aqa  Free will and determinism: hard determinism and soft determinism; biological, environmental and psychic determinism. The scientific emphasis on causal explanations.


Aside for the nature vs. nurture debate, the freewill vs. determinism debate is the biggest in psychology. The debate discusses whether we are predetermined to behave in certain ways, with our behaviour being determined by internal and external influences (determinism) or whether we are able to choose how we act in spite of what internal and external influences encourage us to do. Whilst it has been shown that both can be used to explain behaviour in psychology, there is much more support for the determinist viewpoint.

One psychological approach that strongly supports determinism is the behaviourist approach, which states that human behaviour can be predicted though looking at past behaviour and their current situation. One psychologist who supported this was skinner who believed that our behaviour is determined by reinforcement and environmental factors. He also stated that free will was an illusion (Skinner 1936).

However, skinner’s approach was criticised by Bandura (1977) who stated that ‘if people’s action’s were solely determined by external rewards and punishments then people would be like weather vanes constantly changing direction to conform to the whims of others’. Instead Bandura believed that people have long-term goals and try to meet them instead of following what others say. She also highlighted the fact that Skinner failed to consider the fact that our behaviour may influence our environment. For example if someone commits a crime and goes to prison, their behaviour had influenced their environment.

The psychodynamic approach believes in determinism, with Freud being a strong supporter. This approach states that our internal systems, such as defence mechanisms determine our behaviour. However, it also states that there is potential for free will. It was stated that in order for many types of treatment such as psychoanalysis to work, it has to be believed that a person is able to change the way they behave, meaning that free will must exist to some extent.

The biological approach also supports the deterministic viewpoint, with them strongly believing that behaviour is determined by genes etc. For example, mental disorders such as schizophrenia are often hereditary and have been found to be caused by high levels of dopamine within the brain which is classed as an internal factor.

One approach which does support free will is the humanistic view. Maslow and Rogers (1949) believed that behaviour is not determined by external forces and that people have free will and can choose how they wish to behave. They also stated that our actions are free within a framework. Based on this Rogers developed his own theory called client centred therapy (1951) which aimed to help patients to exercise free will.

However determinism is often criticised for being unfalsifiable. The idea of determinism can also be questioned both morally and ethically, as it can be argued that if our behaviour is predetermined and cannot be changed by a person, then how can they be held responsible for their behaviour? Surely if determinism existed then a person’s behaviour is controlled by factors they can help, meaning that no one would ever be punished for their behaviour and the law would be pointless?

Overall, I believe that to a certain extent both can be used to explain human behaviour. Whilst external factors (such as our environment and family) and internal factors (such as our genes and cognitions) may influence the way we behave in some situations, we all still have control over certain things that we do. For example, if many people were told to injure someone, how many people would actually do it? The answer is that very few would because most people have control over their behaviour and are aware of what’s right and what’s wrong. Although some people may be predetermined to act in certain ways, and be more likely to end up in certain situations and get certain disorders, the environment etc in which they live may influence their actual behaviour.


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