Is the conscious will an illusion? Discuss with reference to both empirical data and theoretical arguments.

³If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness it would be fully convinced that it was travelling its way of its own accord« So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man¶s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will´ Albert Einstein cited by Home and Robinson (1995)

It is uncomplicated to think that we have the authorship of our decisions and actions; in general, we tend to think that our behaviour is the product of our conscious will. We make things because we are in charge of our mental and cognitive abilities. Daniel Wegner (2002) claims that human experience of consciously willing acts is an illusion. According to Wegner, common sense informs us that acts are ours because we caused them. However this is not always the case, indeed, the author holds that this experience or feeling of doing things could be an erroneous interpretation of ³what is happening in our minds, brains, and bodies as our actions are produced. The feeling of conscious will can be fooled.´ (Wegner, 2004, p.649) This claim implies crucial implications in the understanding of us as responsible of our actions and decisions and the understanding of others and our relationships with them. To some extent, this theory suggests that our world is not as it seems, concerning the world¶s portion most significant to us: ourselves. This theory has been object of innumerable criticizes and praises since its appearance. I will examine some empirical and theoretical arguments from the clinical psychology, cognitive psychology and social psychology, which corroborate Wegner¶s claim. More speci¿cally, I will discuss: (1) the more general and important aspects of Wegner¶s illusion of conscious will, (2) choice blindness effect as a illustrative case from cognitive sciences (3) some examples from psychopathology that make evident the illusion correspondence between perception, mental states and action. (4) and the power of social influence in such considered conscious willing acts. All these to prove that that there is not such conscious will, in fact, conscious will is an illusion. To begin with, it is important to clarify some of the main insights of Wegner¶s theory. Basically in his monograph ³Précis of the illusion of conscious Will´ (2004) Wegner presents its theory divided in three main points: (1) The illusion, (2) Apparent mental causation, (3) The minds compass. In the first part a clear explanation about the meaning of conscious will is done. Usually, conscious will, can be defined in two ways: a feeling that people experience when an action is executed by them in which the

hypnosis and table turning effect. conscious will is not founded on the individuals¶ introspections about the causes of their actions. Shows how people tend to fail detecting transformations between intentions and outcome in uncomplicated decision tasks. also allow people to plain the future and to assume responsibility of their acts. As Wegner (2002. Wegner develop the idea of authorship. (2) the thought is coherent with the action. according to this theory. This experience notifies the conscious mind when actions take place. independent. the thought and the action: the µµillusion¶¶ of conscious will. In the second section of its monograph. 2004. Although some examples such as alien hand syndrome. from any other causal correlation (Wegner & Wheatley. p. conscious will can be considered as a causal association between mind and actions. A new experimental paradigm called choice blindness (CB). 2004) points that conscious will is the mind¶s compass. because informs individuals about their actions and its relation with their thoughts. 2004. people cannot see their conscious intention producing an action. According to Wegner this fact helps to develop a sense of identity.657). Wegner proposes people perceive that an action is caused by their conscious thoughts when: (1) the thought happens before the action. Following Hume (1939). 1999). conscious will is a really useful feeling because tells people about their authorship of the events around them. 2005. A significant consequence of this theory is that sometimes people feel doing things when indeed there is no causal connection between their thoughts and their actions. .. 2004) claims could be another cause of both. he highlights that the feeling of consciously willed an action is a fundamental human experience. conscious will is the result of the interpretation of thoughts as a the cause of actions. Therefore. In this sense. conscious experiences of will do not cause human actions. but according to Wegner. demonstrate the contrary. On the other hand. and (3) there are no other possible causes for the action. however. Wegner assumes that people is enable to perceive causal associations between their thoughts and their actions. Illusion of conscious will can be evidenced in the frame of cognitive psychology. Wegner (2004) proposes a theory of ³apparent mental causation´. p.´ (Wegner. ³Just as compass readings do not steer the boat. Here. Wegner (2002.feeling of voluntariness is an indication of conscious will. also giving confabulatory reasons (introspective reports) explaining why they chose the ³no chosen´ election. to some extent. In this sense people feel the experience of conscious will. they can only infer this from the connection between intention an action. Finally the in the mind compass. (Johansson et al.656) Conscious will has all the features of an emotion that able people to feel that they are the owner of their acts ³conscious will is an emotion of authorship´ (Wegner.

participants had to make hypothetical elections between two apartments or mobile phones. finding no effect of the non detected (manipulated) trials on the participants¶ utterances of confidence in their election. The authors have investigated CB using a design in which subjects are shown two face pictures. two of the highest marked features were switched.. 2008). Results have shown that just around 30% of manipulated trials are noticed. The chosen picture is then given to them and they are requested to explain the reasons why they prefer this picture. (2010) in their experiment ³Magic at the market place´ illustrated how CB can be observed in purchasing decisions as well. Hall et al. and are asked to pick the one that they consider more attractive. Further experiments regarding CB have been done in more naturalistic settings such as buying intentions in naturalistic venues: market places. Options (apartment or mobile) were presented together in a laptop screen. Again. Again. customers were invited to taste two different flavours of jam and tea. (2010) also tried to access indirect memory effects. according to which people can never be sure that their actions are caused by their thoughts. since both. 2008) and Hall¶s et al (2010) results are consistent with Wegner¶s (2002. Hall et al. thoughts and actions could be causes of which people are unaware. in preparation) This novel naturalistic research tool known as Choice Blindness represents two important things regarding illusion of conscious will. Moreover. In this study. 2005. researchers surreptitiously switched participants¶ election and asked customers to verbally explain their reasons to prefer the one they picked. Also. in some cases the picture is swapped and subjects are shown the unelected one. In first place it is evidence that not always what people decide is what they believe they wanted. In additional study Johansson et al. Johansson¶s et al. results showed that just 30% of all manipulations were detected.. (2011) investigated whether CB can be found in decisions related to semantic characteristics. (Johansson et al. In this study. participants detected less than 50% of all manipulations. as usual. researchers asked participants whether they would detect any manipulation of their elections and 84% of them answered that for sure. and to choose the one that they like the most. Johansson et al. Johansson et al. ³This theory of apparent mental causation depends on the idea .Johansson et al. 2004) theory of apparent mental causation. Nonetheless. they would noticed such kind of mismatches. (Johansson et al. 2008). 2006. (2005. a manipulation was done and when participants were presented again with their options. Participants were requested to: make a decision and then rate each characteristic from more important to less important. in debriefing sections participants manifested their surprise when were told that their elections were changed in some trials. in post test interviews. 2006. Each of them was presented by a simple drawing and a list of 12 features.

that consciousness does not know how conscious mental processes work. They point out that when people's statements on stimulus-response connections are right.. 652). In DID patients do not feel willing its actions. ³Oneway amnesic relationships´ some personalities are conscious of the others. in the sense that shows how even when authorship processing system determine whether a precise action was the one that people consciously willed. it is because they have access to some a priori theories that result to be correct. but these self-reports not always correspond with the noticeable signal of the experience. Additionally. p. the case of people who have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) or converse hysteria. 528). actually in some cases they present amnesia regarding the actions of their other personalities. p.´ (Wegner. The experience of conscious will is based on an imperfect causal deduction of a concordance between planed action or decision and an actual decision or action.´ (Wegner. not because they have a correct introspection. 208). accompanied by an inability to recall important personal information that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness´ (DSM-IV-TR. but others sub personalities do not have links with the others. 2004) points out that experience of conscious will must be stated by self reports. ³Mutually cognizant pattern´ in which personalities have knowledge about the others. It is common to observe three main relationships: ³mutually amnesic relationships´ here personalities do not have consciousness of the others. because the outcome is not the same that people choose. Comer (2007) called these separate and distinct personalities ³sub personalities or alternate personalities´ (p. This disorder is often linked with early childhood sexual abuse or trauma. 2006). Choice blindness adds a new element into the authorship Wegner & Sparrow¶s (2004) approach. 1994. 2004. sometimes the answer could be also an illusion. patients typically experience their personalities as acting autonomously and without awareness between each other. 2004. (Comer. Zimbardo et al. He argues that the switch from one personality to the other another is normally triggered by an unpleasant or negative situation although. ³The experience of will that is so essential for the occurrence of consciously willed action does not always accompany actions that appear by other indications to be willed. 2007). 650) Think. 2007. In second place. choice blindness represents a factual evidence of Nisbett and Wilson¶s (1977) approach related to the legitimacy of self-reports of mental process. p. sometimes arise without evident indication (Comer. Nisbett and Wilson argue that people lack of introspective entrance to the causal relationship connecting stimuli and their answers or decisions. Wegner (2002. more interesting. DID is described as ³the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of the individual¶s behaviour. for example. people tend to give confabulatory arguments to hold their ³decision´ that actually was not the proper one. In DID. At this point it is clear that even actions that seem totally deliberate from .

In this case there are not thoughts preceding the action but still we have action. People with hysteria cannot be in control of their movements. Although people are prone to reject their inclination to conformity and social influence. Everyday life shows that people tend to fail to admit their susceptibility to social influence. because the individual is not able to provide with self reports the ownership of his or her actions. 585). The impact of social influence in general occurs without consciousness. Some patients exhibit a peculiar ³belle indifference´ toward their neurological symptoms. In the study µµalone in a crowd of sheep effect¶¶. and their peers¶ tendencies. ³the study of social influence. a diagnosis of hysteria does not imply a neurologic disease. and sensory evoked potentials are normal. Freud claimed that an unconscious conflictual problems can be symbolically converted in a somatic symptom: hysteria (Freud. Finally.the exterior still cannot be marked as willed. Results showed that students not only marked themselves as less influenced by society but also. 1999). unconscious social standards sometimes determined people¶s goals (Fitzsimons & Bargh. for example. According to Pronin et al. Again. Hysteria. pain. having any neurological impair. by arrangements of perceptual. urinary retention. 2007) Pronin¶s results can be used as a guide to understand why conscious will is an illusion. because it demonstrate how people tend to behave. The symptoms of hysteria can disturb any facet of neurological function such as blindness. Similarly. make decisions and judgments in a distorted way. ³Recent evidence suggests that people . tend to emulate their partners behaviours or movements (Chartrand & Bargh. (Pronin et al. motivational and cognitive biases. hallucinations. visit the most popular place or eat determined kind of food. last century. they tend to recognize that susceptibility in others (Pronin et al. 2003). it is clear that not always conscious will is linked with a specific outcome. sometimes the power of social influence can exert an important influence over people¶s elections and behaviours. brain imaging. as Pronin et al.. 2007). and of conformity in particular. In general. paralysis or involuntary movements. 1905). and a diagnosis of neurologic disease does not rule out conversion disorder. for example. they marked their peers as more conformed to social perceptions. Students then had to mark their own tendency to each case. Moreover. Individuals. In hysteria. p. People tend to use the same perfume as their friends or to wear the same clothes of their favourite celebrity. (2007) explain. is also at the heart of social psychology´ (2007. or conversion disorder is considered according to DSM IV as an unconsciousness (not under voluntary control) disorder. college students were requested to read statements of cases of conformity and social influence. electroencephalography..

Pronin. In terms of Wegner (2002) people could be wrong about the property (authorship) of their daily actions and the source of them.tend to recognize (and even overestimate) the operation of bias in human judgment ± except when that bias is their own´ (Pronin. 2009) have demonstrated that humans can make decisions. people think they are protected from group or social influence. People deny their lack of conscious will the majority of time. decisions and movements. Avances in cognitive and social psychology (e. the angular rock of the basic . 1998. one that yields useful intuitions about our authorship ± but it is not the foundation for an explanatory system that stands outside the paths of deterministic causation. p. the proposal that there is an illusion of conscious will can be supported by ¿ndings in cognitive and social psychology experiments and in the frame of clinical psychology. Nonetheless. Future research. and intentions are not the direct cause of their actions. sometimes it happens. Hassin et al.harvard. 2005. without the intervention of conscious. as it has been shown. 2007.edu/~wegner/conscwil. 2002. Keeping this illusion we could feel secure but at the same time we will be living in a lie. may show that people conscious will. ³The experience of conscious will is a marvelous trick of the mind. because they have a main role in helping people to form the concept of themselves. ³people can be mistaken because they suffer from schizophrenia. The important thing here is that the mind¶s mechanisms give us an experience of conscious will which is absolutely important to form a sense of self identification. many areas of psychology and social sciences can achieve a better understanding of the nature of human beings and their minds. feelings. this does not mean that conscious thought does not cause action. People are not in entire control of their actions. create goals. with the illusion that they possess the authorship of their actions. People can also be blind at the moment to decide which clothes to use or which political wing prefer. p.´ (Wegner. assume attitudes and regulate their emotions. Wegner & Bargh. 38). much of people actions are driven by nonconscious processes. dissociative disorder.. (Hassin et al. in wjh. In my opinion. or a psychogenic movement disorder or because they encounter situations that mislead them about the origins of action. 68). In conclusion. decisions. Pronin et al.g. Indeed. they believe themselves free from racial or sexual bias even in situations where they have exhibited this bias.´ (Wegner. authorship and responsibility of what their bodies do. In general. There is no doubt of the pivotal role of the experience of conscious will. if we accept our conscious will as an illusory experience.. But in reality. 2003. 2006. It would be unwise to keep thinking that human beings have this kind of super power of been aware about all their internal and external world. it is in fact.htm). 2005). decisions and preferences. people¶s thoughts and intentions not always are connected with their actions.

we should be wise accepting that conscious will is not more and not less than an illusion. 681). Imagine that conscious will is an illusion is not the end of the world.intuition people have they cause their actions. 2004. it seems to each of us that we have conscious will.Wegner.It is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion .. It seems we have selves. It seems we cause what we do. p. It seems we are agents.. Daniel Wegner¶s words are in my opinion the best way to conclude this work: µµThe fact is. Without this feeling people could lose their sense of themselves and fall in a nonsense state. It seems we have minds. it is a way to understand the beginning of the world. Finally. However. 341±342. 2002. p... . ¶¶ (Wegner.

A. (Vol. A. Taber. & Wilson. (2006). Pronin. 76: 893±910. E. Hayman. In J. Washington. S. Johansson... A. The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. Pronin. Science: 310. Abnormal Psychology (6th ed. The chameleon effect: The perception± behavior link and social interaction.. G.. In Zanna. & Hall. 446-496). Comer. Neuropsychiatry Clinic Neurosciences 16:3 Johansson. pp. pp... (2004) Conversion Hysteria: Lessons From Functional Imaging. (1999). S. & G. Nature and Mysticism. Oxford University Press Home D. Thinking of you: Nonconscious effects of relationship representations on goal pursuit. In D. Johansson. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. Johansson. 41. New York: Worth Publishers. & Bargh. L. Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Psychological Review. D.. M. Lindzey (Eds..). M. Berger. & Robinson A. E. 1. 84: 148±164. (1977). & Olsson. Freud. S. Tarning. R. text revision. Strachey. K. (2005). . Hurley. (1998). (1739/1888) A treatise of human nature. 116-119.. J. S.References American Psychiatric Association (1994). Hall. S. Action and introspection. Psychologia 51: 142-155. & Bargh.. (2007). (1905) Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Conscious Stud 2:167±179 Hume. S. T. Sikström. E. E. & Bargh.. R. T. Cognition. M.. R. Wegner. R. (2009) The Introspection Illusion.. Gilbert. Oxford University Press. Lind. (2006). (2003). A. 117: 54 ± 61. Control and automaticity in social life. 4th ed. A. (2005) The New Unconscious. B.. D. L. P. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92(4): 585±595 Pronin. A..: Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. (2010) Magic at the marketplace: Choice Blindness for the taste of jam and the smell of tea. Cognitive Sciences 11(1): 37-42. B. (1995) Einstein and Tagore: Man. Dissertation: Lund University Cognitive Studies Johansson. Chartrand. Hall. Moloku. & Bargh... P. P. L. Ed. T. J.. Tarning. Consciousness and Cognition 15: 673±692. Handbook of social psychology (4th ed. 231-259. (2008) From Change Blindness to Choice Blindness. Choice Blindness: The Incongruence of Intention. P. Failure to Detect Mismatches Between Intention and Outcome in a Simple Decision Task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Uleman. T.. P... Deutgen. D. S.: American Psychiatric Association. L. J.C. A. J. J. 84(3). (2006) Perception and misperception of bias in human judgment. Vol 7. (2007) Alone in a Crowd of Sheep: Asymmetric Perceptions of Conformity and Their Roots in an Introspection Illusion.. 1-67) Burlington: Academic Press. Hassin. Vol. Sikström. L. D. Nisbett. London: Hogard Press Hall. J.). Fiske. Sikström. Fitzsimons. How something can be said about telling more than we can know: On choice blindness and introspection.

B. England: Bradford Books.Wegner. MIT Press. M. A. Cognitive Sciences. Wegner.. D. Wegner.L. Behavioral and Brain Sciences: 27: 649-692. M. Zimbardo. M. P.G. Wegner. ed. D. (2003) The mind¶s best trick: how we experience conscious will. D.. D. The new cognitive neurosciences. T. & Sparrow. Johnson. D. 3rd edition. American Psychologist 54(7):480±92. & Wheatley.). Précis of The Illusion of Conscious Will. London. P. (2006). 7 (2) 65-69. (2002) The Illusion of Conscious Will. R. (2004). Psychology: Core Concepts (5th ed. Gazzaniga. Boston: Allyn and Bacon . Weber.L. (1999) Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will. M. (2004) Authorship processing. Wegner.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful