Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp 989–1007 | Cite as

Media Portrayal of a Landmark Neuroscience Experiment on Free Will

  • Eric RacineEmail author
  • Valentin Nguyen
  • Victoria Saigle
  • Veljko Dubljevic
Original Paper


The concept of free will has been heavily debated in philosophy and the social sciences. Its alleged importance lies in its association with phenomena fundamental to our understandings of self, such as autonomy, freedom, self-control, agency, and moral responsibility. Consequently, when neuroscience research is interpreted as challenging or even invalidating this concept, a number of heated social and ethical debates surface. We undertook a content analysis of media coverage of Libet’s et al.’s (Brain 106(Pt 3):623–642, 1983) landmark study, which is frequently interpreted as posing a serious challenge to the existence of free will. Media descriptions of Libet et al.’s experiment provided limited details about the original study. Overall, many media articles reported that Libet et al.’s experiments undermined the existence of free will, despite acknowledging that several methodological limitations had been identified in the literature. A propensity to attribute greater credibility than warranted to neurobiological explanations could be at stake.


Media Free will Libet Neuroscience Ethics 



Support for this work comes from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Racine), the Fonds de recherche du Québec—Santé for career awards (Racine) and the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships Programme (Dubljevic). We extend our thanks to members of the Neuroethics Research Unit for feedback on study materials and on previous versions of this manuscript. Special thanks to Simon Rousseau-Lesage and Kaylee Sohng for their editorial assistance in the preparation of this manuscript.


The authors would like to thank members of the Neuroethics Research Unit for their feedback on previous version of this manuscript. Funding for this study came from a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (ER), a Banting fellowship (VD), and a career award from the Fonds de recherche du Québec—Santé (ER).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

None to declare.

Supplementary material

11948_2016_9845_MOESM1_ESM.docx (23 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 22 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eric Racine
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
    Email author
  • Valentin Nguyen
    • 1
  • Victoria Saigle
    • 1
    • 2
  • Veljko Dubljevic
    • 1
    • 4
  1. 1.Neuroethics Research UnitInstitut de recherches cliniques de Montréal (IRCM)MontrealCanada
  2. 2.Department of Experimental MedicineMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  3. 3.Department of Medicine and Department of Social and Preventative MedicineUniversité de MontrealMontrealCanada
  4. 4.Department of Neurology and NeurosurgeryMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada

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