“Free will” versus “free won’t”

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“I can resist anything but temptation.” – Oscar Wilde

One of the best-known series of studies on human volition, or “free will,” was the “marshmallow test,” conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960s. In one variant of this study, children would be placed alone in a room with one marshmallow and told that if they waited and chose not to eat the marshmallow in front of them, they would get two marshmallows later. Behind one-way glass, observers would then just “wait out” each child, timing them so see how long they could go without eating that first marshmallow. While this study is pretty tame in its manipulation of the children, one can still imagine the mental “torture” the children had to endure. [1]

Mathematically, the number of children who “cave to the temptation” in any given interval of time follows the “wait for it…wait for it…” Poisson probability distribution that I have written about before, which occurs widely in nature. Biologically this brain function likely has the “sand pile” math and chemistry of build-up followed by sudden collapse I discussed in another recent post. Resist…resist…resist…Marshmallow!

While we usually think of volition as “free will,” perhaps it is just as much, if not more, a process of “free won’t.” That is, a significant part of our brain is programmed for optimizing for our survival, say, “Eat this!” or “Attack this threat!” but other parts of our brain are exerting restraint.

In ethical terms, the battle of competing moral choices often comes down to an apparent volitional choice between a teleological, end-goal option (“I must vanquish this enemy now!”) and a deontological, rule-and-duty option (“Let’s reason this out and negotiate a truce.”). Both conceptually and biologically, humans need to be able to “Vote No” on one and “Vote Yes” on the other.

Restraint is, by itself, often prized as a positive moral quality, when we have a strong ability to “Vote No.” Psychologically, this is sometimes called “veto power.” Aristotle included the variants of temperance, patience, and magnanimity in his list of “ideal virtues,” all having to do with restraint in the face of temptation to act more rashly.

How truly volitional this quality is becomes an issue in addiction studies. While some in this area cast a wide net, lumping together behaviors from drug abuse through excessive shopping, others in the field try to narrow down more overt and negative physical impacts of saying “No,” say with heroin withdrawal as contrasted to the lesser temptation to eat a cookie, the former having much more detectable biological power.

Even a lifelong smoker, while likely feeling a strong physical craving for another cigarette, can usually quit if the fear of imminent death from cancer enters the picture. Fear can often override unpleasant physical symptoms. So there appears to be some kind of continuum here, a probabilistic one at that. Even a slight stress placed on us can alter whether we probabilistically choose the chocolate cake or the fruit from a plate of offerings, as I wrote in an earlier post.

Rather than biology-speak, we more often speak of these choices in theological or philosophical language, and there is a lot of supernatural assumption in most people’s conceptions of these choices. Following Aristotle’s view, we often judge a person’s moral character on the level of his or her “free won’t.” However, if I assume that there is not some “magic” happening here, then there must be some biological process involved here that is worth pursuing.

And with that, I think I hear a cookie calling my name…


  1. Brown, Thomas E. “The Marshmallow Test, ‘Willpower’ and ADHD, Part 1.” Psychology Today, 2 Dec. 2014.

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3 thoughts on ““Free will” versus “free won’t”

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