Why make New Year resolutions if genes and environment decide our behaviour rather than free will?

Thu, Dec 29, 2011, 00:00

SMALL PRINT:New research suggests that much of our behaviour is not a question of personal choice, writes JOE HUMPHREYS

THE NEW YEAR is a time for resolutions. You promise to take up jogging, spend more time with friends, do good works or maybe smile a little more frequently. But are you fundamentally deluding yourself into thinking you can change?

A growing body of research suggests that much of our behaviour is determined by either our genes or our environment, leaving little room for personal choice. The age-old notion of “free will” is under attack, boosted by examinations of brain activity during decision-making.

An influential 2007 study, which monitored people’s brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), suggested people became conscious of making a decision only after the relevant neurons had fired into action. Neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes, who asked participants to hit a button with their left or right hand, was able to predict their decisions seven seconds before they were even aware of making them.

Earlier this year, a series of projects got under way in what is the single biggest research programme on free will. The $4.4 million (€3.4m) four-year initiative is backed by the John Templeton Foundation in Pennsylvania, which funds research spanning theology and science.

Philosopher Alfred Mele of Florida State University, who is charged with overseeing the project, says neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists are helping to deepen our understanding of an issue that was once the preserve of religious thinkers. Speaking to Nature in September, he admitted that if studies like Haynes’ could be reproduced to predict a range of decisions “that would be a threat to free will”.

However, pressing buttons in a lab is not the most relevant of human choices, and critics of Haynes say his findings need to be replicated in the “real world” to be truly game-changing.

On face value, scientists and philosophers seem to be at opposite poles. But among the latter there is a growing fashion for “compatibalism”, the notion that freedom exists within a deterministic universe. Among neuroscientists there is an acceptance that knowledge surrounding consciousness is incomplete, and it may ultimately transpire that brain activity doesn’t cause conscious decision-making or vice versa but rather a variety of mental processes are going on almost simultaneously.

One area of scientific agreement is that believing in free will is beneficial for society and individuals. Psychological research shows those primed to believe in determinism are more likely to cheat in exams, and refuse giving money to charity.

“If we eventually discover that we don’t have free will, the news will come out and we can predict that people’s behaviour will get worse as a consequence,” says Mele. “We should have plans in place for how to deal with that news.”

Determinism is due to feature as one of the debating topics at Esof (Euroscience Open Forum) 2012 in Dublin next July. Speakers at what will be Europe’s largest science conference include neuroscientist Christian Keysers and mathematician Marcus Du Sautoy who underwent Haynes’ fMRI experiment for a BBC Horizon show last year.

By next summer, some of the Templeton projects will have reached fruition. But one early starter is social psychologist Roy F Baumeister, whose findings have just been published in the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Having analysed decision-making under a variety of conditions, he explains that your “moral muscle” – or capacity for self-determined acts – can be depleted by such things as hunger and an excess of choice.

Offering topical advice for New Year’s resolvers, he argues that you shouldn’t set yourself too many goals. Rather, establish good habits (give your moral muscle a regular workout), and commit yourself publicly to your targets.

And even if free will is an illusion, Baumeister and other psychologists suggest that it is one worth believing in – for all our sakes.