Campus & Community

Free will hunting: Dan Wegner probes the relation between mind and action

7 min read

Try not to think about a white bear. Really try. Try not to think about a white bear. You’re thinking of one, aren’t you?

Dan Wegner, who just joined the psychology department at Harvard, has done groundbreaking work in thought-suppression, the illusion of conscious will, and other areas of social psychology.

And he’s done it with a certain flair, a Wegnerian blend of scientific rigor and creativity.

“Everyone who knows Dan knows he is a brilliant psychologist, probably the most creative and original social psychologist of his generation,” says friend and colleague Dan Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard. “They probably also know that he’s one of the funniest human beings on two legs.”

This is a man, after all, who collects nose-and-glasses of the Groucho Marx variety (and keeps them in a handsome display case); who wore a pair of nose-and-glasses, with his wife, in the photo for his first baby announcement; whose entire family, for the second baby announcement, wore fake arrows through their heads; who has decorated a tree stump — they call it their “family tree” — rather than a Christmas tree, for the past 18 years; and who measures his success in teaching by the number of times he can make his students crack up.

“He likes silly things,” says his wife, Toni Wegner, director of the faculty research computing center at Harvard Business School.

But there is nothing pratfall-goofy about this soft-spoken man; he radiates stability, calm, and a caring nature. And when it comes to his work, his creativity takes the form of unusually fresh insights and original experimentation.

Think about it

Wegner’s central concern in psychology is the relationship between people’s minds and their actions, or, as he puts it, “the role of thought in self-control and social life.” In the 1980s, taking his cue from a Dostoevskian quote about a white bear, Wegner asked subjects in an experiment to try not to think about a white bear. Then he asked them to speak for five minutes about anything that occurred to them.

“They mentioned a white bear about once a minute,” says Wegner. “And then if I asked them afterward to think about anything at all, they would mention white bears more often than if I had initially asked them to think about white bears on purpose.”

Thought-suppression, then, as a technique of mental control, can backfire and actually help create an obsession, Wegner found. For people who keep reliving past traumas, or who have phobias, or any preoccupying thought — an ended relationship, that ambiguous mole on their arm, the extra doughnut they want to eat — Wegner’s finding has important therapeutic implications.

“I don’t think there’s a single solution,” Wegner says, “but one simple solution is to go ahead and think about it. And the curious thing is, you can get really tired of something if you go ahead and think about it. Somehow, trying not to think about it is what keeps it fresh.”

Just do it

Now stand behind a friend and stretch your arms out in front of that friend. Clap three times. Touch your friend’s cheek. Wave your arms like an octopus.

For his forthcoming book, “The Illusion of Conscious Will” (M.I.T. Press), Wegner conducted experiments exploring “why we feel we’re doing something,” as he puts it.

Psychology claims our behaviors are caused by psychological mechanisms, Wegner says. And yet, we feel like we “do” things, like we have agency or conscious will. To explore the nature of conscious will, Wegner looked into seemingly automatic or involuntary behaviors, such as those exhibited during hypnosis, dowsing for water, Ouija board spelling, or spirit possession.

In one experiment, a person watching another person’s arms moving in front of him didn’t feel strongly that those were his own hands performing these actions. But when the subject listened to a recording predicting each action before it happened, the feeling of ownership — and sensation — dramatically rose. “So you almost start to have phantom limbs, you start to feel some sensation in the other person’s movements,” Wegner says.

People more strongly experience the feeling of “doing” things if they think about, or are conscious of, an action just before doing it, Wegner says. People lose the feeling of will if circumstances confuse them about what their thought is just before performing an action. Ouija board spellers, moving the board, may be concentrating on all the possible endings to “M…U…R….” Dowsers holding the twig may let themselves be distracted by visual cues in the landscape.

“I think these are all actions that people are really performing. But what’s happened is that they’ve lost the feeling of doing,” Wegner says.

This finding has many potential applications. “A lot of the psychological disorders are characterized by problems of ‘feeling will,’ ” Wegner says. “People who are very depressed feel like they just can’t do anything, when in fact, they just give up doing anything. People who suffer from schizophrenia often feel that the thoughts that are occurring to them are being authored by someone else who’s whispering in their head; they’ll hear voices. Understanding the processes that give people a sense of will is very important.”

130 beats a minute

For someone whose preoccupation, or white bear, is the nature of mental control, Wegner himself seems neither remarkably in or out of control. “He’s a real normal guy,” says Gilbert. “He likes to spend time with his family, tickle his daughters, play the piano, things like that.”

Wegner does more than play the piano; he has four synthesizers and a couple of drum machines at home, and he spends much of his free time composing techno-music — fast, rhythmic, with a little blues and rock influence.

He starts his classes at Harvard with music — playing an eclectic range of CDs, including whatever his students bring into class. “You pick up to about 130 beats a minute, it gives the whole class a kind of energy they wouldn’t have otherwise,” he says.

He’s the Canadian-born son of a piano teacher and a Baptist minister who died when Wegner was 8. From age 14 onward, he helped run his mother’s music studio, teaching piano twice a week after school.

You could say he’s artistic in the broadest sense — a composer of music, a creator of unique family traditions, an innovator in his field, and even a gourmet cook. But aside from his work, where he admits to desiring perfection, he’s not keen on demanding control. “I’m a little more Eastern-minded, in the sense that sometimes relaxing the striving for control is just as useful. You can say it’s a philosophy of life, in a way.”

Echo location

As a junior at Michigan State University in 1969, Wegner switched his major from physics to psychology. It was an anti-war statement, his way of saying he honored the human mind more than work that could contribute to its destruction.

After getting his master’s and Ph.D. at Michigan State, Wegner spent 15 years teaching at Trinity University in Texas and 10 years at the University of Virginia, where he consistently received students’ highest rankings for his teaching.

Wegner seems deeply committed to understanding other people.

“There’s a famous essay in philosophy about what it’s like to be a bat, and the inscrutability of seeing life from the perspective of an animal that can’t see, that’s guiding itself by echo location,” he says.

“We’re all in that position with regard to other minds, generally — we don’t really know what it’s like to be other people. Much of what social psychology is about is being able to think and talk about experience in a way that helps us bridge the gap from one mind and the next. Without it we’re all alone.”

Now try not to think about Dan Wegner.

Really try.