A sobering message about free will

Addiction is a disorder of the will, yet treatment for alcoholism and other addictions often comes with decidedly mixed messages about willpower and abstinence. On the one hand, newly sober addicts and alcoholics often hear the news that two of every three of them will ultimately relapse. There is a frightening sense of inevitability in this not-so-hopeful message. On the other hand, this folk wisdom can also be heard echoing through the rooms of recovery: “Relapse is not a requirement.”

Not a requirement, yet two of three will fail. This seeming contradiction can be confusing to those struggling to shake their compulsions in early sobriety. It reflects a larger debate about the nature of addictions: Are they a medical disease, rooted in the genes and inevitably expressed in the brain’s aberrant biochemistry? Or are they a failure of self-control that can be corrected by acting more responsibly?

Philosophers have been pondering the nature of free will for centuries, and that debate will probably not be resolved in the rehab clinic. But mounting evidence is making one thing clear: The belief in free will—or the disbelief—is itself a powerful cognitive force, shaping everything from aggression to honesty to feelings of personal responsibility. The newest findings from this line of research are now suggesting that attitudes toward free will (or genetic determinism) may actually influence the intention to act voluntarily (or lack of it), right down in the brain’s motor neurons.

Psychological scientist Davide Rigoni of the University of Padova, Italy, wanted to see if weakening people’s belief in free will might have an effect on volition and intent, as reflected in the brain’s electrical activity. To explore this question, he recruited a group of volunteers and had some of them read a passage from Nobel laureate Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis, which argues that free will is a delusion—and furthermore that there is scientific consensus behind this view. This exercise has been shown in previous research to attenuate belief in free will, and indeed it did so in these volunteers to varying degrees. The other volunteers also read from the text, but nothing about free will.

Then Rigoni hooked them all up to an EEG, and recorded electrical signals in their brains as they were executing voluntary movements. Specifically, he measured an electrical spike that indicates “readiness” to act—a preconscious spike that comes up to 2 full seconds before actual movement. This signal precedes only actions that have the subjective feeling of being willed for a particular moment.

The results were clear and provocative. As described in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, the brain’s readiness signal was reduced in those with a weakened belief in free will. What’s more, the signal varied with the force of these beliefs, being weakest in those who were most skeptical about free will. The effect was clear a full second before the volunteers made a conscious decision to move, suggesting that abstract beliefs are shaping intent at a basic, preconscious level.

This is the first evidence that high-level beliefs can influence basic motor processes, and the findings could help explain why such beliefs lead to antisocial and irresponsible acts. Putting less effort into our actions could lead to a diminished sense of responsibility for those actions, and this depleted sense of responsibility could in turn lead to careless behavior—cheating in life, lack of discipline, even relapse.

Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, explores these psychological issues in detail. Excerpts from his two blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in Scientific American Mind and The Huffington Post.


Are people genetically predisposed to react one way or another to their social environments teachings on “free will”? Its mind boggling that learning a certain concept can effect brain wave formation when performing an apparently unrelated act. Maybe the learning, that free will is real, acted as a partial antidote to ‘learned helplessness’.

I have always questioned what “free will” is supposed to be free of…if free will has to be free of all outside influences…then it must be totally random in order to be free. Yet, I think there is such a thing as free will, but it requires something like persistence that goes beyond the everyday idea of “free will”.

2/3 of people going through an addiction treatment may fail, but one of the predictors of success is persistence. A person may go thru several treatment programs before achieving success. That’s what happened to me in quitting smoking. So I think free will is like that … free but not instant.

Bernard Schuster

Thank you for the article, I will read the rest as its published.

Reading the above comments and article just gets my mind going! Do we or do we not? But of course we have “free will”
To me it is called “choice” although considering many factors
most are unclear to down right muddy. Its to easy to say I am addicted then go ahead and please self! But is this good for us in the long run? Who do we think we are kidding? Our self of course, we are giving our self permission to eat another serving or take another drug what ever “it” may be.
We are not raised to believe we have free will our parents tell us what to believe, what to do or not to do. Then like most we become an adult not knowing who we really are it takes years to unravel the wrong teaching. (would like to say this does not include 100% of people, but a major part of society). If a person is so blessed to have a mentor, psyche, or a person that does not want to change them but help them grow into the person they were born to be. Not to judge them but to let them ask and learn and grow! Only then does life become “clearer” giving them the clarity to use their free will. From a spiritual point of view our Lord has given us “free will” in the Bible we are told God will not force us to believe this is done through Free Will.
Now to look at today at how many people are covered with their past, shame, guilt, pride, so many other words that fit the behavior how can a person believe or trust that they have a free will without trust, honesty, truth, belief, spirit, knowing self, boldness, and so many more self esteem issues, we must respect ourselves before we can expect others to respect us. That’s a good starting point! Ask your self some important questions if you do not like the answers know you have the power to change the outcome.
Thanks for letting me share my opinion and belief, one of my favorite teachings is “Belief Therapy” when we know what we believe its not so hard to “Stand” for that belief. It’s who we are! Not having to please others Belief is very personal others only want you to follow them or maybe take the lead. Know you always have a choice!
Yours Truly,

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