Negative Data from the
Journal of Evolution and Technology
Vol. 14 - April 2005
A recent study designed to
investigate a possible psychological mechanism behind the widespread
indifference or opposition towards immortalism is presented. In the
wider context of a psychological experiment, which is not reported
in detail here, the study tested different ways to advertise
immortalism, but failed to identify a superior strategy. The theory
behind the study, possible explanations for the results and
directions for future research are discussed.
“Why are there so few
transhumanists?“, probably every transhumanist asked her- or himself
at some point. Things would be easier if there were more
transhumanists, wouldn’t they? For the pragmatic, the question then
becomes “How can we make more people interested in transhumanism?”,
i.e. a marketing question.
Here, I report on my recent
investigation into these questions, and especially their
sub-questions “Why are so few people committed to greatly increase
the human healthy life span?” and “how can we change that?”. This
important field of transhumanism should strongly benefit from more
supporters, and especially from rich supporters. There does not seem
to be a lack of ideas, how mammalian aging might be reversed, but
rather a lack of people willing to develop these ideas or fund their
development. A prime contemporary example for this is the multitude
of ideas developed by rejuvenation research pioneer Aubrey de Grey
and his desperate calls for people to personally and financially
support his work.
The commitment to augment our
healthy life spans indefinitely using biomedical means (hence
‘immortalism’) is so straightforward and obvious for me, that I have
always been particularly baffled by the observation that it is
shared by very close to zero other persons. Our mythology is
brimming with stories of indefinite youth, such as in the world
religions that promise an afterlife free from physical suffering, or
on occasion even in the modern science fiction literature.
But barely anyone seems to deem these scenarios desirable enough to
actually work to bring them about, in the here and now. Enormous
research budgets are used to analyze, catalogue and even attempt to
treat individual degenerative diseases, but only a minute fraction
of the efforts are thrown at attempts to actually reverse the
underlying cause, which is the aging process itself.
Thus, I naturally suspected that a
distinct psychological mechanism might be at work here. I believe it
was first hypothesized by Mike Perry, somewhere in the depths of his
vast book (Perry, 2000), that psychological mechanisms that normally
serve to manage the fear of death might go awry when humans are
confronted with the prospect to live forever and preclude the
formation of the commitment to do so.
This sparked my interest in terror
management theory (TMT). TMT is a well established experimental
psychological paradigm, which holds that humans experience a clash
between our inbuilt fear of death, and our unique ability to foresee
that death is ultimately inescapable. (Solomon et al. 2000) It seems
reasonable to expect that evolution fitted us with a psychological
mechanism to manage the permanent existential terror that might
result from this insight. According to TMT, this is accomplished by
our cultural world views. When we perceive ourselves as a valuable
part of a meaningful and lasting cultural world, we may obtain
self-esteem that is capable to outshine our existential fears and
thereby drive our attention away from our personal impermanence.
Elsewhere, I discussed evolutionary aspects of TMT in more detail. (Schloendorn,
Various predictions of TMT have been
testified in a considerable number of experiments. (Greenberg et al.
1997) Anxiety-buffer studies demonstrate that threats to self-esteem
engender anxiety (Greenberg et al. 1986), anxiety motivates the
defense of self-esteem (Gollwitzer et al. 1982) and that such
defense can alleviate anxiety (Mehlman and Snyder, 1987).
Mortality-salience studies, on the other hand, demonstrate that
reminders of mortality lead test subjects to bolster their
culturally established world views. Mortality salience has been
demonstrated to increase positive evaluations of those who affirm
one’s own cultural world view and negative evaluations of those who
threaten it (Rosenblatt et al. 1989), ingroup bias (Harmon-Jones et
al. 1996), percieved consensus for one’s own beliefs (Pyszczynski et
al. 1996), reluctance to violate cultural norms (Greenberg et al.
1995), and aggression towards those who violate one’s cultural world
view (McGregor et al. 1998).
This led me to suggest a mechanism
by which terror management might compromise the advertisement of
immortalism. (Schloendorn, 2003, chapter 4) If exposure to the
prospect of physical immortality can trigger increased awareness of
our current mortality and a terror management response, then three
things might happen:
Anxiety buffer effects might
suppress the perception of mortality as a problem and thereby reduce
the need to find a solution. Mortality salience effects might reduce
the disposition to embrace new cultural concepts, such as
immortalism or transhumanism. Mortality salience effects might
discredit the transgressor of cultural norms that a transhumanist or
immortalist necessarily is.
According to this mechanism,
valuable cognitive resources would go their various ways to suppress
and deny the problem of death, thereby ironically adding to the
problem, rather than solving it. Accordingly, I called this new
offshoot theory ‘Terror Mismanagement Theory’ (TMMT). (Though
recognizing that at present it has the status of a hypothesis at
The internet-based experiment I
report here was designed to empirically assess the validity TMMT.
Although no answer could be obtained regarding this question (See
results section), other results were obtained that may be of some
interest to transhumanist advertisers. These results came from a
section of the experiment, in which participants were presented
different primer questions, designed to modulate their set of
accessible thoughts, and then asked to evaluate immortalism. If one
primer preceded on the average higher ratings of immortalism, then
this could indicate a good general strategy to advertise immortalism
on the internet.
The questionnaire was listed at ‘The Social Psychology Network’ (www.socialpsychology.org)
and ‘The Web Experiment List’ (http://genpsylab-wexlist.unizh.ch)
under the deliberately vague title “Personality Variables and
Interpersonal Attitudes.” These organizations maintain lists of
web-based psychological experiments and attract participants for the
experiments listed as a free service to fellow internet
psychologists. Most participants were undergraduate psychology
students and most psychology students are female. Such a participant
composition is common in experimental psychology in general, and in
terror management theory in particular.
The experiment was not advertised in any other way. During the
runtime of the experiment of about six months, a total of 225
participants submitted results.
Following the guidelines given by
the Social Psychology Network,
Participants were asked for their informed consent. They were also
asked to complete all questions in one sequential run, and to
complete them only once. Only questionnaires with all questions
completed were collected for analysis.
After providing basic demographic
information, participants were presented Rosenberg’s (1965)
self-esteem scales. This is a set of 10 questions designed to
measure dispositional self-esteem as a covariate to increase the
sensitivity of the terror management experiment (Harmon-Jones et. al
1997) and to obtain information on a possible relationship between
self-esteem and immortalism.
At this point, participants were
randomly divided into three groups. Each group was presented a
distinct set of primer questions. The answers given to the primers
were not analysed. They were designed only to influence the
participants’ set of accessible thoughts before they would evaluate
immortalism. Primers were either death, positivity, or no primer.
The primers consisted of the
evidence suggests that death is a person’s permanent and unequivocal
end. Do you think this is true? Please give reasons briefly.
Please describe your
closest encounter with death.
Most people are scared
by the thought of their own non-existence. Why do you think that is
The positivism primer was divided in
several sub-classes that could eventually be measured distinctly
from each other. However, I did not yet have the resources to do
this. Only their combined effect was measured. Questions from all
sub-classes were presented in a fixed random order.
circumstance makes the greatest contribution to your overall
What of all possible
activities are you enjoying most?
What are your most
important plans, or dreams, for the future?
aspect of your character do you value most, and why?
What was the greatest
achievement in your life?
Who is the person that
you think you are most important to?
What was the most
rewarding learning experience for you?
Was there any
particular moment when decided to overthrow your established world
view? If so, please give details.
What was the most
spontaneous project you undertook in your life?
What do you think was
the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
discoveries do you think contributed most to human quality of life?
What do you think will
be the most important scientific achievement in this century?
Participants were randomly assigned
to a priming condition upon enrollment in the survey. After deleting
one participant’s responses, because (s)he had not entered
meaningful data, 95 participants remained in the ‘no primer’ group,
60 in the ‘positivism’ group and 69 in the ‘death’ group.
After being primed, participants
went on to evaluate immortalism. They were given the cover-story of
an experimental personality assessment test, which involved
fictitious role playing. Participants were asked to adopt the role
of a wealthy person, willing to make a contribution to a good cause,
and then presented an adapted version of the Immortality Institute’s
sample funding request letter.
In this letter, a hypothetical Immortality Institute member briefly
describes the goals and means of immortalism and then asks the
reader for financial support.
Participants were then asked to rate
of five point scales:
How much they agreed
with the goals described in the letter.
How likely they would
support the author.
How much money, if
any, they would donate.
A composite measure was calculated
by addition, which is hence referred as ‘i-score’.
The questionnaire went on with a few
additional questions that I will not detail here.
Most were either cover questions or terror-management questions,
which obtained no results. The primary result, with which this essay
is concerned had by now been collected.
Some of the terror management work
was incorporated in distinct studies. The key terror management
questions to be addressed by all studies together were:
1.) Are immortalists
2.) Can mortality salience adversely
affect subjects’ evaluation of immortalism?
3.) Can immortality salience trigger
a similar effect as mortality salience?
4.) If the answer to 2.) and 3.) is
yes, can the effect be compensated or overcompensated by appropriate
The attempt to replicate a standard
terror management experiment from the literature as a positive
control failed. Although the questionnaire was replicated nearly to
the letter as well as in certain variations, the number of
participants was considerable and means were distinct, intrinsic
variance within groups remained too high to make the result
It may be that the internet is not sensitive enough to conduct this
type of experiment. This idea is to some degree supported by the
fact that despite intensive efforts, I have not found any reports of
internet-based terror management experiments. All successful terror
management work reported in the literature that I am aware of was
conducted either in laboratory settings or in defined public places
In conclusion, it was not possible
to obtain results that could be interpreted to answer the terror
management related questions.
The assessment of the death- and
positivism primers on the advertisement of immortalism did yield
interpretable results. The frequency distribution of combined
immortality score (i-score) roughly followed an exponential decay
with slight extremism added at both ends. Minimal i-score was by far
the most frequent choice. (Figure1) Each of the three sub-measures
(agreement with the goals, likelihood of support and magnitude of
financial donation) showed similar distributions.
distribution of combined immortality score (i-score)
among all test subjects.
One-way ANOVA revealed that the
primer condition (no primer vs. positivism primer vs. death primer)
had no significant effect on i-score (p>0.3). Each of the three
sub-measures (agreement with the goals, likelihood of support and
magnitude of financial donation) behaved similarly vs. primer (all
p>0.2) and correlated strongly with the other two sub-measures. (all
To explain some of the variance in
the ANOVA, a general linear model (GLM) was calculated using
Rosenberg’s self esteem scales, age and gender as additional
factors. In this model, the primer condition still had no
significant effect on i-score (p>0.6) or its sub-measures.
Self-esteem and age also had no significant effect. (p>0.9 and
p>0.5, respectively) Gender did have a significant effect (p<0.02),
indicating that males (mean i-score: 6.33) are more supportive of
immortalism than females (mean 5.67).
The transhumanist readership
probably knows from their own experience that most people exhibit no
or nearly no immortalism at all. This is well reflected by the i-score
frequency distribution (Figure1). It is equally well known that
immortalists are mostly males. Similar results have been reported in
a survey relating to cryonics. (Badger, 1998) The raw findings of
this survey are thus as expected, which provides some validation for
the method used.
It could be argued that the
complicated decision process towards making a charitable donation
can potentially introduce many variables that make the advertisement
success hard to measure. (Bendapudi et al. 1996) However, in the
end, it must be the goal of immortalist advertisement to make its
target contribute to immortalism, i.e. initiate and complete a
decision process similar to that of charitable donation. But it
could be counted as a preliminary success if only an early stage of
that process could be induced. This is why the three measures were
assessed separately. It was found that neither general agreement,
nor the likelihood for any kind of support, nor a specific financial
contribution could be elicited by the primer questions. This, and
the observation that the three sub-measures correlated strongly with
each other, is consistent with the idea that similarity of values
with the beneficiary can result in greater charitable contributions.
(Bendapudi et al. 1996, 42)
Another potential objection to the
method derives from the fact that the web-based setting used turned
out to be inappropriate for the terror management part of the
experiment. Thus it must be asked whether it is then appropriate for
the immortalist advertisement part. I suggest that it is, because a
large fraction of immortalist and transhumanist advertisement is
actually taking place on internet pages. Therefore, these equally
internet-based findings are directly relevant to transhumanists’
preferred form of advertisement.
One positive finding in this study
(confirming at least one other, Badger 1998) was the effect of
gender on immortalism, raising the question why females show even
less immortalism than males do. It may be helpful to understand this
in the context of existing literature on gender effects on death,
aging and health attitudes.
The effect of gender on death
attitudes is complex. Although females sometimes exhibit more
negative attitudes to death on certain sub-measurements, (DePaola et
al. 2003) the effect seems to be mediated by a whole lot of
intrapersonal variables. These interactions are still subject to
investigation. (Neimeyer et al. 2004) Thus, a clear effect of gender
on immortalism would not be predicted from death attitudes.
But since life-extension would
likely correlate with health extension, and this is mentioned in the
funding request letter used to evaluate immortalism with moderate
emphasis, gender effects on attitudes towards biological aging and
health behaviors could also be instructive. Females’ attitudes
towards aging in different western cultures are quite clearly and
uniformly more negative than males’. (McConatha et al, 2003) This
can be in part explained by the discrepancy between the
physiological changes of aging and the cultural ideal of female
youthful appearance. (Higgins, 1987) Immortalism could help women to
meet this ideal in the future, and thus increased immortalism would
be predicted form female aging attitudes.
Perhaps as a consequence of their
aging attitudes, females tend to be more proactive in their health
behaviors than males in different cultures (Ray-Mayumder, 2001). If
commitment to immortalism is understood as a particularly farsighted
form of proactive health-behavior, this would equally predict
increased immortalism in females.
In sum, the effect of gender on
immortalism is different from, or even antithetic to what would be
predicted from its effects on health attitudes, which are a logical
correlate of immortalism and its effects on aging and death
attitudes, which are its logical antagonists. Possible explanations
include the idea that as far as immortalism is concerned, people
simply are not logical, perhaps owing to excessive psychological
coping with and suppression of the problem that aging poses for
personal well-being. For example, the acceptance of aging as
inevitable and normal can correlate with the ability to maintain a
positive sense of self. (McConatha et al. 2003, 205) This is
compatible with females’ more concerned aging and health attitudes,
which may prompt more excessive irrational coping in the face of the
inevitability of aging. An additional part of the problem may be
inadequate communication of the idea that human life extension would
likely correlate with healthy life extension. If participants
suspected that real anti-aging medicine would bring them only a
prolonged period of physical frailty, then the findings would be
equally explicable. This almost cries for further investigation.
Gender effects might end up being a useful thread through the swamp
of immortalist marketing research.
It has long been debated among
immortalists, whether it is better to start advertising with the
badness of death, or the goodness of life. According to these
findings, at least for internet-based advertisement, it does not
Like others who spent considerable
time studying this issue,
I have not heard of anyone ever being persuaded that life extension,
or in fact life in general, is desirable. The findings of the
present study provide support for this more or less intuitive idea.
The priming of obvious points for immortalism, namely the goodness
of life and the badness of death had no effect on subjects’ the
measure of immortalism used.
It may be that a given person’s
disposition towards immortalism reflects characteristics of her
personality that are so fundamental as to be inaccessible to the
direct and brief advertisement strategy employed in this study.
As long as an effective general form
of advertisement cannot be found, one might feel tempted to abandon
the course of persuasion of arbitrary persons to embrace
transhumanism. Rather, advertisement could focus on targeting those
already predisposed to transhumanism and inform them of the
possibility that their goals may not be as unrealistic as they
think. The identification of suitable target groups is of foremost
importance here. Both short surveys of the transhumanist community
and simple ‘similar interests’ - search engines on the internet
could be valuable tools to do this. You may not be surprised that I
currently have work in this direction underway. Preliminary results,
for example, indicate a substantial bias of immortalist community
members towards people with a background in computer science.
Perhaps, meaningful terror
management experiments should be initiated in an appropriate
laboratory setting. If any reader has access to suitable
infrastructure, I would be happy to hear from you.
Furthermore, disagreement with the
goals of immortalism is likely an important factor limiting the
numbers of active immortalists. This is supported by the tight
correlation of the two forms of support for immortalism measured
with the agreement with its goals. Thus, it might be worthwhile to
look into other mechanisms that may drive this disagreement. I will
give a brief overview of three possible such mechanisms.
One mechanism would be the view of
one’s own life as a closed concept with a defined end. Though
unfamiliar to the transhumanist, it is possible to view one’s life
as a project that is inherently limited. For example, one can
believe that life’s purpose is exhausted after accomplishing what
persons born in a similar cultural context normally accomplish. When
one’s cultural context is a sufficiently strong component of one’s
personality, there is indeed no way one could personally continue a
meaningful existence after that cultural context has become
exhausted. (Williams, 1973) Another example might be the desire to
rear children, make sure they have a good start, and then remove
oneself, so that they may fully unfold their potential. Such bounded
views of one’s life concept are by no means better or worse than the
transhumanist open-ended view. It may be a matter of nature, nurture
or active personal choice. Inherently bounded personalities have
little rational requirement to live longer than they need to fathom
these bounds. Such views may lie at the root of the familiar boredom
argument, and have been amply debated in the context of physical
immortality in the theoretic literature (Glannon 2002, Harris 2002a,
Harris 2002b), but I know of no attempts to empirically validate the
idea, let alone put it to a use in immortalist advertisement.
Furthermore, memetics pioneer
Blackmore argued that the adoption of a set of culturally accepted
memes can enhance the genetic sexual attraction of the meme carrier.
(Blackmore, 1999, 78) Therefore genes should be selected that
dispose their carriers to adopt preferably memes which are
culturally accepted. This was proposed as a mechanism driving
cultural runaway selection, accounting for the extreme sexual
attraction that successful movie stars or rock musicians enjoy.
(Miller, 1998) From this point of view, transhumanism could be bound
by the same negative feedback mechanisms that keep any small
subculture, new political movement or religious sect small. Such
movements are eyed with suspicion, simply because they are small and
exotic. It may thus be beneficial to explore the memetic mechanisms
that allowed some small cultural movements, rather than others, to
break through this doom loop and become prevalent. Utilizing the
cultural acceptance of the ‘science’ meme to advertise transhumanism
may be a way to go.
A third possible mechanism could be
the need to avoid displays of self-interest in a social context. If
one desires physical augmentation in general and immortality in
particular, this equals desiring a huge advantage for oneself. In
human history, huge advantages for one usually accompanied
disadvantages for others, and thus are interpreted as egoism. To
access the benefits of reciprocal altruism, however, only hidden
egoistic motives were allowed, but their open admission was selected
against. (Dawkins, 1989, chapter 10) Thus many people may have
emotional reservations against forming a selfish desire for physical
immortality. Forms of advertisement that avoid the outright desire
for immortality should thus be explored. For example, the term
‘regenerative medicine’ has this potential, because medicine seems
to be mainly about altruistically helping the needy. Physical
immortality as a consequence of perfected regenerative medicine
comes to mind only at closer inspection.
Of course, apart from these rather
sophisticated psychological efforts, more obvious strategies of
advertisement, which are already being employed, could use some
empiric validation. One could, for example, ask whether it increases
advertisement success to emphasize concepts like the biomedical
feasibility of life extension, eternal youth over eternal old age,
personal relevance due to biogerontological “escape velocity” (de
Grey, 2004), etc.
Although most of the data obtained
in this experiment was negative, I hope that I helped to set a trend
towards professional investigation of the ancient transhumanist
advertisement problem. Even though I failed to identify a superior
general advertisement strategy, I strongly encourage others to
attempt the same. Ardent support among the broad population is the
most promising means to actualize many transhumanist dreams and make
this world a much better place. Although the prospects of obtaining
such support may seem slim at this time, the huge potential benefit
warrants in-depth exploration of every such chance.
I am deeply indebted to Bruce J.
for hosting the web experiments and extensive technical support.
Special thanks goes also to:
Dr. Eva Jonas (Ludwig Maximilian
University, Munich, Germany) for advice on terror management theory
and sharing the details of her experimental design.
‘Dave’ from the ImmInst forums for
Silke Huffziger for help with the
statistical analysis and sharing her view on the highly
controversial subject of immortalism.
An anonymous reviewer whose comments
helped to clear some important conceptual points, thereby
substantially improving the manuscript.
For example, refer to the fascinating works of Robert A.
For example, reversing aging or life-extension are not even
considered in the mission statements of either the National
Institute of Health
www.nih.gov/about/almanac or the National Institute of
www.nia.nih.gov/aboutnia as means to increase human
health, while they do encourage the treatment of individual
diseases, in order to promote the what they call “healthy
See nearly any terror management experiment cited in this
unpublished data. 2004.
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