When I researched free will and cognitive biases last summer, I found myself in an awkward position. The plausibility of some biases having influence on the free will debate was obvious enough: the illusion of control, the fundamental attribution error, the just world phenomenon, etc. But the plausibility of other biases being relevant was often less obvious. Yet, sometimes, it was these “hard sells” that I, personally, thought would be most important to the debate.
In this shorter post, I want to describe one of the harder sells. To convey the notion, I first want to focus upon the idea of a happy coincidence: people might find certain constraints on their alleged freedom to be less disturbing if they are more confident that things turned out, nevertheless, the “right” way.
Consider this interesting data point: those who tend to be non-realists about free will also to also be non-realists about moral truths. This is true of at least myself, Tamler Sommers, Richard Double, and Joshua Greene (correct me if I have gotten this wrong). Why might this be? It may just be that these persons find themselves attracted to deflationary views in general (e.g. perhaps they enjoy shocking people with their outrageous claims). I want to suggest something deeper is going on: such non-realists feel it is less of a happy coincidence that they are who are they are and do what they do. For example, a person who both (i) believes that killing innocent people is wrong and (ii) finds himself as the sort of person who neither kills innocent people nor wants to do so probably considers this a happy coincidence. Even if he lacks the freedom to be, or have become, such a killer, this freedom does not undermine his sense of free will much, because he has nevertheless found himself on the one, true path (so to speak). A non-realist (or anti-realist) about moral truths, however, does not have this luxury.
Given this consideration about happy coincidences, I wonder: is there a cognitive bias that might be relevant here? I had not thought so until I remembered Smilansky’s lovely phrase “we are merely the unfolding of the given.” Smilanksy is right, I think, to characterize the free will problem as one about the self, and one’s relationship with the self, and this worry about given-ness. Just how disturbing is this given-ness and how disturbing should this given-ness be? There is a prominent cognitive bias that might distort our judgments about that which we are given: it is called the endowment effect. According to the endowment effect, people develop undue liking, or irrational fondness, for that which is given to them. There is similar bias called the mere exposure effect: people develop undue liking, or irrational fondness, for that with which they are familiar.
Suppose that the endowment effect and mere exposure effect are real. Then one tantalizing possibility is that compatibilists and libertarians finds Smilansky’s given-ness to be less disturbing because of a happy accident—an arguably irrational one. The idea here is that, because we are given the original traits and characters we have (the “slant” of our constitution, to use Fischer’s phrase), that alone gives us a preference for being ourselves. And as we grow more familiar with ourselves, at the expense of familiarity with others, this irrational preference grows and continues. Because we prefer being ourselves, we feel less disturbed at the given-ness which Smilansky describes. By analogy, a boy at Christmas might say “wow, I thought it was so awful that I couldn’t choose my own Christmas presents, but then I discovered that I got just the presents I wanted! With a Santa Claus like that, who needs to make their own decisions about presents?” We regard ourselves as happy accidents but, to the extent that these biases are irrational, this may be a mistake. I actually suspect that this bias may be the most relevant of all to the free will problem (which is not to say that I suspect its absolute relevance is great; further experiments may help settle that different question).