We really do believe we've got more free will than the other guy.

Dec 15 2010 Published by under Neuroscience

I tweeted this link all over the internets the other day, and not surprisingly, it got picked up a lot. And why not? Free will is one of those subjects that is particularly interesting to, well, just about everyone. It's one the deep philosophical questions pondered by philosophers, and high people everywhere: DO we really have final control over our own actions? Or are we just meaningless automatons carrying out predictable sequences of events, who just walk around thinking we're so clever?

Sci's main thought on this is: in the main, cosmic sense of things...why does it matter?

But anyway. It doesn't matter whether we HAVE free will or not, our daily lives seem to make us FEEL that we have it. We make many decisions, consider many options every day, some big, some small, but in most of them, we feel like we have a choice, and that we are making that choice of our own free will.

But what's funny is that we don't seem to feel that way about OTHER PEOPLE. While we often feel we have free will in our choices, we don't really feel like our friends do. "Of course she got into Harvard, she's from a really smart family", "Of course he'll do X, it's the way he was brought up". It's been shown time and time again that while WE feel like we have free will, we feel like other people have less of it than we do.

But how are you going to test this?

ResearchBlogging.org Pronin and Kugler. "People believe they have more free will than others" PNAS, 2010.

One of the first tests that show this kind of effect is the 'actor-observer' phenomenon. Basically, people will think they their actions are caused by a given situation, while their friend's actions in the same situation are the result of their friend's personality. That sounds kind of funny, you might think if you feel you are reacting to the situation, you have less free will, but it doesn't have to be interpreted that way. You can ALSO interpret it as you having a careful, intentional response to a changing situation, while viewing your friend's response as merely fated, the result of their personality. Since we generally see personality as something that's pretty fixed about a person, this may mean that people believe they have more free will than the other people around them.

The idea of believing you have more free will than other people makes a lot of sense, actually. It's one of the hallmarks of a healthy mind to think more of your own actions than you should, even to the point of influencing something totally unconnected in a "magical" way (think of the lucky outfits that some people put on when watching football games. To believe that your outfit makes the Pats win or lose is completely silly, but it doesn't stop Uncle Louie and his "lucky underwear"...). But somehow, this doesn't translate over to people other than you. It won't matter if Uncle Louie's bud wears his squid hat, what MATTERS is that Louie has his underwear on!

Now, we all seem to know this anecdotally, but no experiments had ever been done to really prove it. So these authors devised four experiments to show that people view themselves as having more free will than their friends. To do this, take a bunch of college students (perhaps this group is biased? Aren't college students known to be more narcissistic? :)), and ask them questions about themselves...and their roommates.

Experiment 1: This experiment tested the idea that, if you believe you have more free will than other people, you will view your own actions as LESS PREDICTABLE than theirs. Because you believe they have less free will, their actions will be predictable ("of course they would do that") while yours would be independent. To test this, they asked the students to describe life events of themselves and their roommate (both past and possible future). Then they had them rank to see how predictable they thought the life events were. The students believed that their own life events were less predictable than their roommate's, indicating that they thought they had more indeterminism, the idea that your actions cannot be predicted uniformly and thus spring from free will.

Experiment 2: Another important aspect of free will is the aspect of choice. We need to feel that we have more than one possibility to choose from to feel that we are making our decisions independently. This is a really easy idea to test, just ask participants (in this case, waiters) how many future options they have for something, and then ask how many they think their coworker has.


This is what they got. You can see that people view themselves as having more potential options over all three areas (home, job, lifestyle), while believing their coworker has less options (but there was no difference in the desirability of the options, so people weren't inflating their own possibilities by saying they'd be king of Mars or something). Not only that, the waiters thought it was more likely that their coworker would continue along the path they were on already, while they themselves were more likely to run off and start the next great startup company (or do something different than what they were on the path for at the moment).

Experiment 3: This test was to look at self-enhancement. Do you believe your life holds more possibility? Or do you believe it holds more good stuff? They asked students questions like "will you have a good job?" with options like "yes, no, both are possible". In reference to themselves, students were far more likely to pick the "both are possible" option. In fact, they picked it more often than they picked the positive options, which indicates that they felt their lives had more CHOICE than that of their friend's.

Experiment 4: This final test was a test for agency, the idea that you can overcome your situation and personality when making a choice, and that your intention is more important. To test this, they had the students draw. They had them draw boxes for a Saturday night for both them and their roommate. They had four conditions: situation, personality, desires and intentions, and past behavior. They had to size a box for each condition, where the size of the box indicated how important it was in determining what they or their roommate would do on a Saturday night.


You can see here the results based on box size. The students made bigger boxes for situation and desires for THEMSELVES, but for their roommates they gave a bigger box for personality, indicating that they thought they were more capable of overcoming situation and personality to follow their own desires.

All of this points to the idea that we all believe we have more free will and our actions have more influence than the guy sitting next to us. But you know what? HE believes he has more free will than YOU do. But the next question is this: are you INFLATING your own free will? Or devaluing theirs?

Pronin, E., & Kugler, M. (2010). People believe they have more free will than others Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1012046108

19 responses so far

  • My question is whether people have any choice about whether they believe they have more free will than others.

  • Samantha Vimes says:

    I get the impression that people were in a sense answering a different question than what they were asked, because of how they process it. I think people were actually thinking, "How can I *predict* the outcome for my friend," whereas when asked about themselves, they became more modest and realistic about how they don't have full control over their own lives. I mean, if I think my personality predicts what I will do, I am in a sense saying, my preference overrides what the universe offers. Whereas if I say my friend's personality predicts what she does, I am in effect saying, the probability is that little will disrupt her ability to have what she desires.

    but then, I suppose studies have been done on whether people answer questions literally, or revise the questions in their heads before answering in response to their own thought processes. I may be anticipating an uncommon problem that would have no statistically significant effect.

    • Rubah Renard says:

      I think you are exactly on the mark. Said studies may have been done, I am sure, but the bias you cite would be difficult or impossible to correct for, and I don't it is corrected for here.

      We think of ourselves as more independent beings not out of pride, I think, but because we simply have a greater understanding of our own motivations and circumstances. When we categorize people, we identify them more with their personalities than with the likely future obstacles on their path, because unless we know someone very well, we know that we don't know all of the latter. We pick the predictor we know more about.

  • veronica says:

    The results form the experiments could be interpreted in other ways. It is not that we believe we have MORE free will than the guy next door, but that we know what we are able and unable to do (hopefully most adults are). For that reason, answering questions about our OWN future becomes a lot more "complicated" and thus, detailed. On the other hand, for answering questions about other, we assume that the other person, as a human, have the awareness of herself in the world as well as an awareness of others having awareness; thus, the other person can "manipulate" life the same way I do. However, we are very aware that the motivation level in each individual is completely unpredictable. For this reason, we might utilize strategies to answer questions of this kind in which we think the others are "thinking human beings" able to do whatever they want; however, we do not know how motivated they are and predict their future based on this two opposing statements. As a consequence, we use rules to make predictions about others' actions such that they have to go in accord to their personality (based on the results of the story), while we have full control of both features to answer on ourselves: We know we are thinking human beings and know the constrains of out own motivations.
    All of this to say that uncertainty about others' state of mind is a possible explanation for all the results obtained in the study 🙂

  • Azkyroth says:

    DO we really have final control over our own actions? Or are we just meaningless automatons carrying out predictable sequences of events

    I really do not understand why this is even presented as a dichotomy. :/

    • veronica says:

      For the most part we do have control of our actions: our motor and cognitive outputs at present are (very much) controlled by us. In the long run, the collection of actions might seem a lot more automated, ( and it probably is due to the strong effect of society), but still "we" have control and we know it, but we can't know it about our roommate.

  • Azkyroth says:

    Also, the separation between personality and desires/intentions, and to a lesser degree some of the others, seems really artificial to me. O.o

  • Kees says:

    I think the question in experiment 4 is a bit unfair, because asking this question in advance will affect the outcome: If you ask me what I will do next Saturday night, I will think about the options that I have, which increases the importance of 'Desires/Intentions'. However, if you ask me what I have done last Saturday night, 'Past behavior' becomes much more important, because I rarely plan ahead for a Saturday night.

    PS: Did the researchers ask the roommates the same question? If the roommates of the test subjects also received this question, and if the test subjects knew that their roommates also received this question, then I guess I don't have a problem with question 4.

  • marius says:

    Interesting study. Experiment 1 - 3 actually repeat classic 'fundamental attribution error' experiments. The results there are more or less known for over 40 years. As they say in Germany: it's an old hat. I'm not sure whether calling this perception of free will is justified or not, but it makes one think.

  • Jack says:

    We see this in the millitary domain all the time: each side often thinks it has the advantage because they've done some innovative R&D, while assuming the other side's tactics and tech will remain unchanged.

  • CW says:

    Interesting study, although I agree with Samantha that the questions were somewhat open to interpretation.

    I read a different study a while back (I think it was blogged on Freakonomics, can't seem to find the link though) suggesting that when BAD things happen, we tend to underestimate our own agency and overestimate the agency of others. (I swerved into your lane because my car's steering is sluggish; you swerved into my lane because you're a jerk who doesn't know how to drive...) Doesn't this seem to point to the opposite conclusion, that we believe other people have more control over their actions?

  • Kevin says:

    Reminds me of similar studies showing that we think that people in general are irrational and uninformed, but we think of ourselves as enlightened and objective.

    • Isabel says:

      Especially people who consider themselves liberal progressives! Haha. Yes, everyone else is acting out of fear and unexamined prejudice that leads to xenophobia blah blah, yup, they are the rational ones.

  • becca says:

    Sci, I totally believe you could become king of Mars (however desirable that might be).

  • tschill says:

    I wonder if one couldn't interpret the data from a different angle. Maybe people rate uncertainty in their own life higher, assuming it more unpredictable and less stable. For instance in experiment 2 the waiters might think of their quarrels with the boss or the problems at home, while they only see the socially adjusted behaviour of their colleagues giving a representation of a perfect worker and family man.

  • [...] a quick Google on the subject, I found another interesting article that showed that generally people believe that they themselves have more free will than other [...]

  • [...] We really do believe we’ve got more free will than the other guy - via Neurotic Physiology – I tweeted this link all over the internets the other day, and not surprisingly, it got picked up a lot. And why not? Free will is one of those subjects that is particularly interesting to, well, just about everyone. It’s one the deep philosophical questions pondered by philosophers, and high people everywhere: DO we really have final control over our own actions? Or are we just meaningless automatons carrying out predictable sequences of events, who just walk around thinking we’re so clever? [...]

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