Call it “choice” or call it “free will,” we struggle daily when trying to figure out why people do bad things. Most of us go through our day thinking we are in control of our own choices, and we assume that others are as well. We can’t even entertain the thought that perhaps some other force if affecting how we choose to vote, or what we choose to wear. Or whether we will do something harmful to someone else today.
Here is your dilemma of the day, an easy choice: In front of you is a tray containing some very nice-looking, healthy fruit, plus a big piece of delicious-looking chocolate cake. Which one will you choose right now?
Some of you will always select the cake (you know who you are). Some of you will always select the fruit (and we know who you are). Or perhaps you, like the majority of people, might select either one, depending on a host of “what-ifs” that you might perceive as rational choice.
In a now-classic 1999 study conducted at the University of Iowa, Dr. Baba Shiv found that, with just the added stress of making test subjects remember a seven-digit number, as opposed to the control group that only had to remember a three-digit number, the probability of choosing the cake over the fruit increased by 50%. In a more depressing variant of the study, he found that if the researcher first reminded test subjects of their own mortality, an increased percentage of cake-selectors also resulted. 
I actually dislike using the word choice in these discussions of decision-making, because the word carries a lot of political baggage these days, from abortion to drug legalization to gun rights. Likewise, I dislike its cousin free will, which carries the heavy weight of two thousand years worth of (mostly very dense) philosophical and theological discourse.
I prefer the term volition, which has, at least in my experience, a more scientific and less cultural connotation. Volition can be defined as “whatever it is” that flips your brain and body from doing task A to doing task B, for instance reaching your arm toward the cake as opposed to the fruit. It feels intentional, even if it often turns out to be less so.
My personal interest in this topic started with computer science, which often, at least in the 1970s, pictured the brain as a “supercomputer” of on-off switches. This model proved to be lacking and limiting when it came to trying to code human cognition and choice.
By the late 1970s, Herbert Simon’s ideas on “bounded rationality” in human decision-making had taken hold in business as well my professional interest, as I was programming in a new field called “decision support systems.” These computer programs focused on how to make choices for “semi-structured” problems in business and engineering, such as computer simulations that gave “fuzzy” (or probabilistic) answers to factory design problems.
The mid-1980s brought the “Savings and Loan Scandal,” centered in my then-home of Cincinnati, Ohio, when we became aware that “good, normal accountants” can sometimes “choose” to create billion-dollar frauds.  Gee, I am glad we learned that lesson and never repeated it!
My formal study of ethics in the 1980s led me to a deeper understanding of both classical and applied versions of moral choice, but even by the end of that study, I was seeing that there is also an undeniable “brain chemistry” process going on that is very different from my earlier “ones and zeroes” digital perception. “Something happens” inside our brains that at least has the appearance of intentional choice. Philosophy and theology provide a complex language for these choices, but at the end of some biological Poisson process, there is some kind of brain chemistry directing the bodily response. The alternative is that there is some “brain magic” going on, and I choose the former.
The kicker here is that there is also some good research demonstrating that my conscious sense of volition, at least part of the time, seems to be an “after the fact” brain construction. For instance, some studies suggest that my intention to, say, move my arm, often shows up in my conscious brain microseconds after I begin to move my arm. A bit of chicken-or-egg dilemma here.
The neuroscientists seem to have divided into two primary camps. “Hard Determinists” like Sam Harris (and in the tradition of Albert Einstein) insist that ALL choice/volition is an illusion, a made-up story from our brains to make sense from a predetermined sequence set of events. “Compatibilists” like Daniel Dennett, on the other hand, see this as overly reductionist, and still see something in brain chemistry that looks like “free will.” That is an argument to explore in a later post.
The end result, however, is that there is very likely a “probability distribution” that reflects when and how often you individually choose the cake over the fruit, or choose a kind response over an unkind one, or vote a certain way, and that math is a significant part of “who you are,” whether you are conscious of that choice or not.
- Raskin, Andy. “How to Lead Your Customer into Temptation.” CNNMoney, 4 May 2006. Note that whenever I quote brain studies like these, I also want to say, “Your mileage may vary.” Brain motivation studies can be notoriously fickle. But I like this one.
- The quick collapse of this big part of the financial services industry, caused by poorly-regulated “creative investments” and bad audits, cost the U.S. taxpayers an estimated $220 billion to fix, which would be worth about $500 billion today. The lessons were mostly forgotten, and the craziness then repeated, leading up to the 2008 housing crash. Read more about this scandal here.
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