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Dec 1, 1978

Experiencing Freedom

A speech on psychology and liberty-as-lived-experience.

“Psychological Studies of Experienced Freedom.” Revised version of a paper delivered at the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, Orlando, Florida, March 1978.

The personal experience of freedom, whether or not it is illusory, is important to study. This is because political ideology often rests on judgments of human nature’s capacity to be free. These judgments, in turn, often rest on subjective experiences of freedom or “experienced freedom.” The following report details some psychological studies of perceived freedom.

In all, 69 university students responded to a questionnaire assessing the circumstances under which they experienced feelings of personal freedom. Perceptions of personal freedom were most likely to be reported when one experienced a “release from noxious stimulation” or where there was an “exercise of skilled behavior.” Perceived freedom was least likely to be reported (among the categories studied) when there was a “recognition of limits” or “active decision making.”

The participants were permitted to generate their own “opposites” to the word “free.” Some 170 “opposites” were reported. The most frequent type of “opposites” referred to “prevention from without” (e.g., restricted stifled, trapped). “Opposites” referring to “diffuse unpleasant affect” (e.g., emotions such as anxiety, boredom, and being overwhelmed) and “conflict and indecision” were also frequently mentioned.

Westcott briefly discusses the potential problem of such a knowledge (i.e., the circumstances under which people feel free) being exploited for political purposes. Reference is made to Skinner’s (1972) observation that the most dangerous type of despot is the one whose subjects feel free. The author suggests that making public what can be known about the experience of freedom may help to limit that danger.

Criticisms of such topics as that of “experienced freedom” in social psychology repeat standard arguments:

That experimental methodology applied to complex processes relies on precision of operations and measurement, lacks conceptual analysis, limits behavioral options, and in so doing produces data results which have appropriate statistical properties, but which do violence to the natural phenomena they are meant to represent.

These methodological criticisms may not be fatal to studying human freedom in its subjective aspect as personally perceived freedom. Psychological studies of this topic could also gain insights by interdisciplinary contact “with the conceptual analysis of freedom within theories of social philosophy, political philosophy, theories of ethics, and justice.”