Who pulls the strings?

Or, more specifically, do we believe we have free will?

One of the endless benefits of this wired-up, digital world is how easy it is to have one’s mind opened and stretched a little.

Take this, for instance, as an intriguing start to a new day.

Do we have free will?

This isn’t a question I can answer, but what I am interested in is “what happens if we do (or do not) believe in free will?” In other words, does believing in free will matter in your daily life?

Just let one’s mind float around that idea, not only as it applies to us humans but also to the animals that share our human intuition, such as dogs and horses.

So what’s got me bubbling along today? Nothing less than an article that appeared on The Conversation blog-site back last September.

I found it fascinating and hope you do as well. It is republished within the terms of The Conversation site.


Believing in free will makes you feel more like your true self

September 1, 2016

By Elizabeth Seto, Ph.D. Candidate in Social and Personality Psychology, Texas A&M University .

Believing in free will makes us feel more like ourselves. Man walking via http://www.shutterstock.com

Do we have free will? This is a question that scholars have debated for centuries and will probably continue to debate for centuries to come.

This isn’t a question I can answer, but what I am interested in is “what happens if we do (or do not) believe in free will?” In other words, does believing in free will matter in your daily life?

My colleagues and I at the Existential Psychology Lab at Texas A&M University study the psychological outcomes of belief in free will. While contemplating my next research project, I realized at some point in our lives, we all want to understand who we are – it’s human nature. So, we decided to explore how believing in free will influences our sense of self and identity.

 One way or another? Feet image via www.shutterstock.com.
One way or another? Feet image via http://www.shutterstock.com.

What is free will?

Free will is generally understood as the ability to freely choose our own actions and determine our own outcomes. For example, when you wake up in the morning, do you hit snooze? Do you put on your workout gear and go for a run? Do you grab a hot cup of coffee? While those are simple examples, if you believe in free will, you believe there are a limitless number of actions you can engage in when you wake up in the morning, and they are all within your control.

Believing in free will helps people exert control over their actions. This is particularly important in helping people make better decisions and behave more virtuously.

For instance, research has found that promoting the idea that a person doesn’t have free will makes people become more dishonest, behave aggressively and even conform to others’ thoughts and opinions. And how can we hold people morally responsible for their actions if we don’t believe they have the free will to act any differently? Belief in free will allows us to punish people for their immoral behaviors.

So, not only is there a value to believing in free will, but those beliefs have profound effects on our thoughts and behaviors. It stands to reason that believing in free will influences how we perceive ourselves.

You might be thinking, “Of course believing in free will influences how I feel about myself.” Even though this seems obvious, surprisingly little research has examined this question. So, I conducted two studies to suss out more about how believing in free will makes us feel.

What believing in free will makes us feel about ourselves

In the first study, I recruited 304 participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk and randomly assigned them to write about either personal experiences reflecting a high belief in free will, like changing career paths or resisting drugs or alcohol, or experiences reflecting a low belief in free will, such as growing up in poverty or working under an authoritative boss. Then, they were all asked to evaluate their sense of self.

Participants who wrote about experiences reflecting low belief in free will reported feeling less “in touch” with their true selves. In other words, they felt like they did not know themselves as well as the participants who wrote about experiences reflecting high belief in free will.

Then, I conducted a follow-up study testing one’s sense of authenticity, the feeling that one is behaving according to their own beliefs, desires and values.

I recruited another group of participants from Amazon Mechnical Turk, and like the first experiment, randomly assigned them to write about personal experiences demonstrating high belief in free will or low belief in free will. Then, they all completed a decision-making task where they had to make a series of choices about whether to donate money to charity or to keep the money for themselves.

Afterwards, participants were asked how authentic they felt while making their decisions. Participants in the low free will group reported feeling less authentic than participants in the high free will group.

 Up and at it. Female runner image via www.shutterstock.com.
Up and at it. Female runner image via http://www.shutterstock.com.

So, what does this all mean?

Ultimately, when people feel they have little control over their actions and outcomes in life, they feel more distant from their true, authentic selves. They are less in touch with who they are and do not believe their actions reflect their core beliefs and values.

We believe this is because belief in free will is linked to feelings of agency, the sense that we are the authors of our actions and are actively engaged with the world. As you can imagine, this sense of agency is an important part of a person’s identity.

The importance of feeling like you are in charge of your life applies to significant actions like moving or getting a new job or pondering the big questions in life. But it also applies to the minor decisions we make throughout the day.

Here’s one simple, though relatable, decision I am faced with every morning. When I wake up in the morning and decide to put on my workout gear and go for a run instead of hitting snooze, I might feel like I am the primary decision-maker for this morning routine. Additionally, I am most likely acting on the part of me that values physical health.

But what if I wake up, and I feel like I can’t exercise because I have to go to work or some other external factor is making it difficult to go? I might feel as if someone or something else is controlling my behavior, and perhaps, less like my true self.

So, do you have free will? Do any of us? Remember, the question isn’t whether it exists or not, but whether you believe it does.


Now thinking of dogs having their own free will might seem a little bizarre, but I do not intend it to be seen as such. Many of you will have dogs (and horses) that have ‘minds of their own’.

For our family here at home, if there’s one of our dogs that exhibits free will it is our Brandy.

Our Brandy is a Pyrenean Mastiff!
Our Brandy is a Pyrenean Mastiff!

Without warning or any other indication, he will suddenly decide it is time to go ‘walk-about’. Mainly during the day but sometimes at night, whatever the weather, he will disappear. He will always return but can be wandering around our thirteen acres for up to an hour.

Does he have free will?

Does he believe he has free will?

Do we believe he has free will?

What, dear reader, do you think?

28 thoughts on “Who pulls the strings?

  1. I do believe that all of my dogs had free will. They had their own distinct personalities and their own way of approaching things. This was a very interesting article, Paul. Thanks for sharing.


    1. I don’t think there’s much doubt about many animals having free will. How much of that is driven by instinct who knows? Certainly, in our domesticated animals they appear strongly to behave from known patterns, from habit in other words, from choice, and from mood. The last two certainly appearing to be driven by free will. But I’m no scientist.


  2. Very interesting article Paul.
    I do believe that my 4 cats have a belief in their own free will! They certainly have a sense of independence. And each has their own distinct personality. My 2 dogs also have very individual personalities. But being dogs, they are more ‘pack animals’ which is basically in their genes, (although the extent of this genetic trait will vary between individual dogs as is the case with your Brandy). In addition, my two dogs, being both rescues, are also self restrained in their desire to move any distance away from me by the anxieties brought about by their own earlier experiences of life.
    Although humans may believe that we have a great deal of free will, I think this is somewhat fanciful. Our thinking, value systems and desires for status and material things are extremely influenced by our family and prevailing culture, even if we generally don’t acknowledge it. At the same time, it is true that we do have greater freedom than ever before culturally – in the developed countries anyway.
    The freedom of human beings to choose is also limited by their knowledge or lack thereof of options and alternatives. Because of modern information systems, people in developed countries again, have a sense of greater control over their destinies.
    Like all other animals, humans are intrinsically restrained by biology. For example -Men by their testosterone drives, women by their menstrual cycles and ability to fall pregnant – their bodies and freedoms for many years thereafter then held hostage to the overwhelming needs of their offspring.
    Free will in one area (decision to have children, decision to commit robbery) can lead to a loss of free will in another area ( desire to do your own thing without considering your children, or restriction of liberty in jail).
    Ultimately, bodily and cognitive decline, the infirmities of old age and senescence will gradually and inexorably rob us all of most of our free will, physically, mentally or both. That’s the reality. Some people, the optimistically inclined, may not want to believe it and will put off thinking about it until the very end. They will probably be happier for it.


    1. Marg, what a wonderful response from you. My guess is you are speaking with a degree of expertise and professional experience. It certainly comes across as such. Everything that you wrote makes sense. Thank you!


      1. Are you ready? …. My thinking goes something like this Paul.
        We humans tend to think in terms of black or white and either or. This dualistic thinking comes from our culture and education. It is also a creation of our mind so we feel more in control. The idea of free will, (which is created by the ego mind) really feeds into its need to feel more in control and safe.
        The reality however may be very different. But we will never know, because it is our thinking and beliefs that create the reality that we live in.
        So … dogs don’t have this ego driven mind. Their thinking is possibly neither one of believing in free will or being at the mercy of everything else. They are simply being in the moment and responding to it in their own way… without the ego analysis.
        Ergo, they may have an other way of thinking, that is neither one or the other, but something else. xo


      2. Val, what a very thoughtful contribution. My great regret is that I do not have the expertise to give you an equally thoughtful reply.

        But thank you so much for sharing that with everyone.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It is inherent nature of anything that is sentient to do as we/it pleases. So, In my little pea picking brain, I believe that animals such as our pets and anything with a heart and lungs or similar, are led by free will. So now when I think about it, are other things such as insects and reptiles, led by free will? I’ve guess, I’ve gone off into uncharted waters and need to stick to your question.

    So yes, I believe dogs behavior is dictated by free will but I think I’ll add instinct here, which is an inbred behavior and displays itself in various breeds. Actually Paul this is starting to become deep here and I could go on and on. I don’t even know if you can grasp what it is I’m trying to convey. I’ve re-read what I just wrote and I’m not sure if I made any sense at all. 🙂


    1. Yes, it does make sense to me. For I read in your response more or less what I wrote earlier on my my reply to ‘msletterwriting’s response.

      Of course, the kernel of the article from Elizabeth Seto applies only to us humans: the difference between believing and not believing we have free will.

      Lovely to hear from you and I did enjoy what you wrote.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I am not sure why I am writing this comment? I was free not to write it. I have recently worked with rescue Pit Bulls teaching them manners. I believe they believe they are free do as they wish until trained otherwise. Thanks Paul for great stuff! Bow Wow! Your Doggy Buddy Training.


  5. A very interesting post Paul.. Most of us like to think we have free will, but often do not realise how that will is being manipulated by very clever methods of advertising which pushes our free will choices in their directions.. 🙂
    As for our four-legged friends.. ( Loved that photo of Brandy by the way ) I like to think all my Cats had free will.. the majority chose us to live with us.. there were no gates barred or doors locked that they didn’t wish to return.. So I am happy their free will to wander and come home to snuggle in front of the fire was their choice.. 🙂

    I hope you had a good week Paul and Jean.. Nice to be using some of my own free will to visit and wish you a very Peaceful Sunday 🙂 ❤ Enjoy a Lovely Day both of you xxx


  6. I always say I have free will as long as dessert is not involved. 🙂 But the truth of the matter is I think we have choices in every moment until that moment creates the cause for what I call Divine intervention. I understand just what Val is saying and agree. We create the reality we think about. Our thoughts become tangible and physical. We are going quantum physics and metaphysics here. Since all animals are in the moment they do what they do unless restricted by something. I think, well, I think a lot and this is something that I could run in circles with. Great subject matter and I will continue to try coming up with a cohesive reply.


    1. Yes, it’s one of those aspects of life that really does deserve “a couple of coatings of thought”. But “Divine” is not a word that comes readily to the mind of this secular humanist unless you use it in the context of Nature. OK, better get on with tomorrow’s post before the snow causes the power to fail!

      Liked by 1 person

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