Dessa Debates Determinism

An empty soda bottle can speak volumes about the choices we make—whether we’re aware of them or not.

When I was thirteen, my best friend moved back to Sweden, where she was born. Devastated, I saved up my Dairy Queen paychecks to go and spend the summer there. I learned to curse in her provincial accent, acquired a taste for salt licorice, and we made wine in a plastic drum we buried in the woods. Her brother’s older friend taught us a clever trick: He sat cross-legged and dropped a coin into an empty beer bottle then spun it, faster and faster, until thwacking it against his shoe—the coin shot out, leaving a perfect little hole. The trick never worked in front of my friends back home. I’ve heard Swedish bottles are thinner, which wouldn’t surprise me; Swedes are famously conservation-minded. Recently, Sweden actually ran out of garbage. They started importing trash from Norway to feed the incinerators that supply heat and power.

We’ve got no such problem here, where PSAs still desperately entreat us to recycle. Cleveland installed chips in its recycling bins to see how often they were rolled to the curb, a program including fines for noncompliance. Some states charge a deposit on bottled products that’s refunded when the bottle is returned for recycling. Minnesota is considering one of these bottle bills now. If passed, we’d deposit a few cents on every beverage. Proponents hope Minnesota’s recycling rate for those containers would shoot from around 40 to 80 percent.

Our lives are full of incentives or penalties designed to persuade us to choose a particular path. But some behaviors don’t arise from conscious choices. A pair of researchers at the University of Alberta and Boston University recently found that people recycle pristine-looking containers more readily than damaged or altered ones. Study participants recycled unblemished soda cans 80 percent of the time, dented ones only 20 percent. The conclusion: When stuff looks like garbage, people throw it away. Of course, we’re not actively thinking, This Sprite can is imperfect, can’t recycle it—to the waste bin! The thought happens beneath the surface of our consciousness. Which cues up an interesting question: If we’re not making conscious choices about what we’re doing, who’s in charge during those moments? If the environment (a crushed can, say) drives our behavior without us knowing it, are we really at the helm?

Some philosophers believe that all our thoughts and actions are explainable as products of this kind of cause and effect. Just because it feels as though we’re choosing doesn’t mean that we are. After all, it feels like the sun is circling us, though we know otherwise. Human behavior is tough to predict, but maybe that’s true only because there are so many variables at play—maybe our actions are just the product of a lot of complicated algorithms. After all, Minnesota weather is also tough to predict, but that doesn’t mean a cold front has free will. Maybe we flatter ourselves with the notion that we’re in total control. In Delusions of Gender, psychologist Cordelia Fine writes that when students are asked to indicate their gender before taking a test, scores are affected: They increase for boys, decrease for girls.

Like most people, however, I’m unwilling to surrender my free will entirely. We sense that we’re built in two distinct halves: the thinking, deciding part and a more machine-like half automatically responding to its surroundings—we’re all a little bit Robocop. If that’s true, the question becomes: How can we shape the environments that are shaping us? What should I expose myself to in order to become the me I want to be? Maybe a big change involves not only external carrots and sticks, but  also magnets we set up ourselves to pull us in desirable directions.

Here in Minnesota, we have a long way to go before we’ll be asking Canada for its garbage. If we do end up adopting a bottle bill, though, it’s worth putting a refunded dime into an empty and giving it a spin. If you can pull it off, it’s a hell of a trick.

Dessa is a musician and essayist who splits her time between a Minneapolis apartment and an Econoline tour van.