Determinism And Free Will

March 17, 2021 - Paper 3 Issues and Options in Psychology | Issues & Debates

Determinism And Free Will Definition:

Determinism and Free Will is one of the classic debates in psychology and refers to the extent that psychologists believe human behaviour is influenced by forces beyond our control. Alternatively, do we have personal control over our actions.

Determinism: Is the view that an individual’s behaviour is control by internal (genes etc ) or external (e.g. learning behaviour from our parents) forces. This means that behaviour should be predictable.

Free Will: Used to refer to the alternative end of the spectrum where an individual is seen as self-determination. According to this view, individuals have an active role in controlling their behaviour (i.e. they are free to choose and are not acting in response to any internal or external pressures.

The Scientific Emphasis On Causal Explanations:

One of the basic principles of science is that every event in the universe has a cause and that causes can be explained using general laws. Knowledge of causes and the formulation of laws are important as they allow scientists to predict and control events in the future. In Psychology, the lab experiment enables researchers to stimulate the conditions of the test tube and remove all other extraneous variables in an attempt to precisely control and predict human behaviour.

Different Types Of Determinism:

Determinism can take a number of different forms (biological, environmental, psychic determinism). This stems from the assumption that behaviour is rarely influenced by simply one factor

(1) Biological Determinism:

Is the belief that behaviour is caused by biological influences (e.g. genetics, hormones, evolution) that we cannot control. For example: high levels of testosterone will cause aggressive behaviour, the XYY gene cause aggression, low serotonin causes depression etc

(2) Environment Determinism:

Is the belief that behaviour is caused by features of the environment (such as systems of reward and punishment) that we cannot control. For example, if we are raised in an aggressive household we will learn that aggressive behaviour (through vicarious reinforcement) and will also display aggressive behaviour, through observing slim role models and vicarious reinforcement we could develop anorexia etc

(3) Psychic Determinism:

Is the belief that we are controlled by internal, unconscious conflicts that we cannot control, for example, we could develop OCD because of a fixation at the psychosexual stages of development, we might suffer from depression because of repressed memories etc

Implications Of The Determinism And Free Will Debate:

Many areas of psychology have been influenced by the Free Will vs Determinism debate, and such the debate has had practical and theoretical contributions to psychology as it has helped develop a number of theories and strategies. There is a however still a great deal of debate about the role of free will in behaviour.

The case FOR determinism

The notion that human behaviour is orderly and obeys laws places psychology on equal footing with other more established sciences. The value of such research is that the prediction and control of human behaviour has led to the development of treatments, therapies and behavioural interventions that have benefitted many-for instance, psychotherapeutic drug treatment in controlling and managing schizophrenia. For example, if schizophrenia is caused by elevated levels of dopamine, treatments such as anti-psychotic drugs can be used to decrease levels of dopamine and alleviate the symptoms of schizophrenia this supports the idea of determinism as it shows that the cause of increased levels of dopamine creates the ‘effect’ the disorder schizophrenia. Reduce the dopamine leads to an alleviation of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

The experience of mental disorders like schizophrenia where sufferers experience a total loss of control over their thoughts and behaviour casts doubts over the notion of free will  no one would choose to have schizophrenia. This suggests that at least in terms of mental illness, behaviour would appear to be determined.

The case AGAINST determinism

In terms of hard determinism and the idea that the individual choice is not the cause of behaviour is not consistent with the way the legal system in the UK operates.

For example, in a court of law, offenders are held morally accountable for their actions very few individuals would represent themselves in a court of law by trying to appeal to a judge or jury that their offence was biologically, environmentally of psychically determined. This goes against a deterministic approach because it suggests that we are in control of our own behaviours, that free will can over ride any ‘biological determined’ ideal.


There is face validity in support of the concept that everybody holds free will. For example, everyday experiences ‘gives the impression’ that we are constantly exercising free will through the choices that we make on any given day. Furthermore, research suggests that people who have internal locus of control (internal Locus of Control an individual feels that they are completely responsible for their behaviours and actions), tend to be more mentally healthy. In contrast, Roberts (2000) demonstrated that adolescents who believed in fatalism (believed that their lives were decided by events outside of their control) were at significantly greater risk of developing depression.

This suggests the effects of believing in free will has a positive on human behaviour and mental health.


Neurological studies have provided evidence against the idea of free will. 

For example, Libet (1985) and Siong Soon (2008) have demonstrated that the brain activity that determines the outcome of simple choices may predate our knowledge of having made such a choice. The researchers found that the activity related to whether or not to press a button with the right or left hand occurs in the brain up to 10 seconds before participant’s report being consciously aware of making such a decision. This goes against the idea of free will because it suggests that elements of our biology are already being drafted into our decision making before we are even consciously aware of our decision or choice.

An interactionist perspective may offer the best compromise in the free will vs determinism debate. Approaches in psychology that have a cognitive element (like Social Learning Theory), tend to adopt an interactionist or soft determinism perspective. For example, Bandura argues that environmental factors are key to learning behaviour, but that we are free to choose (or make decisions about) who or what to attend to and when to perform certain behaviours (think about the four requirements of social learning theory! Which one(s) of these requirements suggest that individuals have a free choice with regards to whether or not to imitate behaviour?)

This perspective offers perhaps the most complete explanation of many behaviours.

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