Free Will


Another tired morning.  About 2:00 a.m., my 11-year-old son, Gabriel, woke up screaming from a nightmare.  He tried to sleep in my room, but after a short period of comforting I helped him back to his own room to go back to sleep.  This event occurred after three previous difficult nights.  Gabriel has experienced many difficult nights and bad dreams since a traumatic event five years ago.  From a strictly behaviorist perspective, my behavior should be molded by these instances such that I would decrease the difficult nights and increase the positive reward of sleeping through the night (Friedman & Schustack, 2012).  However, my motivation is not reliant upon immediate an immediate reward or punishment, it is based on the ultimate fulfillment realized when my son is grown up, stronger and more confident because I insisted he become independent and sleep in his own room, despite his fears.

My choice resonates with the humanistic/existential approach to free will, specifically the concept of self-determinism.  The humanistic/existential approach does not ignore that individuals have responses to drives, rewards, and punishments; however, it extends motivation to positive actualized fulfillment.  Self-determinism represents “decision(s) independent of external constraint but in accordance with the inner motives and goals of the actor” (Wilks & Ratheal, 2010, p. 147).  Essentially, this approach posits that individuals strive to improve their being, and in so doing are capable of changing their future through self-determination (Friedman & Schustack, 2012).

As in my example, the behaviorist response would be based solely on rewards/punishments.  Clearly, be awakened in the middle of a work night is a negative effect.  The quickest way to a good night’s sleep would be to allow my son to sleep in my room.  In fact, my husband and I have a Queen with a trundle bed for that very purpose.  However, our goal is always to have our son learn to sleep independently, in his own room.  Towards this end, we have employed a variety of strategies to aid Gabriel such as a regular bedtime ritual, soothing music, and consistent routine.  It is quite difficult, after three previously difficult nights, to stay awake, calm my son, and then put him back to bed in his own room.  However, in this instance, I chose the more difficult task because ultimately it will lead to a greater sense of fulfillment as a parent.  The humanistic/existential approach to free will relates to individual’s desire to achieve their ultimate potential.  In so doing, the individual makes specific choices that may not always reduce negative effect and increase reward, as in my scenario.

In fact, from a broader view, choosing to have children is difficult to explain from a reductionist/behaviorist perspective.  There is no immediate reward for having a child.  In fact, having children is a long and often, difficult, experience.  One would consider having children more in line with a humanistic approach to life whereby having children is likely to expand one’s thinking, experiences, and lifetime potential.  On the other hand, remaining childless could also be arguably a humanistic choice because a couple unencumbered by children would have both more time and money to support community and charitable organizations.




Friedman, H. S., & Schustack, M. W. (2012).  Personality: Classic theories and modern research (5th ed.).  Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Wilks, D., & Ratheal, J. D. (2010, Fall).  A historical review and contemporary reassessment of free will concepts in psychological humanism and counseling.  Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, 49(2), 147-162.  Retrieved from


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