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Loss of Free Will

Posted on April 8, 2016

In previous posts, we have discussed how trauma turns a personal narrative. Trauma shifts the narrative from one with a positive protagonist with a balanced view of both relationships and the greater worlds, to a narrative where trauma robs one of a sense of worthiness and a being safe with one’s self. Out of this reality, there is also a loss of autonomy, or the ability to find choice and power in one’s life.

I have written several posts on trauma’s impact on free will, and I suggest you take a moment to read or review the 300th of a Second post. That post reviews the finding that a person who feels safe and emotionally regulated has only 1/300th of a second to override their natural unconscious reaction to a situation. Clients who are suffering from trauma have been shown to have a biology that makes it even more difficult to consciously find autonomy in their lives and the situations they face.

To me, there are few things that challenge traditional thinking and policy creation more than the recognition that people have very little access to make free and conscious choices. We treat people like rational beings making well-informed choices in every situation. In reality, even the most mindful person in the world operates primarily in their unconscious mind. This ignorance has led to policies that fail miserably, and explains why so many social and criminal justice approaches have done more harm than good.

While my past focus has been on decision making in the present moment, there is another side of autonomy and free will which I have not discussed in as much detail. This is a long-term view of autonomy, or lack thereof, that demonstrates how free will is even more limited than we ever previously thought. To demonstrate this, I will use an example that has resonated with many during my in-person trainings and include some common feedback that I receive from participants.

This example utilizes a real client that I met during the first year of my career, who I will call Ty for our purposes here. To familiarize you with Ty, here is some background information:

  • Ty is 16 years old
  • Ty has lived in a very violent neighborhood that (when I worked with him) was being overwhelmed by the crack epidemic. This epidemic was particularly destructive, as two large gangs were in a war to gain territory and a greater share of the crack trade.
  • Ty’s mother was 16 when she had Ty and became addicted to cocaine around the time of his birth, if not before. She had trouble holding down a stable job due to her addictions. Several of her boyfriends had been abusive to Ty, which got child protective services involved with his family.
  • Ty never met his father and no one knew his whereabouts
  • Due to the instability and repeated violence in his home, Ty was raised primarily by his cousins and extended family. All of this family was involved or associated with the gang in their neighborhood. Ty often hung out with his cousins late into the night, even at a young age.
  • Besides his family, most everyone in Ty’s neighborhood was also associated with the gang. Not all were active members, but the vast majority were either associated with gang members or had family or friends in the gang. In this war, there was a true safety in numbers. With high rates of murder and assault, young men were vulnerable if they did not have some association with the gang that dominated their geographic area.

This was Ty’s world. It was not his fault this world existed, it wasn’t his choice to be born to a mom addicted to crack and to a father who disappeared. At 16, Ty was participated in a drive-by shooting. Attempting a murder is a serious crime, with lifelong consequence for Ty, the target of the shooting, and bystanders caught in the crossfire. His choice to participate in the shooting was terrible, criminal, and incredibly destructive. However, his decision to attempt to kill rival gang members can (and I argue should) be seen in a much greater context that demonstrates Ty’s lack of free will, or autonomy, in this tragic situation. Let’s step back and look at how Ty became a shooter in a drive-by.

  1. When Ty was 9, his cousins, who he was living with at the time, came to him and asked him to join the gang. Remember that nearly everyone in Ty’s family and neighborhood had some association with the gang. What chance did Ty have to turn down the invitation to join the gang?
    • Ty’s Decision: Ty did join the gang
    • Training Participants’ Answer: The vast majority of my training audience gave Ty a 0% chance to turn down this offer. The highest answer I’ve ever got from an individual was someone who Ty a 5% chance of turning down the offer.
  2. At age 11, Ty’s cousins told him that it was time to start working on the corner and start selling crack and other drugs. What is the chance that Ty refused this order and went against his family and the gang?
    • Ty’s Decision: Ty did start to sell drugs
    • Training Participants’ Answer: Almost everyone in my trainings state that he has a 0% chance to go against his family and the gang. One participant, out of well over a thousand, did say 1%!
  3. At age 15, Ty got a promotion. The gang gave him his own crew and corner to run. The promotion was not only a financial win (Ty made around $10,000 in a good month), it was also a huge step up in the structure of the gang. What chance do you give Ty to turn down the promotion?
    • Ty’s Decision: Ty did start to run his own crew
    • Training Participants’ Answer: No one in any of my trainings gave Ty any chance of turning down this offer
  4. At age 16, the rival gang carried out a drive-by shooting on Ty’s corner. One of his best friends and fellow gang members was shot. As his friend was put into the ambulance, no one knew if he would survive the shooting. The leadership of the gang met with Ty and all agreed that there must be a retaliatory drive-by. What chance do you give Ty to refuse to be a part of this retaliation?
    • Ty’s Decision: Ty did participate in the drive-by
    • Training Participants’ Answer: Only a couple of people in my trainings gave Ty any hope of making a new choice. The highest chance anyone gave Ty was 4%, nearly everyone else has said 0%

Luckily, Ty and the others in the retaliatory drive-by did not kill anyone, and his friend who was shoot recovered. Unfortunately, too many people in Ty’s community were not so lucky. If Ty had been caught by the police, he would have gotten the label of murderer (attempted or otherwise). The community response to the gang war would have been to charge Ty as an adult and put him in prison for decades, if not the rest of his life.

No one in our community took the time to consider the environmental circumstances that led to the punishable action. In the middle of the crisis very few leaders had the self-reflection to see how poverty, a failed educational system, and generational trauma impacted Ty’s ability to escape the dynamics of his community. It is much easier to punish the behavior than to understand the reality in which the behavior occurred.

One of the loudest statements that is coming from research on the brain and trauma is that free choice is limited at best, and at times is nonexistent. If someone is trying to survive their situation, they are looking for any path forward. There is not the time or capacity to weigh all the choices, consider future consequences, and find the most logical decision. Too often, this reality results in imprisonment, homelessness, poverty, violence, and a wide range of other problems.

How do you see services or society changing if we applied this science to those struggling in our communities?

8 responses to “Loss of Free Will”

  1. Karen Madrone says:

    Unfortunately legislation and policies are created around specific acts, not the whole picture. Our mental health programs and criminal justice systems do not intersect in ways that actually help people. So incredibly frustrating that this research exists but the people who are the decision makers either don’t get the research or don’t care.

    • Matt says:

      Yes! And as you mention even our systems of “care and rehabilitation” don’t operate under this research. This is why we have to share this with people we know personally and professionally…every time we do we move closer to a more logical and compassionate future!

  2. Karen Madrone says:

    Unfortunately legislation and policies are created around specific acts, not the whole picture. Our mental health programs and criminal justice systems do not intersect in ways that actually help people. So incredibly frustrating that this research exists but the people who are the decision makers either don’t get the research or don’t care.

    • Matt says:

      Yes! And as you mention even our systems of “care and rehabilitation” don’t operate under this research. This is why we have to share this with people we know personally and professionally…every time we do we move closer to a more logical and compassionate future!

  3. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Improved literacy, or Bible-reading, might have provided alternatives. While my early life experiences were less stressful than Ty’s, I found that ambient dysfunction clashed with alternatives I found in the Biblical wisdom I was reading daily. The Book of Proverbs, for instance, was a sort of surrogate parent. I conciously chose to believe that, one day. Devotion to the faith, though, doesn’t preclude imprisonment, as the early Christians knew. Many of the Epistles, the New Testament letters, were prison writings. In the “hood,” choosing acts of good instead of defending “honor” in the hood by committing evil, may have meant retaliation and death; but reading makes, anyway, the world wider. Religious faith is, in principle, a psychological place of love. Being “safe with oneself” is inherent in devotion to Love.

    • Matt says:

      “Being safe with oneself” is inherent to devotion to Love. Fascinating my friend…I’m chewing that that one right now!!!

  4. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Improved literacy, or Bible-reading, might have provided alternatives. While my early life experiences were less stressful than Ty’s, I found that ambient dysfunction clashed with alternatives I found in the Biblical wisdom I was reading daily. The Book of Proverbs, for instance, was a sort of surrogate parent. I conciously chose to believe that, one day. Devotion to the faith, though, doesn’t preclude imprisonment, as the early Christians knew. Many of the Epistles, the New Testament letters, were prison writings. In the “hood,” choosing acts of good instead of defending “honor” in the hood by committing evil, may have meant retaliation and death; but reading makes, anyway, the world wider. Religious faith is, in principle, a psychological place of love. Being “safe with oneself” is inherent in devotion to Love.

    • Matt says:

      “Being safe with oneself” is inherent to devotion to Love. Fascinating my friend…I’m chewing that that one right now!!!

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