Free Will and Determinism in Psychology

Updated on July 18, 2019
Angel Harper profile image

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes to go to university next year.


Free Will and the Humanistic Approach

Free will is an individual's ability to make decisions about their behaviour. Humanistic psychologists focus on conscious experience rather than behaviour, and on free will rather than determinism. They argue that people have conscious control over their own lives and that despite biological factors, humans are able to make significant choices within the restraints of biological influences.

Maslow and Rogers argue that without self-determinism, improving oneself and reaching self-actualisation is not possible. Self-actualisation refers to the highest level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it is at this level in which individuals are creative, accepting of others and have an accurate perception of reality.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Maslow's hierarchy of needs | Source

Rogers believed that if our behaviour is determined, we would never accept responsibility - this also means that we would never change or improve our ways. Free will allows us to take responsibility for our actions in order to improve, it is vital for human progression.

Convicted murderer Stephen Mobley claimed he was 'born to kill' as he had a family history of violence. This argument was rejected and he was sentenced to death. Some psychologists argue that ignoring free will could lead to using biological influences as an acceptable excuse for certain behaviours. However, it is difficult to tell where we should draw the line as lots of behaviour is determined by things out of our control. Take for instance a man from America who developed strong sexual urges. He made sexual advances towards his prepubescent daughter and used pornographic websites which focused on paedophilia. Scans later revealed that he had a brain tumour and once it was removed he returned to his old self.

Criticisms of Free Will

An experiment conducted by Libet et al found motor areas of the brain active before an individual had made the conscious decision to move their finger. This implies that free will does not exist as the decision to move their finger had already formulated in the motor regions of the brain before the individual was aware of the decision. This is further supported by Soon et al who found activity in the prefrontal cortex ten seconds before an individual was aware of their decision to act. However, supporters of free will such as Trevena and Miller challenge these conclusions and suggest that the brain activity was simply a 'readiness to act'.

Another criticism of free will is that it is culturally relative. Free will and the humanistic approach focus on self-improvement which may be more appropriate for individualist cultures that value independence and individualism. Collectivist cultures tend to put emphasis on behaviour determined by group needs implying that the concept of free will is culturally irrelevant for them.

Skinner (well known for Skinner's box) argues that free will is an illusion. He says that it may seem that we have free will but all our behaviours are actually influenced by previous experiences which subconsciously shape our decisions. For example, Norman points out that from a young age, girls and boys are treated differently. They wear different clothes, play with different toys and read different books. This could have affected their choices later on in life - this may even be why more girls choose to study languages and boys are more likely to choose science or maths.

Pre-frontal cortex
Pre-frontal cortex | Source


Determinism is when behaviour is controlled by internal or external factors that act upon an individual. There are many different types of determinism including: biological, environmental and psychic.

Biological determinism refers to the influences of genes on behaviour. Research has suggested that behaviours and mental disorders can be inherited. For example, the COMT gene is associated with OCD. The COMT gene (catechol-O-methyltransferase) regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine. One form of the COMT gene has been found in OCD patients and this variation of the gene means it is less active resulting in higher levels of dopamine (which is speculated to cause OCD). Another example, discovered by Hill et al, if the IGF2R gene which is found in people with high intelligence.

Environmental determinism is when behaviour is caused by previous experience through classical and operant conditioning. For example, if you were bitten by a dog at a young age you would learn to associate dogs with fear and pain. Hence a phobia has been created, this fear is maintained through the avoidance of all dogs.

Psychic determinism, as proposed by Freud's theory of personality, it is when adult behaviour is determined by a combination of innate drives and early experiences.

Those who think that there is no such thing as free will believe in 'hard determinism' which is that all behaviour is controlled by factors acting upon an individual. However, many acknowledge that although lots of behaviours are determined, free will and determinism are not incompatible - this is called 'soft determinism'.


Criticisms of Determinism

A study of identical twins found about 80% similarity on intelligence and only 40% similarity on depression. These statistics show us that genes do have some degree of influence over us but it isn't the only factor. Equally, this shows us that the environment doesn't have a complete influence over our behaviours. Twin studies show us that neither biological or environmental factors have complete control over who we are and what we do.

The diathesis-stress model could explain these findings. The model proposes that inheritance of certain genes can make an individual more vulnerable to the likelihood of them developing certain disorders or characteristics. These genes are not activated, however, unless they are triggered by environmental stressors.

A limitation of the deterministic approach is that it oversimplifies human behaviour. It may be appropriate for non-human animals, but human behaviour is less predictable and influenced by hundreds of factors. For example, cognitive factors may override biological impulses. Dennet argues that there is no such thing as total determinism in the physical sciences; he points out that The Chaos theory (also known as The Butterfly Effect) shows us how causal relationships are based on probability rather than determinism.

To Conclude

Free will is when an individual is capable of self-determination. Those who take a humanistic approach argue that it is essential to have free will in order to improve. Many criticise this belief as the concept is culturally relative. Skinner believes it is simply an illusion.

Determinism is the view that all behaviour is controlled by biological or environmental factors acting upon an individual. Some research into genetics supports this, however, twin studies show us that behaviour is not 100% determined by genes.

Overall, I believe that behaviour is determined by a combination of the two (I take a 'soft determinism' approach). Many behaviours are biologically or environmentally influenced but this doesn't mean we cannot act on our own free will, even if it means we have more restrictions as a result of other factors acting upon us.

Do You Think 'Sleeping' is an Example of Free Will or Determinism?

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Do You Think 'Career Choice' is an Example of Free Will or Determinism?

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Cardwell, M., Flanagan, C. (2016) Psychology A level The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

© 2018 Angel Harper


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    • profile image


      3 months ago

      does free will attributes to man has no nature by Ortega

    • Angel Harper profile imageAUTHOR

      Angel Harper 

      23 months ago

      Wesman Todd Shaw I agree, I think it isn't possible to determine for certain whether we have free will or not. It must be easier to prove determinism exists than to prove free will exists as there can be physical evidence to support determinism.

      I believe you're right about free will - without it, we won't accept responsibility for our actions, but simultaneously many factors out of our control have shaped our lives.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. :)

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      23 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

      It is a fascinating and unanswerable question. I'm not sure the question as to whether or not we have free will can be answered sufficiently at this time.

      I know one thing for sure, the scientists who argue that free will doesn't exist are prestigious and persuasive. But you throw enough million dollar words and phrases at some folks, and they just collapse and say, 'okay, smart science man must be right.'

      I'm not one of those. I'm too arrogant. I do know I may well be wrong. I think we have free will, but not nearly as much of it as some others like to think we do. I think our free will is pretty limited by circumstances not of our control.

      I'm not usually such a peace maker. I'd never heard of the brain tumor paedophile thing. Absolutely fascinating, and frightening. Glad the situation was resolved, but the damage from that, in regards to family and others, will likely linger. Sad case.


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