’s parents – a murky place, only to be visited if you’re wearing rubber gloves. Worth reminding ourselves at this point that Freud was a serial cocaine addict (he injected it) and that much of his wisdom turned out to be bollocks. One really should refrain from theorising about the deeper recesses of the mind and concentrate on observing behaviour. This is the real wisdom embraced by modern psychologists. Nonetheless, the unconscious exercises a greater degree of control over our conscious thoughts and actions than we realise and it has a disproportionately unfair influence on our actions and behaviour. However, the unconscious is also a place of superfast data processing, a useful survival tool, honed by millions of years of evolution. Humans can instantly categorise almost any piece of information they are presented with, even in a split second (think of a split second glance at a billboard as you are driving along.) This enables us to make quick decisions, based on patterns, rules of thumb, pattern recognition and previous experience.

The danger of this survival strategy though is that it encourages all sorts of ‘isms’ because of the unfortunate human tendency to pigeon-hole people according to skin colour, religious belief, cultural background etc. and then apply preconceived characteristics to all members of that group. This is unfair, but it happens, and it serves to confuse the issue of free will even further. This is where the concept of Mindfulness comes into its own. Once people are informed of their inbuilt biases and the tricks that their unconscious plays on them, they can learn to use their conscious brains to overrule them.

Claude Hopkins, advertising genius of the early 20th century, managed to change the behaviour of more people than any psychologist, philosopher or president. I know this next bit will sound crazy, but it’s true!  In the early part of the 20th century, most Americans did not use toothpaste! In fact, only about 7% of Americans owned a tube of toothpaste. A decade later, approximately 65% owned a tube. Hopkins offered a reward for those who brushed their teeth – a beautiful smile! The Pepsodent campaign he masterminded was a roaring success. As was Hopkins’ campaign for Palmolive soap. Millions of women all over the world switched to Palmolive, because, according to Hopkins, Cleopatra used it! The man was a genius!

Once an idea has been established, it is habit-forming. Thus, our daily choices are more likely to be the result of unconscious habits rather than independent reason and free will. One of the advantages of habits is that they make our lives more efficient. The downside is that they can also result in the trap of self-destructive behaviour, something that is usually apparent as a predictable cycle.

Habits are wired into the cerebral cortex. A habit creates neural connections in the same way that water always follows the same course. There are things we can do to alter the course, but these require at least some effort. Alcoholics Anonymous replaces one learned routine (going to parties) with another (going to meetings.) The problem with going to meetings rather than parties is that they don’t open the bar.

The power of habit is up there along with the power of suggestion. It is all-powerful, it rules our lives, and all too often makes us vulnerable to unscrupulous thought-control merchants who pretend to be doing us a favour.

As if all this wasn’t depressing enough, it looks as if our free will is eroded even further by something called Confirmation Bias. Confirmation Bias is largely a matter of which side you are on. Was that a tackle or a foul? It depends on where your ingrained loyalties lie rather than any objective examination of the facts or reasoned analysis of reality. Confirmation Bias is in us all whether we like it or not and we all gravitate towards our own cherished beliefs whether we admit it or not. [This is the main reason I am deeply suspicious of juries – apart from the obvious fact that anyone intelligent enough to serve on a jury already has a job and is therefore not available for jury service.] The upshot of all this is that people become the people they want to be, and worse, they also become the people they believe others believe them to be.

And just in case you think you can still remain in control, any idea of free will evaporates when you are under pressure. For instance, it’s not the violence that affects your decision-making process – it’s the threat of violence. Your brain is so busy running the fear programme that it completely forgets to override its lie-detection function. Conflicting and confusing information throw the whole programme out of kilter. Free will? Gone with the wind.

And then there is the oldest and most formidable of enemies – your Emotions. Emotions can increase your determination to keep flogging a dead horse, particularly when it comes to failed relationships, or ruinous litigation. This is called Prophecy Malfunction and it is almost always bound to result in a stronger commitment to the ‘cause.’ It stems from a huge psychological investment – how can you cut such huge losses and start again from scratch? Belief can become, and usually is, inextricably tied to emotion, which further frustrates free will.

And then there’s Cognitive Bias Modification, the source of all irrational fears and phobias, where the attention of anxious individuals is automatically drawn to threatening things around them, either specific or imagined. It is possible, with a little therapy, to eradicate the symptom by making the symptom itself the focus of attention. In the meantime, your free will is under suspension.

And now for something particularly scary…

A common parasite called Toxoplasma Gondii may affect behaviour. Toxoplasma is a relative of Plasmodium, the pathogen that causes malaria. It is shockingly common – in some parts of the world the infection rate is as high as 60% with whole populations affected. It has been known to damage immune systems and cause permanent change in behaviour.

The symptoms are not always apparent and are easily confused with other maladies. Sufferers have poor reaction times and one tell tale sign is that they are more likely to be involved in road accidents. There are high levels of neuroticism in populations affected by Toxoplasma, and infected persons suffer from short attention spans and display little interest in seeking out novelty. Infection increases the risk of schizophrenia. It’s easy to see how these symptoms are easily mistaken for purely psychological imbalances.

According to Joanne Webster of Imperial College London, Toxoplasma’s normal hosts are rodents and cats and the parasite passes back and forth between them. It takes up residence in the small intestine. From cat faeces it can pass to other mammals and humans where they form cysts in the brain, liver and muscle. Toxoplasma infected rats and mice wander around as if they don’t mind drawing attention to themselves, then the cat gets them and the whole cycle repeats itself.

Glenn McConkey at the University of Leeds in the UK has discovered that Toxoplasma’s genes encode enzymes that are involved in the production of dopamine, the feel-good chemical produced naturally in the brain, which explains the odd behaviour of the rodents. Dr. Fuller Torrey of the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Washington DC, in collaboration with Bob Yolken at Johns Hopkins University, discovered that people who suffer from schizophrenia were three times more likely to have developed antibodies to Toxoplasma. Dr. Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague studied road accidents and discovered that both drivers and pedestrians involved in the accidents were also three times as likely to have been infected with Toxoplasma than safer drivers. The same results have been found by Professor Kor Yereli of Celal Bayar University in Turkey. Scary stuff, and scary stuff which exerts a direct effect on free will.

Shortened attention spans and longer reaction times are one thing, but researchers have also discovered a connection to a reduction in ‘novelty seeking.’ Seeking out new knowledge and experiences is part of the human development process, so it’s worrying that Toxoplasma is so prevalent. In 2006, Kevin Lafferty of the University of California Santa Barbara, published a paper which noted a disturbing correlation between levels of neuroticism established by national surveys in various countries and the levels of Toxoplasma found in pregnant women. (Pregnant women were chosen for the study because this is a group that is tested more routinely.)

The French have a population infection rate of 45% compared to the British infection rate of just 6.6%. I noticed on a recent visit to France, shopping in both Paris and in Brittany, that French supermarkets were simply nowhere near as clean as British ones. But then the French have always been a little odd. Maybe they should bathe and shave under their arms a little more often.

So there you are – free will is something of a myth. Whether as a result of the actions of others, environmental factors like earthquakes and volcanoes, poverty, unscrupulous advertisers, nanny state government, evolutionary bias, or a simple microscopic parasite, Free will is almost non-existent. Accept it, get used to it; learn to live with it. You’ll be happier in the long run.  

Copyright Andrew Newton 2013. All rights reserved.