Not what I expected: Feeling of surprise differentially mediates effect of personal control on attributions of free will and responsibility

Review of Philosophy and Psychology:1-25 (forthcoming)
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Some have argued that advances in the science of human decision-making, particularly research on automaticity and unconscious priming, would ultimately thwart our commonsense understanding of free will and moral responsibility. Do people interpret this research as a threat to their self-understanding as free and responsible agents? We approached this question by seeing how feelings of surprise mediate the relationship between personal sense of control and third-personal attributions of free will and responsibility. Across three studies (N = 1,516) we found that people with a greater sense of personal control were more surprised at the results of experiments showing effects of unconscious priming on moral behavior. Surprise differentially mediated the relationship between personal control and attributions of free will and responsibility: people attributed less free will and more responsibility as they were more surprised. This suggests that people exhibit defensive thinking with respect to responsibility, but not free will.

Author Profiles

Samuel Murray
Providence College
Thomas Nadelhoffer
College of Charleston


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