How much Free Will do we have?
Consider the following situation.
Here we have Jerry.
He was a young, newly married, promising stockbroker.
One day his boss offered him some narcotics,
and Jerry chose to accept.
He quickly became addicted, eventually lost
his job, was divorced from his wife, became
homeless, lived in the forest and one day
was mauled by a bear.
People said well, Jerry acted of his own free
He played with fire and he got burned.
But let’s go back a little bit.
How much free will did Jerry really have?
Addiction causes certain brain changes that
make you crave the drug very strongly, and
damages your prefrontal cortex, the part of
the brain that allows you to inhibit impulsive
However, that’s not what I’m talking about.
Did Jerry have the free will in that moment
to make the decision not to accept his boss’s
“No, no thank you, though.”
Let’s rewind the tape.
Jerry just got a job as a junior stock broker
and his boss invites him to have a drink after
the 4PM bell.
He had a dinner date planned with his wife
for her birthday, but that’s not until a
bit later and he figures he’ll be done by
What he really wanted to do right after work
was take a quick nap because he’s a bit
But, he doesn’t want to disappoint his new
He ends up having a couple drinks with his
boss and some other new colleagues.
It’s been a while, Jerry still hasn’t
eaten, and it’s getting late.
Jerry’s looking at the clock when he realizes
his phone is seconds from dying, so he pulls
up his wife’s number and tries to remember
the digits by repeating them in his head.
While he’s trying to hold onto the digits,
he starts to get up to go pee and suddenly
his colleague Tom and his boss invite him
to partake in inserting white powder into
This makes Jerry uncomfortable, he’s never
His boss and colleague are looking at him
expectantly and Jerry says “No, I better
Tom says “C’mon Jerry, everyone here does
We have three servings ready just for you.”
Then his boss says “Yea it’s how we stay
ahead of the game.
And this is the good stuff so it’s not dangerous.
Just give it one try.”
Jerry looks at his boss, then at the clock,
then at Tom and he nervously says “OK…
Just a little bit.”
And, that’s how Jerry got his foot in a
door he couldn’t close.
So was Jerry totally in control here?
Did he have the free will to just say “No”
Well, first off, when all this happened, Jerry
was in the midst of trying to hold onto his
wife’s number in his head.
Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking, Fast
and Slow” says that “Several psychological
studies have shown that people who are simultaneously
challenged by a demanding cognitive task and
by a temptation are more likely to yield to
He explains that if someone were asked to
remember a list of seven digits, then is offered
the choice of sinful chocolate cake or virtuous
fruit salad, the evidence suggests that “you
would be more likely to select the tempting
chocolate cake when your mind is loaded with
The other thing is that Jerry didn’t get
a full night’s rest.
Brain scans have shown that when you’re
lacking sleep, the neurons firing in the prefrontal
cortex begin to slow down.
The prefrontal cortex is particularly important
in problem solving, reasoning, decision making,
and inhibiting inappropriate or immoral behavior.
As Kelly McGonigal points out in “The Willpower
Instinct,” sleep deprivation impairs how
the body and brain use glucose.
Unless someone is in the rarer state of ketosis,
glucose is the main fuel source for the brain.
McGonigal says impairing glucose utilization:
“is bad news for self control, [self control
is] one of the most energy-expensive tasks
your brain can spend its limited fuel on.
Your prefrontal cortex, that energy-hungry
area of the brain, bears the brunt of this
personal energy crisis.”
Then, Jerry hasn’t eaten yet.
Obviously this means less energy available
for the prefrontal cortex.
There are special glucose-detecting brain
cells that are constantly monitoring the availability
When the brain detects a drop in the energy
supply, self-control is the first expense
to be cut.
It is not entirely necessary for survival,
and is one of the most energy expensive tasks
the brain performs.
As Kelly McGonigal says “To conserve energy,
the brain may become reluctant to give you
the full mental resources you need to resist
Not only this, research at the University
of Gothenburg found that ghrelin – the “hunger
hormone” actually has a negative effect
on both decision making and impulse control.
Next, Jerry’s colleague Tom is actually
from the same college as Jerry.
This is significant because, work by Dan Ariely
shows that we are more likely to go along
with immoral behavior if people like us are
also doing it.
Beginning in 2002, Dan and his collaborators
began a series of studies on lying.
They would give people 20 math problems and
asked them to find the two non-whole numbers
that add up to ten.
These are problems that anybody could solve
if they had enough time, but participants
are given only 5 minutes.
At the end of the 5 minutes they are told
to put their pencils down and count how many
Then, they were to take the sheet of paper
and shred it.
They were asked how many problems they finished
and got paid 1 dollar for each problem.
As you’d expect, participants cheated a
little bit and lied saying they completed
more problems than they really did.
In one of these experiments, there is an actor
who stands up within the first 30 seconds
of starting and says he’s finished all the
He goes up, gets paid for completing all the
problems and leaves the room.
He is obviously cheating and just showed that
you can easily get away with it.
This experiment was run at Carnegie Melon.
Everyone participating is a Carnegie Melon
student, but the actor who blatantly cheats
right away is dressed in a University of Pittsburg
The subjects know that it’s very easy get
away with cheating, but they don’t think
people like themselves are doing it.
When the actor appears to be a Carnegie Melon
student like everyone else however, cheating
So it wasn’t really about getting caught,
but it’s about what’s socially acceptable
in their circle.
The next thing is that the person offering
Jerry the narcotic is an authority figure
– Jerry’s boss.
A famous experiment known as the Milgram experiment
demonstrates that people are surprisingly
obedient to authority figures, even when it
comes to immoral behavior.
Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist
began experiments on this in July 1961.
One famous experiment had a subject sit in
a room with a microphone and a device that
the subject is told delivers painful electric
These shocks were being delivered to another
person in another room who the subject was
to give quiz questions to via the microphone.
Whenever the other person got a question wrong,
the subject was supposed to give a shock and
then increase the voltage.
The subject could hear that the person was
in pain, but this was actually pre-recorded
audio, and no one was really receiving shocks.
With each increase in voltage, the yells of
pain from the electric punishment got more
and more intense “….take it off, I’ve had
enough of this!” and then at some point there
was no more response.
If the subject hesitated to continue delivering
the shocks at any time, the leader of the
experiment, who was in the room and wearing
a white coat said there was no permanent damage
and calmly asked them to please continue.
Before the experiment, It was predicted that
only 1% of subjects would continue administering
shocks until they got to the highest voltage.
While the subjects giving the shocks were
clearly uncomfortable- biting their fingernails,
stuttering, sweating, trembling as the experiment
proceeded, The results were that 60% of the
subjects went on to administer all the shocks
up to a final deadly 450 volt shock.
Milgram said that “relatively few people
have the resources needed to resist authority.”
Lastly, Jerry had to pee.
A study published in the journal “Consciousness
and Cognition” by Michael Ent and Roy Baumeister
found that the more people needed to pee,
the less they believed in the concept of free
This is part of a type of psychological research
known as “embodied cognition” that shows
that the states of our bodies influence how
we consider the world around us.
If someone had a brain tumor and they suddenly
start doing impulsive things, we might say
that the tumor has compromised their free
Now, Maybe someone else in Jerry’s position
would have said No, But, could we consider
the combination of all these little unnoticed
factors to be compromising Jerry’s free
Then, What about unnoticed factors influencing
our everyday actions?
We feel that we are the conscious controllers
of our moment to moment decisions, but what
if you could dig up all the unconscious factors
contributing to these decisions?
Would you feel less like you had free will?
Maybe one morning you say “you know what,
I’m gonna be spontaneous and have a peanut
butter jelly sandwich for breakfast instead
of my usual eggs.”
You might think that this exciting new choice
is an expression of your free will, but what
if it’s just something your unconscious
decided for you based on things you weren’t
For example, You’ve been hearing the name
Jerry a lot which has you thinking of Jelly.
When you were at the grocery store yesterday,
you saw that peanut butter was on sale, and
there was a Reese’s peanut butter cups ad
playing on TV last night.
Also, the gradual addition of more sweets
to your diet is causing you to crave sweeter
foods in general.
But you’re not actually aware of any of
these things in the moment, you just feel
like you , the master of your mind, decided
to have a PBJ.
So, the question is: If unconscious factors
are driving your decisions, would you still
call that free will?
If this question interesting, stick around
for my next video as it will explore in depth
whether or not we have free will, and why