What Free Will?

No people prefer to think of themselves as followers. We all like to imagine that we have free will and are actively making our decisions instead of the other way around.
In fact, we view followers with a negative slant. These are the people who are easily influenced by others and can even be manipulated into doing things they’re either unaware of or uninterested in. Whatever the case, followers are not people that are seen in an attractive light.

On the other hand, there are leaders. Leaders are what we typically want to aspire to—and for good reason. They have power and independence. Leaders blaze the trail and set the path instead of the other way around. They are strong-minded and are driven by a set of morals and convictions. Above all else, they do what they want out of their own free will, not because someone has told them to do it. If you want to compliment someone in a work setting, you would call them a leader, and if you want to insult someone, you would call them a follower.
We all want to be leaders on some level because we want to feel that we are in charge of our destinies, but the truth of how we all act is a bit uglier. We really just can’t help but subconsciously follow the people around us, whether we want to or not. It influences a substantial part of what we want and the way we think, despite our best attempts to be an individual thinker. Of course, the brain contributes with its tendency to be lazy.
Here’s a simple and relatable example.
If you walk into your new job and you find everyone wearing magenta shirts, you are probably going to buy a magenta shirt as soon as you can, despite the fact that there is no dress code and no one has ever mentioned anything about magenta shirts. Something in your mind will tell you that you should be conforming to the people around you, even though there are no rules about it and the people you’ve asked haven’t mentioned it, either. You could argue that your free will directs you to dress like the others, but in reality, wasn’t it heavily influenced by the general consensus? Aren’t they indistinguishable at some point?
In a 2019 study published in the scientific journal Nature, Australian researchers found that through monitoring brain activity with an fMRI machine, they were able to predict choices that test subjects made a full seconds before they consciously declared their choices. This seems to imply that thoughts and intentions exist unconsciously before they ever become conscious. If the brain prepares to act before you are consciously aware you’re making a choice, then what is free will, really?
This might verge into the philosophical a bit too much for this book, but let’s leave it at this: we are so heavily influenced by the people around us and the contexts we find ourselves in that free will is more accurately described as a choice we think we are independently making. We are unable to separate ourselves from what surrounds us, sometimes to our detriment. Sometimes it works to our benefit, but other times, it squashes independent, innovative, and insightful thinking.
In this chapter, I want to cover some infamous landmark psychological studies that show just how little our actions are determined by free will and instead are decided by context, social pressure, or outright instruction. These studies shed light on why we feel compelled to wear a magenta shirt even if there is no dress code and why people tend to act against their own interests or values. They speak to our brains’ compulsions of survival via not standing out and conserving energy. The Asch Conformity Experiment
The first study that digs deep into the concept of dubious free will is the Asch Conformity Experiment. It was conducted by Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College in the 1950s and broadly demonstrated the compulsion to conform and “fit in” despite our best instincts and interests.
The study was relatively simple and asked participants to engage in a vision test. In each run of the study, there was only one subject, and the rest of the people present were Asch’s confederates. They would attempt to influence the true participant to conform and act against their free will. The participant sat around a table with seven confederates and was asked two questions:

  1. Which line was the longest in Exhibit 2? 2. Which line from Exhibit matches the line from Exhibit 1?
    Below is what the participants saw and made their judgment on. When participants were asked this question alone, through writing or without confederates who would provide a range of answers, they consistently answered in the exact same way: obviously Line C and Line A, respectively.

However, when confederates were present and provided incorrect answers, what followed was surprising.
When the true participant was surrounded by confederates who gave incorrect answers, such as stating that Line C was equal to Exhibit 1 or Line B was the longest in Exhibit 2, they also conformed their answers to be stunningly incorrect based on the social pressures of the people around them. Over one-third of the true participants gave an obviously wrong answer, presumably because of the influence of peer pressure and the general feeling of “What could I be missing that everyone else is seeing?” This feeling of confusion and wanting to avoid appearing stupid can cause someone to conform to something obviously wrong, which will actually make them appear stupid because they were trying to avoid that very thing. Asch successfully displayed that people, whether they believe it or not, wish to blend in with their peers and their environment so they don’t stick out.
People don’t want to commit a faux pas, so even if they thought the line was truly the same length or not, they made it seem like they did. Follow-ups to Asch’s experiment showed that this effect increased when more confederates were present. If there were one or two confederates who gave incorrect answers, the effects were small, but if there were more than two, then people seemed to feel a significantly greater sense of peer pressure. It seems there is comfort in numbers—if three people see something a certain way, then I might be the one missing something, but if only one person disagrees with me, then they are equally as likely as me to be missing something.
Asch commented, “The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black.” He had the opportunity to ask participants after the experiment whether they actually believed their altered stances, and most did not and simply wanted to go along with the group because they did not want to be thought of as “peculiar.” Others thought the group’s judgment was actually correct and felt their new answer to be correct as well.
These two approaches represent the two main reasons people appeared to conform and act against their own free will. First, they wanted to be liked by the group and not seen as a “peculiar” outsider—this is called a normative influence. They wanted to fit in and be seen as comparable to the group. Second, they conformed because they thought their information was faulty, and they wanted to use the group’s judgment instead of their own. This is called an informational influence, where they doubted their own instincts and assumed others had more and better information than they did.
In either case, people’s sense of free will is subverted by emotional reactions to what other people are doing. You can say that you chose to go along with other people’s answers consciously, but in fact, it wasn’t what you truly wanted to do. Does free will exist if it is squashed as a mere thought? This is how we end up wearing magenta shirts far more often than we think we should. You might start with buying only one, but by the end of a year, you’ll probably have a closet full of magenta shirts just because it seems like the right thing to do to fit in. You want acceptance from the group to not appear “peculiar,” and you feel there’s a reason magenta is so prevalent, one you don’t quite know yet.
It might not be a surprise that we take cues on how to behave and think from other people, especially if it’s a situation that is foreign to us. For instance, if you show up at a fancy ball, you would look to how other people bow, stand, and interact so you can calibrate your own behavior. Where this takes a deviation into subverting free will is where you go directly against what you know to be true just to conform. Asch’s experiment was one instance where a clearly correct answer was passed over, showing the true power of peer pressure and social influence.
The psychological implications of Asch’s experiment may not be groundbreaking— we are all afraid of judgment, but the degree to which we strive to avoid it is huge and can be said to make us a follower in a negative way.

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Brain Blunders: Uncover Everyday Illusions and Fallacies, Defeat Your Flawed Thinking Habits, And Think Smarter (Or Just Less Stupidly) By Peter Hollins
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit https://www.PeteHollins.com to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.
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