When you make a decision, conscious or not, how do you make it? Do you think about all the possible angles, outcomes and consequences of that decision? Do you go with your gut? Do you feel backed into a corner and there are no options, just the one route you can take? What about not just you as an individual, what about a whole state, or country? How are decisions made in a larger scope there? Do they lead us down the path already laid down at our feet or a we just as likely and free to choose the path less travelled? There are a lot of questions about free will and whether it exists, and it is exclusive to humans among any species on the planet. To define free will, we may consider “the subjective feeling of an agent either at that moment of decision or in retrospect that the decision is free, and that one might have chosen to decide differently” (Runes, 1962). To believe in free will is to believe that human beings have the power to be creators of their own futures, and to reject the idea that our actions are predetermined by external conditions or fate. The counter argument is that our lives are already determined by the actions gone before, and whatever choices we make moving forward is not actually a choice at all, but rather the only possible outcome (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). As one science fiction writer beautiful portrays, determinism is that “all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again” (Glen A. Larson, 2004)
Consider the symbols that appear recurring throughout human history. Very often, there are strong similarities that cannot be thought of as coincidental between cultures separated by vast distances of time and land. The mandala, the symbol of the self, has been recreated over history showing different forms but all having the same meaning. The ancient people of Egypt projected many of their personality traits into a world of gods, enabling them to identify parts of themselves in these deities, and look for guidance from them. The Northmen of the 17th Century, Vikings, also had a hall of deities, who they believed were once human and have reached eternal life in Valhalla through a life of sacrifice and victory. They looked onto these beings to deliver them and guide their ways, interpreting meaning from the movement of the sea and the seasons of the earth.
Religion is a strong way to project your own thoughts and feelings and find answers. Nowadays however, religion is being shunned for a nihilistic view. Instead of adorning their lives with holy epitaphs, people are adoring their bodies with symbols that have a unique meaning to them. Tattoo their flesh to identify their own self and individuality amongst the crowd. Was there any other outcome but this? Will there be any other future but the one already unfolding?
Many theories have been advanced over the years to determine why humans act the way they do. It is one of the cornerstone curiosities of psychology – seeking to understand human thought, emotions and behaviors. Free will vs Determinism. Both have a huge amount of support for them, so is either one of them “right”? or do they work together to allow humans to conduct their lives?
To progress understanding of human behavior, theories needed to have more stringent requirements to evaluate the efficacy and empiricism of the theory. They need to be testable. the forefront of learning as a social concept was A Bandura (1969) who proposed his social learning as a theory through which the observer acquires a mainly symbolic representation of the modelled behavior. Developments in learning theory for causal analysis shifted from the hypothesized sense of inner determinates to a broader yet detailed examination of the external environment. The theory was updated to reflect how the environment, both socially and physically, shaped human behavior and action. We can learn from observation, this means instead of having to experience all the uniqueness of life ourselves to know the outcome, we are able to build large, integrated units of behavior simply by watching another example. It means that humans can save themselves a lot of time and tedious trial and error by simply observing an action and outcome. Also, with the development of cognitive ability, this also enables us to think on future actions. The wealth of knowledge gained by experience and observation can be applied mentally to problem solving, we can solve problems symbolically, without having to physically act out each possible scenario to see the consequence. When a course of action has been mentally proposed, we have the insight to adjust our behavior to support the desired outcome (Albert Bandura & Walters, 1977).
This social learning theory was developed and applied recently by Nemon (2015), who examined the relationship on parent’s scheduling to their child’s effectiveness in completing their homework. What was found that parents who have poor time management skills is reflected directly in their children’s time management ability. Improvements suggested in this study were to simply change the modeled behavior of the primary source (Nemon, 2015). There have also been further studies into the relationships between parents and peers to children and adolescent behavior that offer more support to this theory, readily identifying the modeled behavior is learnt purely through observation (Norman & Ford, 2015; Schaefer, Vito, Marcum, Higgins, & Ricketts, 2015). These more recent studies take the theory of social learning and apply it outside of a laboratory, in real world examples. The outcomes support the theory, giving it strength, and the solutions to improve the situation also are in line with the same theory. Primarily, social learning theory support the idea of determinism in the sense that our actions are so because of constructs we have learned in the past. There is only one possible outcome due to the circumstance we have intrinsically become accustomed to. To break away from the pre-determined outcome would be to display the notion of free will – which has not been supported in these studies.
Social learning is also supported and supports the theory of behaviorism as it equates learning to the behavior that can be observed an measured. Skinner (1953) proposed that all actions are determined, and not free, as behavioral theorist look to past or present environments to explain behavior.
There are still many prevailing philosophies that strive to recognize the internal human nature of “will” giving the power to override environmental causalities (Van Inwagen, 1983). If this is true, it would suggest the ability to make predictions and control behavior to be impossible. However, there is boundless support for behavior predicting and manipulation (Pavlov & Anrep, 2003; Skinner, 1953; Watson, 1913). As one of the main proponents of behaviorism, Skinner strongly supports a deterministic human nature. “We regard the common man as the product of his environment, yet we reserve the right to give personal credit to great men for their achievements” (Skinner, 1953). Riedel, Heiby, and Kopetskie (2001) have recently adapted behaviorism theories to apply to bipolar patients to investigate the effects of conditioning and understanding behavior, building the application of these theories to transition from theories into practical treatment and therapy processes.
A challenging argument to those theories lies in this humanistic approach to psychology. It was first introduced by Maslow and Lewis (1987) as an emphasis to study the whole person. The humanistic approach considers a person’s behavior through the eyes of the person, as well as the observer, which in this case in unique to the theories discussed previously. This enables the observed to consider all angles that has led a person to come to a decision. The basis for humanistic psychology is existential assumption that people have free will, and are capable of exercising that freedom at any time (McLeod, 2015). For humanistic psychologists, it is argued that objective reality is less important than how a person perceives and understand their world as their subjective reality (McLeod, 2015). It relates all events and experiences not just for what they are but the emotional and psychological impact it has on the person themselves. This approach allows us to have a much more holistic view of an individual and their experience in this world, as nothing but our own unique experiences shape the person we become. Rogers (1995) has found profound understanding in simply listening and hearing what a person has to say about their experiences. As a person strives for self-actualization, being heard and having their peers understand the plight gives strength and positive reinforcement to continue forwards (Frankel, Sommerbeck, & Rachlin, 2010).
The limitation of this theory of self-actualization is very limited in the sense that it cannot be generalized to a larger population as every person is unique, and no two experiences are the same. This in turn means the theory has no empirical strength, and would take a lifetime to complete. It also has a strong bias to a person’s ideal self, where they actions may be justified by their own ego. The arguments for social learning and behaviorism are easily hypothesized and transferrable to real-life studies with proven results. Based on previous research and evidence to support, the argument for free will is in stark contrast to that of A Bandura (1969) and Skinner (1953).
Whilst there is support for both arguments to the human condition, it is difficult to surpass the alignment of determinism. It’s a nihilistic view, but you don’t really have a choice. Based on your environment and upbringing, everything you’re exposed to has an influence on your personality, traits that you pick up, your behavior in certain situations. No decision could ever be “free” of yourself, unless you had someone else make a decision for you, blind of all your influencing factors.