Belief in free will predicts criminal punishment support, disapproval of unethical actions

June 26, 2017, University of Minnesota
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

In countries with transparent governments and low levels of corruption, the belief in free will—that is, believing that people's outcomes are tied to choices and personal responsibility—predicts someone's intolerance of unethical behavior along with a greater desire to see criminals harshly punished for their actions.

For residents of countries with weak governance or corrupt leaders, free will beliefs did not explain people's views on the acceptability of —yet free will beliefs still predicted wanting to see criminals punished.

"Your country's governance makes a difference in whether your beliefs about free will get applied to your views of unethical ," says Kathleen Vohs, the Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Land O'Lakes Chair in Marketing at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management and co-author of the study.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota, Arizona State University, and Ghent University used data from the World Values Survey to analyze more than 65,000 residents in 46 countries. Their findings provide a comprehensive look at the influence of free will around the world and help explain differing moral attitudes and judgments around the world.

This global analysis suggests that for in free will to influence people's attitudes toward unethical actions, there needs to be an environment of honest and open governance. When people live in countries that do not support individual rights and where public officials are dishonest and self-interested, people's free will beliefs inform their desire to see criminals punished. But when it comes to whether behaving unethically is justifiable, free will beliefs are irrelevant.

"Free Will Beliefs Predict Attitudes toward Unethical Behavior and Criminal Punishment: A Global Analysis" is authored by Nathan D. Martin, Davide Rigoni, and Kathleen D. Vohs and published in the journal PNAS.

Explore further: Destined to cheat? New research finds free will can keep us honest

More information: Nathan D. Martin el al., "Free will beliefs predict attitudes toward unethical behavior and criminal punishment," PNAS (2017).

Related Stories

Where belief in free will is linked to happiness

January 23, 2017

Western and Asian cultures tend to have different core beliefs around free will. In a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology, Jingguang Li, professor at Dali University, and his research team show the link between ...

Recommended for you

Engineering cellular function without living cells

March 25, 2019

Genes in living cells are activated – or not – by proteins called transcription factors. The mechanisms by which these proteins activate certain genes and deactivate others play a fundamental role in many biological processes. ...

What ionized the universe?

March 25, 2019

The sparsely distributed hot gas that exists in the space between galaxies, the intergalactic medium, is ionized. The question is, how? Astronomers know that once the early universe expanded and cooled enough, hydrogen (its ...

Catalyst advance removes pollutants at low temperatures

March 25, 2019

Researchers at Washington State University, University of New Mexico, Eindhoven University of Technology, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a catalyst that can both withstand high temperatures and convert ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jun 27, 2017
How about the idea that will is free, but not entirely yours?

The relationship between justice and free will is in the idea that a person makes a conscious and reasoned choice to do evil - not just by ignorance or temporary insanity, but committing to go against what is considered right.

However, the reasons why the person would do that are again subject to free will, and the question arises, can you freely choose to be evil? How do you will to will? Where does it come from?

The physical freedom of will always reduces down to some sort of coin flip or a throw of dice - a random event within the bounds of conservation of energy etc. - because it is not meaningful to say a choice is free if it was caused by something else, and the only thing that is meaningfully causeless is a random event. Therefore will being free cannot be in one's personal control, and as long as we consider the person to be only their higher brain functions and reasoning it cannot be their own will.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.