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Free will beliefs and motivation to punish

In a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Cory J. Clark and co-authors provide evidence that widespread belief in the existence of free will is bolstered by a fundamental desire to punish wrongdoers (see here). As Clark et al. put it, “There seems little doubt that the subjective experience of choosing and acting supports people’s belief in free will, but our findings suggest another powerful motivating factor: the human impulse to blame and punish. People believe in free will – at least in part – because they wish to affirm that people who do immoral things could have and should have acted differently” (Clark et al. forthcoming).

The effect appears to be robust. Across five studies, Clark et al. report that exposure to immoral behaviour increases beliefs in free will, and that this increase is mediated in part by motivation to punish immoral behaviour.

Consider two of the studies in particular. In Study 1, Clark et al. had two groups of participants read an article. One group read a story of moral corruption; the second read a morally neutral story. Participants then answered a series of questions designed to measure beliefs in issues relevant to free will (e.g., ‘People have complete free will’). Answers were rated on a scale of 1-5. Participants who read about moral corruption offered higher answers overall: a result Clark et al. take to demonstrate “that immoral behaviour can motivate broad beliefs about free will” (forthcoming). In Study 3, students in a university course received an e-mail either informing them that after their last test, a cheat sheet had been found, or informing them of a morally neutral upcoming class activity. Students were then asked to fill out a brief survey that measured free will beliefs as well as opinions about appropriate punishment for cheating. Students who received the e-mail about the cheat sheet demonstrated both higher ratings in response to free will questions, as well as higher punishment recommendations, in comparison to students who received a neutral e-mail.

What kind of claims do these studies warrant? As Clark et al. note, the belief in free will has sources other than the motivation to punish. So these results do not indicate that motivation to punish, or cognitive contact with immoral behaviour, creates belief in free will. Rather these results indicate that on scales designed to measure free will beliefs, such cognitive contact increases what the scales measure to a significant degree. In the abstract (and throughout the paper) Clark et al. gloss this fact variously as follows: motivation to punish or hold responsible is “a key factor promoting belief in free will”; participants report “greater belief in free will after considering an immoral action”; notification of cheating in one’s class “led to increased free will beliefs.”

Here is a proposal. Cognitive contact with immoral behaviour (e.g., reading a story about or hearing about someone’s morally wrong action) causes an increase in strength of conviction regarding the existence of free will. If Clark et al. are right, it does so (at least in part) via motivation to punish. Further, Clark et al. maintain that the effect goes beyond the attribution of free will to an individual. It looks like an individual’s conviction regarding free will on the whole is also impacted.

Clark et al. suggest a broadly Nietzschean view regarding the connection between free will beliefs and motivation to punish:

“In order to flourish, societies need to make the costs of rule breaking outweigh its benefits. Moral responsibility is a construct that permits societies (and individuals) to blame and punish others for their misdeeds. Insofar as free will is a prerequisite for moral responsibility, ascribing free will to criminals or other miscreants provides a crucial justification for punishing them for their actions.” (forthcoming)

This might be right, but it raises a potential worry. Consider the fact that most of us already have fairly strong conviction in the existence of free will. Perhaps, as Clark et al. argue, this is due in part to repeated interaction between motivation to punish and cognitive contact with immoral behaviour. Perhaps a general justification of this link can be given by appeal to social utility. Even if so, it is not clear that the justification transfers to particular cases. For example, I see Mark slap Jake, and I want to punish Mark (by slapping him, say). I deliberate about whether to do so, and part of this deliberative process involves the recruitment and deployment of my own beliefs about free will in order to justify whatever punishment I deem appropriate. I had these beliefs before I wanted to punitively slap Jake, of course. But now the strength of conviction I have regarding these beliefs is enhanced. It seems so obvious to me that Mark abused his own free will in slapping Jake – he could so easily have done otherwise! This makes me pretty angry, and I experience strong blaming emotions towards Mark. (Indeed, if Hanna Pickard is right, I also experience a kind of entitlement to these emotions. Here is Pickard: “Part of what is striking about the phenomenology of affective blame is that, when in its grip, one feels entitled to one’s hostile, negative emotions, because of what the other has done. It feels as if they deserve these emotions in light of their actions, even if, as in cases of irrational blame, one knows in truth they do not” (Pickard 2013, 9-10).)

As you might have guessed, I loosen the Burberry alligator leather glove on my right hand, and give Mark a vicious slap.

The problem is it is possible that the severity of my punitive behaviour, and the severity of the punitive judgments by which I justified such behaviour to myself, might have been unjustified. And my surreptitiously increased strength of conviction might have contributed. If conviction in free will plays this kind of role, then we might worry that conviction that is too strong is often detrimental to society, bringing about overly harsh punitive behaviour not only in social contexts (leading to unjustified slapping), but in legal contexts as well (leading to, e.g., overly harsh prison sentences).


Clark, C.J., Luguri, J., Ditto, P.H., Knobe, J., Shariff, A.F. and Baumeister, R.F. (forthcoming). Free to punish: A motivated account of free will belief. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Pickard, H. (2013). Irrational blame. Analysis 0: 1-13. DOI: 10.1093/analys/ant075.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. “I see Mark slap Jake, and I want to punish Mark (by slapping him, say) […] I wanted to punitively slap Jake”

    Should that last “Jake” be “Mark”?

    Also, wouldn’t the first reaction be to find out why Mark did the slapping, since it may have been a punitive slap and I simply didn’t see why?

    Please consider changing the page and font colors to have more contrast: black on dark gray is hard to read.

  2. Hope I’m not going off-topic, but…

    Of course if there’s no free will for anyone then the punishers don’t have a choice anyway on whetever they can punish the criminals or not, so it’s not exactly coherent to ‘blame’ them, is it?

    Though I might be missing out on something important – do these kind of discussions over free will and criminal punishment assume the ‘lack of free will’ only applies to some kind of behavior or people?
    Perhaps the ‘if no one has free will then we don’t have a choice on whetever to punish or not’ objection has already been dealt with somewhere, in which case sorry for bringing it up.

    Now, on the social utility of punishment no matter the free will issue, that may indeed make sense, though that is purely utilitarian and from what I understand, laws are usually not meant to be .

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