Does Our Perception Precede Our Decisions?

by Josh Richardson
Prevent Disease

Have our decisions been made far before we make them? Walking down a specific street, choosing a career path or even reaching for a cup of coffee make not be as conscious a decision as we think, new research by Yale University psychologists suggest.

The belief in free will is thought to engender levels of cooperation that allows for the emergence of social order. Our fate and destiny is shaped by not only the course our life takes but a combination of conditions which many believe are pre-determined and then molded by our free will.

Many philosophers believed that all behaviors are predetermined and have a causal lineage. Some of the factors believed to influence determinism include genetics, environment, and past and present experiences.

Our life is created by the results of the choices we ourselves made according to the tendencies of our own mind, each time we encountered a specific event. It may thus be said that it is none other than freedom of choice which is the most important factor in shaping a person's fate or destiny. However perceptual processing may also influence or freedom of choice.

"Our minds may be rewriting history," said Adam Bear, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology and lead author of the paper published in the journal Psychological Science.

Bear and Paul Bloom performed a couple of simple experiments to test how we experience choices. In one experiment, participants were told that five white circles would appear on the computer screen in front of them and, in rapid-fire sequence, one would turn red. They were asked to predict which one would turn red and mentally note this. After a circle turned red, participants then recorded by keystroke whether they had chosen correctly, had chosen incorrectly, or had not had time to complete their choice.

The circle that turned red was always selected randomly, so probability dictates that participants should predict the correct circle 20% of the time. But when they only had a fraction of a second to make a prediction, these participants were likely to report that they correctly predicted which circle would change color more than 20% of the time. In contrast, when participants had more time to make their guess -- approaching a full second -- the reported number of accurate predictions dropped back to expected levels of 20% success, suggesting that participants weren't simply lying about their accuracy to impress the experimenters.

What happened, Bear suggests, is that events were rearranged in subjects' minds: People subconsciously perceived the color red before they predicted it would appear, but consciously experienced these two things in the opposite order. The conscious experience of choice may be constructed after we act -- even when it feels like it is the cause of our behavior, say the researchers.

Bear and Bloom's research builds on past work suggesting that many decisions seem to be under more conscious control than they actually are. In many cases, consciousness may simply be window dressing, note the researchers.

People tend to see their will as more determinant of future events than of past events. When we contemplate the future we feel as though we have a choice and are likely to influence events but when we consider our own past we often feel like most of the things that have happened were out of our control.

When people see that their actions are tied to what actually happens around them then their perceptions of free will change, or at the very least activated.

Bear said it is unknown whether this illusion is caused by a quirk in perceptual processing that can only be reproduced in the lab or whether it might have "far more pervasive effects on our everyday lives and sense of free will."

Our belief in free will contradicts the fact, as we know it, that the universe is governed by lawful principles of science. But science has not been able to solve the equation of free will because it is governed by laws it can only see and measure, not those it cannot.

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