Richard G. Petty, MD

Stumbling Over the Truth

Winston Churchill.jpg

“People stumble over the truth from time to time, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

–Sir Winston Churchill (English Statesman, British Prime Minister, 1940-1945 and 1951-1955, and, in 1953, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1874-1965)

Fatalism and Ethics

We are constantly inundated by reports of the consequences of bad decision-making, and that leads us to consider two issues: genetic determinism – the notion that our behavior is totally the result of our genes – and whether or not we have free will. This is a hugely important issue, not only for each of us personally, but also for our views about morality and the justice system. And what happens when everyone becomes convinced that they have no free will and that “they’re genes made them do it?”

We know from our own experience as well as empirical studies that changing a person’s sense of responsibility can change his or her behavior.

Interestingly, the link between fatalistic beliefs and unethical behavior seems never to been examined scientifically.

In two recent experiments published in the journal Psychological Science psychologists Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia decided to see if otherwise honest people would cheat and lie if their beliefs in free will were manipulated.

They gave college students a mathematics exam. The math problems appeared on a computer screen, and the subjects were told that a computer glitch would cause the answers to appear on the screen as well. They were told that to prevent the answers from appearing, the students had to hit the space bar as soon as the problems appeared.

This was a ruse: the researchers were observing to see if the participants surreptitiously used the answers instead of solving the problems honestly on their own. Before the test they used a well-established method to prime the subjects’ beliefs regarding free will. Some of the students were told that science has disproven the notion of free will and that the illusion of free will was an artifact of brain activity. The other group where told nothing about free will.

The results were clear: those with weaker convictions about their power to control their own destiny were more likely to cheat when given the opportunity compared with those whose beliefs about controlling their own lives were left untouched.

The researchers then went a step further to see if they could get people to cheat with unmistakable intention and effort. The experimenters set up a different deception. This time they had the subjects take a very difficult cognitive test. Then they were asked to solve a series of problems without supervision and to score themselves. They also “rewarded” themselves $1 for each correct answer. To collect the cash they had to walk across the room and help themselves to money in a manila envelope.

The psychologists had previously primed the participants to have their beliefs in free will bolstered or reduced by having them read statements supporting a deterministic view of human behavior.

This study shows that those with a stronger belief in their own free will were less likely to steal money than were those with a weakened belief.

The results of this study indicate a significant value in believing that free will exists. The work also raises some significant questions about personal beliefs and personal behavior.

“The flame of Christian ethics is still our highest guide.”
–Sir Winston Churchill (English Statesman, British Prime Minister, 1940-1945 and 1951-1955, and, in 1953, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1874-1965)

“You’re born with intelligence, but not with ethics.”
–Masad Ayoob (American Firearms and Self-defense Instructor and the Director of the Lethal Force Institute in Concord, New Hampshire, 1948-)

“Fatalism, whose solving word in all crises of behavior is “All striving is vain,” will never reign supreme, for the impulse to take life strivingly is indestructible in the race. Moral creeds which speak to that impulse will be widely successful in spite of inconsistency, vagueness, and shadowy determination of expectancy. Man needs a rule for his will, and will invent one if one be not given him.”
–William James (American Psychologist and Philosopher, 1842-1910)

“To live lightheartedly but not recklessly; to be gay without being boisterous; to be courageous without being bold; to show trust and cheerful resignation without fatalism -this is the art of living.”
Jean de La Fontaine

“Custom has furnished the only basis which ethics have ever had.”
–Joseph Wood Krutch (American Naturalist, Writer and Critic, 1893-1970)

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