President’s Column: The Oft Ignored Tension Between Psychological Science and Individual Responsibility
Ralph R. Miller (SUNY-Binghamton), President, Division 3
view and that view’s frailty.
Why does society cling to the view that individuals are free
agents? Or stating it more personally, why
do we as scientists live with this disconnect between our professional
expertise and our interactions outside of the domain of our scientific
investigations? I would suggest that
there are two reasons for this. First,
we were raised in and indoctrinated by a culture that assumes that people make
free choices, and consequently are responsible for their behavior. The second reason that scientific
psychologists evaluatively judge the behavior of others, despite their rigorous
training, is the pervasive phenomenon of introspection. Introspection was an important method within
experimental psychology at the turn of the last century. The advent of behaviorism and subsequently
cognitive psychology did not vanquish introspection; they merely moved it into
the closet. William James used
introspection in declaring that he had free will in that he could decide
whether to walk home from the lecture hall on
Friction between these two world views. In the laboratory, experimental psychologists routinely assume (without overtly stating it) that free will is an illusion. Then we leave the laboratory, or even turn to our research assistants, and behave as if people possess free will. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), B. F. Skinner declared free will to be an illusion and provided us with his views concerning how we might make a better world through environmental manipulations, specifically, appropriate reinforcement contingencies. Skinner, being a student of learning in a time in which we knew little about the role of genes in modulating behavior, placed great emphasis on shaping of behavior by the environment, but more recent data raises gene-environment interactions to center stage. Skinner’s suggestions were not widely applauded because many readers, not unreasonably, objected to ‘others’ defining the type of society that would be created by scientific intervention. But by rejecting Skinner’s prescription for society, we have not escaped being manipulated. Rather the reins of manipulation have been taken up by individuals or groups with the knowledge and resources to shape behavior, but who avoid offending people by publicizing these manipulations. Madison Avenue and political gurus, not to mention the occasional charismatic dictator, have expertly manipulated the environment to influence people’s decisions without the intended benevolence of Skinner’s ‘utopian’ society. There is nothing new about the notion of ‘manipulating the masses,’ but, with recently discovered psychological knowledge, the manipulators (and at some level we are all manipulators) are getting ever better at controlling the views and behaviors of people. (Of course at a higher level of analysis, the behaviors of the manipulators are themselves a product of those individuals’ genes and experiences. It would be scientifically inconsistent to single out these people and hold them personally responsible for their behavior.)
Scientific resistance to the modern scientific viewpoint. To suggest that our behavior is determined by genes and experience meets much resistance today, not only from laymen, but often from scientists. Although our cultural upbringing and introspection are the bases for much of this resistance, further objections are based on our science’s current inability to account for select behavioral acts. Like the theory of evolution, many supportive data points are missing and existing accounts are apt to be tweaked as new data are obtained. However, the extant data are overwhelming. We don’t have all the answers, but the approximate trajectory is clear. More and more behavior can be understood in terms of the experiences (past and present) and genes of organisms. Scientific psychology is focused on the experiential and genetic roots of behavior. No account cites free will (which would be surrendering control to a homunculus), except those with foundations in active rationalism which again invokes the need for a homunculus, something that even economists are now coming to reject.
Can either world view constructively replace the other? Does embracing a scientific account of behavior in terms of genes and experience mean rejecting individual moral responsibility for one’s behavior? Science is neither moral nor amoral. It simply seeks to illuminate causal relationships. The illusion of individual responsibility for one’s own behavior appears to be very useful in allowing society to function and serve us as individuals. Our indoctrination in taking personal responsibility for our behavior and being subject to reward and punishment as a consequence of our behavior are both powerful experiential factors in regulating our behavior in socially appropriate ways. There appears to be no viable alternative to society’s holding people responsible for their behavior. To reject individual responsibility would be similar to accepting the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy,’ which asserts that behaviors reflecting our evolutionary past are excusable as we are strongly predisposed to emit such behaviors. Take murder. Over 90% of convicted murderers are males. Many researchers (e.g., Daly and Wilson) have written extensively about testosterone levels and male predispositions towards violence as part of their competition with other males and more generally trying to get more of their genes into the next generation. While details of these accounts may be suspect, the general story appears highly credible. But even if it is correct, society would be poorly served excusing murder by males. The threat of punishment for murder is likely a strong experiential factor in holding down the murder rate. Perhaps the child molester is a better example. The child molester is loathed by the community, the police, and the courts. But the clinical psychologist does not (or at least should not) scorn the child molester. The child molester is a product of his genes and experience, and the job of the therapist is to get him to stop his behavior. This may take the form of psychotherapy (i.e., new experiences) or even drugs, and maybe avoidance of certain provoking environments. Alternatively stated, the therapist’s job is to modify the child molester’s cumulative experience so as to reduce the likelihood of future child molestation. This of course is the scientific approach to child molestation. But the threat of societal rejection and punishment as embodied in the judgment of the community, police, and courts also constitutes a part of the experience of the potential child molester that likely reduces future incidents of child molestation. This example makes the point that the illusion of free will can be very useful to society. In sum, the naturalistic fallacy does not identify a falsehood, but simply stands as recognition that our society could not function by attributing behavior to genes and experience rather than individual responsibility for one’s own behavior.
Living with the disconnect. Where does all this leave us? Our science would falter if we introduced free will to our accounts of behavior. And the functioning of our society would be seriously impaired if [the illusion of] free will were rejected. This leaves us with a disconnect between our science and the socially useful illusion of free will. At the risk of sounding Panglossian, I would suggest that both science and society are well served by their present disconnect.