Do impulsive people have less free will?

If we’re driven by impulsivity, are we truly free?
If we’re driven by impulsivity, are we truly free?
Image: Reuters/ Lucy Nicholson
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Before you consciously became aware of your decision to read this article, your brain was already making the necessary preparations to click the link.

There are a few crucial milliseconds between the moment when you’re consciously aware of a plan to act, and the moment you take action. This brief window is thought by some scientists to be the moment in time when we can exercise free will. It gives us the chance to consciously make a decision, suggesting we aren’t just slaves to our impulses.

But, as the New Scientist reports, a study published in Neuroscience of Consciousness last year found that impulsive people have a shorter window of time between their awareness of an impending action and the act itself. Emilie Caspar and Axel Cleeremans from the Université Libre de Bruxelles asked 72 people to fill out surveys to determine their level of impulsivity. Participants were then asked to watch a dot rotating through clock positions on a computer screen, and to press a key, which would make the dot stop, when they felt the urge to do so. They were told not to pre-plan their movements.

Participants wore electrode caps to measure their cerebral activity, and as expected, there was a spike in neural activity (known as “the readiness potential”) before participants were consciously aware of their plan to push the key. For impulsive people, the time between the brain activity spike and conscious awareness was significantly shorter.

There’s still some debate as to whether the readiness potential definitively shows that the brain is prepared to act. But for some cognitive scientists, evidence of this activity potentially undercuts the existence of free will.

“On one reading, we’re not free,” Cleeremans tells Quartz. “If you think that brain states are driving what you do, then it diminishes the sense that we have of being able to freely will the actions that we carry out. You’re not free to do anything you want, because you’re determined by the activity of your brain and the activity of your brain is determined by the experiences you’ve lived.”

Based on Cleereman’s study, he says impulsive people have “less of an opportunity to change the course of the unfolding action” than the rest of us.

But that conclusions is based on a very specific definition of free will, says Cleeremans—one that contradicts much of what we know about the connection between brain activity and mental life. He adds:

“The brain is not a computer. It’s a plastic organ, where everything you learn or experience is recorded in some way. And your brain has free will—not the power to do anything you want, but the power to carry out intelligent choices based on experiences. It’s a limited kind of free will.”

In other words, we may not have the free will to always make conscious, rational decisions that ignore how experience shapes our subconscious. But perhaps our free will is determined by our personal emotional experiences, rather than pure reason.

Joshua Knobe, philosophy and cognitive science professor at Yale University, tells Quartz that there’s no clear-cut right or wrong answer to this conundrum.

“There’s a view of the self you see in certain philosophers, going back to Aristotle, that who you really are is your capacity to reason. And it’s only when you’re exercising that capacity, and reflecting on the reasons for and against, that you’re your true self,” he says. “But reasoning isn’t necessarily what free will is all about.”

For example, if someone is overcome by anger, then should they be considered morally responsible for their actions, or did emotional impulse override free will? And what if someone is so overcome by compassion that they do something kind—is this also a denial of their free will and true identity?

“To have free will you have to act in a way that’s a reflection of yourself,” says Knobe. “From that point of view, maybe you were acting impulsively, but that impulse was maybe the time you were most free. It’s more reflective of who you really are,” says Knobe.

It’s not as straightforward a conception of free will as many would like. But if impulsivity is core to your personal identity, then perhaps expressing those impulses is itself a sign of free will.