Free Will and Subconscious Priming

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a mini-course on Blogging Science (within the Thematic Meetings course), in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Boris Kyuchoukov.

Have you had the feeling of being presented with such a brilliant argument, that you are left with no choice, but to agree with it? How about being presented with another one a minute later, only this time the argument is irrefutably supporting the contrary viewpoint? This is what I experienced when I first submerged myself into the heated debate about the existence of free will. After listening to a podcast discussion between the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the philosopher Tamler Sommers, and the psychologist David Pizarro (link to the talk below), I was perplexed, to say the least. My intellect was challenged, and cognitive discrepancies in my own beliefs arose. I quickly went to the library and borrowed some of the cornerstone books, which examined the most popular opinions on whether free will exists, and if it does, in what sense exactly. What I found is that most scientists nowadays appear unanimous in the conviction that free will is nothing more than an illusion. There are, however, some exceptions. Below I will attempt to give a critical reflection on the arguments found in one of these exceptions – Mark Balaguer’s book ‘Free Will’1. To do this, I borrowed ideas from many sources, including Sam Harris’ book2, which coincidentally has the same title, as well as the above-mentioned podcast, and a few other sources3.

Most of the readers of this blog will likely be familiar with the concept of subconscious priming. In a nutshell – we invite participants to the lab, we briefly flash them with some stimulus, and if we’ve done everything right, we should observe some predictable change in their behaviour. Since priming occurs at a subconscious level, this implies that the observed changes in behaviour are not willful. In other words, the primed subjects still believe that they are acting out of their own free will, but we know better than that – we can observe that they are acting in that particular way not because they want to, but due to our manipulation. One can use this procedure as an argument that if we are so easily able to influence people’s decisions without them even realizing this, then these people do not really have free will. The philosopher Mark Balaguer (a fierce defender of free will) dismisses this argument, saying that priming studies in psychology are only marginally relevant to the discussion of free will, since they focus exclusively on superficial behaviour.1 It is decisions and deep deliberation, he argues, which require us to harness the power of free will, and not mundane everyday thoughts and behaviours. The mental juxtaposition of two different, but equally valuable options (what he refers to as torn decisions) is what stays at the core of the need for free will, according to him.

There are at least two weaknesses in Balaguer’s argumentation, however. The first one comes from the fact that he specifies an extremely narrow subset of cases where using one’s free will is applicable – only when deliberating between two different, but equally valuable alternatives. It is questionable, in my opinion, whether this operationalization of ‘free will’ has any application in our every-day lives. One does not usually engage in deep deliberation when, say, deciding upon a flavor of ice-cream. For better or for worse, most of our decisions are indeed superficial, and whatever definition of free will one decides to stick with, they ought to take this in consideration.

Second, and more importantly, Balaguer ultimately resorts to circular reasoning when justifying the existence of free will. To use the same example, he argues that in order to choose between vanilla or chocolate ice-cream, one has to value them equally, and nothing else should cause the decision. In what kind of scenario would one’s decision be influenced by nothing else but the decision itself, however? Balaguer basically argues that in order to achieve libertarianism (to accept free will) one needs to discard any possibility of determinism (to reject free will). Not only is this logic circular, it is also far too sterile to be applied to a real world where there are numerous conscious and subconscious processes underlying each action we take. The very essence of thoughts and decisions implies that they are dependent on other thoughts and decisions – explicit or subconscious, and it is hard to imagine a decision which exists in isolation from any external influences. It is not even hypothetically possible to justify free will by requiring that nothing else plays a role in determining our decisions but free will.

That being said, we need to acknowledge that the philosophical domain that free will comprises is vast. There is room for many different opinions, and there is not one final and flawless standpoint. So if you still haven’t, I encourage you, dear reader, to submerge yourself into this amazing field and experience some of the cognitive dissonances I experienced. Take my challenge, and go challenge your intellect. And if you do, please share your experiences with me, I am more than curious to hear all about it!


  1. Balaguer,M. (2014). Free will. Cambridge, MA, US: MIT Press.
  2. Harris, S. (2012). Free will. Simon and Schuster.
  3. Fischer, J. M., Kane, R., Pereboom, D., & Vargas, M. (2009). Four views on free will. John Wiley & Sons.

Also check out this podcast.

Image credits: Isaí Moreno, published under CC BY 2.0.

Boris Kyuchoukov is an undergraduate student of psychology at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. His interests revolve around science in general, more particularly psychology, biology, and philosophy. He is curious about issues in ethics, morality, and free will.

Currently, he is busy with research in environmental psychology, focusing on nudging people into behaving more sustainably.

The author likes to keep himself busy. He worked as a mentor for first-year psychology students, was a member of the Education Commission of his faculty, attends the university’s Honours College, and takes part in regular journal club meetings. He is also a member of the University Council, on behalf of the student party Lijst Calimero.

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