Is inhibition a measure of free will?

Reading Alwyn Scott's "Stairway to the Mind" I came across an interesting tidbit of information pointing out that human's have a greater percentage of inhibitory neurons compared to other animals (human 75% rabbit 31%). For some unknown reason this made me think about the tricky construct of free will and the question of whether free will could be better measured not by what we chose to do, but by what we chose not to do. In other words, could free will be measured by a capacity to inhibit certain thoughts and behaviors.

Upon further research I found Baer, Kaufman, and Baumeister's book "Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will". They also tossed around this question and came to an interesting conclusion. Here is a snippet from their work:

We have danced around the issue of whether conscious control is to be equated with free will; in fact, we suspect that at the most basic level, the answer is no...the ability to inhibit responses is powerful and one could reasonable make the argument that without it, free will would not be possible, because we would not be able to stop what some force (external or internal) seemed to impel us to do...If we do assume that free will can be directly observed in inhibition of behavior, then is free will measured by inhibition? The latter question is especially poignant with respect ot those people who show marked inhibition deficits, such as children, the elderly, and certain patient populations. If we agree with Libet (1999) and consider inhibition of an unconsciously determined action to be equivalent to free will, then these populations suffer from impaired free will...we see that this view is already implicitly, if not explicitly, accepted in many fields, as well as (to some degree) enshrined in common wisdom about behavior (Baer, Kaufman, & Baumeister 2008).

I reflect on Mischel, Shoda, and Rodriquez's well known 1989 experiment investigating delayed gratification in children and wonder whether those who decided to wait for the larger reward were not only "smarter", but had a greater capacity for free will as well. Can we associate intelligence with free will? What do you think?

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. (1989). Delay of gratification in children Science, 244 (4907), 933-938 DOI: 10.1126/science.2658056

Baer, J., Kaufman, J. C., & Baumeister, R. F. (Eds.) (2008). Are we free? Psychology and free will. New York: Oxford University Press.

Scott, A. (1995). Stairway to the Mind: The controversial new science of consciousness. New York: Springer-Verlag.


  1. i'm still not convinced there even IS such a thing as free will... i think the simplest causal explanation for any action that any living organism takes is that a neuron fired which was caused by chemical reaction which was caused by a physical interaction in this non-closed system we call the biosphere. in humans, we just have a better 'observer' of what just happened, quickly coming up with a story of 'i meant to do that'. but the whole chain is never ever CAUSED by a thought. that gets into Descartian duality. what is this magic thinking causer? thought follows action. but i might be wrong. and if so, then inhibition of action is definitely the most plausible mechanism.

  2. Yup. No free will.

    Maybe what we can claim is "free won't" -- if the inhibition hypothesis is correct, and that's the best we can do.

  3. More concurrence here: no free will.

    How would free will work? Are the laws of physics just suspended for brain matter?

    No, we're probabilistic on the quantum scale which manifests itself out as determinism on the macro scale, while consciousness produces the illusion of free will.

  4. So even if like the other comments, you don't accept the notion 'free will', inhibition and the ability to delay gratification is a clear mark of higher cognitive functions overriding simple pleasure circuits.

    So maybe it's not a will or a soul acting, but this is a definite mark of intelligence and of an elaborately imagined identity prioritizing its choices and choosing to resist the deterministic stimulus response. More information is considered before making the choice, abstract or delayed goals can compete with immediate physical ones --

    Even accepting that free-will is just an evolved illusion and a loaded phrase -- I do think some organisms and some more mentally developed humans bring more into consideration than others before acting. And that kind of higher cognitive processing as evidenced by inhibition is a proxy for being a more self-determining actor who brings past-experience into present choices.

    I'm trying to get at an idea of will that doesn't require a foray into duality.

  5. All valid points. I don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with Cartesian dualism in terms of brain/mind stuff. As Chalmer states one is of the physical realm and the other of the psychophysical realm.

    I also personally don't think we know enough to determine if free will really exists or not. However, I'd like to believe that we have at least some type of volitional control over our fate even if the belief is horribly misguided...

  6. "Can we associate intelligence with free will?"

    Its a difficult comparison because free will is based on your ability to use language for a couple of specific things - ie imagine courses of action, analyse outcomes, and try.

    I suppose the trying bit is a bit like inhibiting action. And the analysis of which course of action is best might be done better by a more intelligent person, especially if that's how you define intelligence.

    And do intelligent people have a better imagination in this respect? Not really sure is the concept will stretch that far, but it might.

    It is certainly true that you can be more or less able to use your free will. But I'd call it a specific kind of intelligence, as well as a specific kind of creativity and a specific kind of courage.

  7. RE: Is inhibition a measure of freewill? -- Absolutely!

    The power of our freewill or mind is one theory of our memory mechanisms that I just discussed here: "Memories exist even when forgotten, study suggests -- RE: Memories recalled or manipulated or misinterpreted, etc!?" (PhysOrgEU; September 10).

    Briefly, our sensory-response experiences will give rise to our memory repertoires; and our thoughts arise from our conscious ability to recall (and/or manipulate) our memory experiences.

    Specifically, our freewill provides us a free (or wide) range of thoughts (or intelligence) and behaviorisms in response to our thoughts (or plans). Ergo inhibition is a practical (choice) non-action, that is consciously willed or exercised in our learned and thoughtful mind.

    As such, the experiment investigating delayed gratification in children shows that: “those who decided to wait for the larger reward were not only "smarter", but had a greater capacity for free will as well.” This is because our learning to exercise freewill will grow as our intelligence expands with our active and creative thought-memory repertoires or choice acquisitions and experiences!

    Best wishes, Mong 9/22/9usct1:40p; practical science-philosophy critic; author "Decoding Scientism" and "Consciousness & the Subconscious" (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).

  8. Unfortunately not. We may have more inhibitory neurones but they're still neurones and they obey the laws of physics like everything else... so no free will.

  9. I was trying to find the meaning of inhibition and landed on your site. I have wanted to try a certin job that inhibition and spiritual beliefs have kept me from trying even though the payoff would be huge, and the job is completly legal.
    One glass of wine and the thought is suddenly not so bad. Why are some people so good at holding onto their inhibitions and others are not, even with no mental illness? And would inhibitions be as strong in someone that was raised with no rules or spiritual beliefs?

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