Debates in Psychology

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Debates in Psychology

The synoptic content of this chapter focuses on debates that concern psychologists. A debate is discussion of an issue, usually involving the consideration of different sides of a question. As you are already aware, none of these debates is simply “one or the other”—there is nearly always some reasonable middle ground.

Ask yourself

  • Is it possible to take a position of free will and at the same time advocate scientific research?

  • Is it preferable to reduce explanations to their simplest components?

  • What alternatives are there to reductionism?

  • Why is it mistaken to talk about nature or nurture?

  • How does gene–environment interaction make it difficult to answer the nature–nurture question?

  • What are the practical implications of the nature–nurture debate?


The issue of free will versus determinism has occupied philosophers and psychologists for centuries. According to those who believe in determinism, people’s actions are totally determined by the external and internal forces operating on them. An example of an external force would be the influence of parents when rewarding certain behaviours. An example of an internal force could be hormones influencing the way in which someone behaves.

Those who believe in free will argue that matters are more complicated. Most of them accept that external and internal forces exist. However, they argue that people have free will because each individual is nevertheless able to choose his/her own behaviour within the constraints of these forces. Note that the positions adopted by advocates of determinism and of free will are not that far apart— determinists argue that behaviour is totally controlled by external and internal forces, whereas those favouring free will argue that behaviour is mostly controlled by external and internal forces but with the addition of free will.

The distinction between free will and determinism can be seen if we consider the following question: “Could an individual’s behaviour in a given situation have been different if he/she had willed it?” Believers in free will answer that question “Yes”. In contrast, advocates of determinism respond “No”. Some of the main arguments for and against each of these positions are discussed next.


Determinists argue that a proper science of human behaviour is only possible if psychologists adopt a deterministic account, according to which everything that happens has a definite cause. Free will, by definition, doesn’t have a definite cause. If free will is taken into account, it becomes impossible to predict human behaviour with any precision. According to some determinists, it is often possible with other sciences to make very accurate predictions from a deterministic position (e.g., forecasting planetary motion). If determinism is regarded as not applicable to psychology, then psychology is either a very different science from physics, chemistry, and so on, or it isn’t really a science at all.

At this point, we need to distinguish among different types of determinism. Our behaviour is influenced by numerous factors, and theorists differ in terms of the relative importance they attach to each factor. For example, evolutionary psychologists focus on ultimate or fundamental causes of behaviour based on the evolutionary history of the human species. We could call this evolutionary determinism. In contrast, most psychologists focus on proximate or immediate causes of behaviour based on the external and/or internal forces operating at any given moment. Behaviourists such as Skinner emphasise external forces in the environment (e.g., rewards and punishments), and we could call this environmental determinism. In contrast, Freud emphasised the way in which our behaviour is influenced by internal forces involving conflicts among the ego, id, and superego. He called this psychic determinism. Social psychologists emphasise the importance of social forces (e.g., pressures to conform, obedience to authority) in influencing our behaviour—we could call this social determinism. We could go further in identifying different types of determinism. If we tried to produce a complete list of factors influencing our behaviour, it would contain at least the following factors:

  • The specific stimuli presented to us

  • Our recent experiences (e.g., being stuck in a traffic jam)

  • Our genetic make-up

  • Our evolutionary history

  • Our physiological system

  • Our cognitive system (e.g., our perceptions, thoughts, and memories)

  • The social environment

  • The cultural environment

  • Our previous life experiences (including those of childhood)

  • Our personal characteristics (including intelligence, personality, and mental health).

Hard vs. soft determinism

Hard determinism

We have seen that there are various types of determinism. At a more general level, we can distinguish between hard determinism and soft determinism. Hard determinism as it applies to psychology is based on two key assumptions. First, no action or behaviour is free if it must occur. Second, every human action has antecedent (preceding) causes that ensure that one particular action is performed rather than any other. The conclusion from these assumptions is that all human actions are determined and none of them is free. Those who believe in hard determinism include B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud.

Hard determinism has been applied extensively in other sciences (especially physics). It seemed appropriate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when most physicists believed they would eventually be able to make very precise and accurate predictions about everything relevant to physics. However, what happened in the twentieth century suggested they were unduly optimistic. For example, according to chaos theory (Hilborn, 1994), very small changes in initial conditions can produce major changes later on. For example, theoretically the flap of a butterfly’s wing in one part of the world could ultimately change the whole weather system in a different part of the world. Such a chain of events doesn’t lend itself to prediction, and so we can’t show that an approach based on hard determinism is appropriate. More generally, it isn’t really possible to test directly the assumptions of hard determinism.

Soft determinism

Many (probably most) psychologists favour an alternative position labelled soft determinism by William James. According to this position, it is accepted that all human actions have a cause. However, and this is where soft determinists part company with hard determinists, there is a valid distinction between behaviour highly constrained by the situation (involuntary behaviour) and behaviour only modestly constrained by the situation (voluntary behaviour). For example, a child may apologise for swearing because he/she will be punished if an apology isn’t forthcoming (highly constrained behaviour) or because he/she is genuinely upset at causing offence (modestly constrained behaviour). Behaviour is determined in both cases. However, the underlying causes are more obvious when behaviour is highly constrained by situational forces.

Evidence consistent with the views of William James was reported by Westcott (1982). Canadian students indicated how free they felt in various situations. They experienced the greatest feeling of freedom in situations involving an absence of responsibility or release from unpleasant stimulation (e.g., a nagging headache). In contrast, they felt least free in situations in which they had to recognise there were limits on their behaviour (e.g., when they had to curtail their desires to fit their abilities).

Evidence suggesting we don’t always know accurately whether our behaviour is voluntary or involuntary was reported by Wegner and Wheatley (1999). Two participants (one genuine and the other a confederate working for the experimenter) placed their fingers on a small square board. When they moved the board, this caused a cursor to move over a screen showing numerous pictures of small objects. The genuine participants thought they had voluntarily decided which object the cursor would stop on (they had heard the name of the object over their headphones just beforehand). In fact, however, the decision had been taken by the confederate—thus, the participants believed their behaviour to be voluntary but it was actually involuntary.

  • Ask yourself: How is determinism related to the situation in which a behaviour occurs? Is the behaviour still determined by forces outside our will?

There are various limitations with soft determinism. First, there is excessive reliance on how we subjectively perceive things—the fact that some actions feel voluntary whereas others feel involuntary doesn’t mean they are really different. Second, we sometimes make mistakes when deciding whether our behaviour is voluntary or involuntary (e.g., Wegner & Wheatley, 1999). Third, it can be argued that soft determinists want to have their cake and eat it—actions are free if they are voluntary, but those actions are still caused. This could be regarded as a confusing blend of free will and determinism.

Find out more: Where do the main approaches in psychology stand on determinism?

Behaviourist and Freudian approaches

Determinism is espoused by more approaches in psychology than is free will. As was mentioned already, the behaviourists and Freud are among those theorists who argue in favour of hard determinism, and so represent the greatest contrast with the views of those believing in free will. We will consider their views here.

The behaviourists believed especially strongly in determinism. Skinner argued that virtually all of our behaviour is determined by environmental factors. He proposed that we repeat behaviour that is rewarded, and we don’t repeat behaviour that isn’t rewarded. Other behaviourists argued that we can predict how someone will respond given knowledge of the current stimulus situation and that individual’s previous conditioning history.

Skinner (1971) developed his ideas about hard determinism most fully in his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He argued that common beliefs about free will and personal moral responsibility (which he called “dignity”) were wrong and should be abandoned for the sake of improving society. According to Skinner, the way to change human behaviour is by structuring the environment so that people are rewarded for behaving in desirable ways (i.e., operant conditioning) rather than by focusing on meaningless notions like freedom and dignity.

Bandura (1977, p.27) pointed out a serious limitation with Skinner’s approach: “If actions were determined solely by external rewards and punishments, people would behave like weather vanes, constantly shifting in radically different directions to conform to the whims of others.” This criticism applies more forcefully to the human species than to non-human species, because we are much more likely to act in line with long-term goals.

What is missing from Skinner’s approach? Skinner focused excessively on the notion that the external environment determines behaviour. However, our behaviour also determines the external environment—if you don’t like a television programme you are watching, you switch to another channel or turn the television off. In addition, our personality helps to determine the environment in which we find ourselves and it also influences our behaviour. Thus, there are multiple determinants of behaviour, but Skinner largely ignored most of them.


Freud was also a strong believer in hard determinism, claiming that none of our behaviour “just happens” or is due to free will. He even argued that trivial phenomena, such as missing an appointment, calling someone by the wrong name, or humming a particular tune had definite causes within the individual’s motivational system. Of particular importance is what is known as the Freudian slip—a motivated but involuntary error in which someone says or does something revealing their true desires. Motley et al. (1983) obtained evidence of Freudian slips. Male participants had to say out loud pairs such as tool—kits, some of which could be turned into sexually explicit words. When the experimenter was an attractive female, participants tended to make Freudian slips—for example, saying cool—tits instead of tool—kits. It is difficult to see how we could explain such findings in terms of free will.

  • Ask yourself: Think of a time when you have called someone by the wrong name. Can you think of any underlying reason why you may have made this mistake?

Freud’s emphasis on determinism and rejection of free will may well owe something to the fact that he focused on individuals suffering from mental disorders (especially anxiety disorders). Such individuals are presumably highly motivated to change their behaviour and eliminate their disorder but are often unable to do so—this seems somewhat difficult to explain if they possess free will. It seems more plausible to assume (as Freud did) that their behaviour is determined by forces they cannot control. Note that one of the distinguishing features of Freud’s deterministic approach was his emphasis on unconscious forces influencing our behaviour—according to him, we are often unaware of what causes us to behave in certain ways.


The major problem with determinism (whether soft or not) is that it is not really possible to submit it to a proper test. If it were, then the issue of free will versus determinism would have been settled, and so would no longer exist as an issue! If all behaviour is determined by internal and external forces, then in principle it should be possible to predict behaviour from a knowledge of these causal factors. In fact, we usually only have very limited knowledge of the internal and external forces that might be influencing an individual’s behaviour. As a result, it remains no more than an article of faith that human behaviour can eventually be predicted accurately.

Free Will

Most people feel that they possess free will, in the sense that they can freely choose what to do from a number of options. As Dr Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) said to Boswell, “We know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t.” Most people also have feelings of personal responsibility, presumably because they feel that they are in at least partial control of their behaviour. Another argument in favour of free will is that it fits with society’s view that people should accept responsibility for their actions and should expect to be punished (e.g., sent to prison) if they break the law.

  • Ask yourself: How might the notions of free will and determinism be important in a situation where doctors need to decide if a criminal is responsible for his or her own actions?

Humanistic approach

Humanistic psychologists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are among those who believe in free will. They argued that people exercise choice in their behaviour, and they denied that people’s behaviour is at the mercy of outside forces. Rogers’ client-centred therapy is based on the assumption that the client has free will. The therapist is called a “facilitator” precisely because his/her role is to make it easier for the client to exercise free will in such a way as to maximise the rewardingness (reward potential) of the client’s life. Humanistic psychologists argue that regarding human behaviour as being determined by external forces is “de-humanising” and incorrect.

Rogers emphasised the notion that we are motivated to minimise the discrepancy between our self-concept and our ideal self (the self-concept we would most like to possess). If we have free will and our behaviour isn’t determined by external forces, it might be expected that we would have little difficulty in reducing any discrepancy between our self-concept and ideal self. The fact that there are millions of people with mental disorders who have a substantial discrepancy between the two suggests that free will is often very ineffective in producing highly desired changes or even that it doesn’t exist.


Those who believe in free will have to confront various problems. First, it is hard to provide a precise account of what is meant by free will. If free will has a major influence on human behaviour, it is very important that we define free will precisely. Second, determinism is based on the assumption that all behaviour has one or more causes, and it could be argued that free will implies that behaviour is random and has no cause. However, very few people would want to argue for such an extreme position. Anyone whose behaviour seemed to be random would probably be classified as mentally ill or very stupid! If free will doesn’t imply that behaviour has no cause, then we need to know how free will plays a part in causing behaviour.

Third, most sciences are based on the assumption of determinism. It is possible that determinism applies to the natural world but doesn’t apply to humans. If that is the case, then there are enormous implications for psychology that have hardly been addressed as yet.

Determinism vs. free will


Free will

Freudian psychodynamics

Humanistic approach

  • Ask yourself: Do you think the cognitive psychologists fit into one or other of these lists? Can you explain your answer?


The issue of free will versus determinism has created more heat than light for various reasons. First, it isn’t clear that it makes much sense to talk about “free will”, because this assumes there is an agent (i.e., the will) that may or may not operate in an unrestrained way. As the philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) pointed out, “We may as properly say that the singing faculty sings and the dancing faculty dances as that the will chooses” (1690/1989).

Second, the issue is philosophical rather than scientific, as it is impossible to design an experiment to decide whether or not free will influences human behaviour. As William James (1890, p.323) put it, “the fact is that the question of free will is insoluble on strictly psychological grounds”. Thus, we can never know whether an individual’s behaviour in a given situation could have been different if he/she had so willed it.

Third, although those who believe in determinism or free will often seem to have radically different views, there is more common ground between them than generally realised. Regardless of their position on the issue of free will versus determinism, most psychologists accept that heredity, past experience, and the present environment, all influence our behaviour. Although some of these factors (such as the environment) are external to the individual, others are internal. Most of these internal factors (such as character or personality) are the results of causal sequences stretching back into the past. The dispute then narrows to the issue of whether a solitary internal factor (variously called free will or self) is somehow immune from the influence of the past.

Fourth, and most important, we can go a step further and argue that there is no real incompatibility between determinism and free will at all. According to determinists, it is possible in principle to show that an individual’s actions are caused by a sequence of physical activities in the brain. If free will (e.g., conscious thinking and decision making) forms part of that sequence, it is possible to believe in free will and human responsibility at the same time as holding to a deterministic position. This would not be the case if free will is regarded as an intruder forcing its way into the sequence of physical activities in the brain, but there are no good grounds for adopting this position. Thus, the entire controversy between determinism and free will may be artificial and of less concern to psychologists than has generally been supposed.

The issue of free will versus determinism was considered in detail by Valentine (1992). In spite of the various criticisms of the deterministic position, she came to the following conclusion: “Determinism seems to have the edge in this difficult debate.”

Activity: Free will and decisions
SECTION SUMMARY: Free Will and Determinism
The difference between free will and determinism

  • One way to consider the debate of determinism versus free will is to ask the following question:

    • "Could an individual’s behaviour in a given situation have been different if he/she had willed it?"

  • Determinists argue that all human behaviour has a definite cause. The scientific approach is a deterministic one and it used to be thought that, if we allow for free will, then psychology isn’t really a science at all. However, even in the physical sciences uncertainty and chaos are now recognised principles.

  • More psychologists believe in determinism than in free will.

  • The major problem with determinism is that it isn’t possible to submit it to a proper experimental test.
Different types of determinism

  • Evolutionary determinism: fundamental causes of behaviour are based on the evolutionary history of the human species.

  • Environmental determinism: behaviour is caused by external forces in the environment (e.g., rewards and punishments).

  • Psychic determinism: behaviour is influenced by internal forces involving the ego, id, and superego.

  • Social determinism: behaviour is influences by social forces (e.g., conformity, obedience to authority).

Hard vs. soft determinism

  • Hard determinism:

    • According to those who favour hard determinism, all human actions are determined and none is free.

    • Skinner and Freud are two psychologists who believed in hard determinism.

  • Soft determinism:

  • According to those who advocate soft determinism, some behaviour is highly constrained by the situation (involuntary behaviour), whereas other behaviour is not (voluntary behaviour).

  • This permits some adaptability in the definition of determinism.

  • Many psychologists believe in soft determinism.
Behaviourist and Freudian approaches

  • Skinner argued that our behaviour was determined by environmental factors.

  • This approach can be criticised:

    • Bandura argued that humans would not be constant.

    • Skinner ignored other determinants of behaviour.

  • Freud emphasised determinism and rejected free will.
Free will

  • Most people feel they possess free will, because they feel able to choose freely what to do in most situations.

  • Humanistic psychologists believe in free will, which is the basis for client-centred therapy.

  • The belief in free will creates two problems:

    • It is hard to provide a precise account of what is meant by free will.

    • Most successful sciences are based on the assumption of determinism.

  • The debate is largely a philosophical one because it cannot be subjected to testing. Most psychologists accept that heredity, past experience, and the present environment all influence behaviour, and so the key issue is whether there is an internal factor (free will) that also influences behaviour.

  • The debate may simply be artificial; if free will forms part of physical activities of the brain, it is possible to believe in free will at the same time as holding a deterministic position.
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