Free will has been the object of debate in the context of addiction given that addiction could compromise an individual’s ability to choose freely between alternative courses of action. Proponents of the brain-disease model of addiction have argued that a neuroscience perspective on addiction reduces the attribution of free will because it relocates the cause of the disorder to the brain rather than to the person, thereby diminishing the blame attributed to the person with an addiction. Others have worried that such displacement of free will attribution would make the person with a drug addiction less responsible. Using the paradigmatic literature on the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations, we tested whether neuroscience information diminishes attributions of free will in the context of addiction and whether respondent characteristics influence these attributions and modulate the effect of neuroscience information. We performed a large-scale, web-based experiment with 2,378 German participants to explore how attributions of free will in the context of addiction to either alcohol or cocaine are affected by: (1) a text with a neurobiological explanation of addiction, (2) a neuroimage showing effects of addiction on the brain, and (3) a combination of a text and a neuroimage, in comparison to a control group that received no information. Belief in free will was measured using the FAD-Plus scale and was, subsequent to factor analysis, separated into two factors: responsibility and volition. The investigated respondent characteristics included gender, age, education, self-reported knowledge of neuroscience, substance-use disorder (SUD), and having a friend with SUD. We found that attributions of volition (in the cocaine-subsample) were reduced in the text and neuroimage-treatment compared to the control group. However, respondent characteristics such as education and self-reported knowledge of neuroscience were associated with lower attributions of responsibility for both substances, and education was associated with lower attribution of volition for the alcohol sub-sample. Interaction analyses showed that knowledge of neuroscience was found to generally decrease attribution of responsibility. Further research on attribution of free will should consider the effects of context and respondent characteristics, which appeared surprisingly larger than those induced by experimental treatments.


Racine E, Sattler S, Escande A. Free will and the brain disease model of addiction: The not so seductive allure of neuroscience and its modest impact on the attribution of free will to people with addiction, Frontiers in Psychology, 2017; 8:1850