The Effects of Belief in Free Will with Dr. Jingguang Li

Dr. Jingguang Li is an Associate Professor in the College of Psychology at Dali University in Yunnan, China. His current research focuses on individual differences in self-control, impulsivity, grit and belief in free will and their relation to success and well-being. He is the co-author of two recent papers on how belief in free will affects different aspects of a person’s outlook on life: The Freedom to Pursue Happiness: Belief in Free Will Predicts Life Satisfaction and Positive Affect Among Chinese Adolescents and The Freedom to Persist: Belief in Free Will Predicts Perseverance for Long-Term Goals Among Chinese Adolescents. More of his research is available on ResearchGate and Google Scholar. In this interview, we discuss his beliefs about free will and the implications of his research.

Greg: Why did you choose to study the consequences of believing in free will?

The Effects of Belief in Free Will with Dr. Jingguang Li
Dr. Jingguang Li

Jingguang: I have keen interests in philosophy. I first encountered the concept of free will in my freshman year [of college] fifteen years ago when I read a textbook of Western philosophy and spent a lot of time thinking about the possibility of free will and determinism. After reading some empirical papers three years ago, I realized that it is possible to study the consequences of believing in free will with psychological methods. So I am very excited to work on this field for pure theoretical interests.

Greg: Your paper “The Freedom to Pursue Happiness” states “it is intriguing to ask whether the laypersons’ belief in free will has a positive influence on [subjective well-being] among individuals from collectivistic cultures, such as China.” Drawing on your personal experience and previous research, how does Chinese society foster more collectivist values in comparison to Western societies?

Jingguang: This is a complex question. In my opinion, the key factor is education. From kindergarten to high middle schools, the teachers always emphasize collectivist values. This is called “sense of group honor.” This is one of the most important instructional goals and officially written in the Chinese national curriculums. For example, many of my classmates during junior and high middle schools (including me) believed that there were important competitions between our class and other classes in every aspect of the school (especially academic performance). Some students are motivated to work hard, not only for personal goals, but also for competitions between classes.

Greg: Do you mean that your class was competing with other classes within the same school? Was there a lot of pride in your own school and competition between schools as well? Does this group pride and competitive spirit extend into adulthood and the workplaces?

Jingguag: Yes, different classes competed within the same school. But there are generally no obvious competitions between high schools. Based on my observations, the competitive spirit extends into adulthood, such as universities and workplaces. However, the spirit is weaker in adulthood when compared with adolescence.

Greg: Your subjects in “The Freedom to Pursue Happiness” were tenth-grade students. Was there a particular reason you chose to study adolescents? Do you think either belief in free will or subjective well-being varies with age?

Jingguang: This is just for convenience. In collaboration with local schools, we are now performing a large project with the major goal of investigating the determinants of health, well-being and academic performance among adolescents in Chengdu, China.

Many researchers have addressed the relationship between subjective well-being and age. You may read more in a recent literature review published in Lancet. In general, subjective well-being varies with age, but this relation depends on many other factors, such as wealth and health.

As far as I know, there is no study reporting the relationship between belief in free will and age. Actually, this is a great research question for future research. I might perform this kind of research in the future based your inspiration.

Greg: At the end of this article, you note the lack of evidence for a causal relationship between belief in free will and subjective well-being. And you briefly mention a study that shows a non-significant causal relationship from belief in free will to subjective well-being. Have you done additional research on this causal relationship? What about changes in subjective well-being causing changes in belief in free will?

Jingguang: Yes, these are outstanding research questions. We are currently conducting experiments to address these questions. However, this line of research is difficult, given that it is difficult to alter individuals’ belief in free will as well as subjective well-being. One of our recent preliminary experiments showed that altering the belief in free will may alter participants’ emotional states. However, we are still gathering additional replicative and systematic data.

Greg: In your paper “The Freedom to Persist,” you found a positive correlation between belief in free will and perseverance. But belief in free will showed minimal correlation with consistency. It makes sense to me that a free will believer would be more likely to have the attitude of being in control and feeling like she has the ability to push through a task. But I can also see how a free will believer might abandon one goal for a new one. She might think she has the capacity to change course, whereas a determinism believer might stick with a goal to the end, thinking he cannot deviate from his path. How do you interpret these results?

Jingguang: In our study, perseverance was defined as persistence in pursuing long-term goals, such as writing a book and prepare for the SAT. Our results suggested that free will believers are good at sticking with these kinds of goals. However, when making decisions (to buy an iPhone or an Android phone, and to choose an algorism to solve a math problem), free will believers might be more flexible and have the ability to change. These two situations are somewhat different. The long-term goals are worth pursuing for free will believers. However, different options of decisions (i.e., an iPhone or an Android phone) might be all important, and a free will believer’s purpose is to make an optimal choice. In summary, I do not think your interpretations are contradicted.

“Educators could focus on training concepts closely overlapping with the belief in free will, such as autonomy, initiative, and rationality.”

Greg: Do you have other research questions lined up in this field? Are there positive or beneficial personality traits you think might be negatively correlated with belief in free will? (And positively correlated with belief in determinism?)

Jingguang: One ultimate question for me is how individuals develop the belief in free will or the belief in determinism. That is, what makes us differ in these beliefs? Do negative experiences induce the beliefs in determinism? Are some individuals “genetically determined” to believe in free will or determinism? Do religions shape laypersons’ views on free will? Some researchers think these questions are important, because answering them may help practitioners develop training programs to make individuals believe in free will. But for me, this is mostly for fulfilling my scientific curiosity. For instance, I often wonder why my wife possesses a strong belief in free will.

Your last question is great. From both the literature and our own data, I did not find any positive personality trait that is negatively correlated with the belief in free will. Future research is needed to propose a general theory to explain these findings.

Greg: Do you personally believe in free will? If science convincingly demonstrates that free will is an illusion, what are the practical implications of your research?

Jingguang: Actually, I personally do not believe the existence of free will. That is, if I answer the question posed in Study 2 of both papers, I would choose the universe A and I would be categorized as a determinism believer. As a psychologist, I have read abundant research that demonstrates that our choices are determined by our genes, prior experience, situations, and unconsciousness cognitive process. In many situations, we believe we know why we decide but we might never realize the real reasons. This is illustrated in the famous movie The Matrix when the Oracle says, “Because you didn’t come here to make the choice, you’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it.”

However, I do not mean that everyone should deny or accept the existence of free will, which has been the subject of debate for centuries among scholars. Instead, I suggest that educators could focus on training concepts closely overlapping with the belief in free will (i.e., the more fundamental factors that make individuals believe in free will), such as autonomy, initiative, and rationality, and these factors may increase individuals’ success and happiness. More importantly, these fundamental factors are also more understandable.