We might only think we have free will, says Adam Bear, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Yale. In this Scientific American article he offers the possibility that our belief that we make decisions is just a byproduct of our predetermined activity. "Perhaps in the very moments that we experience a choice," writes Bear, "our minds are rewriting history, fooling us into thinking that this choice — that was actually completed after its consequences were subconsciously perceived — was a choice that we had made all along."
In one of our studies, participants were repeatedly presented with five white circles in random locations on a computer monitor and were asked to quickly choose one of the circles in their head before one lit up red. If a circle turned red so fast that they didn't feel like they were able to complete their choice, participants could indicate that they ran out of time. Otherwise, they indicated whether they had chosen the red circle (before it turned red) or had chosen a different circle. We explored how likely people were to report a successful prediction among these instances in which they believed that they had time to make a choice.
Unbeknownst to participants, the circle that lit up red on each trial of the experiment was
selected completely randomly by our computer script. Hence, if participants were truly completing their choices when they claimed to be completing them—before one of the circles turned red—they should have chosen the red circle on approximately 1 in 5 trials. Yet participants' reported performance deviated unrealistically far from this 20% probability, exceeding 30% when a circle turned red especially quickly. This pattern of responding suggests that participants' minds had sometimes swapped the order of events in conscious awareness, creating an illusion that a choice had preceded the color change when, in fact, it was biased by it.