The Psychology of Communication


4.3 Free Will And Determinism

The third propositions of behaviorism (The person is not responsible for behavior) and humanism (The person is responsible for behavior) directly contradict one another. We see here the philosophical debate between determinism and free-will. Interactionists resolve this conflict by pointing out that they are both right. People who have a behavioristic self-concept believe that their behavior is determined and the self-fulfilling prophecy (what you expect is what you get) ensures that their behavior is indeed determined. People who have a humanistic self-concept believe that they have free-will and the self-fulfilling prophecy, in this case, tends to ensure that they do indeed have free-will. In this way, the determinist and the free-willist have both accumulated "evidence" for their respective theories. Each theory is based on what feels good rather than on what seems true.6 You do not believe it because it is true but, rather, it becomes true because you believe it. Another example of cognitive dissonance.

Psychologists have difficulty dealing with free will. If they conduct a scientific experiment - that is manipulate an independent variable, measure a dependent variable, control all extraneous variables, and demonstrate that there is a significant difference in the dependent variable as a result of their manipulation of the independent variable, then they have established a cause-effect relationship. This is the basic building block of science. However, if the subject does whatever s/he damn well chooses, despite their efforts, the psychologist can not claim to be doing rigorous science. in the strict sense of the natural sciences.

Time after pompous time, in introductory textbooks in psychology, including my own, one reads "this behavior is determined by some complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors". Consider, however, the case of Chang and Eng. They were Siamese twins. Chang was a womanizer and an alcoholic, whereas Eng was practically celibate and a teetotaler. Their very different personalities could not be the result of genetic factors or environmental factors (they were genetically identical and their environments were as close as any two people ever had) or any "complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors".

We must consider a third factor - choice. Chang chose the short, happy life whereas Eng chose the long, miserable life. Poor old Eng had to die when Chang died as a result of his excesses. However, most of us are not attached to someone else and can make choices that help determine our lives. Most of us can organize a psychic coup d'etat to overthrow the tyranny of our genetics and our environments. We can write our own scripts. As we will see, growth from animal to human (Chapter 5) and from child to adult (Chapter 6) could best be summarized as the gradual emancipation of the person from the tyranny of his/her genes and environment.

If the person grows from the inside out, then the person is responsible for behavior. Whereas extrinsic motivation requires extrinsic control, intrinsic motivation permits intrinsic control. The constraints of society on a person with extrinsic motivation can be replaced by the restraints of a person with intrinsic control. One symptom of a shift from the behavioristic concept of the person based on extrinsic motivation to the humanistic concept of the person based on intrinsic motivation is a shift from an emphasis on extrinsic control to an emphasis on intrinsic control. Self-control, a once-taboo topic, has become a popular area of research [GOLDFRIED & MERBAUM, MAHONEY & THORESEN].

Some critics have been appropriately apprehensive about the psychologist because of the threat that, the better psychologists understands them, the easier they can control them. This public image of the psychologist is somewhat justified, since our emphasis has indeed been on how to make organisms - whether rats or raccoons, pigeons or people behave as we want them to behave.

The shift from other-control to self-control is an encouraging sign that psychology may be turning from yet another potential instrument of oppression to one of liberation. We are beginning to present the powerful instruments we have developed to the public so that people may use them for self-understanding and self-control. Power to the person. This does not mean that we have to go back to scratch. Each technique developed for the understanding and control of others can be used for self-understanding and self-control. Behavioristic means can be used for humanistic ends.

6   This was first pointed out to me by a wise old man I once met in Los Angeles. He had just emerged from a mental hospital, he was physically sick, his wife had left him, and his children were estranged from him. After a five-hour conversation, during which we disagreed on most topics which arose, I suddenly saw an underlying pattern. I see now, old man, why we disagree. We have been discussing each topic at such depth that we get down to our basic philosophical assumptions. I am a free-willist whereas you are a determinist. Of course, young man you are a free-willist - your life is going well and you want to take the credit, whereas I am a determinist - my life is going badly and I don't want to take the blame.