How free are we in our decisions?

In law, free will is the basis for individual responsibility, while philosophy questions its existence, and psychology empirically examines how we reach decisions. Only an interdisciplinary view allows a holistic view of the question of freedom of will.

After lunch, I line up for coffee at the university café. While I’m waiting, a tempting question pops up in my head that you may well be familiar with: Should I have some dessert with coffee? Actually, I had decided to eat less sweet stuff. But when it’s my turn, I buy a bar of chocolate in spite of my better judgment. Every day, we make many decisions, both big and small, some even against our best interests. But under what conditions are our decisions really free and self-responsible? Does this require certain decision-making skills? These and similar questions fascinated me during my law studies. In my interdisciplinary dissertation, I therefore focused intensively on the question of whether and for how long people may still be able to make legally effective decisions, such as drawing up a valid will, despite suffering from dementia.

Freedom of will – a legal principle

Our legal system is based on the principle that individuals can make independent decisions. This is already reflected in the freedom of contract, which allows us to enter into agreements with people of our choice, even if these agreements conflict with our own interests. However, contracts are null and void if legal safeguards are in place, for example if we have been deceived or coerced or if we are no longer of sound mind due to progressive dementia. We are also held accountable under criminal law for our criminal conduct. All of this only makes sense if we assume that we humans basically have the ability to freely decide for or against a legal transaction or a criminal offense. From a legal point of view, the question of free will therefore seemed to be answered clearly for me as a law graduate.

Strong arguments against free will

However, this certainty was quickly shaken when I delved into the philosophical discussion about freedom of will. The dispute actually started with a lack of agreement on what the term actually means. As a lawyer, it seemed sensible to me to define freedom of will as the ability to make decisions that are not influenced by predetermined causes or external factors. But then the question arose as to whether the course of the world and our personal life is entirely predetermined by natural laws or whether coincidences can also play a role in our decisions.

However, it soon became clear to me that both points of view speak against free will: If all our decisions are already predetermined by factors such as genetics, upbringing and other environmental influences, then they are merely the result of a certain sequence of events and not of our own will. However, the same also applies if decisions are made purely by chance, as they are then beyond our conscious control.

Law, psychology and philosophy shape Ann Krispenz's thinking.

One possible solution to this philosophical problem was a definition of the concept of freedom, which seemed to be compatible with the concept of determinism. At that time, I was convinced by philosophical views that saw freedom of will as the freedom to pause before making a decision and to recognize and reflect on predetermining factors in order to consciously choose behavior that would counteract these factors. However, even with this definition, the question remained as to why the ability to pause and reflect should not be equally determined and beyond our control.

So the philosophical discussion about freedom of will presented me with a dilemma. On the one hand, the philosophical arguments against the existence of free will made sense to me, on the other hand, I felt free in my own decisions. Was this all just a beautiful illusion? I started studying psychology and looked for more answers.

Unconscious conditioning

As an empirical science, psychology deals with the factors that influence human experience and behavior. Decision psychology, in particular, examines how decision-making processes take place and the extent to which we actually collect, evaluate and weigh up information that is necessary to make conscious decisions. An important finding of psychological research is that decisions are influenced not only by internal psychological factors, but also by external factors: For example, people make different decisions when they are presented with the same information in different situations. If, for example, we already have an expensive item of clothing in our shopping basket, we’re quite happy to spend a little more money on an accessory that we wouldn’t have bought otherwise. In addition, we tend to look for further evidence of pre-existing beliefs while neglecting disproving information.

“The (illusion of) free will seems to fulfill an important function for our mental health.”

Ann Krispenz

Complex decisions cannot always be made rationally due to insufficient information, a lack of time or a lack of motivation. If I want to buy a cell phone, for example, I can quickly be overwhelmed by the variety of options available and therefore prefer to use a device from a manufacturer I know. As a result, I probably overlook cheaper but equally good alternatives, which makes my decision not seem rational from an economic point of view. Major brands, for example, take advantage of this and tailor their marketing accordingly.

Furthermore, conscious decision-making processes are usually influenced by unconscious psychological processes. Previous experiences play a particularly important role, as our brain develops schematic patterns of thought and behavior based on these experiences, which we are generally unaware of but which are automatically taken into account when making decisions. This can be seen, for example, when I choose chocolate at the university café because it unconsciously evokes positive memories of my grandmother.

Self-knowledge through self-reflection

However, as human beings, we have the ability to observe and analyze ourselves and our actions. This ability is particularly relevant in psychotherapeutic contexts. Here, too, it is recognized that humans are shaped by their biological preconditions (such as their genes) as well as their upbringing and environmental experiences. At the same time, it is assumed that we are not powerless at the mercy of these influences, but that we can recognize and change them – with therapeutic help.

From a psychological point of view, the (illusion of) free will also seems to fulfill an important function for our mental health: Studies show that we can fall into anxiety and depression if we feel that our living conditions are uncontrollable. Last but not least, the idea of freedom of will is deeply rooted in our human self-perception. In my current role as an educational psychologist, I therefore look for ways to strengthen the self-efficacy of my students and their ability for critical self-reflection. Maybe that was exactly what was meant to happen.

About the author

Ann Krispenz

studied law at the University of Heidelberg, where she wrote her doctorate on the subject of “The Ability to Write a Last Will and Testament and the Freedom of Will”. For her interdisciplinary doctoral thesis, she also studied psychology in Mannheim and obtained a second doctorate. Since 2015, she has been teaching and conducting research in Educational Psychology at the University of Bern.

What was the best decision of your life?

To study again at the age of 32. This enabled me to pursue a career at the University of Bern.

Which day-to-day decision do you find difficult?

Snooze or morning sports. Bed often wins, although exercise would be better for me.

Is there a decision you regret today?

That I didn’t move to Italy when I had the chance.


Dr. Dr. Ann Krispenz

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