Science on Religion

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Belief in free will correlates with conservatism

Free willIn recent years, the “free will versus determinism” debate has gained great popularity among both philosophers and non-philosophers alike. People want to know, or at least want to hope, that they have control over their own actions rather than are machines. While empirical psychology cannot answer this question directly, Jasmine Carey and Delroy Paulhus (both University of British Columbia) found that it can answer what the psychological profile of people who believe one or the other looks like. They discovered that people who believe in free will tend to associate with conservatism.

Instead of using philosophical definitions of “free will” or “determinism,” the psychologists decided to stay at the lay-level and use definitions that would be most familiar to the average person. Based on previous research, they knew that people tend to distinguish four kinds views regarding the “free will versus determinism” debate. First is the belief that people do possess free will. This means that people have a significant degree of control over their actions and therefore are responsible for their actions. Second is a position called “fatalistic determinism,” which espouses that Fate ultimately decides the life path of each individual. Third, “scientific determinism” reduces people’s actions to the mechanics of their environment and/or biology. Fourth and finally, “unpredictability” says that life mainly consists of luck, chance, and randomness, leaving little room for free choice.

Equipped with this previous research (which has been put into a survey called the FAD-Plus), the researchers conducted a series of three studies to test correlations between one’s stance of free will/determinism and other positions in politics, religion, and morality. In the first study, 220 undergraduate Psychology 101 students completed four questionnaires. The first was the FAD-Plus, which determined where the survey falls on the issue of free will versus determinism (that is, do they agree with free will, fatalistic determinism, scientific determinism, and/or unpredictability?). Next, the they answered the question “How religious are you?” on a 7-point scale. Then they completed the Right Wing Authoritarianism scale, a scale that measures one’s perspective on authority. Finally, they answered the Belief in a Just World scale, which includes how just one sees the world towards oneself and towards others.

Believing in free will correlated with religiosity, authoritarianism, and belief in a just world for others and for the self. Interestingly enough, religiosity was also correlated with fatalistic determinism and negatively correlated with scientific determinism, while authoritarianism too was correlated with fatalistic determinism. This means that a religious person could and often does believe in both free will and fatalistic determinism. Additionally, fatalistic determinism negatively correlated with belief in a just world for the self and others.

In the second study, the researchers replaced the Belief in a Just World scale with an Intrinsic-Extrinsic Religiosity scale. An intrinsically religious person pursues religion for its own sake, while an extrinsically religious person does so for the sake of something else (such as social status, prestige, money, or community). Participants in this study came from Mechanical Turk, an online site designed to aid social science research.

As with the first study, (1) religiosity correlated with both free will and fatalistic determinism, (2) free will correlated with conservatism, and (3) authoritarianism correlated with free will and fatalistic determinism. Believing in free will correlated only with intrinsic, not extrinsic, religiosity, while fatalistic and scientific determinism correlated with extrinsic, not intrinsic, religiosity.

Lastly, the third study looked for patterns between belief in free will and morality. The Five Moral Foundations scale replaced the Intrinsic-Extrinsic Religiosity scale. As with the first study, undergraduate students taking an introduction to psychology class (161 in total) participated.

Even after controlling for religiosity, belief in free will correlated with all three of the conservative moral foundations (loyalty, authority/respect, and purity). Additionally, unpredictability correlated with the moral foundation of fairness, and scientific determinism correlated with authority/respect.

From these three studies, the psychologists conclude that “A greater tendency to believe in free will was linked to higher levels of authoritarianism, religiosity, just world belief, and conservative moral foundations.” They reason that conservatives have a strong sense of personal responsibility, and that this belief hinges on the existence of free will. As the authors put it, “we hold that free will belief relates to the expectation that people will control their own impulses and criticize others for not doing the same.” For conservatives, free will excludes freedom from responsibility.

For more, see “Worldview Implications of Believing in Free Will and/or Determinism: Politics, Morality, and Punitiveness” in the Journal of Personality.


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