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Free will is not an illusion

Indications that free will does not exist

About a year ago I wrote the blog post On the question of whether we have free will in which I referred to the work of Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, John Bargh and Daniel Wegner who all state that we do not have free will and that our perception of a free will is just an illusion. John Bargh, for example, mentions the importance of automatic processes and says that nearly all human behavior should be seen as automatic responses to environmental triggers. Daniel Wegner has shown that respondents in studies have said that certain of their behaviors were intentional while, in reality, these behaviors were evoked by the experimenter  In that case free will was indeed an illusion. I also wrote about Valery Chirkov and Daniel Dennett who do believe in free will. I ended my blog post in a certain confusion about free will does or does not exist. I wondered whether it wouldn’t be better to ask to which extent we have a free will than to ask whether or not we have a free will.


Book: Free will is not an illusion

9200000002271477 (1)In his book Vrije wil is geen illusie. Hoe de hersenen ons vrijheid verschaffen (Free will is no illusion. How brains give us freedom) Dutch neuropsychologist Herman Kolk  disagrees with these authors who see free will as an illusion. He begin his book by summarizing their arguments and evidence. In addition to Bargh and Wegner  he mentions several other authors such as Michael Gazzaniga, a well-known neuroscientist who says that our brains are determined just like all other physical objects. Kolk also mentions Ap Dijksterhuis, a Dutch social psychologist who has done research which seems to demonstrate that with important decisions it is better to rely on your unconscious thinking than on your conscious thinking. Another important researcher who is mentioned is Benjamin Libet. Libet did research in which he demonstrated that at the moment at which people according to themselves decide to make a certain movement the brain has already begun to prepare that movement 300 ms in advance. Kolk also describes two popular Dutch book which claim that free will does not exist. Victor Lamme wrote De vrije wil bestaat niet (Free will does not exist) in which he says that human behavior is directed by stimulus-response couplings and  Dick Swaab wrote Wij zijn ons brein (We are our brain) in which he argues that free will is an illusion because the vast majority of our behaviors and traits are fixed from our birth on.  Click here to read more »

Raising kids to become autonomous individuals

MH900399918The importance of autonomous functioning

As research into self-determination theory has shown there is a strong connection between people’s autonomous functioning and their wellness, their open, engaged and healthy functioning. When people feel autonomous they feel they can make their own choices and follow their own preferences. This does not mean they will be selfish, over individualistic, or self-sufficient. In fact, under good enough conditions, people will actively attempt to internalize and integrate the norms, rules and values of their environment, in other words make them their own. This process of internalizing and integrating external norms, rules and values will happen best 1) when they are transmitted in an autonomy supportive rather than a controlling way, and 2) when these norms, rules and values are congruent with the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2011).


How parents can support autonomy Click here to read more »

Advising someone to act in a certain way may make it less likely that you yourself will act in that way

In an upcoming article two researchers from the University of Texas will present evidence for a counterintuitive phenomenon that when people give goal related advice they themselves may become less likely to act according to that advice. The proposed mechanism behind this is that giving advice leads to vicarious goal progress if the advice giver perceives a high likelihood that that the advice will be followed.

Note: Yesterday I uploaded a draft version of their article without realizing that the article was still a work in progress. I will keep you posted about this reasearch and I’ll give more details when the finalized article will be published.

Using deliberate practice in our training programs

A universal drive of people is to be competent and to become more competent. This drive for competence manifests itself in many aspects of life. Seeing oneself as competent and having the experience of becoming more competent contributes strongly to well-being. This is not only the case in the beginning of life. It remains so well into old age. Two factors are extremely helpful for enjoying the benefits of competence and its development. The first factor is the belief that your competence can be developed. I have written a lot about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset (read this for some background information). A growth mindset, believing that your competence can be developed through effort, is a prerequisite for continued growth. The second factor is knowledge about how competence can be efficiently developed. Two critical things are useful to know about competence development.

Click here to read more »

What happens on the our best work days?

The book The Progress Principe provides compelling evidence for the motivational impact of experiencing progress in meaningful work (read an introduction to the book here). The book shows how positive events on workdays contribute to a positive work experience and to a better performance. Workday events that positively impact experience and performance are the experience of progress in meaningful work, catalysts (events that directly help performance) and nourishers (interpersonal events that uplift people doing the work). Workday events that negatively impact experience are the experience of regress/setbacks, inhibitors (the opposite of catalysts) and toxins (the opposite of nourishers).


The book contains a figure which beautifully illustrates how the relative impact of these factors is:

The meaning of progress

The word ‘progress’ comes from the old French word progres which started to be used in the 16th century and which was on the Latin word progressus (an advance) which comes from the verb progredi (to go forward, advance, proceed), which, in turn, consists of the parts pro (forth, before) and gradi (to walk, go). In general usage, the word progress now has come to mean improvement, advance, betterment, growth, development. Click here to read more »

3 Reasons why we may not perceive existing progress

Following up on the post The Progress Paradox here are some additional thoughts about why we may not perceive something as progress although there are objective signs that there is actually progress. I can think of three reasons why this perception of no-progress may be there:


  1. Not noticing due to sensory adaptation or lack of experience. One reason, one that I already mention here is that we may adapt to our new and improved situation due to which we stop perceiving our situation as better, or even good. Also we may benefit from things which our parents and earlier ancestors did not have but we fail to appreciate them really because we never knew what it was like to have to do without them. Click here to read more »

Can we keep on making progress into old age?

The perception of progress can be highly motivating and can give us a sense of fulfillment. This goes for both short term focus and for long term focus. It can be highly rewarding if we feel we are taking steps forward to completing a short term goal or we notice we are getting a bit better at something. Also it can be gratifying to feel that we are making long term progress for instance in education. Click here to read more »

How do you define progress?

The feeling of making progress can be very motivating. It can make you feel that you can achieve what you want to achieve and that you are on the right track. By what IS progress?

Sometimes it is easy to speak of progress, for example when someone learns to play the piano better. But can you also speak of progress when someone takes a step forward in the direction of a goal he does not entirely agree with? And is it progress when someone gets better at something which is a threat to others like becoming more skillful at selling consumers bad financial products? That  does not seem to count as progress, does it? And what about someone who has a degenerative disease (such as Alzheimer’s disease). Could someone like that make progress anyway? What kind of progress could that be?

I am looking for different definitions of progress. Could you help and add yours?

How do you define progress? 

Can you make progress in any situation?

Winston Churchill once said: “Every day you may make progress.” The idea that every day can be used to make progress is appealing to me. Yesterday may not have gone well, today, at least, offers a new opportunity to take a step forward. This way of thinking makes it possible to believe, no matter how bad your situation may look, that you can always start to make things better.


What other productive choice could we make, anyway? Even though our situation may look dark, a new day will start and we’ll have to choose what we will do. Will we try to improve our circumstances just a little bit or won’t we? Is the bad situation inescapable? Can we do nothing else but to let it become worse or is progress imaginable? And what could progress mean? It could mean to find a way to deal more effectively with the bad situation so that it would bother us less. Or it could mean that we could find a way to start a structural improvement by which we could slowly but surely find a way to realize a better future.


Often we think that we cannot make progress because the circumstances are so hard or because we are confronted with insurmountable obstacles or limitations. But how can we know if the thought that progress is impossible is valid? At least sometimes it is primarily the thought that progress is impossible which limits us. Pessimism and fatalism can be the reason we remain passive. If we think that progress is impossible it is only logical that we don’t invest much effort in trying to improve our situation. And because we don’t put it much effort chances are slim that progress will happen. Our pessimism can be a  self-fulfilling prophecy.


Question: do you think that my presumption that progress (even if it is only micro progress) is always possible, is true? Of yes, why do you think so? If no, can you mention a situation in which you think progress, by definition, will not be possible?

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