Free Will is a Lie | Robert Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky

We all like to believe we have free will. Like we have control over our choices, actions and lives? Like we are the sole author of our decisions, able to detect and avoid being controlled, influenced or manipulated by either external or internal influences. Sometimes, we can own the fact that certain life circumstances that we have little control over play into our choices, but still, it’s mostly us at the wheel, right?

Well, my guest today, Robert Sapolky, has a perspective that may shatter that notion entirely. It kind of melted my brain, to be honest. And, while I didn’t want it to be true, by the end of this conversation, I looked at myself, the world and the whole notion of free will, and how it plays into our ability to live good lives, entirely differently.

Robert is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford and the recipient of many honors including a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. He’s the author of numerous acclaimed books like “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” “Behave,” and his latest groundbreaking work that sparked this conversation – “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will.”

In that book, and in this conversation, he argues that free will is not just largely, but rather completely, an illusion. That our choices and behaviors are shaped by factors beyond our control – our genes, brain wiring, life experiences, cultural conditioning and more. It’s a mind-bending premise that pulls the rug out from under deeply held beliefs about personal responsibility, justice, and even the idea of meritocracy itself. It will both rattle you, but also open your mind to so many new ways at looking at your life, and how you understand and respond to those around you.

In our discussion, Sapolsky deconstructs the idea of free will through an invigorating tour of neurobiology, anthropology, psychology and more. And he doesn’t shy away from exploring the profound implications his perspective has for how we view criminal justice, achievement, personal growth and the essence of what it means to be human. You may want to brace yourself for a fascinating dialogue that may forever alter your perception of reality. You may also want to share this episode with a friend or colleague, because you’re going to want to talk about it with others.

You can find Robert at: Website

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photo credit: Deborah Lopez


Episode Transcript:

Robert Sapolsky: [00:00:00] There’s levers and gears and buttons underneath the surface that you have no idea. Whatever somebody does, it’s a function of how did they become who they are. Every time we figure out, oh, there really wasn’t free will in this domain, it had nothing to do with it. This person had no control over that. Every time we do that, the world becomes a much better place.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:27] So we all like to believe that we have free will, like we have control over our choices and actions and lives like we’re the sole author of our decisions, able to detect and avoid being controlled or influenced or manipulated by either external or internal influences. And sometimes we can own the fact that, well, sure, certain life circumstances or histories that we have little control over, they play into our choices. But still it’s mostly us at the wheel, right? Well, my guest today, Robert Sapolsky, has a perspective that may just shatter that notion entirely. It kind of melted my brain, to be honest. And while I didn’t want it to be true in the beginning, by the end of this conversation, I looked at myself in the world and the whole notion of free will and how it plays into our ability to live good lives just entirely differently. Robert is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford and the recipient of many different honors, including a MacArthur genius grant. He’s the author of numerous acclaimed books like Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, behave, and his latest groundbreaking work that sparked this conversation determined a science of life without free will. Now, in that book and in this conversation, he argues that free will is not just largely, but completely an illusion that our choices and behaviors are shaped by factors beyond our control things like our genes, our neural wiring, our life experiences, cultural conditioning, and more.


Jonathan Fields: [00:01:57] It’s a mind-bending premise that pulls the rug out from under deeply held beliefs about everything from personal responsibility to justice, and even the idea of meritocracy itself. It will both rattle you, but also open your mind to so many new ways of looking at your life and how to understand and respond to yourself and to those around you. In our conversation, Sapolsky deconstructs the idea of free will through this invigorating tour of neurobiology, anthropology, psychology and more. And he doesn’t shy away from exploring the profound implications that this perspective has for how we view criminal justice achievement, personal growth, and the essence of what it means to be human. You may want to brace yourself for a pretty fascinating dialogue that may forever alter your perception of reality. You may also want to share this episode with a friend or colleague, because you are going to want to talk about it with others. I have literally been waiting for us to air this because of the conversations I want to have around Robert’s ideas. So excited to share this conversation with you! And one last thing before we dive into today’s conversation, I want to share a fun new project that I have created for you. It’s a way to feel more alive and less alone. So after taking a years-long hiatus from public writing, I’m back and with a new weekly newsletter and community called Awake at the Wheel. So every Sunday morning in your inbox, you’ll get a new story and insight written by me, along with a journaling and conversation prompt designed to help you feel more alive and less alone. And hey, even if you’re not a journaler, it’ll give you something to think about so that you can step into your week in a more intentional way. And just on a personal level, I am just so excited to get back to writing in a more personal, vulnerable, long-form way. It would mean the world to me if you would support this new project. So go check out the latest stories and insights and see what this week’s writing and conversation prompt is. Now. I think you’ll really like it. I’ll see you over at awake at the wheel. Just click the link in the show notes. Now I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


Jonathan Fields: [00:04:07] It’s really interesting. I’ve been familiar with your work, in no small part around the way that organisms, human beings, animals experience stress. Your latest book determined. It’s an interesting, interesting, and somewhat scary, disconcerting proposition. You effectively argue that free will, this thing that we hold on to, you know, like with all the grasping and all the gripping that we can, is largely an illusion. So I would love for you to walk me through this. Feel free to be as, as as detailed as you want to be.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:04:39] Sure. First off, just to show how much of a lunatic fringe you’re dealing with here, I don’t even think it’s largely an illusion. I think it’s entirely one. But I’m willing to settle for largely with most folks. Okay, why don’t we have free will? People believe they’re seeing free will in precisely the wrong place, which is we make choices. We make decisions all the time. We’ve got two options. We pick an ice cream flavor, whatever. We’re standing there, and it’s a moment of intent that we’re conscious of, and we have a reasonably good idea of what the consequences will be of us acting on that intent. And most importantly, we know we don’t have to do that. Nobody’s holding a gun to our heads. There are alternatives available. And for most people, including the legal system that’s necessary and sufficient for deciding there’s culpability. There’s there’s responsibility that you have acted freely as a free agent. And for my money, what’s going on right at that point is fascinating. And what information is biasing you towards this decision or that and all of that, but all of that is subsumed under the only relevant question that could come up then as you act on your intent. So how did you become the sort of person who would have that intent at that moment? And when instead of looking at, I just chose something and I decided four seconds ago, and I’m totally aware of it, and I knew there were other ice cream flavors, all of that, when instead you were saying, so how do you wind up sitting in this spot, in this moment, with that possibility and having that intention and choosing that option? It’s when you take that apart, that’s where free will falls apart.


Jonathan Fields: [00:06:34] So let’s do that. Let’s take that apart. Um, and if yeah, it’s interesting because I think this work actually isn’t as new to me as I thought it would be. You know, I remember, um, a number of years back, you sharing a lecture about sort of deconstructing the best and the worst parts of human behavior, which really seems like it ties into the argument behind this in a strong way.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:06:56] Exactly what I was about to go into the the one second before, a thousand years before song and dance. Okay. So somebody does something, a behavior occurs and we ask that that ubiquitous human question, why did they do that? And where you begin to see there’s no free will is first recognizing embedded in that is a gazillion different questions. First off, what was going on in that person’s brain a second ago, activation of this part, inhibition of this other part, all of that. So hooray, that supposedly explains it. If what happened in the last five seconds is all you need to know. But that’s not the case, because those neurons did what they just did, in part because of what was happening in your sensory environment in the previous minutes. What was happening in your internal sensory environment? Are you tired? Are you scared? Are you stressed? Are you hungry? All of those will change the intents we form and what we do with them. All of that dramatically in some cases. Okay, that by itself we haven’t proven free will doesn’t exist. But now you got to say, well, what about this morning’s hormone levels? Because they were making your brain more or less sensitive to this sort of sensory information and that could modulate things enormously. And then you’re having to say, well, what went on in previous months or years or decades, did you undergo trauma? Were you stimulated environmentally? Did you find God? Did you find love? Did you undergo sensory deprivation? And like the sexiest field in neuroscience these days is neuroplasticity.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:08:43] Your brain is going to have changed in response to that. And I don’t even mean something subtle like, ooh, you make three and a half more copies of this neurotransmitter. The total volume of areas of your brain change with stimulation, with stress, with depression, with trauma, with anxiety, where, like, you could see it on a brain scan. It’s not subtle, and thus the brain you have right at this moment deciding what you’re going to do is in part sculpted by what’s been happening in those recent months to years. And now, naturally, you’re back to adolescence and childhood and have a great surprise to lots of people. Fetal life, because your fetal environment has a ton to do with the main thing you’re doing as a fetus. If you view the world through my brain lens, which is your wiring up your brain, you’re constructing it, and then you got to throw genes into it. And I don’t mean genes in this. Oh my God, eugenics, Neanderthal sense of genes running us. But instead genes play a role. They modulate, they generate proclivities, vulnerabilities, all of that, and they interact with environment. And what genes you have are going to be relevant. And then weirdest of all is you got to say, well, what sort of culture were my ancestors inventing 400 years ago? Parentheses in what sorts of ecosystems? Because different ecosystems produce different cultures. And why is that possibly relevant? Because those ancestors 400 years ago raised their kids to raise their kids, to raise their kids, to raise your mother, to carry on those cultural values.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:10:30] And within minutes of birth, what she’s doing with you is already beginning to wire your brain in a way that’s going to replicate the culture you’re raised in. So you look at that and you think, initially you’ve got a simple version of why free will is ruled out. Okay, you can’t rule it out with just neurobiology or just genetics or just cross-cultural anthropology or whatever. But ooh, you put all these different fields together and collectively do that. That’s true. But on the more foundational level, they’re not different disciplines. They all merge into one. If you’re talking about what genes have to do with behavior, by definition, you’re talking about millions of years of evolution when those genes evolved. And by definition, you’re talking about your fetal life, when epigenetic programming of those genes was happening. And by definition, you’re talking about like what was happening two hours ago when your brain was making more of this protein or that one under the directions of your gene, it forms one continuous arc of biology that you had no control over interacting with environment that you had no control over. And when you look at how all those pieces form this seamless kind of arc there, there’s not a damn crack anywhere in that edifice in which you could shoehorn in free will.


Jonathan Fields: [00:11:59] So you use the phrase which you have no control over for each one of those different contributors to this argument. I’m not sure if I want to try and counter this because it’s true, or because I don’t want it to be true. We have such a strong, I think, human impulse to want to feel that, yes, you know, we’ll look back and say, okay, so I can understand the argument that, you know, my biology, the the structure of my brain and the genetics that led to the structure of my brain and the experiences that I had to led to the structure of my brain, influenced my thought process, which influences my intentionality, which influences my ability to will, to choose, to make decisions and create behaviors. So I can see how those would have a strong influence over it. But I guess the question is, because the argument you’re making, and this is what you said when you started, is I actually reject the word largely in that sentence like that. We largely don’t have any free will that we what you’re saying is we have zero free will, that there’s no crack in the facade, there’s no room where the daylight of our own intentionality seeps in in a way where we can’t track it back to something that has been in some way programmed into us. That led to this decision. Did I get that right or no? Yep.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:13:24] Absolutely.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:25] Okay. It’s uncomfortable.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:13:27] It’s very uncomfortable. Two ways to sort of tackle that. The first one is like kind of a dirty trick on my part in a sense, you know, influences. Most people are willing to say, okay, your childhood had an influence. And what happened to you last month had an influence, influence, influences, and maybe it’s just influences on top of this core me thing existing inside there that somehow is separate of your brain and sort of the the unfair trick that I do at this point is turn around to the people who believe in free will and say, oh, it’s proven. There was no free will, that it’s not just influences and say to them instead, given what we know about one second ago, one year ago, one century ago, all of that, given what we know, free will has to be defined as you’ve just produced a behavior that is free from your brain’s history, that is independent of it. And it’s at this point that you say, okay, you’re saying just influences. In other words, there’s still some freedom. Show me a mechanism. Show me a brain that does something where if you had changed its last ten hours and its genes and like what you had for breakfast and what your environment was like, and etc. etc., etc., you still would have done the exact same thing that the exact same moment. You would have just proven free will for my money. And you can’t. And there’s no mechanisms by which the brain operates independent of its history. Not only is the past relevant, the past isn’t even past, so that would be one response. The other is sort of a realm in which we’re still thinking are okay.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:15:15] Nonetheless, there’s free will that’s massaged by influences because we can sit there and we can look back at events in our life. We can look back and say, wow, that’s so interesting. I was, by age 20, mugging old ladies every single night in my neighborhood, and I’ve been doing that for 37 years. And then there was this one evening where I suddenly said, this isn’t okay, and I’m going to start reading Moral Philosophers, and I’m going to never do that. And you’re transformed. And you decided I need to change. You didn’t decide. You need to change. You were changed by some sort of circumstance. Because you look at that person, you look at me in that example and say, how did I turn out to be the sort of person who valued reflection, who would sit there and say, you know what, this isn’t really like a life’s purpose? Or how did I turn out to be the sort of person, when reflecting on something would come up, had been exposed to ideas like, oh, I’ll become a Buddhist, I’ll become a ethnic cleanser. How did you get those possibilities in your mind? How did you become the sort of person who would then have the discipline to say, okay, New Year’s resolution, I’m going to stop mugging people starting tomorrow, okay? The day after day. How did you become someone who would actually run through it? It is not by chance you got a brain that could stick with that decision. And the point is, we don’t change. We are changed by circumstance as a function of turned into going into that circumstance. Hmm.


Jonathan Fields: [00:16:58] I’m wondering also if part of the knee jerk reaction can be to how we’re actually defining the phrase free will? Because I think part of it is people look at that and it sounds like your definition is and tell me if I, if I have this right, is for you. Free will would be the ability to make a choice that is completely and utterly dissociated with any historical context, any biological, genetic, and environmental context. Is that about right?


Robert Sapolsky: [00:17:30] Perfect. How you got there doesn’t matter.


Jonathan Fields: [00:17:33] Right? And I wonder if sort of like the common understanding of free will is a little different. I wonder if I wonder if there’s, you know, there’s a semantic issue here where the more common understanding is I actually kind of agree with what you’re saying, but I still call that free will, because in the moment I feel like, yes, I’m being influenced by all of these things, but in the moment that I’m making the choice, I’m still choosing, and that changes what you know it is. It becomes the cause that leads to an effect.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:18:05] Yeah. And here we’re like, get ourselves mired even further in semantics in this one second ago, one century ago scenario, as you sit there and you pick what flavor of ice cream. Um, you know, the labeling I would use, you’re not acting on free will at that point, but you are being a causal agent. Yeah. You cause something to happen. I mean, watch this. I just decided to lift my hand up, and as a result, I caused a gazillion quarks in this finger to move from here up to here. Whoa. I just caused that causality. How did I turn out to be the sort of person who, at this moment would say, okay, I’m going to lift my hand and talk about quarks or yeah, in the moment there is this proximal agency, and it’s one that allows you to cause things to form intent, to make a decision, to choose among options and cause something to happen in the universe. But. That’s not getting it. The question of how you got to be that sort of person. And that would seem like, okay, we can all happily agree at this point, okay, we can say there’s free will as long as we’re talking about the stuff you just decided to do five seconds ago. And if we’re defining free will in the context of all of history, then there’s not free will.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:19:25] But okay, just in this little picture, though, the trouble is somebody does something during that little picture, like pull a trigger and we’re willing to judge very harshly based on that. Somebody does something wonderfully kind, and we’re willing to say something about praise and reward and something about their moral worth. And the trouble is, even if you are being a causal agent who is making a decision in that moment, that moment can’t be separated from. And what we’re mostly doing in society is judging people based on something they just did. Oh my God, that jerk that cut me off in traffic. Oh my God, that person who just smiled very warmly at me. Oh my God, this person who just like, opened fire in a crowded mall or whatever. And that’s where the. Okay, let’s agree on a truce here. You got free will up to like 37.5 seconds ago. But beyond that, now we’re getting into that like biology stuff. No, it’s one and the same. And we are willing to make our harshest judgments when considering behavior that three seconds ago was the output of the entire entire universe that came before three seconds ago.


Jonathan Fields: [00:20:49] Yeah. I mean, yes, I’m nodding along. Um, and it’s still uncomfortable. Yes. Because we have this mythology that we want to buy into that says we have agency, that when we make a choice, there’s a certain, quote, purity to it, you know, that that’s mine. I can own that and that, you know, it’s not based on, um, a thousand different influences, potential manipulations that were intentional, that led us to feel and see and be a particular way that then led to this choice. We want to believe that in that moment, we have the ability to suss out, um, what’s really happening here and, and be, quote, objective about this. And, you know, we love those words, intentionality and agency. Um, because that’s what, you know, that’s where the marrow of life lies when you can step into that zone. Um, and you’re not entirely saying you’re not saying we don’t make choices. You’re not saying we don’t exhibit behaviors and have, um, you know, and can direct those in particular ways. What you’re saying is that the, the underlying impulse to make those choices, which will then lead to something happening is, is never as pure as we wish it would be.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:22:17] Exactly. And probably a good rule of thumb is if you understand why somebody just did something, especially if you think you understand why you just did something, you’re almost certainly wrong. Because there’s all this subterraneous okay, here’s like the no free will 101 example. This is like a classic thing in social psychology. You take somebody into a room, a volunteer, and there’s like posters up on the wall of Hawaii, and you take them in and you ask them, what’s your favorite detergent? And in this classic study, if up on the wall is a picture of the ocean, people become more likely to say their favorite detergent is tide. Oh my God, that’s all you’d ask them. Oh well, why tell me and they’ll tell you about like, how great it is or smells or how great a shirt that’s been washed and tide feels on their armpits, or who knows what. And like you’ve just had the most baby step version of. There’s levers and gears and buttons underneath the surface that you have no idea. Okay. Something much more consequential within that same time span. Take somebody, uh, sit them down and have them fill out some questionnaire about their political views, their social politics, their economic, their geopolitical, all of that. Um, and as shown now and replicated, put them in a room that happens to smell of disgusting garbage. And you can buy a little vial from a chemical supply company of disgusting garbage, smelling a little vile, put somebody in there and have them fill out the same questionnaire they filled out two weeks ago. And there’s no effect on their economic views and there’s no effect on their geopolitical view.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:24:05] Use in what our trade imbalance with Uzbekistan should be or whatever, but the average person will now become more socially conservative in their views. They are more likely to say, oh, when those people do that, it’s wrong. It’s not just different, it’s wrong. That shouldn’t be allowed. That should be illegal. No, that you become more likely to confuse sensory disgust with what you perceive to be moral disgust. Oh my God, the smell of a room that you’re in could make you, as shown in the original study, more or less likely to support gay marriage. That was the original finding in those studies. That’s pretty amazing. Another version of it, back when you were a fetus, how much stress hormones were you exposed to from your mother? How much was she secreting them because she was going to like Lamaze classes, or because she was homeless or refugee or whatever, and whatever version of that, and that will have had epigenetic wiring instructions on your brain so that as a result, as an adult, you are more likely to see threat than other people do in a circumstances perfectly neutral, you’re more likely to decide that person looks menacing. This situation is dangerous. Oh, and that influences how likely you are to act aggressively. Third example. So we’ve now just gone from smelling the room to what was happening when you were a fetus. Studies now showing go back 400 years and look at your ancestors if you actually know who they were. And it was just like one population and asked what was the infectious disease load your ancestors were dealing with and what that is sort of asking between the lines is, how scary would it be if a stranger showed up? Because who knows what infectious thing they’re carrying in here? And infectious disease load 400 years ago is a predictor of, to some degree, somebody’s xenophobia in the culture they were raised in.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:26:19] Are you kidding? The bubonic plague passed. That village never came there. And that’s where much more open to immigration or yeah. Is the smelly room effect gigantic? No. Is the prenatal effect not gigantic? No. Is the you know, all of these are small effects, but put them together and you will see the ooh, strange people bringing infectious diseases is going to cause you to see threat where there isn’t and is going to cause you to be more sensitive to this or that’s it. All the pieces merge together and in every case, like sit somebody down and say, wow, you just went to a Trump rally and said, immigrants are not people. You know why that has something to do with the fact that your ancestors dealt with a lot of bubonic plague. Give me a break. Yet all those pieces are going in there. And in the moment when you ask somebody to explain how they had that opinion, they’re going to come up with an explanation that almost certainly has nothing to do. They’re not going to say, oh, because my second trimester fetal life was very stressful. We’re going to come up with attributions that have nothing to do with what actually went on.


Jonathan Fields: [00:27:32] Yeah, I mean, that last part I think is really interesting as well, because what it speaks to is our lack of awareness of what’s actually leading us to make a certain decision in any given moment in time, and we will attribute to it to something that kind of seems obvious. Maybe, maybe there’s a recency bias, like the most recent thing that happened, the most the last hour, the last week, the last month or year. Well, sure, I can look back at that and point to that and say, look, this is why I did what I did. And what you’re saying is, well, yes, end, yes.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:28:06] End and even yes. And be suspicious of the recent things you think are relevant, because it wouldn’t come to mind that you like tied because of the poster up on the wall that you just looked at very recently. Yeah, there’s all this stuff going on underneath. And when you look at where that stuff came from, how much you didn’t get to choose your ancestors or choose your genes, or choose which womb you hung out in for nine months, and choose and choose and choose and all of those, you put them together. And biological luck and environmental luck is what made you who you are in this moment.


Jonathan Fields: [00:28:46] Yeah. And we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors. I mean, I wonder if part of what is so uncomfortable about this idea also is this notion that two things one, a sense of a lack of historical control over all the different things that have shaped us and that lead us to make a decision to see the world a particular way and make a call in this moment in time. And I think that’s always uncomfortable for us. Like we love to lock down both the past and the future.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:29:15] Absolutely.


Jonathan Fields: [00:29:16] But then there’s this other thing that you keep referencing, which is that this sense of not fallibility, but manipulability if that’s even a word like this, sense that even it doesn’t matter how smart you are, it doesn’t matter how studied you are, how accomplished you are, it doesn’t matter what status you have, that there is something that we are all mildly to wildly manipulated by all of these different things on a perpetual basis and building on what you’re saying. We would like to think, oh, if we’re being manipulated or somebody is trying to convince us or quote, con us or like get us to do a particular thing, we can pick that out. We’re smart enough, we’re discerning enough, we’re aware enough to think, oh, like, I, oh, I see what’s happening here. No, no, no, it’s not going to quote work on me. And what you’re saying is, well, maybe there are circumstances where we do pick that up and we can respond to it in a particular way, but there are probably any number of other things that have manipulated us and shaped us in the past, and probably right in this very moment that we are completely and utterly unaware of. And that makes us feel kind of like we’re we’re victims. And I feel like that’s part of this desire to not want what you’re saying to be true.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:30:28] We’re end products. Here’s a great way of framing. I’m not going to be manipulated in that way. You know, you get raised by your parents and all of their tastes and values and quirks and idiosyncrasies and whatever, and you turn out to be exactly like them. Okay, so you could say there was not a whole lot of free will going on there. So now you’re raised by your parents. Et cetera, et cetera. And you say, oh, I understand how they’re trying to inculcate me with their values, and I’m not going to fall to be manipulated that way. And I’m going to do the opposite of them in every possible way. You’ve just shown as little free will. Or if you do some of what they do. And there was that influential teacher and as a result you changed doing this stuff that wasn’t that’s where that came from. That’s where the in all of those cases. Yeah. Rather than saying we are captives to our past, we’re nothing more than our past. Our past starting one millisecond ago all the way back.


Jonathan Fields: [00:31:34] Mm. Let’s talk a bit about some of the implications of this in particular domains of life you referenced earlier in our conversation. Actually the notion of criminality and justice. Responsibility. Walk me through how these ideas influence that on an individual and then at scale, on a societal level, how we think about responsibility and justice and punishment.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:31:57] Yeah. Here’s where people like fling down their their headphones and say, this guy is completely off the rails. But there’s some very important implications there. If you truly, truly, truly believe we are nothing more or less than the outcome of everything that came before over which we had no control, blah blah blah. If you really believe that it is never justifiable intellectually or ethically to blame someone for something, to punish them for, something to believe there’s anything they could have done that makes them deserve a particular type of treatment, especially one that turns blame and punishment into virtues. There’s absolutely no room for that. It makes no sense at all. And as long as we’re in the neighborhood of that, hold up a mirror and you get the exact same conclusion with even tougher implications that it makes no sense to ever praise or reward anyone. And meritocracies make no sense. But we can get to that criminal justice realm. What you’re left with is it is never okay to work with retribution. It is okay sometimes to use punishment as an instrumental sort of tool, recognizing that it doesn’t work anywhere near as much as we think, and that we all have this implicit pleasure that we get from punishing righteously. And there’s actually a whole neurobiology that shows that. And it’s wild. People love to punish righteously. They will work, they will press a lever, they will give up little plastic coins that they’ve been given in this psych experiment to get the chance to, like, buzz, a mild shock for this person who just was a jerk in some economic game.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:33:42] Yeah, there’s room for that. But nonetheless, overall, the criminal justice system makes no sense at all. And any version of blame or negative judgment makes no sense at all. Oh my God, what kind of world are we going to have if we do that? And this is where people always freak out at this point saying everybody’s going to run amok, everybody’s not going to run amok. And there’s a whole literature that shows if you raise people the right way, if they have reflected on the difficult questions of who am I? And what’s my place in the world, and where are the roots of human goodness and why are we here and all of that, if their conclusion is we are responsible for our actions, or if their conclusion is we are nothing more than machines of fate. If their conclusion is there is a God who is watching and judging us, or if their conclusion is there is no such thing as a deity. If you get the people who’ve thought long and hard about it, it almost doesn’t matter which of those conclusions. They’re going to be highly ethical compared to everybody else. Okay, so in other words, if you do things right, people won’t run amok. And there’s studies that show, in fact, sit down a test subject and manipulate them, saying scientists believe there’s no free will or whatever. And the average subject is more likely to cheat in an economic game immediately afterward.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:35:06] Okay, get somebody who shows up who already does not believe in free will and hasn’t believed in it for years or years, and they are as ethical from the first drop of moment. They’re as a person who’s highly believes humans should be held responsible for their actions, so people in general are not going to run amok. Oh my God, though, what are we going to do with the subset of people who are nonetheless dangerous? Are we just going to have murderers run around in the street and absolutely not. You know, saying you can’t blame people, you can’t punish people as a virtue in and of itself doesn’t mean we’re going to have murderers around them. You’ve got to protect people from them, but you protect them in a way that has only constraint. Do what’s needed to keep them from being dangerous, and don’t do an inch more than that. And don’t preach to them about their crappy soul, and put some effort into finding out the root causes. How do people like that become like that, and what changes we can make? And that’s basically taking the public health model for infectious disease. You quarantine the person, you quarantine them, the absolute minimum needed so that they’re not infectious. And you don’t tell them that Satan has invaded their immune system. And you go and you study like, where do viruses come from? How do we, like, get people cleaned or water or things like that? And that seems like absurdly utopian. But we do that all the time.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:36:39] We do that so regularly, we don’t even see that we’re doing it. You got an airline pilot and they’ve got hay fever and they’re taking some antihistamines. And as a result, the rule is they can’t fly for about three days afterward because it makes you drowsy. You realize through no fault of their own, they are dangerous to society. They sure should not be flying an airplane right now. And you constrain them. You quarantine them, but you don’t tell them that there are bad souls sleeping with Satan because they get hay fever. And like you contribute $3 to the people who are trying to get the next version of antihistamines that won’t make you drowsy or something. We do that all the time and things work just fine, and we do that all the time. Even in realms where like our most, you know, frothy, visceral, atavistic stuff comes pouring out. We figured out about 400 years ago. Old women with no teeth do not have the powers to control weather. They can’t do witchcraft. They’re not responsible for the lightning storm last night that took out your crops. So don’t burn them at the stake. There’s no free will involved in the weather. We figured that out, and it became a much better world. When we stopped burning old ladies at the stake. It became a much better world about 150 years ago, when most of Western culture figured out that epilepsy is not a marker of demonic possession, it’s a marker. If you got, like, screwed up potassium channels in this part of your brain and we’ve got rules, if someone is having uncontrolled seizures, they can’t drive a car and we’re protecting society from them.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:38:19] But you don’t get a whole band of like goitrous peasants showing up with their pitchforks to burn the driver’s licenses of the epileptics. No, we have been able to detach the behavior from anything resembling judgment. And, you know, not only has the roof not fallen and the world becomes a more humane place and over and over historically, with mental illnesses, with learning differences, with people who are totally disciplined and yet somehow they are still overweight every time. We figure out, oh, there really wasn’t free will in this domain. It had nothing to do with it. This person had no control over that. Every time we do that, the world becomes a much better place. So this is a great thing to strive for. And it is great as you look there and you want to judge somebody for something awful they’ve done. Remember, if you were sitting around 400 years ago, you would have thought that, like, the crops froze prematurely because some old lady came up with some witchcraft. And it seems intuitively absurd at this point that it would work that way. But at the same time, it seems intuitively obvious to that some people are just rotten and deserve something, and some people are just good and motivated and self-disciplined and kind and empathic and deserve a completely different sort of set of treatments that they didn’t earn either.


Jonathan Fields: [00:39:46] It’s interesting, as you’re walking through the different examples, my sense is that most people could wrap their head around the fact that if somebody was diagnosed with a mental illness, if somebody if you could look at somebody’s brain and see a physiological anomaly, a dementia, a tumor or something like that, that you could sort of readily point to, and this would affect their perception, their choice, their behavior in an identifiable way that led to a particular type of outcome that was not desirable or maybe harmful. You know, when there’s something that that we can point to that’s in a DSM or in a physiology manual or something like that, that exists largely in a brain or within a person’s body that we’re more comfortable looking at that you know, whatever the outcome is, and saying, oh, I can track it back to this so I can quote, forgive that, or I can understand it, or I can see how the appropriate response to this is not retribution, but is let’s understand what’s happening here and see what is the best possible therapeutic modality to rewire this, or to fix it, or to cure it with the assumption that that would then change the way that somebody steps into a state, steps into a relationship, steps into the world, makes decisions, and and responds with behaviors.


Jonathan Fields: [00:41:00] I think we could probably wrap their head around that. Yep. But then it’s when you extend it to, you know, but the way that they were brought up, what happened to their mom when they were in utero, or what happened to their grandparent two generations ago, and the war actually led this to this behavior. That’s where I think a lot of folks would really start to stumble with this and say like, ah, it’s like a step two quote too far. Exactly. Okay, I get it. But if we do that, then, like you just described, everybody’s going to have their version of that. And then it’s mayhem. It’s anarchy. And that’s not the society that we want to live in. And what you’re saying is, especially that last assumption, is when it’s actually really tested is not true, that it leads to the opposite. When you really take more of a therapeutic, empathic approach to whatever it is that led somebody to a state where they made a particular decision that led to a negative outcome.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:42:01] Exactly. And, you know, we kind of have two categories that you’ve just outlined, examples of no free will that we could wrap our heads around, and examples where it’s inconceivable. A great example of the former. What was it? A few months ago, there was that mass shooting in Maine, and we just got like the neuropathology back on the guy’s brain and his massive amounts of brain damage. How did that happen? This guy spent years in the military reserve as a grenade instructor. He was a West Point teaching, like, okay, here, come here, take a grenade, do this, and now throw it. Boom. Okay. Good job. Next. And the estimates were that he had been exposed to more than 10,000 grenade explosions over the course of that time. And that produces neurotoxic shock waves. And we understand exactly. And yeah, that explains it. And there’s already very like comforting quotes from family members of victims saying, I am comforted. Here’s an explanation like, here’s how it happened. Damn the military. Didn’t they realize this? But this guy was just like a broken machine. Okay, what we’ve outlined there, God help me for using this term, and it’s kind of a snarky way, is like a liberal, a liberal who’s walking around with, like, an NPR tote bag or whatever, because what they’re saying is most people have free will. But remember, there’s some people who don’t because of special circumstances, and most people have free will all the time. But remember, there are special circumstances where you kind of lose it because you’re super tired or totally stressful or whatever.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:43:46] The notion that, yeah, yeah, just be aware of the edge cases, the exceptions and. Otherwise we have free will and exactly where wrapping your head around it becomes difficult is for the simple reason. Wow, why did that guy do what he did? And it’s easy to see. Here’s the one variable 10,000 shock waves. And you can see that forms this massive cable of explanation that goes from that to why he did what he just did. And the challenge becomes where most of us, there is no cable like that. There’s a gazillion microscopic little spider webs of causality. And for one thing, we don’t know most of them that exist. And science is only discovered the ones that we know about in the last ten years and that sort of thing. And it’s inconceivable what your fetal environment had something to do with it, whether your grandparents were hunter gatherers. Et cetera. Et cetera. And what is even harder to conceive of is you put all those microscopic little spider web threads together, and it forms as big of a cable as from that guy with his brain damage. It’s just easier to see it with him. Distributed causality distributed across a gazillion different hiccups of influence. It’s really hard to perceive them and then believe you put them all together. And that’s as thick of a cable as that guy’s brain damage. Yeah, that’s exactly where it becomes hard to wrap your head around.


Jonathan Fields: [00:45:18] Yeah, I mean, it’s almost the way you’re describing it. I’m thinking, okay, so is is the answer to switch to a society where instead of the prison industrial complex, we have the the therapy industrial complex.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:45:32] Yeah, exactly. And therapy in the sense of whatever somebody does, it’s a function of how did they become who they are. And understanding that damaging individuals have, by definition, been damaged somewhere along the way. It’s simply implicit in you don’t get a damaging nervous system without it being damaged, and thus putting in that context all of that stuff. And then you get the even harder challenge, which is you look at this wonderful, like Nobel Peace Prize winner. And they didn’t get that way by chance either. Like there’s much an outcome of everything that came before. You know, society has a lot more trouble with mass shooters than with our shortage of Nobel Prize winners, peace Prize winners. But actually, there’s as much need to understand what made them who they are. Um, is what made the shopping mall shooter into. And it’s the same thing one second ago, one decade, one lifetime ago.


Jonathan Fields: [00:46:42] Yeah. And we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors. It also brings into the conversation when you start to reference, sort of like the quote positive side about, you know, like how certain people lead to certain choices that lead to certain outcomes. And when you get into that, you look at some of the people who have accomplished great things in medicine and great things in culture and society and against, quote, great odds and stunning adversity. And you look at them and you say, what phenomenal grit they had, what incredible willpower they had, and you’re basically saying no to that also.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:47:18] Yeah, I mean, there’s amazing examples out there. There’s this guy, Mario Capecchi. He’s in his late 80s by now. Nobel laureate, invented one type of molecular biology, and he spent World War Two as a homeless street kid in Rome. And somehow he turned out this way. 1960. The fastest woman in the world running was this Olympian, Wilma Rudolph. She was amazing and so fast. And as a kid, she was crippled with polio. She wore leg braces and oh my God, you look at those people. And just as we have that intuitive sense. Hey, I just picked vanilla ice cream over strawberry. I just exercised free will. And the last thing that occurs to you is, how did you become that sort of person? You look at these amazing inspirational examples, or you look at the like, jerk born into every privilege and opportunity who, like, drinks it away. By the time he’s 25, you look at those and you think you’re seeing free will once again because there’s this false dichotomy like, oh, there’s some attributes we’re handed. We had no control over our eye color or our tendency to do this or taste for what? Yeah, there’s stuff that we were handed, but what you do with it, that’s where the free will comes in.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:48:40] And that’s this completely false dichotomy. Because what you do with opportunity, what you do with setback, where you show grit and tenacity and backbone or self-indulgence and all of that, that’s a product of your brain. Exactly. It’s made of the exact same biology as the biology that determines whether you’re a left handed or right handed, or have perfect pitch or any of those. It’s just a much subtler, more interesting sort of biology. But that stuff isn’t made of like Calvinist virtue. It’s made of your brain, it’s made of the same. And, you know, you look at parts of the brain, this area of the frontal cortex that has a ton to do with self-discipline and emotional regulation. And you can see five year old kids and how developed their frontal cortex is at that point is already a function of what kind of crappy luck or wonderful luck they’ve already had from their genes and their fetal environment and their home environment and all. Yeah, willpower and backbone or flagrant absence of are made out of the same stuff as like everything else that makes us up, which is like a material universe.


Jonathan Fields: [00:49:55] Which begs the question also, when we’re looking at the aspirational side of the human condition, what model should we be looking at then? If we’re looking to encourage, how do we normalize? How do we democratize? Maybe that’s the wrong word because it’s not impossible, because we all start in such different places. And I guess maybe we have to acknowledge that in the first place. But what is the model that allows for motivation and behavior change in a pro-social and in a constructive way?


Robert Sapolsky: [00:50:27] Hard, really, really hard. You know, I have this book that came out a few months ago. There’s no free will, blah, blah. And I spend a whole chapter on how we got to get rid of the criminal justice system and how we’ve done it historically. And there’s quarantine, all of that. And I went back and I’m incredibly embarrassed. The word meritocracy appears once in the book. And am I just saying, oh, obviously this applies to the meritocracy as well. And like, just as someone who had every bit of bad luck shouldn’t feel like they’re a rotten failure of a human. Whatever. Whoever wound up having the corner office is not intrinsically of more moral worth than the rest of us, that sort of thing. But one word. And because when I think about it, it was probably only mentioned once because it’s a much harder problem. Okay, there’s no free will and some people wind up being damaging, constrained them, don’t preach to them, constrain them the absolute minimum and otherwise they go about their life and that sort of thing. Oh, there’s some people who turn out to be absolutely essential to society. You know, you want to protect society from dangerous, murderous people on the street. Similarly, with the mirror up there, like you get a brain tumor, they don’t want you don’t want them to pick a random person off the street who’s going to operate on you to. You need, like qualified people who are capable and have done the hard work and at the criminal justice end, just figure out how to constrain people at the end of you want capable people, you got to motivate people.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:52:05] How are you going to get somebody to every single Saturday night throughout college, their roommate is out partying and falling down drunk, and they’re still working. They’re still studying. They’re still how do you motivate people to do the incredible amounts of hard work needed to wind up being capable enough to do some of the things in society without telling them they earned it. They’re special. They are of more value and more worth, and deserve better health care and deserve a better salary. And that one’s a huge problem. I mean, thank God you’ve got the total weirdo outliers. You got the people who like, you know, you hardly pay them anything and they’re working 80 hour weeks and still they in fact, pay you to study gecko physiology, because that’s all they’ve been thinking about since they were eight years old. Okay? They’re the they’re the weirdo outliers. There’s some sort of mirror version of sociopaths where it doesn’t matter what you do with them, they’re still going to be sociopathically remorseless. It doesn’t matter how hard you make these people work to get grant funding, they’re still going to want to understand this little organelle in this type of cell or whatever, and like, give up anything to do. Okay, so they’re the weird outliers, how you do the motivating for everybody else to do the hard work needed to become a good architect, a good artist, a good surgeon, a good any of those things, a good those take a lot of work, and we want to protect society from people doing difficult, important jobs who are not capable of it.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:53:49] But how do you do it without telling these people? Wow, you’re so great. You’re so great with your SAT scores. You’re so great with your prestigious university degree, and that’s a really tough one. Maybe it is asking way too much for people to feel gratitude for how they happen to turn out. Like you’ve got like, some concert pianist and this is someone who is not going to say, damn, I did 10,000 hours of practice and I like, had no social life. And for somebody to just sit there and say, wow, how cool is that? That my fingers can produce emotions and audiences like, that’s asking for a lot for that sort of detachment. Maybe the way to start is insofar as most of our self-worth is built around how people view us. Maybe it’s asking people to do this transition from, wow, I am so grateful that you’re this kind person who just helped me to wow. I am so grateful that you turned out to be the sort of person who could help me in that circumstance and show that kindness that sounds like superficial, like some. That’s not semantics. It’s. Yeah, you turned out this way, and I’m glad you’re here is maybe a prerequisite for it being easier for us to then say, yeah, I feel grateful that I turned out to be the sort of person who could be kind and empathic or smart or motivated or self-disciplined or any of that. But yeah, that one is going to be an uphill haul because.


Jonathan Fields: [00:55:29] Yeah. It’s it’s complicated.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:55:31] Yeah. That one if you if you think it’s like stupid utopian to say, oh, we’ll get rid of prisons and just don’t preach to people and just like, make sure they can’t harm people and don’t tell them they’re like, that’s trivial compared to the job that’s going to go into getting somebody to do 15 years of training to become a cardiothoracic surgeon or something, or become Mother Teresa or whatever.


Jonathan Fields: [00:55:56] Yeah. And I mean, if you just rely on, as you described earlier, like there’s some people are just wired to. Yeah, yeah. I had a friend when I was a kid who picked up a guitar and basically never went to class after that because there was just something about it that he just. And on the rare occasions when he went to class, he went straight home afterwards and he would practice until he couldn’t keep his eyes open anymore. And he fell asleep. And he turned out to be a phenomenal musician, you know, nobody’s making him do that. There was something that was about the way that he was wired, his conditioning, that when he started with this thing, all he wanted to do was more of this. And on the one hand, you could say, well, let’s help everybody figure out like, how to, like, identify that intrinsic impulse and then align it with, uh, some form of thing that they can contribute to the world. And maybe we get like a little bit of salvation happen. Thing there. And like we get the, you know, the societal impact we want. But then what about all those jobs where we don’t have enough people who have that impulse, and yet we really, really need those cardiothoracic surgeons and those like these people like that. Like, or.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:57:02] The trash collectors.


Jonathan Fields: [00:57:04] Right. Exactly. Like the fundamental services that we all just so often take for granted. But it is absolutely necessary for us to be okay.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:57:12] Yeah, that’s a tough one. And I think sort of your friend with a guitar and other such people, um, all we can do is look at them as like these magnificent weirdo outliers and like, you spend your time around research scientists, and there’s an awful lot of them. And that’s how we became who we are. But. Okay. Yeah, they’re like some flipped version of sociopaths. You couldn’t stop them from wanting to play the guitar or study the life of this obscure historical figure, or whatever it is that’s gotten them, or to wanted to like the most beautiful rose selective, narrow artificial selection to produce the perfect prize rose. And like wherever these like obsessions come from. Yeah, we’re lucky to have those people, but they’re few and far between. The much bigger one is, you know, I’m tired, I’m tired, I can’t concentrate, I’m having trouble remembering why I’m doing all of this. I’m having trouble dealing with the fact that I’ve chose a path where 95% of the time, it’s not going to work because I’m trying to do something really, really hard. All these versions of those. And yeah, that’s going to be a very tough one if you’re not going to somehow, you know, brainwash that person into thinking that they have a moral worth that stands on its own because they turned out to have the ability to do this. And yeah, that one’s really hard.


Jonathan Fields: [00:58:49] Yeah. And maybe part of what you were talking to and you described it as like a pretty subtle distinction, but I actually think is substantial is acknowledging the potential social context, you know, the social currency, the the connection to the need to belong and be seen or status, like you have a certain position within a community. And if we know that we’re influenced by everything anyway.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:59:13] Yes.


Jonathan Fields: [00:59:13] And we know that we’re definitely influenced by a lot of sort of, you know, like indicia of a social context. What if we actually tried to massage those?


Robert Sapolsky: [00:59:23] Yeah


Jonathan Fields: [00:59:24] In a way that, you know, inspired people to say yes to certain things that we all could really benefit from? Um, not acknowledging that we’re not looking to make somebody miserable in the name of making everybody else better, but like, something that they’d be fine with. But we need more of this in culture and society, and this is a way to help us feel like, you know, we’re getting the benefit of not just doing the thing, but also that the glow of being held in a certain esteem. Um, and that blind is like, yeah, I’m okay with that.


Robert Sapolsky: [00:59:55] And even if it’s this detached esteem of it’s not me, it’s how I turned out this way, and I had no control over it. We’re social primates, we’re conformists. And if we create a world in which people no longer say, I’m so grateful for you, I’m so grateful for how you turned out to be you. Instead, you know, that’s going to be very reinforcing. Even if you just do something wonderful for someone and they say a version of that second one, they say, when you see your mother next, tell her she did a good job.


Jonathan Fields: [01:00:28] Mm.


Robert Sapolsky: [01:00:29] You know, even that feels good. Or when you do something amazing and they say, I have no idea how and how you’re able to do that athletic thing, that intellectual thing, whatever. How you turned out that way is what is being said between the lines. We feel good at that. Also. You know, if we raise our kids that that’s where goodness comes from. And what you do when there’s badness is stop and think, how did that person become who they are? And it was for reasons I have no idea of, because I’ve been so much luckier than them. You know, you get a whole world growing up where they now say, I am so glad you turned out to be this sort of person that’s going to feel good. We don’t say rulers are divinely picked by God anymore. We say, oh, you’re very effective campaigner on the campaign trail and have charisma. We’re like getting more plausible versions of what we give people feedback about. So like go spend a couple of generations raising kids with that mindset and we will feel motivated to work that hard to become a competent cardiothoracic surgeon, because you were going to feel grateful that you turned out to be someone. Could save people, and they’re going to tell you that they’re grateful that you turned out to be that person. So maybe that’s the 50 year plan for doing this.


Jonathan Fields: [01:01:58] Well, I’m on board with that 50 year plan. So it feels like a good place to for us to come full circle in this conversation. To Robert. So in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Robert Sapolsky: [01:02:12] Well, to be one where you can do good and feel pleasure as a result of that, and understand how you wound up where you are, and to put that in context and do the same thing for everyone else. And I would say even if all this like science, neurobiology, etc. stuff lead to the conclusion that we’re just biological machines, just like everything else that’s alive. We’re the only biological machines that can know we are biological machines and know where the buttons are and the levers that make us more patient or more. And any of these versions of, you know, know thy neurobiological self in a sense. And remember, even if it seems ridiculous to think that it’s ever possible for something good to happen to a machine, it’s a good thing when good things happen to us, even if we are machines. Somehow you got to live with that contradiction and derive meaning from that. 


Jonathan Fields: [01:03:20] Hmm. Thank you.


Jonathan Fields: [01:03:23] Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode safe bet, you’ll also love the conversation we had with Milton Glaser about how different people and experiences influence your path. You’ll find a link to Milton’s episode in the show notes. This episode of Good Life Project was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.

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