The discussion whether we have free will or not is endless. Some people like to attribute all happenings to environmental or social influences, which reflects a deterministic point of view. Others prefer to look at people as having their own free will, and this implies that we choose our own destinies, not influenced by anything or anyone else than ourselves.
This is a discussion of the objectivity of free will, but regardless of our philosophical standpoints, we often experience free will. We tend to think our intentions have an impact on the output of our actions, and this experience leads to feelings of self-efficacy, which is important in improving and maintaining mental health.
An article by Pronin & Kugler (2010) looks at our perceptions of free will, and the fact that we believe we have more free will than others. In their study, they found that people perceived their past and future behaviours as less predictable than the futures of their peers, and that there were more possible ways for their lives to go.
The assumption that their lives had many possible ways to go was not a result of realistic thinking. Instead, it reflected their dreams and intentions, and for this reason, it was true for both college students and restaurant waiters.
From a realistic point of view, college students have more possible ways to go compared to restaurant waiters, but they did not tend to think so. They did not claim to have more desirable futures, they only thought to have more possible ways to go.
This study has implications for the the actor-observer bias as it was found that people do not view their actions as determined by mere environmental influences. Instead, people view their actions as “chosen responses” to environmental influences.
In this way, people maintain their experience of free will, and they choose to perceive their actions being determined by conscious decisions despite social influences.
Some people may hold the belief of free will more than others, and indeed cultures seem to influence the tendency for us to value and experience free will. Individualism, as seen in Western cultures, emphasizes free will more than collectivism, as seen in Eastern cultures.
Age might also influence how much free will we believe we have. Usually as people get older, the more perspectives they take into their considerations, and perspective taking might decrease feelings of free will, as the authors highlight:
“This raises the interesting question of whether people’s beliefs about free will shift over time, as people become more aware of the range of possibilities in others’ (and perhaps their own) decisions and actions.” (p. 5).