Our illusion of freedom

Imagine that you are watching a short video clip in which you are asked to count how many times a particular incident occurs. Easy enough. But now imagine that at one point someone in a gorilla suit walks across the screen and looks you straight in the eye. Would you notice it? Apparently around half the watchers don’t. This exercise has been carried out dozens of times, using people of different psychological profiles, and the results are always approximately the same.

The reason lies in our faculty for filtering out information which may distract us from the task in hand – in this case focusing on the incidents that have to be counted. It is easy to recognise the value of this focusing faculty. Many years ago, when the children were babies, I developed the capacity to sleep straight through their noises at night. On the grounds of my inability to breastfeed I took the view that this was their mother’s work. Typical man, you might say. But when my wife had to be away for a few days, my hearing became so acute that I could be woken by the slightest undue noise from the nursery.
So we are reminded that all our experiences are ultimately subjective. What we notice, what we remember: what we decide is mediated to us through various filters. We may have the impression that we are looking at reality but in truth we are only looking at what our mind, tutored by our innate disposition, our lifetime experiences and our chosen focuses is able to recognise.

We know about some of the irrational influences which affect us. For example, I am aware that we tend to attribute virtue to physically attractive people. But how many juries, who are less likely to convict an attractive person, and to award them higher damages, are aware of the injustice they perpetrate? And they are unlikely to be aware of how easy it is for a police interrogator to turn a witness’s uncertain and tentative evidence into sworn certainty (and genuinely experienced as such) by the time they reach the box.

What is your attitude towards money? You may range from keeping good reserves towards a rainy day to spending the maximum (or more) as soon as you hear the coins clink. You may think that your approach is rational and well thought-out. But it could depend on whether your are inclined to optimism or pessimism, or on earlier experiences – particularly as a child. And your spouse may take a different view: does that make for balance or antagonism?

No doubt many readers will have interviewed candidates for a job. How likely are you to make a good judgment of your applicant’s success? We must suppose it will be reasonably sound, or why interview? In fact on a scale from zero (completely random) to 10 (always right), the average correct judgment was between one and two.

There is strong evidence that most interview decisions are made within the first five minutes, and any contrary evidence is, like the gorilla, simply ignored. You will see tall people as more authoritative (and this can be effective throughout a whole career). A BBC accent will be seen as a sign of competence in one culture, and as a sign of effete impracticality in another. In many areas of industry a beard can be a problem; they will use your brains but the boardroom is a step too far for such eccentricity. The biggest quality to bring as a candidate is to be likeable to the interviewer. Provided that you have the essential qualifications that will be the decisive factor.
Of course, the interviewers may have been rather thick. But Professor Eysenk persuaded the matron at a London teaching hospital to give up interviewing, and to select senior nurses simply on paper evidence of the necessary (high) qualifications and proven work record. Her selection accuracy went up substantially. Overwhelming evidence shows that selection interviews are actually counterproductive. Of course no one believes that, but it remains true.

How do you judge risk? If I asked you to rate the safety of say bicycling, flying, walking, car, or train in order of deaths per mile travelled you might well get the order right. But you might not know that walking and cycling are about the same risk (about a third of the risk of motorcycling). The car risk is less than a tenth of the cycling risk but 25 times the risk of the train; and the air risk is so low that it practically falls off the chart. We are likely to be influenced by publicity given to big incidents, and certainly by our own experience or that of people close to us. Just driving past an accident, ambulance and all, may make us more careful. But none of this affects the actual probabilities. I break off at this point to nip out to visit my wife in hospital, remembering that, measured by deaths, hospital beds are a dangerous environment.

And I am back, reflecting on the dangers of unconscious factors in our decisions. I could have filled several columns with further, well-investigated, examples. I believe profoundly in free will but how can I judge that I am free in any specific decision? As it happens I have kept records of such studies over some 20 years, and wrote a book largely devoted to them. So it is likely that I know more about the effects of our unconscious on our freedom than most people have had the opportunity to study. And I am still foxed.

What effect does this have on our quest of virtue or for our capacity for sin? How well trained are our spiritual adviser or our confessors in such matters? Share your ideas with us.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Our illusion of freedom

  1. Semper sperans says:

    The question of how free we are to make the decisions we actually do make is an interesting one. We are predisposed to act in certain ways by temperament, upbringing and habit. Society is nowadays willing to accept this in certain areas – homosexuality for example- but not in others. Kleptomaniacs get little sympathy, paedophiles, even non active paedophiles, get none.
    Personally I have always taken some comfort from knowing that even when I think I am acting freely I very probably am not. If God made me and if He alone knows what has gone into making me the person I am now, then He alone knows how guilty I really am when I do something bad or how really praiseworthy I am when I do something good. My moral decisions, good or bad, are never going to be as clear cut as they might appear.
    Decades ago Catholic moral theology dealt largely in black and white. It has always seemed to me that it was this aspect of the Faith, this tone of moral certainty, that attracted novelists like Graham Greene, just as the discovery that things weren’t in fact quite that simple alienated a novelist like David Lodge.
    I grew up in the same Catholic world as David Lodge, geographically further north but at roughly the same time. I think I was fortunate in realising quite early on that either God was unjust or not all the moral certainties were quite so certain.
    At my grammar school we were taught religious knowledge as it was then called by Father Jackson, a kindly, genial man but sadly pure mahogany from the neck up. One of our brighter classmates put the following question to him ( this was in 1944 in the middle of the war). There are two Catholic members of a bomber crew. One never goes to mass, goes out drinking and whoring whenever he can and in general lives anything but a good life. The other goes to mass and the sacraments regularly and does his best to lead a Christian life. One day the CO sends for the bomber crew and tells them that the next day’s mission is going to be so hazardous they will almost certainly not survive it. The crew member who was a bad Catholic sought out the chaplain, made his confession and received the Eucharist. The good Catholic said to himself that he had lived as good a life as he could but he was going to die without ever having got drunk or slept with a woman as other people had. So he went out that night and did both and the next day the plane and all the crew were lost.
    The question put to Father Jackson was this: how would the two of them fare when it came to their personal judgement before God? The one who had gone to confession and been reconciled would go to heaven, said Father Jackson, but the other one would have died in a state of mortal sin and gone to hell unless he had made an act of perfect contrition before he died. When it was pointed out to Father Jackson that the one condemned to an eternity in hell had in fact lived virtuously all his life except for that last night his reply was this: “ Salvation is like musical chairs. It’s where you are when the music stops that matters.”
    At the age of 12 I knew that had to be nonsense. God who made humanity must surely understand its weaknesses and what makes us act the way we do and if he did understand them and failed to make allowances for them then he was unjust.
    It works both ways of course. If there are hidden factors at work when I do wrong then there must also be hidden factors at work when I do right. Judge not, said the Lord, and that must include judging the good as well as the bad.
    The reference to the unreliability of interviewing in choosing staff was also interesting but sometimes it is not merely our unconscious attitudes that lead us astray but our own perfectly conscious belief that nobody quite understands this specific business/enterprise/school quite as well as we do and therefore anybody without that specific experience must somehow fall short. There have been two examples in the Catholic Herald itself recently. In this week’s letters column a writer argues that only people who have been brought up in banking should be allowed to run banks. Why? How much banking experience does it take to know that borrowing short and lending long is the road to ruin? A few weeks ago in the education column Hugh David was bemoaning the fact that when interviewing for headships too many candidates were young men who had come into teaching from other professions and were in his phrase trying to run before they could walk. If modern headships are essentially management positions in a teaching establishment, and they are, why should serious mangement experience outside teaching not be relevant, or at least not relevant enough?

  2. Vincent says:

    I loved Semper Sperans’s story about the musical chairs. When you think that, in theory at least, missing one Sunday Mass without sufficient excuse or allowing oneself to luxuriate in a few seconds of impure thinking would, if one were run over by a bus, mean that one was condemned to eternal punishment, notwithstanding an otherwise perfect Catholic life, one gets a very strange picture of God.
    But, given that mortal sin requires grave matter, full knowledge and full consent I wonder whether, in the light of Quentin’s column mortal isn’t really rather rare.

  3. st.joseph says:

    We could say that the bomber who went out and got drunk and slept with the woman,not only sinned himself,but indulged in helping her to sin as well!

    A priest said once that it was very hard to commit a mortal sin,but we all have free will to choose or not too. It depends on our weakness’s,and desires.

  4. Vincent says:

    Isn’t it a matter of proportion? In human justice we might well feel that a serious offence against us could merit quite a strict punishment from, say, 3 months to 20 year in jail. But if we are to believe what we were taught, God’s equivalent is not just a lifetime but eternity (a million lifetimes would still be as nothing). And the punishment is at least the spiritual equivalent of torture by fire. (Look at all the paintings of the damned souls in Hell.) Since I don’t believe that God’s justice in inferior to man’s, I don’t believe that the common Catholic teaching is right. Do you?

  5. st.joseph says:

    What does the common Catholic teaching say?

  6. Vincent says:

    Basically the common teaching has been that, if you die in mortal sin, you go to Hell (where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth) for all eternity. You simply will never get out.
    Three conditions are required: grave matter (which could range from killing your grandmother to eating meat on Friday); full knowledge and full consent.
    Those of us old enough to remember will recall that we were often taught that mortal sin was everywhere, and that comparatively few got to Heaven. Of course we didn’t know that full knowledge and full consent are much more complex issues than we believed in. say, the i950s. Or that a scrupulous and sensitive adolescent could grasp.
    if you will forgive me for raising the subject many studies have shown that the vast majority of adolescent and young men pass through a phase of habitual self abuse (and young women are not far behind.). Thus large numbers of our youth went through their adolescence thinking that they could end up in Hell though a chance accident.
    Now it’s true that the teaching clergy are not so free with their threats nowadays as they once were. But every word of my description of mortal sin and its consequences remains orthodox teaching. today.

  7. st.joseph says:

    Vincent. I was never told that eating meat on Friday was a mortal sin, only a discipline. It would have been a bigger sin to throw kindness back on those who cooked for me, and went to all the trouble ,for me to refuse it.
    I would have known that killing my grandmother or anybody else would have been a serious sin, unless of course it was by accident, then I would be judged on my neglegence.
    I was born in 1941, and over the years went to all the Missions that were about that time, and the blood and thunder escaped me. Although I am not disputing what you say,but Gods,Love for me came first in my life-so therefore we ought to love Him back in return.
    Of course we were told about Heaven,Purgatory and Hell-in that ‘we’ seperated ourselves from God, He never seperates Himself from us,and of course the parable of the Prodigal son is very pertinant,in that way of thinking.
    The bomber in the earlier comment, reminded me of that-when the sinner went back to the ‘Father’ and the ‘holy’one
    fell from Grace,and instead of trying to save the soul of the woman he slept with(our ‘duties’ as catholics and he should have known that as a catholic) but making allowance for his weakness, God would be their judge!We are not here only to save our own souls-but to spread the Word and save others too!Being a part of Gods family in the Church.
    This is where our freedom is.
    The Catechism tells us on page 235-240 what we should teach our children. Also the whole book teaches us the Truth.Is that taught in Catholic schools now???A lot is taught about loving our neighbour and in society-but what about Our Lord?
    The sin of ommision would be a grave sin in my mind-what we ‘failed’to do’as parents as Teachers as Priests and as Bishops (the Holy Father does his best) ,as we say or used to say in the Confiteor at Holy Mass.It is not so often said now.It seems as though the pendulem has swung the other way now and it is time to get it back to the middle.

  8. Vincent says:

    Sorry, st.joseph, I know it’s not an important point but, just for the record, Friday abstinence used to be the Second Commandment of the Church – right after the Sunday Mass obligation. (Penny Catechism)
    And here I quote Rumble and Carty’s popular and thorough book of apologetics – as broadcast on the radio (round about the time of your birth, as it happens). “The Catholic Church says that it is a mortal sin for a Catholic to eat meat on Friday knowingly and wilfully, without sufficient grave and excusing reason.”

    But suppose one of your children gravely offended against you. You might well think some punishment was appropriate – but hell fire, and for all eternity? I doubt it. I doubt if God thinks that either, but the magisterium thought it and taught it for hundreds of years.

  9. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Vincent.
    When my husband was having Instructions before we were married 1962 (not to become a catholic), He asked the priest at the time that same question ,and was told even then that it was just a sin of discipline.I suppose one would always make up their mind whether it was for a grave sufficient and excusing reason. I expect it would be a sin of disobedience, and not the fact that one ate the meat!I suppose in that reckoning all sins of disobedience will be mortal. So therefore as you say in your first comment, in not so many words,there will be more people in Hell. The only good thing was in those days people went to confession-so they may not have gone to Hell- What saves them now- as the confession box is not very full.As all the Commandments of the Church are a sin of disobedience,all sins of ommission, as I said in my previous comment-the point I was making-not what we do, but what we fail to do.So it still stands-there is a Hell. It doesn’t do any harm to know about it so that we dont end up there!
    By the way we always had fish on a Friday anyway! No problem there.
    Thank you for your comment.

  10. newmo says:

    Reading this post provoked a not too distant memory of mine – I had a bit of time to kill (I think I couldn’t get back into our flat until my partner returned) so I went for a wander around Waterloo Station. I was curious to see that new-style ticket machines had been installed opposite platform 4 and I walked around them watching people use them. My interest wasn’t that acute and I drifted over to WH Smith’s to mooch around the magazines. I then drifted a bit further along the station. I remembered I might be able to get my train ticket in advance for the next day so decided to go and try my luck at the new machines. I walked back. Looking ahead I coudn’t see them. After a thorough search I found myself standing there completely dazed by the realisation that the whole thing had been an illusion.

    The fact that this was such a mundane thing that had effortlessly slipped into a bored interlude in my life was what really got me. Schizophrenics often see people who force them to do things or become their friends. Abductions by aliens would be interesting. But ticket machines? It was completely seamless – indistinguishable from anything on either side of it. When did it start and when did it end? Who were the people who had been buying the tickets- how were they different from the people who were walking past me now as I stood on the concourse looking confused? During the “interlude” how free was I? I am sure moral theologians have looked at this somewhere – if I had stolen a mislaid £10 from the change tray of one of these machines or picked the pocket of one of the people at the machines with full knowledge and consent would I have been sinning? Presumably not because “in reality” there was nothing there, no matter to be grave about- but which reality and what position do you have to stand in to see the real matter, the real reality?

    So back to God alone being the judge. And maybe time to take down and finish “the Man who mistook his wife for his hat” after all those years on the shelf.

    PS – this hallucination was a complete one-off experience (so far) and I have never found it unsettling in a bad way. I played with the idea that it might have been a psychic incident (as in foreseeing the future) but when new machines did come along a few years later they were of a different design and in different locations.

  11. Looking at the moral issue you raise in relation to this interesting incident, I wonder whether a comparison with dreams is pertinent. After all, we can find ourselves frequently acting out what are presumably our subconscious desires — but we rightly do not hold ourselves responsible when we wake up.

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