President’s Column: The Oft Ignored Tension Between Psychological Science and Individual Responsibility

Ralph R. Miller (SUNY-Binghamton), President, Division 3


            The modern scientific view.  One cannot be an academic psychologist without at some time having pondered the implications of our science for the widely held assumption that humans have free will.  Our professional journals are compendiums of the factors that influence thought and behavior (hereafter called ‘behavior’).  Historically, these factors have been largely experiential, but in recent decades we have begun to understand the details of how genetics influence behavior... and more correctly, how experiential and genetic factors interact.  As scientific psychologists, we continuously try to decompose claimed active reasoning by our subjects into simpler, more automatic processes that hinge on genes and experience.  Long ago, it was recognized that simply stating that a subject reasons or infers thus-and-such leaves us asking why the homunculus within the subject’s head in fact reasons that particular way or makes that specific inference.  To answer “because the subject reasoned that ...” is recognized by most of us as scientifically unsatisfactory due to its circularity.  Yet, many times a day we settle for accounts like this in our nonscientific interactions with other people and the inanimate environment.  That is, when we turn away even momentarily from the subject matter of our science, we revert to thinking like a layman.  The typical layman still thinks of some behaviors (and other traits) as being the product of either nature or nurture.  For example, decades ago when the mental retardation caused by phenylketonuria (PKU) was found to be linked to a single gene site on chromosome 12, many people spoke of this sort of mental retardation as genetically determined.  But the identification of diets free of phenylalanine (and now specific medications) allows individuals with this genetic defect to avoid retardation.  The genes are unchanged, but the behavior is altered.  Hence, even in this case, genes alone are not destiny.  Conversely, people tend to think of the ability to solve algebra problems as being a product of taking an algebra course.  But no algebra course, however well taught, is going to get a developmentally challenged individual (or your dog Rover) to solve algebra problems.  Hence, even in this case, experience alone is not destiny.  More generally, there is no behavior for which genes alone or experience alone is destiny.  Practically all scientists today recognize that a single trait in a given individual cannot be attributed solely to nature or nurture; nature and nurture are orthogonal traits that interact rather than summate.  The issue I am raising here is that, in the framework of modern psychology, experience (past and present) and genes conjointly are destiny, and this position is diametrically opposed to a central premise of our society, that people are individually responsible for their behavior.



Society’s 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 Divinity Avenue or Oxford Street.  Of course the modern psychologist studying William James’ decision making processes would try to account for his decision in terms of experiential and genetic factors, and avoid invoking James’ homunculus.  My earliest publication in psychology (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1967) involved a debriefing of subjects, which demonstrated to me how poorly introspection accounted for actual behavior.  There have been many publications documenting dissociations between behavior and introspection, more specifically conscious decision making.  Recently the popular book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell summarized many such demonstrations, with surprisingly little impact on public attitudes despite the acclaim the book received.  Of course Gladwell merely chronicled a number of specific instances in which introspection on decision processes failed to fit the behavior actually observed.  More recently, a very readable New York Times Magazine article by Steven Pinker (11 Jan 2009) made similar points concerning many important choices made in his own life.  I am inclined to go out a limb and suggest that all conscious decision making is epiphenomenal, with decision making occurring unconsciously under the influence of genes and experience exclusively.  However, I know that I will have little company out on that limb.  But let us leave behind the question of why people are so wedded to the view that they have free will and return to the disconnect that this view has with our science.


           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.