the influences on our Free Will

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It's always been a big philosophical question whether our choices really are "free." If science tells us that all events have a necessary cause given a set of initial conditions, then how could anything be free? If you can predict my behavior by looking at my brain a few minutes beforehand, how is that free? If an all-knowing God knows what I'm going to do next, how is that free? If we are the "slaves of our passions" (Hume), rather than guided by Reason, how are we free?

This book sheds light on the debate by talking about how our legal system depends on and argues about this stuff all the time. The difference between a legal and illegal contract, the difference between murder and manslaughter, between sex and rape, has everything to do with whether the people "freely" chose something. The new health care debate is over choice. It has everything to do with "personal responsibility" as well (e.g. do poor people choose to be poor? our answer depends on whether we think they are "responsible" for there condition or not).

I loved Greenfields' discussion of court cases, but readers will also enjoy his grasp of brain science, culture, and our capitalist market--all things that influence and constrain our choices. Examples:

Bikini effect: show men a bikini and they will buy. In fact, show people an attractive person and they will treat them better, give them more tips, not send them to prison, think they’re smarter, etc.

Priming or “mental contamination”: in one study, students were asked whether they were happy. If they were first “primed” by asking them something depressing, happiness fell. Other students were asked how many countries in Africa? If they spun a wheel with numbers it affect their answer. When African Americans were asked about their race before a test, they did worse (negative stereotypes probably seeped in). President Bush put a subliminal word “RATS” in one of his commercials about Gore.

Context: A company was not selling their $275 dollar bread maker. They created another one for double the price, and the same $275 dollar one doubled in sales.

Memory problems: they way we remember events will affect choices we make about similar events. If you make the ending of a colonoscopy seem pleasant by leaving the probe in for 20 seconds longer, they are more willing to return for screenings.

The whole point of the book, however, is not to depress us, but simply to say that knowing what influences our choice is half the battle. Which, like most things, reminds me of the Matrix trilogy. The Matrix argues (in the words of the Oracle) that free will doesn't consist in the fact that we could have chose differently (sorry Neo, it's all set in stone); but rather free will consists in our ability to understand why we chose this or that. Know thyself; live a reflective life. This is sorta what Greenfield is saying. What's also not depressing is that influence is not coercion--in other words, you can influence me all you want, but in the end I get the last laugh, I stand alone with my stoic decisions.

Other books: The Art of Choosing, Nudge, Blink, The Impulse Factor, U-Turn, and The Paradox of Choice.


the myth of choice

Posted by Matt Smith at 05/31/2012 01:35:15 PM | 

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