Study Suggests Free Will Is An Illusion

Is some sort of mental time travel going on? QQ7/Shutterstock

Psychology attempts to define and investigate some genuinely tricky, decidedly abstract subjects, including, for example, the nature of psychopathy. Free will is also another hot topic for researchers in this field, and there isn’t an adult person alive today who hasn’t even briefly considered whether we actually possess it or not.

Ambitiously, a new paper published in the journal Psychological Science has attempted to address this notorious issue. By asking participants to anticipate when they thought a specific color of circle would appear before them, something determined completely by chance, the researchers found that their predictions were more accurate when they had only a fraction of a second to guess than when they had more time.

Assuming quite safely that the participants were not psychic, it appears a type of mental “time travel” effect is happening here. The participants subconsciously perceived the color change as it happened prior to making their mental choice, even though they always thought they made their prediction before the change occurred. They were getting the answers right because they already knew the answer.

“Our minds may be rewriting history,” Adam Bear, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology at Yale University and lead author of the study, said in a statement. The implication here is that when it comes to very short time scales, even before we think we’ve made a conscious choice, our mind has already subconsciously decided for us, and free will is more of an illusion than we think.

The results of the red circle experiments. Bear & Bloom/Psychological Science

The research consisted of two separate tests. The first involved five white circles, one of which would turn red in rapid-fire sequences. The small sample of 25 young adult participants were asked to predict which one would randomly turn red, make a mental note of this, then wait. After one of the circles took on a crimson hue, the participants had to record via keystroke whether they had predicted correctly, incorrectly, or didn’t have time to complete their choice.

Only 20 percent of these guesses should be correct, and this was shown to be more or less true. However, when the time window for guessing was reduced to a fraction of a second, the accuracy mysteriously rose to upwards of 30 percent.

A second test with 25 additional young adults was fairly similar; they had to predict if the color of an earlier circle matched up to the color of a later one. The participants had a 50 percent chance of getting it right every single time. However, once again, when the time delay was a fraction of a second, the prediction accuracy rose, this time to around 62 percent.

The reason for the accuracy rise is that on a very short time scale, the participants were seeing the circle change color but only subconsciously, so they became aware of the actual answer without knowing it. Across both experiments, however, they thought that they were making their mental choices before the answer appeared.

One possible interpretation of the experiment, therefore, is that when we have to make an immediate decision, we don’t have time to consciously ponder on our choice. By making a snap decision, we have to surrender to our subconscious, and that decides for us – even if we think we’ve made a conscious choice all along.

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