Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Wanting to Improve (but not artificially)

Robin Hanson recently wrote what strikes me as a rather misleading post, claiming that according to this paper, "the more people considered a feature to be a key part of their identity, the less they wanted to improve it." Various commenters on his blog offer cynical explanations for why this might be so, and other bloggers have since linked to Hanson's post, repeating the claim that "few people want to improve their empathy." Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the scientific paper in question does not support this claim at all. Read the abstract:
Four studies examined young healthy individuals' willingness to take drugs intended to enhance various social, emotional, and cognitive abilities. We found that people were much more reluctant to enhance traits believed to be highly fundamental to the self (e.g., social comfort) than traits considered less fundamental (e.g., concentration ability)... Ad taglines that framed enhancements as enabling rather than enhancing the fundamental self increased people's interest in a fundamental enhancement, and eliminated the preference for non-fundamental over fundamental enhancements.

Now, while transhumanists may not think there's any normatively significant difference between 'artificial' enhancement and 'natural' improvement (through better nutrition, training, etc.), it must be acknowledged that the vast majority of people do see things differently here. So the mere fact that they aren't willing to take drugs to artificially enhance their empathy is not at all the same thing as not wanting to improve their empathy.

I don't see anything here to suggest that people wouldn't be willing to improve their empathy by (what they consider to be) more 'natural' means. (The paper even explicitly notes that people are happy to improve their empathy again so long as this is framed as "enabling" their true self to shine through, rather than externally imposing a new personality on them.) Am I missing something, or are some people just way too keen to be cynical?

Update: Note that according to Table 3 (at the end of the paper), only 25% of subjects reported that they "do not even wish to be better on this trait."


  1. Thanks for bringing out this distinction.

  2. It is true the article is about improving via drugs, and so it does not prove people would not want to improve via something else. And it is possible that people don't like "artificial" improvement, whatever that means. But merely listing such possibilities doesn't seem to me to get us very far. Almost any study of anything will be done in some particular context, and one can always postulate the study is misleading because different results might be found in other contexts. But without something more to suggest the result would actually depend on this change, the mere possibility doesn't tell us much.

  3. What a bizarre response. My point wasn't that there's a "mere possibility" that people's quirky attitudes towards 'artificial' enhancement are playing a distinctive role here. My point is that this seems overwhelmingly plausible. I guess we must have radically different understandings of ordinary human psychology.

  4. I'm eager to see the data which suggest to you that people are more interested in improving via other means, however categorized. I blogged the data I had, but would be happy to blog more data if/when it is available.

  5. "I'm eager to see the data which suggest to you..."

    Try this paper!

    To begin with, note that the authors themselves obviously share my expectations, as they wrote: "because we were uninterested in cases where the reluctance to enhance was driven by participants’ lack of interest in improving, we selected traits that we believed many people would want to improve."

    Their 'study 1' gave participants three options for each trait:
    1. I would take a pill to get better at this.
    2. I wish I was better at this, but I would not take a pill.
    3. I do not wish to be better at this.

    They unfortunately don't report the raw data for these responses, though we do learn in Table 3 that only 25% of reluctance across all traits involved subjects "not even wish[ing] to be better on this trait", and that this only correlated mildly with the perceived fundamentality (self-identity index) of the trait. Fears about 'changing who I fundamentally am' explained 40% of reluctance across all traits, by contrast, and correlated almost perfectly with the self-identity index.

    The authors thus concluded that the dominant source of reluctance is Kassian fears about artificial enhancement undermining one's "identity"/"authenticity".

  6. OK, you are right, the paper seems to indicate people would "like to be better" even though they don't want to take a pill. Too bad the authors didn't ask folks about any other specific improvement mechanisms.


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