Free will and determinism - Issues and debates

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Free will and determinism
Issues and debates


Is human behaviour a result of free will, where individuals have personal control over their behaviour, or is it a result of determinism, where factors outside of personal control motivate and maintain behaviour? There are different types and degrees of determinism that affect behaviour in varying ways and to varying extents. Hard determinism concerns the view that human behaviour is set by external forces and is beyond personal control. Soft determinism concerns the view that although behaviour is to some extent set by forces outside of personal control, individuals do retain some influence over what they choose to do. Biological determinism concerns the idea that behaviour is motivated and maintained by physiological influences, such as genetics, biochemistry, evolution and brain mechanisms. Environmental determinism concerns the idea that behaviour is motivated and maintained by situational influences, with behaviourism being most associated with this idea, where behaviour is seen as responses stimulated by environmental stimuli. Psychic determinism is Freudian, a psychodynamic idea, whereby conscious behaviour is seen to be motivated and maintained by the unconscious mind, which develops in childhood by progression through a series of psychosexual stages. Scientism in psychology involves using controlled laboratory experiments to find causal (cause and effect) explanations.


Fig 8.2 Can we behave how we want, or are our actions determined?

Focal study

Domanski (2013) reported on the case study of Louis Leborgne conducted by Paul Broca to assess the role of the left temporal lobe in producing speech. Leborgne suffered with epilepsy and lost the ability to speak (other than the word ’Tan’). He was hospitalised at age 30 and died there in 1861, aged 51 years. Broca performed a post mortem on Leborgne’s brain and found a lesion (area of damage) on the left temporal lobe. This was the only area of damage visible, so Broca concluded that this brain area is responsible for the production of speech. The area is known to this day as Broca’s area. The study indicates that there is a specific brain area for a specific form of behaviour, which is an example of biological determinism, as damage to Broca’s area leads to impaired speech production that is beyond the control of an individual.


• Pavlov (1902) showed that dogs could be taught to salivate at the sound of a bell by presenting their food while simultaneously ringing a bell (on average for 7 presentations). He called this classical conditioning and it is an example of environmental determinism, as behaviour was controlled by environmental factors.

• Bandura (1961) showed that children observed and imitated a model who beat up a ’Bobo doll’ if the model was reinforced. This involved thought processes, as children work out when they should imitate the behaviour, so is an example of soft determinism, as there is some personal control over the behaviour.

• Freud (1895) detailed his dream about a patient Irma who was not improving. In the dream another doctor injected Irma with a dirty needle and Freud interpreted this as wish fulfilment that he was not responsible for Irma’s condition. This is an example of psychic determinism, where the unconscious mind (revealed by the dream) controls conscious behaviour.

Positive evaluation

Image The idea of free will feels intuitively correct and it is this experience that means the debate continues. The subjective experience of most people is that they are in control of their actions and behaviours. The humanistic approach also acknowledges this feeling and argues that we do have free will.

Negative evaluation

Image Free will is practically impossible to test. It is a non-physical concept and as such is difficult to quantify and measure. As psychology is a science, the idea that something without a physical presence can affect behaviour is at odds with the discipline. This means that a resolution of the debate is not currently likely. If, at some point in the future, measurement becomes possible, the scientific discipline of psychology may be able to resolve the debate. Of course, the argument is that free will is not measurable because it does not exist.

Image Although laboratory experiments allow the establishment of causality for phenomena, because they are conducted under such artificially controlled conditions they can be said to lack ecological validity, where results cannot be generalised to real-life situations in which such conditions do not exist. However, other research methods are not as strictly controlled and do not allow the establishment of causality.

Practical application

Environmental determinism has practical applications in teaching desired skills to animals and people. For example, target behaviours can be reinforced through operant conditioning. Conditioning techniques are also used in therapies, such as systematic desensitisation in reducing phobias.