Having A Soul Doesn't Mean You''ll Do The Right Thing

Although most people say they believe human beings have souls, they’ve got a more practical view when it comes to willpower. Participants in a new study judged and blamed people for wrongdoing because they believed the wrongdoer made a deliberate choice.

“I find it relieving to know that whether you believe in a soul or not, or have a religion or not, or an assumption about how the universe works, that has very little bearing on how you act as a member of the social community,” said Bertram Malle, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University and senior author of the new study. “In a sense, what unites us across all these assumptions is we see others as intentional beings who can make choices, and we blame them on the basis of that.”

The results, based on experiments with hundreds of online volunteers, were published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

Lead author Andrew Monroe, a former Brown doctoral student and postdoctoral researcher now at Florida State University, said the findings also indicate that people have a perception of free will that’s based on brain science, without a spiritual basis.

“Neuroscience is no threat at all to this concept of choice,” he said.

In their research, Monroe, Malle, and Kyle Dillon of Harvard University conducted two experiments.

For a first trial, 197 volunteers evaluated the rule-breaking actions of a randomly assigned “character,” which ranged from a normal human, a human that didn’t control his or her actions, to an advanced robot. The volunteers said that only the normal human had free will. They said a cyborg, another character in the study, had free will but generally didn’t have a soul.

Because they believed the normal human and the cyborg had free will, the participants judged them the most harshly. Although the human had a soul and the cyborg didn’t, the participants felt their culpability was equal.

A second experiment involving 124 volunteers yielded similar results.

Monroe added that although most people in the study believed humans have a soul, they don’t believe that fact influences decision making.