Free will is the ability to act at one's own discretion — or is it? A team of psychology researchers from Yale University aimed to understand the inner workings of our mind in order to see which choices we conciously make, and which ones we're tricked into. Their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, reveal how our freedom of choice may be an illusion.

"Perhaps in the very moments that we experience a choice, our minds are rewriting history, fooling us into thinking that this choice — that was actually completed after its consequences were subconsciously perceived — was a choice that we had made all along," doctoral candidate Adam Bear explained in a statement.

To better understand this decision-making process, researchers had to separate what we consider conscious efforts from how the mind's influence on daily decisions. They recruited 25 college students to stare at five white circles randomized on a computer screen. They were given a fraction of a second to look and make a mental note of the circle they thought would turn red, and then asked to indicate if they were correct.

Statistically speaking, because the red circles appeared at random, participants should predict the correct circles about 20 percent of the time. But participants reported they made the correct prediction more than 20 percent of the time. However, if participants asked for more time to guess, the level of accuracy fell back to the typical percantage rate.

Bear said the participants were not lying about their predictions in order to impress them, but instead they were being tricked by their own minds. The participants subconsciously saw the color red before they predicted where it would appear. And even though they thought they made that decision, their brain may have been directing them without their conscious effort.

"This pattern of responding suggests that participants’ minds had sometimes swapped the order of events in conscious awareness, creating an illusion that a choice had preceded the color change when, in fact, it was biased by it," he added.

Researchers believe their findings can inform our understanding of mental health. When a person is burdened by mental illness, it can feel like they've lost an integral part of their self-control. So the same brain region creating an illusion in participants minds during the circle exercise may also be create the illusion of control. Researchers wonder: Are those suffering from mental illness also experiencing a loss of their mind’s ability to create an illusion of free will?

"Perhaps, in these cases, our sense that we make a choice well in advance of our actions is an illusion, making us feel more in control of ourselves than we actually are," Bear concluded. The illusion of choice may have "far more pervasive effects on our everyday lives and sense of free will."

Source: Bear A and Bloom P. A Simple Task Uncovers a Postdictive Illusion of Choice. Psychological Science. 2015.