Free will – do we have the freedom to change our habits?
A colleague at our local hospital recently gave me an article from a ‘creationist’ website regarding free will. As one of two humanists in a chaplaincy department otherwise consisting of various shades of theists, we do tend to have plenty of opportunities to consider alternative viewpoints regarding life, the universe and everything! The original details of the research had been held back, and the article instead sets their unchallenged view of the research against a position that started from a given (the Bible says…) and then worked back to support an answer that was pre-determined by faith.
I was more interested in thinking about the extent to which I, with a secular and scientific background, agreed with the premise of the article – which was that despite the controlled experiment to the contrary, we do indeed have free will. What choices do we have when seeking to break an addiction
and make positive changes? As a therapist, this is, of course, important to me. If we don’t have free will, then am I mistaken when clients take actions to consciously make changes to their lives? Should I just shut up shop (would that be a decision I made?) and quietly wait politely until fate has decided it is time for me to pop my clogs? The experiment would have been structured to avoid ‘confounding variables’, so it would test the response of participants to a single response under very limited conditions. In life, however, confounding variables usually travel in packs and rarely extend us the courtesy of attacking one at a time. We can and do obviously make many decisions throughout the day, but not alas always with all our cognitive abilities available. We have been described as ‘cognitive misers’ (Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor, 1984.) – beings who use only the minimum thinking skills necessary to get by. Through tricks such as priming and the use of schema – packets of data available to use off the shelf like a ready meal, we can get by using stereotypes rather than having to tackle every situation as if it is happening for the first time. This is usually helpful, and I can understand how our ancestors who managed to come up with the formula ‘lots of teeth and claws and coming in this direction = get up a tree or run away’ got to pass their genes on. ‘Think of it as evolution in action’. We are also shaped by our parents or caregivers – either through a tendency to replay their thoughts and actions as if running a computer program (Eric Berne’s Parent ego state), or else responding exactly as we did when a child (Child ego state, surprisingly enough). If you ever hear your parents’ sayings coming out of your own mouth, or feel like a child when in trouble, this may well be what is happening to you. In both cases, our actions will not be our own until we can move into the adult ego state to think and act freely as ourselves in the here and now. Free will may then be available to us in ways that are not obvious at first. We can, however, gain a greater awareness of both challenges and options, to discover ways of exercising free will to change habits or tackle challenges. The ‘Discount Matrix’ devised by Ken Mellor and Eric Sigmund, for example, works through the diverse ways that we limit, or ignore various issues, options or situations. It gives us a chance to identify the areas we discount in (ourselves, others and situations) as well as the type (the physical evidence, the reality that what is happening and our available options). For example, the most serious problems in this model are those that we are not aware of. ‘How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb?’ ‘Only one, but the lightbulb must want to change’ as the joke goes, but if we are not even aware that the light is there in the first place, just broken, then we must stay in the dark. At the other end of the scale, if we know the bulb is broken and we have a spare and a ladder readily to hand and know we have changed it before but doubt our own ability to act this time then that is the last hurdle to overcome before illumination is restored. This model recognises that we can face multiple challenges when seeking to make a change. It acknowledges that the path to exercising free will is not as simple as the rather more agitated and animated self-help gurus leaping about on stage would have us think. Our goals are probably further away than a few slogans, posters and motivational podcasts, but they are obtainable if we can identify the issues to overcome, plan and tackle them accordingly. How does this work in practice?
- Is there evidence in your life that something is wrong, even though you can’t see it? What are your friends and family saying, do you have a gut feeling of unease, yet can’t quite put your finger on anything?
- Ok, so you accept there is something you are unhappy about. Do you understand the cause, how serious it is and the significance of the options available to you?
- Do you see how you can change what is affecting you, what options are available and how viable they are?
- Do you accept your ability to react differently, to find solutions and to act on them?
It can be hard to get to grips with these points on our own, quite often another viewpoint, an alternative perspective is needed to help us see differently. We can feel like we are caught up in a never-ending circle (or worse, a downward spiral). Friends and family may want to help and be ready with plenty of advice on what we should or ought to do, on how to ‘pull ourselves together’ and so on. Don’t forget, there are trained professionals who are willing to listen and work with you. Paul Hurst