Movement In Free Will Belief Mediates The Effects Of Manipulating Free Will On Ontological But Not Utilitarian Moral Decisions

Open Access
Middlewood, Brianna Lia
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
December 06, 2013
Committee Members:
  • Karen Gasper, Thesis Advisor
  • Reginald Adams Jr., Thesis Advisor
  • Susan Mohammed, Thesis Advisor
  • Free Will
  • Determinism
  • Morality
  • Decisions
Research indicates that undermining people’s belief in free will to create a more deterministic view leads to less moral action (e.g. less helping, cheating, and stealing). Two experiments investigated four possible mechanisms of this effect: Free will belief (this refers to the degree to which a person feels he or she is in full conscious control of their every thought and action), rational thought (a mode of processing that is deliberate and rational), experiential thought (a mode of processing that is automatic and largely emotion-based), and locus of control (which refers to the degree that one feels he or she is in control of their actions – internal locus – or that his or her actions are primarily controlled by external forces – external locus). These mechanisms were chosen to (a) test the possibility that the free will manipulations used in the past might be confounded with concepts related to rational and experiential thought, which have been related to moral decisions in other paradigms; and (b) to test the idea posed by other authors that reduction in free will belief leads to less moral behavior because feelings of control have been undermined. Additionally, this work sought to extend these findings to utilitarian moral dilemmas – an unexplored domain in the context of free will research. To manipulate free will belief, participants saw 15 sentences to prime either free will or deterministic beliefs. To assess mechanisms, participants rated their free will belief, rational-experiential thought, and locus of control. Then, participants completed two measures of morality: helping intentions and approval of utilitarian actions. In Experiment 1, corroborating past work, undermining free will belief reduced helping behavior. Additionally, self-reported free will belief tended to mediate this effect, but not rational thought, experiential thought, or locus of control. Extending this work, in Study 2, priming determinism led to greater approval of utilitarian decisions relative to free will, but free will belief did not significantly mediate this effect. Furthermore, neither rational or experiential thought, nor locus of control were supported as mediators. These results indicate that deterministic beliefs promote utilitarian action, and that these effects are not due to differences in self-reported rational or experiential thought, or locus of control. Additionally, this work suggests that undermining free will belief may not always result in less moral outcomes, as utilitarian decisions involve a degree of moral ambiguity and require that one prioritize either individual morality or the well-being of a group.