Genetic factors with implications for free will, personal responsibility, ethics & intelligence

Another Derek Bownd post is reviewed here. Bownd cites Holden’s summary of the work:

“Once burned, twice shy” works for most people. But some people are slow to learn from bad experiences.

Klein et al. have identified a genetic link to a decreased ability to learn from negative reinforcement (i.e., the removal of an aversive stimulus).

Klein et al. demonstrate that a particular genetic variant, or allele, of the gene encoding the D2 receptor, a protein on the surface of brain cells activated by the neurotransmitter dopamine, makes people less able to learn from negative experience (e.g., mistakes). Among other things, this makes individuals carrying this allele more vulnerable to addiction.  Dopamine, by the way, is critically involved in the brain’s reward/pleasure neural pathways.

These findings seem to have implications for free will and intelligence. Consider first free will. Research by Psychologists like Antonio Domasio have shown that people with damage to the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the brain region of interest in the Klein study, can often declaratively state the optimal course of action in a given situation and the negative consequences of taking another maladaptive course, but when it comes time to choose which way to go, they can’t help but go down the maladaptive path if they had already established a pattern of going that way because it was once adaptive. They’re sort of in a fixed action pattern.  It’s not that they like behaving masochistically, they’re just driven to it somehow.

Cognitive scientists have amassed a substantial body of evidence implicating the mPFC in the nature of individual personalities and the exercise of free will. The Wikipedia entry offers the following summary:

This brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, and moderating correct social behavior. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals.

The most typical neurologic term for functions carried out by the pre-frontal cortex area is Executive Function. Executive Function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially-unacceptable outcomes).

Many authors have indicated an integral link between a person’s personality and the functions of the prefrontal cortex.

 Anything that has implications for free will will necessarily have implications for considerations of personal responsibility and ethics. How broad are the genetic and neurological factors influencing agency? Some Cognitive Scientists like Dan Wegner of Harvard believes that free will is often an illusion. A famous 1977 study by Richard Nisbett and Timothy DeCamp Wilson demonstrated that people often cannot identify the causes of their own behaviours. During my undergrad at the University of Toronto, I was co-author of a study presented at an American Psychological Association convention which demonstrated people’s inability to correctly identify a factor influencing their eating.

If it turns out that there are a host of genetic and neurological factors that undermine one’s ability to control their behaviour, so that they can’t help engaging in a behaviour that they do not want to perform, can we hold them responsible? How do we hold one responsible if they are not in control? But if this person is dangerous to others and cannot help them self, how can we ethically allow a danger to others to roam among the general population? And what about people faking. We could have a whole new insanity defense on our hands.

As for intelligence, it would seem that people carrying this allele are disposed to be less intelligent and adaptive in that they are less able to learn from negative experience, a very important contributor to the development of knowledge, wisdom and adaptiveness. Recall the highly successful meme that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. While it is true that it is very difficult to pin down a precise definition of intelligence, I imagine that we can all agree that core elements would have to include the ability to acquire from experience information relevant to our well-being.

4 Responses to “Genetic factors with implications for free will, personal responsibility, ethics & intelligence”
  1. Andrew says:

    We can still rationally hold people responsible even if they aren’t considered “in control” because we want and need to protect everyone else, and society as a whole. As you imply, we cannot allow dangerous people to harm others with impunity. This is for a few reasons – the immediate protection of everyone else, the more ‘general protection’ of society (i.e. people see that when they harm others, they are dealt with justly.. failure to do this would result in a gradual breakdown of society), as well as possibly the treatment/rehabilitation of the offenders. Assuming that it is the case that some people are not in control, if we can figure out how and why this happens, that would open the door for some kind of treatment or rehabilitation to help them regain control.

    My main interest in your article, though, is the three things you mentioned right after the block quote from Wikipedia:
    – Dan Wegner’s claim that free will is often an illusion

    This seems very interesting as he says that it is “often” an illusion rather than simply “always” or “never”, as most people seem to hold. Could you elaborate on this, or point me to somewhere that I can read more of what he has to say?

    – Richard Nisbett & Timothy DeCamp Wilson (1977) study on people’s inability to identify the causes of their own behaviours
    – the study you co-authored corroborating this

    These seem interesting, but I am at first strongly inclined to say that this seems to be something that could be solved by education and effort on each person’s part (and perhaps as a part of the education system), and does not immediately seem to be unavoidable from my view, though of course without having read the studies. I find that in my personal experiences, the very large majority of people I’ve known seem to be grossly lacking in self-awareness or any interest in exactly how they operate (as contrasted with my own experiences, where I feel quite soberly self-aware, and this seems to be supported by my experiences), so I find the results of these studies to be unsurprising. I am of course reserving judgement until I learn more about the studies, which is why I’m hoping you can either tell me more or post them here for all to peruse.

  2. ronbrown says:

    It didn’t even occur to me before but these types of findings really do stand in opposition to many religious doctrines. And the findings are often so well-demonstrated.


    I reckon that I agree with you on your position on personal responsibility, the ethics of incarceration, and protecting others. It’s just one of those things that suggests that there probably isn’t any real universal imperative toward necessary fairness and justness. And it really really really sucks. Even if you don’t put the person in prison but in a solitary or heavily-staffed psychiatric facility, you’re still forced to rob them of their freedom, independence and, well, life.

    Regarding Wegner, just Google him. As I said, he’s at Harvard (Psychology). To be honest, I’m not sure if he said “always” or “often”, I just went with “often” cause I tend to err in the direction of conservatism when I’m not sure.

    As I think I shared with you at the first UTSA event, my friend Randy (who wrote the meditation article) and I together converged on a theory on free will which had already been elucidated—apparently, it’s called “compatibilism”. In this theory free will and determinism are reconciled. The thinking being that if we are our the product of the interaction of our genes and our socialization, if we act in accordance with what we’ve been predisposed to do, we’re being ourselves and are doing what we want to do. It’s like determined free will–determined to do what you will do. Free to do what you want, wants being determined. Of course this could very well be wrong. We’ve heard that the universe may well not be deterministic in any sense but probabilistic. And perhaps genes and socialization combine to form something greater than teh sum of their parts, much like self-interested individuals behaving create a self-regulating economy whose patterns are an unintended aggregate affect and can actually come back to affect the behaviour of the individuals.

    As for being able to overcome lack of self-awareness with training and education, I imagine that improvement can surely be made–e.g., through meditation. However, to a very large degree, people will always be ignorant of most of their processing as consciousness is simply the tip of a massive iceberg of modular and interactive computation. The mind rests on a foundation of mindless parallel supercomputing. There’s no way we could be aware of everything we do. Somethings we do not only without thinking, but without the mere possibility of thought–e.g., jumping in under a second at the sight of a snake. The jump response is probably set off before we experience any fear at the level of consciousness.

  3. Andrew says:

    Surely we needn’t and shouldn’t be aware of everything our brains do – that would be crippling. I’m thinking more in terms of long-term emotional responses or dispositions we have towards things rather than survival instincts or simple processing. I don’t mean to say I think people should be aware of exactly where their eyes are sending signals through their brain (woop, this one’s in the visual cortex!), but people seem to lack basic awareness of their feelings and the way these feelings cause them to act towards different people and things.

    What kinds of behaviours was this Nisbett & Wilson study looking at, which people could not determine the causes of? And what kinds of factors were influencing people’s eating in the study you co-authored?

  4. ronbrown says:


    Hey. Okay, we’re in agreement about improving awareness of feelings and the impact of these feelings on their actions. We can also get to know better our core beliefs and assumptions that underly our emotions, decisions and thinking. People often don’t really have precise awareness of these underlying beliefs and assumptions. They may be able to describe them generally to some degree, but they often don’t notice the degree to which they are affecting their thinking, emotions, goals, and actions. And they often don’t realize how irrational, or narrow or otherwise misguided they are. This is one of the reasons why things like mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy (actually, it’s the main reason for CBT) are so valuable–especially in tandem, which is becoming increasingly popular and is often referred to as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).

    As for the type of stuff in Nisbett and Wilson and the study I co-authored, it had to do with being able to identify factors that influenced one’s behaviour. The way the studies would be set up is to have an experimental group that was subject to some environmental manipulation that could possibly affect their behaviour, and have a control group in which this manipulation was absent. Two steps in evaluation: 1) did subjects in the experimental group act significantly differently than the control group on the dimension of interest; and 2) could the experimental group subjects correctly identify the manipulated environmental variable as a factor? In the experiment I worked on, awareness of factors affecting eating behaviour was being addressed. The environmental manipulation here was the amount of food (e.g., crackers) a conferate of the experiment ate. The dependent variable was how much the participant ate. In this experiment, there were actually 2 experimental groups: in one the conferate ate a lot, in the other they ate a little. The expectation, based on previous research, was that the participants (who by the way were all female) would generally eat roughly the same amount as the conferate. This was what happened–the two groups differed significantly from each other, clustering around the amount eaten by the respective conferates. Did they list the amount eaten by the conferate as a factor guiding their own eating? Overwhelmingly no. I think that something like 95% of participants failed to list this factor as just one of the factors they listed. They’d say so many other things like I’m going to the gym after, I just got back from the gym, I just had lunch, I’m going out for lunch after, I’m not hungry, I was hungry, I’m watching my weight, etc.—they’d give so many reasonable answers but almost never give this factor which was proven to be a factor. One possible rebuttal is to say that they didn’t want to come as being impressionable, self-conscious and so on by admiting that they were influenced. But given the huge variety of other studies in which this has been found, there’s nevertheless reason for confidence.

    A common trend is that people will fail to acknowledge a manipulated factor that definitely had an impact among the things they do mention; and the things they do mention are very reasonable. They manage to come up with very reasonable sounding explanations. If you really want to about something cool look up “blind sight”. The main researcher’s name is Weiskrantz, who’s at Oxford I believe. In his really famous studies on this he did work on people with split brains—the corpus collosum, which is big nerve bundle that links the left and right brain hemispheres is severed, so they literally have split-half brains, or two half brains. It is known that one side of the brain is dominant in language and I think declarative knowledge of what is going on right now while the other seems to take care of keeping track of certain types of real time information, but it is only tracked in a procedural sense—a sense that guides behaviour but isn’t something you can describe (e.g., you know how to walk (procedural) but you couldn’t give me formal instructions on it because you don’t have he declarative knowledge). Given the split brains, the person can act appropriately given the environment (e.g., they would move if a basketball was coming at their head) but they couldn’t have consciousness awareness of what is going on. So in one classic example, a door was slammed very hard behind a split brain patient. The patient looked back instinctively. When the researcher asked why they looked back they said that they were just checking to make sure their jacket was still there. They didn’t know why they looked but they were able to quickly find some sort of rational justification. While I haven’t really read Wegner, I can’t imagine him not speaking about this work. He definitely does, as it totally argues his position that free will can be illusory. We can do a behaviour and have the illusion of control because once the behaviour initiates in well under a second the other side of our brain is conjuring up an interpretation of the action.

    I’m not sure what the limits on Wegners views are. That is, I figure that thus far he can only scientifically include a certain range of contexts in which he can assert a lack of true agency. I’m not sure how broad that range is and I’m not sure how broadly he thinks illusory free will goes. I’m not sure what he thinks it even is to be agentive. In thinking about this we start getting into things like what is the self. A lot of people don’t like or just think it ridiculous to entertain the notion that the self is perhaps an illusion in that it isn’t nearly as unified or singular and coherent as it seems. That it could be some sort of emergent property of the behaviour of many many cognitive systems (e.g., social cognition, object recognition and tracking, language, etc.). And when you start looking at the brain in terms of many parallel cognitive systems with complex interactions that give rise to such things as real time perception, framing, and that these things are made possible by unconscious processing, you start to realize that so much of what you think is you is not you (e.g., your thoughts and your beliefs aren’t you—and as we’re seeing, it can be very dangerous to think that they are). The illusion of self, from what I’m piecing together, is at least in good part the illusion that we are our thoughts, we are our beliefs, we are our position in society. Through meditation and CBT one can learn over time that these thoughts often happen automatically, are often based on assumptions and priorities that we don’t even know we have or that we don’t know are operating, and the assumptions and beliefs are often things that if we sat down and critically evaluated them from outside the belief system, we’d soon come to see them as maladaptive and worthy of immediate purging. And moreover, not only are we often unaware of these cognitive factors, it can be very difficult to consciously control them—meditation is hard because it’s hard to keep thoughts from popping up, and sometimes it can take many seconds before you realize that your mind is wondering. You may have heard about how Buddhism and the Cognitive Sciences have been uniting to engage in very productive collaborations. Buddhists have been alluding to all sorts of this kind of stuff that cognitive scientists have only been identifying over the last century, and in many cases far more recently than that.

    What is the self is a good question. The answer may boil down to one’s awareness and one’s dispositions. Tying one’s identity to things like status, belief systems, other people and so on can be so risky because it pulls the nucleus of control outside of the individual, thereby creating a state of dependency and thus potential vulnerability. This is why Buddhists sometimes speak of purging all external possessions.

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