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Is Free Will Really Free?

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It's scary to think that choice might just be an illusion. Perhaps we are not so in control as we would like to be. In a conversation at the 92nd St Y, Malcolm Gladwell talks to Robert about the common sense of dissatisfaction felt by people required to justify a choice to others before they made it, and he brings up the unsettling idea of priming--that certain stimuli could predispose us toward certain choices or behaviors. Yale psychology professor John Bargh takes us a step further by describing an experiment where researcher Lawrence Williams was able to alter people's opinions without their knowledge using nothing but a simple cup of coffee.


UPDATE: The Williams & Bargh Yale coffee study "Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth" was replicated in 2014 by researchers at three different universities, Kenyon College, Michigan State University, and University of Manchester. They did not observe the same results as in the original study. They conclude that the difference between the original and the replications may have been due to some issues with the methods of the original study ("The effect observed by Williams and Bargh may have been due, in part, to unconscious cues given by the researcher") or may simply have been due to chance. They are very careful in their language to not discredit the original study but they advise that future researchers be more cautious "when considering whether exposure to hot or cold temperatures impacts prosocial behavior." In sum: the original Yale study mostly still stands, but researchers now look the methods and results with slight skepticism (not outright disbelief though). You can check out the replications here:


Lawrence Williams

Comments [26]

Bruce from Slightly south of the buckle of the bible belt, USA

Hmmmm... Did anyone else donate money to WNYC Radio Lab shortly after listening to this episode? Make me wonder if there was something to the SNL character “subliminal man” that Jad and Robert borrowed when mixing the audio file of this program. :)

Nov. 25 2015 08:44 AM
Aly from East coast

I was def thinking after this RadioLab piece, + especially the bit where priming made people walk slower, exposed to 'elderly' words. I had heard that before, in his book (forget which one) -- and, although I believed it had to be phenomena that actually happens, it didn't really seem entirely intuitive. I couldn't figure it out.

Now, I wonder if I understand - I think in the subjects' unconscious, a train of thought began that did almost bring conscious thoughts about maybe, how it's nice + warm in Florida, about people retiring there, and then, somehow feels like a window into a different world, and THAT's why the subjects walked slower. They had been trying to 'tune' their pace + speed, to the elderly people they'd been thinking about. Thus, they were walking slower in anticipation of meeting such a person across their path.

Which is equally scary, just an observation I had registered after hearing RadioLab.

I suppose the word 'primed' could be useful to explain this phenomenon, or to oneself in daily life working through changing conditions.

Keep it up with the great thoughtful programming! Thanks,

Jan. 08 2015 12:47 PM
Zoey Smith from Glen Mills, PA

I would interested to learn how we can guard against stereotypes and make our own decisions? Is it possible? This track seems to suggest it is impossible. If it is impossible then how can we utilize this ability in a positive way? The unconscious seems like a scary part of our mind because it is unconscious, but is it possible for it to be a positive asset? Scientific studies like these are fascinating but obscure. I especially liked the coffee bit in this segment, and will make sure not to drink coffee if I am ever interviewing someone!

Jul. 30 2014 11:47 AM

I have a sneaky suspicion that this episode is going to haunt me for years and I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to drink iced beverages in public again.

Mar. 23 2012 04:12 PM

Anyone know what electronic/jazzy piece is woven through Malcolm Gladwell's part of the piece? It plays around 45-47 minutes into the whole show. Wish Radiolab would just cite this stuff unless it's all original. :/

Jan. 22 2012 05:33 PM
roger from West Virginia

This program does not prove that free will is non-existent, just that most people are weak willed sheep and do not use it. If you let your emotions, or fear of how you are perceived, effect your actions, then sure, free will doesn't exist (for you). Not everyone gives a rats behind about whether their coffee is cold, and they'll even tell you how they feel, your feelings be darned.

Oct. 13 2009 11:28 AM

Salespeople are either studious or intuitive at guiding people to a decision with tone of voice, suggestive wording, hand gestures, eye contact, etc. I'm terrible at selling, not because I can't see what I *need* to do and say, but because I can't force myself to do it when I don't believe in it.

I've recently become a tour guide, and with little (admittedly unscientific) tests I've found I can win over almost any crowd with nothing but enthusiasm and sharp changes in inflection and tone. I can put them into what mood I want to, almost without thinking about it. The level to which we're social creatures, determined by the mob...or parasites, or genes, and/or any other thing that determines self...well, it's difficult to even wrap my mind around it enough to be scared about it.

Sep. 18 2009 06:07 PM
Joseph McCargar from Grand Valley State University

As a true skeptic of the idea of free will, I was really taken in by a description by Micheal Shermer in "The Science of Good and Evil." It's a fantastic book on all counts, but his is the most compelling and credibly plausible explanation for the illusion of free will I've ever read. I recommend it.

Apr. 15 2009 06:36 PM

Trying to explain why took me over the character limit, but this is the most important part of the most important episode of the most important show ever made. In my humble opinion, of course.

This combined with a few psychology articles helped me to make a cognitive leap that is commonly referred to as enlightenment. It's that powerful.

Apr. 10 2009 01:21 PM
Alys D

I was disappointed with Radiolab for the beginning segment in which--in listing off lifestyle choices--notes that, today, one "could be gay, straight, bi.."
Including this in a discussion of demonstrating the "opportunities" that individuals are presented with in the modern age gives the impression not just that sexual orientation is a choice, but that it is a recent development. In giving the benefit of the doubt I can imagine that perhaps Radiolab was intending for this to indicate that gay or bi individuals may not have been quite as free to live a life that included their true sexual orientation in, say, the 1950s in America; if so, then I still see it as a poorly executed example. If not, then I am severely disappointed in this program that I so love.

There is not a choice involved in being straight, gay, bi, or transgendered. There may be a choice necessitated as to whether an individual wishes to be "out" and whether or not doing so is safe, but I believe that such a choice is not truly up to the freedom of the individual, but rather thrown upon them by the way that their environment/society treats it. The "choice" to live closeted due to fear of retaliation by one's peers does not quite reek of "freedom" and "opportunity" to me.

I hope that you can provide some clarification on this issue. Thank you.

Mar. 20 2009 01:58 AM

It would be interesting to hear other interpretations of the results of the coffee experiment besides temperature being the main factor. I would guess that most people expect a cup of coffee to feel warm rather than cold. If someone gives you coffee, it wouldn't be unusual to expect to be given a warm cup or mug. It might, however, be surprising to be handed a cold cup unless someone had specifically offered you "ice coffee."
It could be that people's responses to Joe might not have been influenced so much by temperature, but by being given something familiar and unsurprising vs. something unexpected and maybe disconcerting.

Feb. 25 2009 12:09 PM
visitor from CNY

Our ability (& willingness) to get "on top" of ourselves or to "self"-spy on things that bother us is exactly the first necessary step towards freeing ourselves from the prison of our culture(s) and becoming self-"governable." Discussions such as this are a perfect example of our attempts to understand such issues well enough to begin to deal with them. The "presumption" of conscious will may be an illusion, but potential of conscious will is well within our reach if we strive for truth through awareness.

Feb. 12 2009 12:59 PM

So if you consciuosly think: I am going to pick up this pencil and then pick it up, wouldn't your acton be conscious and of free will? Does Daniel Wegner theorize that all conscious thought is an illusion?

Feb. 11 2009 03:26 PM
Ruben from Arlington Tx/

I wanted to comment and maybe add to the latter part of this piece, the part about the test with the cold coffee vs the hot coffee, since the hot cup of Joe; refers to an American saying would this translate in other languages, as in if ‘Juan’ was the fella and it was a ‘taza’ of ‘chocolate frio’ , or a ‘taza’ de‘chocolate caliente’? would a similar test have the same outcome, since the concept/term would not really apply. I did hear the part that this ‘feeling’ would fly along more, nature, since it might be hard-wired. Are there any other examples of similar test….

Jan. 30 2009 10:07 PM
Steve MacIntyre from Beaver Dam, AZ

One must wonder if Malcolm Gladwell isn’t at odds with himself when he reports on the one hand that such societal expectations manifested in art-choices-which-must-be-justified or focus groups skew us to deny our intrinsic preferences (which later emerge intact despite the cultural pressures) while on the other hand he observes that cultural norms obliterate such intrinsic feelings when racial stereotyping is involved, squashing them completely.

Or maybe these experiments are not at odds. Perhaps focus groups and art-choice-justifications are coercive at a level nearer to consciousness than are racial stereotypes.

Jan. 06 2009 11:29 PM
Emily from morningside heights

A Columbia psych student performed the coffee experiment on me. I got the warm cup of coffee but I remember responding that I thought Joe didn't seem friendly because he worked in a chem lab and lived in the woods.

Dec. 06 2008 08:41 PM
Alex from NYC

First, let me say I am a long time listener of Radio Lab and hope the show continues broadcasting indefinitely.

I am surprised and a little disappointed, however, that in all the shows I have listened to on the topic of Psychology and human behavior (which is probably the majority), none have ever interviewed an expert or discussed the science of Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA is capable of answering nearly all of the questions discussed in a data-based and practical manner. I am not an expert in the area, only a practitioner of the science. Regarding the issue of choice, I would recommend "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" by B.F. Skinner. He discusses real-world situations which clarify the relationship between human behavior and the environment, very similar to the interview with Malcolm Gladwell at the 92nd Y. I don't know why contingency shaped behavior is "scary" to Robert or Jad; it’s just to say that the punishing and reinforcing contingencies of the environment will shape the behavior of the organism (Operant Behavior).

Nov. 26 2008 06:23 PM
Leslie Witherspoon from Kansas City, Mo

I wonder why it is such a disturbing thought that we may ultimately not be in control of our decisions? If we are not ultimately in control of the variety of choices that we have, even if we did have some sort of ultimate control of ourselves we would only pick that which was available. There are limits to our world on a macrocosmic and microcosmic level. Accept it, test your boundaries, and work within the outline. Maybe this is too simplistic, but I find it challenging in and of itself.

Nov. 23 2008 08:32 PM
Pawel from Tulsa, OK

To Jeff:

Although you make a good point in your comment, it is sadly, mostly wrong. Unfortunately, most people do NOT use a great deal of information when making assessments of people as can be shown in a good deal of research.

For instance, if you ask most Industrial Psychologists about the validity or necessity of personal interviews for positions, they will most likely tell you just how pointless they are. Generally the first impression gathered within about 2 seconds of meeting someone is very stable in this sort of situation, regardless of any further information which is revealed.

Nov. 20 2008 06:09 PM
Tim from Columbus

Maybe it's silly, but I wondered if the use of the name "joe" was intentionally linked the the cup of "joe" or if various names were used in the experiments.

Nov. 20 2008 07:55 AM
CMS from DC

Eric from Brooklyn:

Daniel Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will

So interesting for "accountability conservatives."

Nov. 17 2008 08:21 PM
CMS from DC

Eric from Brooklyn:

Daniel Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will

So interesting for the "accountability conservatives."

Nov. 17 2008 08:18 PM
Greg Zambo from Australia

I'm a proponent of the rational approach and I can't see how Elliot the accountant should be used as good evidence for a need for emotional thought. First, he is an example of one, and second how can you assume that his actions after having part of his brain removed are the equivalent of a completely rational non-emotive thinker? Most illogical!
Regardless of my criticism, great radio show, if you do more shows on subjects like this I'll be “tuning in” online again, thanks!

Nov. 16 2008 08:26 PM
Eric from Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

Question for the producers: You mentioned a book during this segment called something like 'the Myth of Conscious Choice', which takes this idea to an extreme. What is the actual name of that book? (The radio stream isn't working at the moment so I can't go back and listen.)
Great show,

Nov. 15 2008 10:06 AM
Don from Highland Park, NJ

Jeff, you say that "in real situations, people have and use much more information". I agree that the conditions of this experiment put too little emphasis on the consequences of a decision, but I disagree with this specific point.

Sure, we have more information, but do we use it? The first segment of the episode suggests that we don't, specifically Miller's and Shiv's research.

Nov. 15 2008 12:37 AM
Jeff from Milwaukee, WI

I believe the point of the coffee experiment is that your opinion of a person can be controlled by whether you hold a warm cup or a cold one. I believe this is wrong because the person studied is not forming an opinion about a person, they are forming an opinion about a piece of paper, in the absence of any other information. In addition, the importance of the opinion formed is has very low and it is formed very quickly - a very artificial situation. In a real situation, there are many differences.

One influence is how important the decision is. If the decision is important, such as forming an opinion about your possible future son-in-law versus an opinion about the person behind you in a line, you will take the time to gather much more information and process it. Then your opinion will be an informed one, as it should be.

Another influence is how much information is actually available to form the opinion.

Considering how unimportant the decision in the experiment was, and how little time and information was given, how warm your hands are is as good a way as any to form an opinion. In the real world in real situations, people have and use much more information. Therefore, the effect of the hand stimulus will probably play an infinitesimally small part.

Nov. 14 2008 09:53 PM

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