Try The Free Will Experiment

by May 24, 2021Peak Performance0 comments


Here’s a quick exercise you can do to further your development of mental flexibility and adaptability.  Questioning tightly held assumptions and engaging in provocative thought experiments are good ways for maintaining a sharp, adaptive, and powerful mental and emotional state that is ultimately more resilient to stressors and negative influences.  The Free Will Experiment, or reflecting on the presence, absence and influence of free will is a fun way to create this mental flexibility.

The Quick and Dirty:

  1. Questioning tightly held assumptions gives us the capacity for more adaptive mental processes and resilient thinking.
  2. Free will is a tightly held assumption in our society and carries strong personal, moral and ethical implications.
  3. Is a person responsible for their actions only if they did them of their own free will?
  4. Is a person less responsible for their actions if they did not choose to do them of their own free will?
  5. The Free Will Experiment consists of imagining something you really like or love, like a favorite flavor of ice cream.  Now try and choose to not like it.
  6. You can do the opposite and try to choose to like something that you don’t like.  (Btw, tolerating something is not the same as choosing to like something!).
  7. Since our preferences and associations usually influence our choices and we usually do not choose to like something before we like it, or dislike something before we dislike it, are we really exercising free will?
  8. There is no right answer.  The point of the experiment is not to solve the problem but to develop a greater capacity for mental adaptability, flexibility and resilience.

Feel free to read on for more details and my word ramblings.

The Nitty Gritty:

I’ve recently been reflecting on Sam Harris’s take on free will which is something  I have not really spent much time thinking about.  His idea is that there is no free will, or at least what we experience as free will is actually an illusion.  This is a challenging thought because it flies in the face of most of our subjective experiences.  There is also some perceptibly dire potential ethical and moral implications.

For most of us our experience of life is one of navigating through a myriad of choices every moment of every day, the majority of which we feel as though we are actively choosing.  In fact the psychological and cognitive science literature suggests that we are making close to 10,000 choices or decisions per day from the very small to the seemingly large and profound.  It is our direct experience that we have agency, that we are the ones making the choices from among all the other possibilities.  But, what if this is not accurate?

The NittThe Ethics of Free Will:

From an ethical point of view, to insinuate that people are not freely choosing, is to also insinuate that we are not responsible for our choices.  This can be a completely separate argument because it is also assumed that in order to be responsible for something, we have to have agency and the capacity for free will.  What if this is also not correct?  Is it possible that we can still be responsible for something that is not under our control or under the influence of our free will?  If a person chooses to commit mass murder, there is the assumption that they did it of their own free will and are responsible for their actions.  If someone committed an atrocity that was not of their own free will, are they not still responsible for it?  These related topics are way too complex to be addressed in one post and I don’t actually know that I want to dive into the ethical and moral implications of free will so I will absolve myself of that responsibility right now as I freely choose not to do so….or maybe I will…who knows?

What I actually want to do is run a quick thought experiment so we can play with the concept of free will directly.  It looks like this:

The Free Will Experiment:

Imagine something you really like.  For ease, just choose a favorite flavor of ice cream or some other sensual experience (taste, touch, smell, sight).  When we say something is our favorite there is an assumption that we have chosen the thing or the experience to be our favorite, that we are choosing to like it.  But, is this really happening?  If I taste chocolate ice cream for the first time as well as pistachio, I will inevitably associate more with one than I am the other.  I may really like one and not like the other one at all, or they will fall on a spectrum of flavors I like.   For example, I may say “wow I really like pistachio ice cream more than chocolate, but really I prefer strawberry.  There is a spectrum of associations.  Where did that spectrum come from?  Did I choose to order my preferences from strawberry to pistachio to chocolate or did they order themselves on their own?  It’s natural to assume that if I am then facing a choice between all three at the same time I will most likely choose strawberry over chocolate the majority of the time.  My preference will strongly influence my choices though I feel that I am free to choose from all three.

Ok let’s do the actual experiment now.  Think of your favorite flavor of ice cream or if you’re not an ice cream eater, something you really like.  Now try to actively choose to not like it.  You can decide to not choose it from a line up of possibilities, but it is very hard, if not impossible to choose not to like it.  The same thing can work in reverse.  Think of something you really loathe.  Now choose to like it.  Choosing to like something that we inherently don’t like is not the same as being willing to tolerate it.  A lot of people tolerate exercise or going to the gym without actually choosing to like it.  They choose to go, despite not liking it, which is an function of discipline.  If we could just choose to like and associate with something we do not like, there would be no need for discipline.  We would just activate our power of free will and poof, we are now lovers of high intensity interval training and raw Brussel sprouts.  This is not to say that we cannot learn to like or loathe something over time, but it is usually a lengthy process or mediated by some strong influence or event.  For example if I wasn’t a fan of eating wheat flakes for breakfast but learned that my favorite athlete eats them every day and ascribes his amazing powers to eating wheat flakes, my preferences could change and I could learn to like eating them.

Just to be clear, I don’t know exactly what I believe in this regard and am as of today still agnostic as it concerns free will.  I do think that it is interesting and useful to question our assumptions though if only as a means to maintain an adaptive and flexible mindset and to develop the capacity to become more aware of and less unconsciously influenced by my implicit biases.

So, to close things out, what is the role of free will in your life?  How “freely” are you choosing to like, love, dislike or hate something or someone?  If we do not choose to like something can we really say that we have true freedom of choice or free will?

Remember, there is no right answer and I am not trying to influence your opinion one way or the other, only to give you the means to question a tightly held belief and in that, develop a higher capacity for mental adaptability, flexibility and resilience.


  1. Sam Harris’ discussion on The Illusion of Free Will .
  2. Scientific American’s retort to Sam Harris in the support of free will.