science | July 07, 2013

A "Comfortable Fiction": Adam Alter On Free Will Vs. Determined Action

The idea that we make decisions based on completely rational thinking is what Adam Alter calls "comfortable fiction." We tell ourselves that we are in control of the actions we take. We do this so we feel that our choices matter. But in fact, the science speaker and Drunk Tank Pink author says cues in our environment govern most of our behavior—without us knowing it. "It's interesting to think that [we] have that free will," he says in a new interview, "when in some cases, [we] don't." In the interview, Alter draws from research in his book to explain that environmental cues often dictate our behavior in ways that are beyond our control.

One of the nine cues in Drunk Tank Pink is the influence of language. When a picture of a bridge was shown to Spanish and German-speaking participants, for example, their descriptions of the image varied tremendously. Since the German word for "bridge" is feminine, words like elegant and beautiful were used by the German group. In Spanish, the word is masculine so the bridge was depicted as being strong and rugged by those who spoke Spanish. Another contributor to our behavior involves no words at all. We process symbols and images much more quickly and more effectively than we do words, Alter says. This can profoundly impact the way we act. When exposed to the Apple logo, Alter found that people responded and acted more creatively. This is partially due to the sub-conscious association between that particular symbol and artistry. The symbol actually altered the mind's cognitive functioning.

When releasing this kind of information, Alter stresses that there's always a cost-benefit analysis to consider. Will this information help people to live better lives, or will it have a more negative impact? He hopes that enabling people to recognize how their thought process is driven by environmental cues will help them to be more conscious of their actions.

In his talks, Alter delves into some of these impacts more thoroughly. While knowing these cues exist may not always alter our behavior, he believes we can change our environments into more cognitively healthy ones.