We are confident that free will exists. But the more this question is investigated, the more often neuroscientists are inclined to believe that this is nothing more than a trick of our brain.
Every day we do a lot of the same things: turn off the alarm, choose a shirt, heat food in the microwave, take beer from the fridge. And in each case, we perceive ourselves as free agents, consciously and purposefully controlling their bodies. But what does science say about the true source of this experience?
In an article published nearly 20 years ago, psychologists Daniel Wegner and Thalia Wheatley made a revolutionary assumption that the experience of deliberately seeking action is often nothing more than a post facto conclusion that our thoughts triggered some behavior. Feeling itself, however, does not play a causal role in the production of this behavior. At times, this can lead us to think that we made a choice when, in our opinion, we did not. Or we think we have made a different choice than we really are.
Sounds confusing? Let's imagine, based on the assumption of Wegner and Wheatley, that we observe how we unconsciously perform some action - for example, choosing a box of chocolates at the grocery store - and only after buying it we realize that we did it on purpose. If everything happened in that order, then how can we deceive ourselves and believe that the choice was made before we observed the result of this action? It might seem that such an explanation of the perception of one's own activity requires a supernatural reverse causation, where our experience of conscious will is both the result and the apparent cause of behavior.
In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, Paul Bloom and Adam Behr looked at a radical solution to this conundrum. Probably, at the very moment when a person is faced with a choice, his mind "rewrites" history and tricked him into thinking that this choice - which, in fact, was made after the results were subconsciously perceived - was made by him beforehand.
Although the exact way in which the mind does this is not fully understood, a similar phenomenon has been recorded in other cases. For example, we think that we see a point moving before it reaches its goal, and we feel phantom touches in the upper part of the hand before touching it directly. Such "postdictive" illusions are usually explained by the fact that the time during which this information is realized is, as it were, delayed in order to achieve awareness. Since consciousness lags behind reality a little, it can “foresee” future events that have not yet been realized, but have already registered subconsciously, producing an illusion in which the tested future changes the past.
In one study by researchers at Yale University, participants were repeatedly shown five white circles in random places on the computer and asked them to quickly select one of the circles in their minds before it turned red. If the circle turned red so quickly that participants felt like they had no time to make a choice, they could indicate that time was up. Otherwise, they stated that they chose the red circle (before it changed color) or another circle. The researchers looked at how often people reported successful predictions when they thought they had time to choose.
The participants did not know that the circle that turned red in each experiment was chosen completely randomly by a computer algorithm. Thus, if the participants did indeed make a choice when they stated it - before one of the circles turned red - they should have chosen the red circle about once in five. However, the results reported by the participants were unrealistically different from this 20% probability, exceeding 30% when the circle turned red extremely quickly. This response model assumes that the participants' minds sometimes changed the order of events in conscious awareness, creating the illusion that the choice preceded the color change, when in fact everything was the other way around.
It is important to note that when the circles changed color more slowly and the participants had enough time so that their subconscious no longer tricked their minds, their choice coincided with a color change 20% less often. The result showed that the participants weren't just trying to trick the researchers (or themselves) about their predictive abilities, or they simply liked to report that they were right.
People who showed the participants this illusion often did not know what kind of work they were doing when they were asked about it when summing up the results of the experiment. What's more, in another test, the researchers found that choice bias was not driven by confusion or uncertainty about choice: even when participants were confident in their choice, they tended to “make the right choice” at an incredibly high rate.
Taken together, these data indicate that we may be systematically confused about how we make choices, even when we believe otherwise. But why is the mind fooling us in such a seemingly stupid way? Wouldn't such an illusion sow chaos in human life and behavior?
Probably not. Perhaps the illusion can be explained by limitations in the processes of perception of the brain, which are wrong only on very short time scales - as in the experiment described above - and which do not affect a person's life in the real world.
The speculative possibility is that the mind has evolved in such a way as to distort our perception of choice, and that this distortion is an important property and not just a cognitive bug. For example, if the experience of choice is a kind of causal relationship, as Wegner and Wheatley suggested, then changing the sequence of choice and action in conscious perception can help us understand that we are physical beings capable of influencing the world. More broadly, this illusion can play a central role in developing belief in free will and, in turn, in the motivation for punishment.
In any case, regardless of whether it is important to believe that we are 100 percent in control of our lives, it is obvious that the illusion can go too far. While a quarter-second distortion in the perception of time may not be a problem, a distortion with a longer delay - which is inherent in people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder - can significantly and perniciously affect a person's fundamental views of the world. Such patients may believe in their ability to control the weather or that they can predict the behavior of others. On rare occasions, they can even be convinced of the possession of divine powers.
Science has yet to figure out exactly how the post-dictive illusion of choice is associated with such serious aspects of daily life and mental disorders. The illusion can only refer to a small set of choices that can be made quickly and without much thought. Or, on the contrary, it can be all-encompassing and ubiquitous, playing a large role in all aspects of behavior - from the smallest to the most important decisions. Most likely, the truth is somewhere between these extremes. Be that as it may, research in this area indicates that even the most seemingly strong beliefs about our activities and conscious experience can be wrong.