In a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, (Prosocial Benefits of Belief in Free Will) researchers found that when people believe in free will we are much more likely to help others, and much less likely to behave aggressively.
Free Will is a concept that has been debated by philosophers, scientists and theologians for almost as long as we've had written works on these subjects. In basic terms, free will refers to the concept of rational beings and whether we exercise control over our decisions and actions, and if so, to what extent.
In religious terms, free will means that an omnipotent deity allows individual actions and decisions. In scientific terms, free will is debated: to what degree are our thoughts and actions a product of physical processes? In philosophy, free will involves the concept of determinism - are all events caused by physical and natural forces? Can some events be the result of these processes as well as free choices?
Most people believe in at least some free will - we make choices and decisions that affect our lives, while at the same time physical and natural laws and causes are also affecting us. This study shows that society benefits in several ways when people believe in free will. First, in this study researchers found that among subjects where a disbelief in free will was induced, these subjects were less willing to help others. Second, it showed that subjects with long-held disbelief in free will were also less willing to help others. Finally, the study showed that subjects with an induced disbelief in free will acted with a much higher level of aggression than subjects with a belief in free will.
In psychology the concept of cognitive therapy, or the Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy approach of Albert Ellis has been very effective over the years at helping people with anxiety, fear, social inhibition and other adjustment difficulties. This approach teaches people that their feelings are NOT caused by events, but rather by their expectations and beliefs. This is expressed usually as an A+B=C construct. A refers to an adverse action. B refers to a persons belief (or philosophy or expectation) about the action. C refers to the consequence. So, when an adverse event occurs, it is the event itself, plus the meaning or context that our beliefs give to the action that give us the consequence or outcome.
An example of this approach can be found in mild road rage. Many of us, when we encounter a reckless driver in traffic, become angry and upset. Say someone cuts you off in traffic. At first blush, we might say "That guy cut me off! That makes me SO angry!" But is it the fact that the other driver cut us off that causes us to be angry? REBT would say that we are not angry because we've been cut off, but because we believe we should never be put in danger or treated rudely. If we give it thought, though, most of us probably believe that a lot of drivers are reckless. So, when we are cut off in traffic if we call to memory this belief that other drivers are often reckless or inattentive, instead of becoming angry we will simply respond to the needs of driving.
Cognitive therapies have been developed since the 1950s, and have dramatically changed the landscape. The Albert Ellis Institute uses the phrase "Short-term therapy, long-term results", and it is a fitting summary of how this approach has changed therapy. In the past, patients with anxiety, fear, or other adjustment issues would face long-term therapy. Using this approach, therapists are able to help patients focus on their beliefs and expectations, and to develop an awareness and discipline to call those beliefs and expectations to mind when adverse events occur. This approach is just one of many psychological, theological, ethical and scientific approaches to resolving the simultaneous existence of both physical and natural causation and free will. And according to this study, it is in all of our interests for society to continue to believe in free will.