Interesting new Pew Research study on American opinions about radical life extension

by [anonymous]1 min read9th Aug 201321 comments

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This new study by Pew Research on American opinions about radical life extension turned up some interesting results:

Asked whether they, personally, would choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live to be 120 or more, a majority of U.S. adults (56%) say no. But roughly two-thirds (68%) think that most other people would.

Asked about the consequences for society if new medical treatments could slow the aging process and allow the average person to live decades longer, to at least 120 years old, about half of U.S. adults (51%) say the treatments would be a bad thing for society, while 41% say they would be a good thing.

An overwhelming majority believes that everyone should be able to get these treatments if they want them (79%). But two-thirds think that in practice, only wealthy people would have access to the treatments... About two-thirds agree that longer life expectancies would strain our natural resources and that medical scientists would offer the treatment before they fully understood how it affects people's health. And about six-in-ten (58%) say these treatments would be fundamentally unnatural.

About two-thirds of adults (63%) say medical advances that prolong life are generally good because they allow people to live longer, while about three-in-ten (32%) say medical advances are bad because they interfere with the natural cycle of life.

The survey contains a number of null findings that may be surprising. It turns out, for example, that many standard measures of religious beliefs and practices, including belief in God and frequency of attendance at religious services, are related to views on radical life extension only weakly, if at all. Nor is there a strong relationship in the survey between the gender, education or political party identification of respondents and what they say about longer human life spans... At least one question that deals directly with death, however, is correlated with views on radical life extension. People who oppose the death penalty are more inclined to say that longer life spans would be good for society.

I also find the demographic splits on page 3 to be surprising. On the question of whether treatments to extend life by decades would be a good thing for society, whites are significantly less likely to agree: 36% of whites agree whereas 48% of Hispanics and 56% of blacks do. There is a negative correlation with age (48% of adults 18-29, 46% of adults 30-49, 37% of adults 50-64, 31% of adults 65 and older) and with income (47% of those earning 30k and less, 42% of those earning from 30k-75k, and 39% of those earning 75k+). The income result in particular surprises me, as my intuition was that people with a higher quality of life would be significantly more pro-life extension. 

 

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Public discussions of life extension suffer from the confusion between two possible meanings of it.

The first meaning is to just postpone death. Maybe at 90 you don't remember anything any more, the list of your chronic diseases doesn't fit on a page, you require round-the-clock care and semi-permanent sedation, take 37 different pills and need a trip to the hospital weekly -- but by golly! we can and will keep you alive for ten years more and as medicine progresses we'll keep you alive for twenty years more.

The second meaning is to postpone senescence. You're 90, but you look like a 60-year-old. You're mobile, active, with most of your mind intact, with a functioning immune system and ability to enjoy life.

I feel these scenarios are rather different. In particular, they lead to different answers to questions about whether life extension is worth it.

Yes, this is a common suggestion; the first one is called the 'Tithonus fallacy' or error by proponents of the second (see for example the fightaging.org links I posted).

[-][anonymous]7y 1

I once heard an acquaintance of a friend of mine put it this way (back when I wasn't familiar with transhumanism and I didn't know whether he was wrong or right): “Life extension had better be called old age extension: you may die at 160 instead of 80, but it's not like when you're 40 you'll do the things people today do when they're 20.”

Anyway, going by revealed preferences, fewer people might dislike the former scenario than you might think.

I don't think that necessarily reveals people's preferences; that would imply that they choose that outcome. I think in most cases people are ignorant of what is going to happen, or know only in an abstract sense. Those who actually know what they're in for, tend not to die that way..

I was just about to say almost the same thing but I decided I'd check the other replies to see if anyone else had already said it. Just to emphasize and agree with you - I think most people imagine the 1st scenario when they are answering these questions. Its just too hard for people to imagine 40yr olds that are like 30yr olds, 60yr olds that are like 45yr olds, 80yr olds that are like 60yr olds etc... That is not what I think they are imagining when they are answering.

An overwhelming majority believes that everyone should be able to get these treatments if they want them (79%).

About two-thirds of adults (63%) say medical advances that prolong life are generally good because they allow people to live longer,

There is a negative correlation with age (48% of adults 18-29, 46% of adults 30-49, 37% of adults 50-64, 31% of adults 65 and older)

That first one is the one that counts. The younger, the more "pro life". Like legalizing pot, demographics are on my side. Well, my personal demographic may be a little iffy, but if they get on the stick with life extension, I'll be around when the pro life youngins take over.

[-][anonymous]7y 3

Interesting. I would have appreciated if you edited to have the possible correlates listed first, so that we could test our demographics intuition before seeing the numbers. I would have liked to know whether my people model could predict these values.

There is a negative correlation with age (48% of adults 18-29, 46% of adults 30-49, 37% of adults 50-64, 31% of adults 65 and older)

This may be because as people get older they have more medical problems and so when they think of life-extension they think of not life-extension as extending the very healthy years as much as extending how they currently are or soon will be.

and with income (47% of those earning 30k and less, 42% of those earning from 30k-75k, and 39% of those earning 75k+). The income result in particular surprises me, as my intuition was that people with a higher quality of life would be significantly more pro-life extension.

This is less surprising to me. Higher income means one has more to lose by things which impact the stability of society severely.

I think another possible reason for the negative correlation with age is that as people get older and death becomes more imminent, they (in my experience) try harder to convince themselves and their peers that it is a good/natural/acceptable thing, to lessen the sense of fear and helplessness.

The median ideal life span is 90 years – about 11 years longer than the current average U.S. life expectancy, which is 78.7 years

I'd guess that there's nothing magically wonderful about living to be 90. The more important part seems to be wanting to live longer but not wanting (or wanting to want) anything that seems implausible or socially abnormal.

It would have been interesting to see if greater age was correlated with holding a stronger view either for or against radical life extension. I would predict that older people hold stronger views, since the issue is more relevant to their current life experiences.

Younger adults, to whom old age may seem far away, are more likely than those 65 and older to give an ideal age of 78 years or less (19% vs. 6%). The median ideal life span of adults under 30 – at 85 years – is lower than that for older adults.

I did not expect this. And it seems weird, since young people are also more optimistic about their futures. And more likely to want to undergo radical life extension. Plus they haven't suffered the effects of aging (having many loved ones die, illness and pain, etc.).

[-][anonymous]7y 2

Old people may be against radical life extension in principle, but they don't personally want to die just yet. I'd be curious to see what the typical 90 year old lists as their ideal life span; or more generally, at what age (if ever) people start actively wanting to die soon, measured as listing an ideal life span within 5 years of their current age.

at what age (if ever) people start actively wanting to die soon

I don't think that wish to die is directly correlated with age -- I think it's mostly a function of the state of one's health (which is correlated with age, of course) and the consequent quality of life.

[-][anonymous]7y 3

That's my intuition as well: that someone who lists 90 as their ideal life span while young and then makes it to 89 without obtaining some debilitating and painful illness will change their mind about dying at 90. The fact that older people list higher ideal life spans despite being less gung-ho on life extension in principle suggests to me that "wanting to die eventually" is Far. I wouldn't be surprised if there was no age at which the median person wanted to die soon, no matter what their youthful ideals about aging may have been.

I did not expect this. And it seems weird, since young people are also more optimistic about their futures. And more likely to want to undergo radical life extension. Plus they haven't suffered the effects of aging (having many loved ones die, illness and pain, etc.).

Didn't predictions for the Singularity follow a similar trend? Older people predicting 30-40 years until the event, and younger predictors being more pessimistic because they're likely to still be alive even if it happens in 60 years?

This may be because as people get older they have more medical problems

I bet it's an effect from the correlation of age and religiousity.

I bet it's an effect from the correlation of age and religiousity.

I strongly doubt that given that the study found only an extremely weak correlation between religiosity and being against life extension, and by some religion related questions, no correlation at all.

Indeed, since the tradition maintains that Methuselah lived to be almost 1000, so there is nothing obviously wrong with a long life.

Indeed, since the tradition maintains that Methuselah lived to be almost 1000, so there is nothing obviously wrong with a long life.

I don't think that's what is going on either here- most Americans don't know much about that section of the Bible, and one traditional explanation for the shortening of lifespans is that the long lifespans somehow contributed to the problems leading to Noah's Flood.

whether they, personally, would choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live to be 120 or more, a majority of U.S. adults (56%) say no.

I simply don't believe this, not yet. I would have to look at how the question is worded...because my model of people would not allow such a low fraction of people saying 'yes'.