Just World Theory, Free Will, and Apathy


A paper was just released by Cory Clark and colleagues on the subject of what makes people believe in free will.

They did five really interesting studies to explore the question:

  1. They found that people reported greater belief in free will after considering an immoral action than a neutral one

  2. The second study showed that #1 was because of of an increased desire to punish others

  3. In study three they mocked up a cheating situation where people believe more in free will when there was a cheater on the loose

  4. In the next study they found that people discarded free will skepticism upon hearing about real-world immoral behavior

  5. In the final study they found that the amount of crime a country experienced predicted their level of free will belief

The paper’s conclusion was:

Taken together, these results provide a potential explanation for the strength and prevalence of belief in free will: It is functional for holding others morally responsible and facilitates justifiably punishing harmful members of society.

Fascinating. It sounds almost identical to a defense of religion’s utility in a pre-science world.

This was discussed well on a recent episode of Very Bad Wizards, where they started with the concept of Just World Theory.

Just World Theory basically comes down to believing that things happen for a reason, and that good deeds and bad deeds balance out in the end. Here are a few key manifestations—not all of which are consistent with each other:

  • If you’re suffering now, and there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it, you must have done something to deserve it

  • If you suffer in this world, but you’re good, you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife (a common religious theme)

  • If you are evil in this world, but you get away with it, you’ll be punished in the afterlife (a common religious theme)

The key one for me is the first one, and a tie-in with free will and politics immediately presents itself to me.

Naturally, I’m trying to model here, and thus am trying to draw generalizations, but the link that I see here seems strong:

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  • People who believe in free will believe more in the concept of a Just World, i.e., that people get what they deserve. So if they’re hungry, they should get a job. If they can’t get good jobs, they should have went to college, etc. The world is just, so it’s their fault

  • This makes them less likely to want to help those who are struggling, because they could have made better choices

I think people on the right, Libertarians, and religious people in general are more likely to believe in free will, and are thus more likely to believe that people are responsible for their own bad circumstances.

Which means they’re less inclined to help them.

Does this not remind you of the GOP?

What if it’s not that people on the right are bad people, but instead that they’re just wrong about how the world works? What if they just believe in free will when they shouldn’t?

This has basically been my argument all along—that belief in free will is ultimately harmful because it encourages apathy and retribution towards those who are worse off.

I don’t think this paper and series of studies takes us all the way there, but I certainly feel like it’s making motions in that direction.


  1. This episode of Very Bad Wizards was really excellent. I highly recommend that you subscribe if you like these kinds of topics.

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