A Strange But True Cultural Obstacle to Cryonics

In cryonics circles, it is not unusual to hear tales of a spouse - usually a wife, as most people presently signed up for cryopreservation at clinical death are male - who is adamantly opposed to cryonics, even to the point of requiring the potential cryonics patient make a choice between cryonics or the partner. This has always struck me as odd, but it is clearly more than just an urban myth or a few anecdotal couples; there is some core incentive or common aspect of human psychology at work here that generates these conflicts often enough to make the situation well known. (Well known to cryonics supporters, at least).

Via Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias, I see that his own tale of conflicting spousal views on cryonics has made it into the New York Times as an example of the type:

Robin, a deep thinker most at home in thought experiments, says he believes that there is some small chance his brain will be resurrected, that its time in cryopreservation will be merely a brief pause in the course of his life. Peggy finds the quest an act of cosmic selfishness. And within a particular American subculture, the pair are practically a cliche.

Among cryonicists, Peggy's reaction might be referred to as an instance of the "hostile-wife phenomenon," as discussed in a 2008 paper by Aschwin de Wolf, Chana de Wolf and Mike Federowicz. "From its inception in 1964," they write, "cryonics has been known to frequently produce intense hostility from spouses who are not cryonicists." The opposition of romantic partners, Aschwin told me last year, is something that "everyone" involved in cryonics knows about but that he and Chana, his wife, find difficult to understand. To someone who believes that low-temperature preservation offers a legitimate chance at extending life, obstructionism can seem as willfully cruel as withholding medical treatment. Even if you don’t want to join your husband in storage, ask believers, what is to be lost by respecting a man’s wishes with regard to the treatment of his own remains? Would-be cryonicists forced to give it all up, the de Wolfs and Federowicz write, "face certain death."

The article goes on to speculate as to just what may be the roots of this spousal opposition, and you'll find even more suggestions in the comments at Overcoming Bias.

For my part, I'd say it seems unreasonable (to say the least) to expect your partner to commit suicide to make you feel better - and abstaining from cryopreservation on death is exactly a form of suicide. The practice of suttee, in which widows were compelled to die upon their late husband's funeral pyre, is now generally acknowledged as barbaric and murderous. But at the high level it is little different from brow-beating a partner into abandoning cryonics, or worse, actively working to ensure that a partner's cryonics arrangements go awry. Still, a great many people for a long period of years accepted suttee as good and proper - just as a great many people today accept all sorts of correctable malignancies in cultures and the human condition.

What is accepted is no guide to what is right.


If I had to guess, I'd say that religion or belief in the supernatural is probably involved in opposition to cryonics more often than not. The rest is probably just a twisted form of jealousy and timidity mixed together.

Posted by: Michael at July 9th, 2010 10:55 PM

This whole "hostile spouse syndrome" thing, IMHO, goes far beyond cryonics. It's exactly what I used to see among band girl/boyfriends when I was a bass player, and what I see from the husbands of women who go back to college.

It's about daring to value yourself and live your own life.

The two most pertinent quotes:

"And what’s so good about me that I’m going to live forever?" -- Peggy Hanson

"My question is: why not save someone else's life instead?" -- Tyler Cowen

Any loved one who would expect you to cut off a part of yourself, even symbolically--or in this case, throw your entire self away, literally--does not deserve you. If you don't bring *you* to the relationship, what's the point of it?

Posted by: shegeek at July 10th, 2010 5:07 AM

I understand why someone is skeptical about cryonics from a technical standpoint. Sometimes I am skeptical about the success of cryonics. There are many technical hurtles that have to be overcome before we actually have decent cryo-preservation or vitrification.

However, I think all of the people who criticize cryonics for non-technical reasons are complete and utter imbeciles.

Posted by: kurt9 at July 10th, 2010 4:54 PM


I'm afraid your guess is just that: A guess. There are many good reasons to be skeptical about cryonics, none of which are religious. There are also many bad reasons to directly oppose cryonics, none that I have ever encountered being religious. Rather, it is the yuck factor at work. Cryonics is repulsive to people because it is not the convention. Cremation would be thought to be similarly despicable hd it not already been practiced for thousands of years.

Religion, it seems, has come to be a kind of boogeyman in transhumanist and life extension circles. Everything is blamed on it, even in the absence of any evidence.

Posted by: Me at July 11th, 2010 1:20 AM

I've learned that a person who make his or her own life choices without getting "permission" from total strangers is an "egotistical extremist". This is one of the charming things I've learned from the debates raging on about cryonics.

I suspect that a major reason for people not liking cryonics is simply that disregard for group think on the part of those who do sign up for cryonics.

Posted by: kurt9 at July 12th, 2010 8:52 AM

I agree that it is wrong to blame much of the opposition to cryonics on organized religion. In fact, given the nature of the opposition, its an insult to religion to associate it with the opponents of cryonics. These peoples' thought patterns are too incoherent to be blamed on actual religious belief.

No, I think the opponents of cryonics are such petty, little people with such little, small minds that they are incoherently jealous of anyone who seeks to rise above their pettiness.

Posted by: kurt9 at July 12th, 2010 8:58 AM
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