12/20/2013 08:45 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Is Free Will a Magic Trick?

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Watching Apollo Robbins' TED talk is highly entertaining, but it also gives us important glimpses into the nature of the human mind. Apollo is a skilled artist, not because he can steal a watch from under someone's nose but because he is able to direct the attention of his "victim" (and the audience) to exactly where he wants it. Watching his elegant dance of behavior manipulation made me question how much control we really have over our own behavior.

When it comes to this question, most people believe in the human capacity for free will. You are who you are because you chose to be. But as a social psychologist I spend most of my time focusing on the power of the situation. The environment you were raised in and the people that surrounded you had a big impact on the person you are now, in goods ways and bad. Within the last two decades, social psychologists have identified a number of ways that external pressures unconsciously nudge us to make certain choices; much like Apollo nudges his victim. I can make you like someone just by heating up the temperature of a cup of coffee you are holding. I can make you find someone sexually attractive just by adding the color red to their wardrobe. I can make you more likely to cheat just by dimming the lights. As much as we don't like to admit it, we are constantly being pushed by others and our surroundings to behave in ways we otherwise would not.

External forces whittle down our choices in unconscious ways; tricking us into thinking we have more free will than we really do. -- Melissa Burkley

In light of these findings, many psychologists argue free will is just a magic trick or illusion. In fact, there is evidence that milliseconds before you consciously decide to move your finger, the motor area of the brain becomes active. This suggests that your automatic brain (or what Apollo called "Frank") decided to move your finger and then tricked you into thinking it was your idea. Now personally, I don't believe that all free will is an illusion. I think we all have free will, but we don't have as much as we think. External forces whittle down our choices in unconscious ways; tricking us into thinking we have more free will than we really do. At any point in time you could direct your attention away from where Apollo wants you to look (focus on the hand) and instead look at what his other hand is doing (slipping off his tie), but most of us don't. So although we feel like we have an infinite number of response choices, the Apollo-like "attention managers" in our lives have narrowed our field of vision to just a few.

Nowhere is this narrowing of options more evident than the "pick a card" trick magicians often perform. The magician waives a deck of cards in front of your face and asks you to mentally select any card from the deck. Moments later, the card you picked is in some bizarre location (sticking to ceiling, folded in the magician's wallet). Most of us figure out the card was in that location all along. But what we can't wrap our head around is how the magician knew what card we were going to pick before we picked it! Our sense of free will tells us we could have picked any of the 52 different cards, so the odds the magician would guess right are astronomical, right? But what if they could manipulate our free will so that we "freely choose" the card they wanted us to? Then this trick isn't that difficult. The way this often works is that the magician primes you with the desired card choice just before you make your pick. So the magician may flip through the deck quickly while you are making your choice, stopping ever so slightly on a particular card (e.g., 5 of hearts). Your conscious mind doesn't pick up on it, but your unconscious mind (your Frank) does. Suddenly the 5 of hearts is at the forefront of your mind. So when it comes time to pick a card, you think you selected it out of thin air, but you really picked it from the only card choice currently available in your mind. This is not to say that doing this trick is easy. Magicians spend thousands of hours perfecting their manipulations. And so too do the other pushers in our lives: the advertisers, politicians, media, even our loved ones. We all nudge each other in subtle ways to get what we want.

But what if you don't want to be nudged? Like most things in life, the first step is recognizing the problem. Whenever you feel like your options are limited--like you just have to buy that new tech gadget or you have to do what your friend is requesting--stop and take a step back. You probably feel this way because someone or something has narrowed your view to just one choice. But there are usually more options available than we think. Recognizing those moments when we feel our choices are limited truly frees up our free will.

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