Juan Pablo Hernández


12 minutes

Let me start with a confession. If I eat only a small lunch or a very late lunch, in other words, if my usual lunch routine is sufficiently disrupted, I become a rather disagreeable person, normally for the rest of the day, no matter what else happens to make up for it. On these days, it’s best to avoid me and not to rely on me for difficult decisions. On more than one occasion I have replied rudely to the most well-meaning enquiries from my partner, I have unfairly lost my patience with colleagues and people in the street, and I have taken decisions that I am bound to regret.

This is a trivial and perfectly commonplace example (I am sure readers will find similar examples in their own lives) of how certain factors affect personal decisions, sometimes with unfortunate moral and practical consequences. A type of situation, a physiological state (such as hunger in my example) or an emotion leads you to do things that, in retrospect, you would have preferred not to do. In my view, this raises a number of questions: if factors as simple and ordinary as being hungry make such a change in how I decide and behave, how many other factors are affecting my decisions from day to day?

And what if the influence of these other factors is so great that in the final instance they determine everything I decide, including those decisions I regard as most fundamental to my character and moral sense? In other words, am I really free to decide, or am I simply carried along by factors beyond my control that lead me to “choose” certain courses of action? These questions have fascinated philosophers down the ages.



But psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists and, more recently, economists and legal scholars, have all made heated contributions to this debate. We can start with our fundamental decision-making organ: the brain. We know that brain injury can transform a person to the point of leading him or her to act in monstrous and incomprehensible ways.

One of the best known cases is that of Charles Whitman who, on 1 August 1966, murdered his mother and wife (the people he loved the most, according to his own testimony), and later, on the campus of the University of Texas, shot and killed 14 others, before being brought down by the police. An autopsy revealed that he had a brain tumour which is thought to have exerted pressure on his amygdala, a section of the brain associated with anxiety and certain emotional impulses.

The autopsy had been requested by Whitman himself in a suicide note in order to have doctors investigate whether there were any biological causes for the “irrational thoughts” that had assailed him for some time and that he found almost impossible to keep at bay. Similar cases have been reported for decades. A couple of years ago, a widely reported study found connections between 17 cases of criminal acts and lesions in a single network of brain regions.

Are we really free to decide, or are we carried along by factors that lead us to “choose”?

Some might say that these are extreme cases of brain injury, scientifically intriguing but unable to tell us anything about whether we are really free when we have no such damage (or believe we have none). But cases like that of Whitman show that the moral and character issues that we regard as closely connected to our sense of who we are depend to a large extent on the condition of our brain structures. Neuroethics, an interdisciplinary field of study enjoying rapid growth, has sought to shed light on this connection between the brain and our moral sensibilities and capacity.

No two brains are identical and we do not choose the brain we are born with, which suggests that some people are simply luckier than others in being born with a brain that gives them advantages from the outset, such as intelligence, attention span and tenacity, empathy, etc. Of course, the brain develops and changes over our lifetime, so we should ask how far we can influence this development. By studying, forming habits, etc., we can end up better than we were and being the owners of our actions. Let’s see to what extent this is so. We all accept that our environment and experiences in childhood and adolescence have a huge influence on who we are. Science has been studying this relationship for many decades, especially with regard to criminal behaviour.

It has been possible to identify strong connections between criminal behaviour in adulthood and various environmental factors during childhood and adolescence, such as poverty, quality of care, level of education and the existence of traumatic experiences, among other things. Links have also been found between antisocial behaviour and psychological and cognitive conditions, such as level of intelligence, and developmental conditions, such as attention difficulties and impulsivity. None of these factors determines that someone will end up committing crimes, but each one of them, and the combination of several, increases the likelihood that this will happen.

Neuroethics studies the connection between the brain and our moral sensibilities and capacity.

In short, it is clear that biological, biographical and sociocultural factors have a considerable influence on who we are. So let’s get back to our question about how far we control what type of person we become and how much influence we have over the development of our brain. It is clear, I believe, that in reality we do not have a great deal of control over these biological and sociocultural factors that make us who we are. Likewise, it is a matter of luck whether we are born with a brain that gives us individual advantages or disadvantages, as well as the family and sociocultural milieu we are born into, the care we receive as children, the educational opportunities we have and, in general, the environment we grow up in.

Several of the points we have just seen are related to an argument propounded by philosopher Galen Strawson several decades ago to demonstrate that we are neither free nor responsible for our actions. The argument goes more or less like this: to be truly free, our actions must be chosen freely by ourselves. But our actions are the product of who we are, of our underlying disposition, that is to say, of our abilities and our character. So in order to act freely we should have been able to choose freely who, or the way, we are. Strawson believes it is not possible to do this. Not truly. Without doubt, the decisions we take over the course of life gradually shape us, moulding our character and probably developing or impairing our abilities.

The problem is that the decisions that define who we are now are the fruit of who we were before, when we took those decisions. So the problem repeats itself: in order to be free then, we should have been able to decide who we were. At no point can we choose the way we are out of nowhere, that is to say, without already having a previous way of being. From our earliest decisions, our character and abilities were conditioned by factors we did not choose.

I have so far been talking about who or the way we are, and how what we do appears not to derive in the last instance from ourselves but from something prior to us, from the factors that shaped us and that we could not control. But the question of whether we are really free does not end here. It appears that not only are we not responsible for the way we are, but also that on many occasions the way we are is not even the crucial factor in our decisions.

Day by day the evidence piles up to show that the scope of our freedom and autonomy is much narrower than we believed.

Social psychology and behavioural economics have gathered a lot of evidence that shows us to be highly susceptible to irrelevant circumstantial factors in our decision-making and that we are not even aware of this. In other words, in many contexts we believe we are choosing something freely but in reality our decision was influenced by factors such as the way the alternatives were presented to us, the last information we received even if it had nothing to do with the decision we are taking, or stereotypes that we consciously know to be erroneous. The list of factors that can influence our decisions unconsciously and the list of errors they can lead us into (what is called cognitive bias) is long and continues to grow (look up the catalogue of cognitive biases online to get an idea of how long).

These factors are not even a part of the way we are and are purely circumstantial, and yet their influence can be very significant: from making us waste more time than might be desirable looking at social media posts, or getting us to slip the chocolate we see at the checkout into our shopping trolley, to leading us to vote for a given presidential candidate (the most talked about instance of this was Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign and the Cambridge Analytica scandal). These research efforts are ongoing and shed new light every day on how we can be influenced without noticing it. This and a lot of other scientific progress paints a picture that certain philosophers have called shrinking agency.

Day by day the evidence piles up to show that the scope of our freedom and autonomy is much narrower than we believed (the evidence seems to be shrinking this space). All this makes me think that the belief that we are free and responsible for what we do in a fundamental and ultimate sense is, to say the least, vastly exaggerated. When we say that someone acted wrongly but could have taken another course of action, we are supposing that whatever brain, biographical and environmental factors were at work, that person could have overcome them and decided otherwise. We have thought of our freedom as a sort of decision-making muscle able to surmount any influence as long as we try hard enough.

Social psychology and behavioural economics have gathered a lot of evidence that shows us to be highly susceptible to irrelevant circumstantial factors in our decision-making and that we are not even aware of this.

Any wrong decision is seen as avoidable if we had “tried harder”, in other words, if we had thought more carefully or held out more firmly against our impulses. But the fact that we think we have this “muscle”, and accordingly real freedom, does not mean that we actually do. What is more, although muscles can be trained, it is also a matter of luck how strong they are in the first place, how far they can be developed, and what opportunities we will have to do this. In any case, we have already seen that the empirical evidence shows that, whether or not we have this muscle, it is less powerful than we think. Some might find this a worrying conclusion.

Does this make it absurd to expect others, and ourselves, to do the right thing? Or does it mean that there is no point in making an effort? That life has no meaning? There is no reason to draw alarming conclusions. The way I see it, although what we know about the factors that affect our decisions shows how puny the muscle of freedom we believe we possess is, at the same time it increases our ability to influence the most influential factors. Knowing more about how the brain defines us, which childhood factors lead to better ways of being and how this happens, and what elements in the environment push us towards certain decisions and not towards others, allows us to exert a more effective influence on how we are shaped as people and on the environments in which we have to take decisions.

Perhaps we should lay less stress on promoting, expecting and blaming people (and ourselves) for their exertions, or lack of exertions, with this illusory muscle of freedom, and instead think about how to shape better “ways of being” and environments that facilitate good decisions and discourage bad ones (as in Sunstein and Thaler’s nudge theory). If we do that, perhaps it will seem less important to us to own and have final and total control over what we do. Do you remember my character flaws when I’m hungry? Instead of trying harder to be a decent person when I’m hungry, I simply try to eat enough at more or less the same time every day.

I have more control over my actions before I get hungry than when I am. It’s a simple and not particularly original solution. But I’m lucky to be able to control this, not thanks to a decision-making “muscle”, but because I have the money, the time and the opportunity. It’s not the same for everyone, which reinforces the idea that I cannot go on behaving as if it were equally easy for everyone to make good decisions.