A Failure of the Imagination when it comes to Human Longevity

Researchers recently published a study on attitudes to longevity that is reminiscent of the 2013 Pew survey. When asked, people want to live a little longer than their neighbors, at the high end of the normal life span for old individuals today. When asked how long they want to live given the guarantee of perfect health, people pick a number close to the maximum recorded human life span. This sounds like a collusion between the instinctive desires for first conformity and secondly hierarchy, deeply entwined with the human condition, present in all of our primate cousins, a self-sabotaging gift from our evolutionary heritage. We are hardwired to feel comfortable in a hierarchical social structure. We desire to be higher in the hierarchy than those around us, yet not so high that we are non-conforming.

One might argue that the interaction between the need for hierarchy and need for conformity is also at the root of the essential conservatism in human nature: the urge to preserve the present state of the world, to change it as little as possible. Given a teacup, ambition is restrained to the safe, conformist goal of two teacups - rather than, say, the disruptive change of a tea set factory, a house, an end to aging, the colonization of Mars, the cure for cancer. We live in an age of radical change, a revolution in the capabilities of biotechnology presently underway, but when you ask people what they want for their health, they'll claim nothing more than ten more years. That is the least of what might be achieved soon in the medical sciences, but without the desire for more than that, the rejuvenation research projects capable of providing far more will continue to struggle to find funding.

At the same time as the potential has arisen for a future in which the suffering and death of aging is banished, all disease controlled through advanced medicine, the vast majority of people still march stolidly towards what they assume to be the same fate as their grandparents. They are conforming. They expect to live a life that is the same in shape as it was for those born in the early to mid 1900s, somehow holding this idea in their minds at the same time as retaining the memory of living through the computing and internet revolutions, alongside any number of other sweeping changes in the nature of the human experience. How do we change this story that people are telling themselves? That is the fundamental question for all advocacy for radical change, such as the radical change of bringing an end to aging.

Around the World, People Have Surprisingly Modest Notions of the 'Ideal' Life

It seems reasonable that people would want to maximize various aspects of life if they were given the opportunity to do so, whether it's the pleasure they feel, how intelligent they are, or how much personal freedom they have. In actuality, people around the world seem to aspire for more moderate levels of these and other traits. People said, on average, that they ideally wanted to live until they were 90 years old, which is only slightly higher than the current average life expectancy. Even when participants imagined that they could take a magic pill guaranteeing eternal youth, their ideal life expectancy increased by only a few decades, to a median of 120 years old.

In one study, researchers analyzed data from a total of 2,392 participants in Australia, Chile, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Peru, Russia, and the United States. Participants in each region received a questionnaire translated into their native language. In response to a series of questions, participants reported their ideal level of intelligence; they also reported how long they would choose to live under normal circumstance and how long they would choose to live if they could take a magic pill ensuring eternal youth. A second study with 5,650 participants in 27 countries produced a similar pattern of results.

How Much Is Enough in a Perfect World? Cultural Variation in Ideal Levels of Happiness, Pleasure, Freedom, Health, Self-Esteem, Longevity, and Intelligence

The maximization principle - that people aspire to the highest possible level of something good if all practical constraints are removed - is a common yet untested assumption about human nature. We predict that in holistic cultures - where contradiction, change, and context are emphasized - ideal states of being for the self will be more moderate than in other cultures. In two studies (N = 2,392 and N = 6,239), we asked this question: If participants could choose their ideal level of happiness, pleasure, freedom, health, self-esteem, longevity, and intelligence, what level would they choose? Consistent with predictions, results showed that maximization was less pronounced in holistic cultures; members of holistic cultures aspired to less happiness, pleasure, freedom, health, self-esteem, longevity, and IQ than did members of other cultures. In contrast, no differences emerged on ideals for society. The studies show that the maximization principle is not a universal aspect of human nature and that there are predictable cultural differences in people's notions of perfection.


First of all ... More of this kind of thing Reason, MOAR. The framing of what we are trying to accomplish needs serious work and the more CPU cycles we put into it, the better. Nicola over at LEAF is working these kind of topics as well and damn, we need more of it.

Next.. more "On Topic"...

The lack of imagination is understandable. We as a species have never encountered anything like this before. Think about it. How much of our energies, thoughts, cultures, societal structures, etc etc etc have gone into dealing with "The Human Condition". Answer, all of it. No one has ever escaped. Death and Taxes and all that. To even think otherwise reminds us (Painfully I might add) of this short, craptastic life. Everything you work for, everything you love, any energy or effort you put into anything, is in the end, a complete waste.

We know death is coming, but we put a lot of lipstick on that pig to try to make it more palatable. Deep inside we know its all a con though. I'm pretty sure that even most religious leaders feel that way DEEP inside.

Getting ones hopes up even hypothetically is painful.

We have to figure out how to undo ALL the layers of mental protection we have applied since... forever. Aubrey is right, we have to dare to be brave and stick our necks out, but what is the best way to do this?

I'm reading a lot of Albert Camus right now trying to wrap my brain around this and figuring out a way to frame and market it.

Posted by: Mark Borbely at June 21st, 2018 5:12 PM

Maybe it's possible to get people to see the value of working on a cure for aging without disturbing the coping mechanism they use to deal with their own fear of death - if you tell them it probably won't happen in their lifetime, but there is a good chance it will happen in their children's lifetime. Do it for the kids. Accept your own death is inevitable, but also work towards saving your children from the same fate. This taps into a basic evolved instinct to sacrifice ourselves for our children if necessary.

I've been thinking about how I would approach this if I start to explicitly discuss my life-extension goals with those around me, and I think the best approach is to say that's it a long shot, there's probably only a 10-20% chance I live long enough to benefit, but for my nephews and nieces, who are 40 years younger than me, it's more like 50%. There's a good chance that people who are young children now will be able to live in a world without cancer or Alzheimer's disease or heart attacks, still running around like teenagers when they are 100.

So suggest people approach it not merely as a project to benefit us personally, but as a legacy for future generations. Many people deal with death by working on a legacy that will live after them, whether that's artistic works or scholarly writings or a record of community service. For most people, their children are their legacy. So build on their coping mechanism rather than fighting it. Tell people that the best legacy they could possibly leave their children is a world where their children don't have to grow old and frail, and never have to be afraid of becoming old and frail.

Posted by: Chris at June 21st, 2018 6:42 PM

Great stuff, Reason! Unrelated; one used to be able to reblog your posts to Facebook etc, now that seems impossible. Can that option be restored pls?

Posted by: TJ at June 22nd, 2018 12:13 AM

@TJ: GDPR makes that a good amount of work, and/or legally difficult; the third parties that manage widgets as of yet offer none of the necessary tools or legal assurances. So for now it is back to the old methods of cut and paste.

Posted by: Reason at June 22nd, 2018 7:29 AM

I find these study results shocking. A person may state a theoretical amount of time they would like to live to with health, but a sane healthy human who reaches that point is not going to wake up one day and say "I made it, today is the day I'm going to die." Everyone has goals and activities, some stretch out and some lead to other goals and activities. No one is going to mark a date on a calendar and say "Let's wrap everything up before 2060."

For me personally, it is the thought of ending my relationships with my precious children and their children (some day) that is unimaginably sad, and the sadness it would cause them. Nope, not going to happen. Both the acceleration and velocity of SENS research is positive, and there are going to be unforeseen "jerk" moments in the next couple of years that will both make some billionaires and change public attitudes.

Posted by: Tom Schaefer at June 22nd, 2018 7:54 AM

There is also a now admitted to culture of death that is growing like a disease. I refer you to this New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/nyregion/the-positive-death-movement-comes-to-life.html

Part of me wants to say "Good riddance to bad rubbish" as the people inclined to such thoughts remove themselves from the gene pool. The other more compassionate part of me thinks that some good people will be caught up in it because they think it is cool.

Posted by: Tom Schaefer at June 22nd, 2018 8:16 AM

@Tom: It's like a cult of the Dragon-Tyrant >.<

Posted by: Antonio at June 22nd, 2018 9:29 AM


That is a peculiar group for sure. But to each their own I suppose, as long as they don't actively try to impede progress here. That said, look at the study I linked. It paints a different picture than here. To me, small sample sizes like these can't be used to prove things one way or another though.

Posted by: Ham at June 22nd, 2018 10:59 AM

Hello there, just a 2 cents.

Like many, I'm saddened to see that my previous overall feelings on human lifespan desire being a modest length and not much more than human MLSP, are now, pretty much official, confirmed and validated; this World survey demonstrating so.

What I gathered, is that less progressist, adaptative and wealthy countries are generally more inclined to the same same human lifespan + 10-20 years if even. To them, 90 is sufficient, and 120 is 'pushing it' if taking an Eternal magic pill.
I don't know about you, but between 120 and eternity there is, just a small gap.

A part of me wants to scream ">@%%f*"n r*t*rds beep( beep f*kn fcks(!!!!!" expletive, but another part of me restrains it and Tries Hard, to retain it, and show compassion/comprehension (uncomprehension?).
Sadly, pity too, a crying shame. I know they would say we are more pityful, senseless, heartless and egotistic for not wanting to die like a good ethical human does, called a fatalist. We live in a fatalistic world since the humanity's cradle came to be.

Death is a love/hate relationship for humans, we are intrigued by death and mortified by our own mortality, our bittersweet finitness. It is why we feel alive when brush death so close - but survive - (being an atherosclerosis survivor, I can tell)).

Why must we ache, wither, get old and die? Why not, Not, so.

Fatalists :"Don't be a selfish teenager in quest of eternal youth and deathless - death is good, good comes out of death, overpopulation curbing, you are replaced by your children, you contribute to society cycle of life-death rinse-repeat, the society will continue your legacy after you're gone, humans have been dying forever they are not about to Live forever, a Good Human is a Dead Human one day after their limited life and their purpose have been accomplished... blablablabla".

What I'm feeling is that communal vs individual thing, lower societies say that lifespan, IQ, and individualism are less important while holistic, natural, communal and unadaptive traditions are what is important.

I agree that they have tight knit communities that all about putting the others first before themselves; the gift of self/dying for the others just like dying as a parent in lieu of child to protect your child, instead of child dying.
While individualistic societies seek personal gain, individualis, (selfishism/egoism).
It's the individual vs the society/total population.
Individualism vs altruism.

I spoke of Altruistic Individualism, but they prefer Individualistic Altruism. The difference being, the former is Giving a Chance to Everyone to Obtain Infinite Lifespan -altruistic but only 1 life in 1 body individualistic 'The' Individual 1 One With His Her Own 1 Self, Me Myself and I'' selfishly yeah,
While the latter is You Die, but it was not in vain, you Did live to 120, you had kids, you contributed to humanity unselfishly by putting the others first before you, unindividualism altruism/populism/generosity values.

Adaptability, open-mindedness, accountability, self-introspection, survivalism, progressism, intellectual curiosity, Living how long YOU can (You is 1 not whole country, individual vs collective) are some of the many element lacking from all these countries in that survey.

In the future, I predict revolts at some point, just like the China example of gov curfewing number of kids per couple, gov may decide to limit lifespan to 120 once rejuvenation touches LEV

The gov will have last say on people's Lives, and their very death 'expiry due date',

But, like in the French Revolution War or the American Civil War, govs may be dismantled and cease to be as we know them.

Things change, reform and die, even gov/laws, an Eternal Powerful gov could spell an end to LEV, because govs act for the entire society/total population not a single individual's personal desires (such as Infinite Lifespan) .

Just a 2 cents.

Posted by: CANanonymity at June 22nd, 2018 11:22 AM

@ CANanonymity

With all due respect, I can't help but feel you're being a bit dramatic here. This study no more makes anything 'confirmed, validated, and official' than the study I linked in my comment above, which talks about there being a great desire for extended life and health. It's a study polling a little over 5,000 people. That isn't a real sizeable amount in the grand scheme of the world, and it certainly doesn't provide an official stance on the matter.

As for the rest, you're kind of veering off into conspiracy theory territory. There's no indication that the world is going to turn into the scenarios of Logan's Run or The Giver when people turn a certain age. But who knows... maybe the government WILL tell you when your time is up in the future, I just think it's probably unlikely. And if that is something they wanted to do, there would be nothing anyone could do about it, aside from maybe moving if that were an option and other governments didn't adopt the same policy. These aren't the days of the French Revolution... the people can't put up too much resistance against the government when push comes to shove.

Posted by: Ham at June 22nd, 2018 12:01 PM

I hang out in Reddit's "futurology sub-reddit. We talk about this and many other things all the time. Here is something I posted as a comment once about a year ago.

13 points· 11 months ago· edited 6 months ago

Here is the Gizmodo link that originally made me aware of this new announcement. "Gizmodo", as you know, is "persona non grata" in the reddit world. Even if it puts out reliable accurate information. I'd change that if I could.


Now, I don't doubt that humans cannot "naturally" live longer than 125. But that is not what we mean here in r/futurology. We don't mean aging forever like poor old Tithonus.

"but when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all, such as once he had in his supple limbs."

Our intention is to make an end run around aging altogether, by keeping aging or more accurately "accumulated unrepaired biological damage over time" from occurring in the first place.

Here is something to consider. A human turning 100 years old today has a better than average chance of living for 20 more years. And that is just based on existing medical technology and the blessings of that individual's genetics. Between today and 20 years I bet we make some significant advances in interventional aging reversal technology.

I prophesy that the first person to be 1000 years old is turning 100 years old today. If you have not been following the medical advances in aging reversal technology, this claim sounds like the wildest fantasy, but you are the one ill-informed.

Senescent cell clearing technology alone will cause a 100 year old to potentially live until 130. Regenerative medicine will be beyond our wildest dreams in 30 years. Age related sarcopenia (frailty) has officially been classified as a pathology (M62.84 ICD 10). Five years ago there was no such classification. Age related sarcopenia was simply regarded as a "natural aspect of aging". This is a fundamental paradigm shift in our philosophy towards what we used to think of as "aging". And this is not even counting advances in nano-tech, which is the true wildcard in all of this.

As it is, I see most super centenarians (those over the age of 110) living for the most part to the age of about 117. Emma Morano recently died at the age of 117. The next three oldest humans are all over the age of 114. And this cohort of people living over the age of 110 has increased dramatically.

The upshot of all of this is scientific immortality for me. And I am 57 years old. Sure I could get cancer in ten years or get hit by a truck tomorrow, but I think my chances are good. I will be 100 in 2060, but biologically and intellectually as youthful as a 21 year old. (And probably crazy nano-augmented to boot.)

Record to beat: Jeanne Calment, age 122. Died in 1997. Oldest vetted human to ever live.

Posted by: izumi3682 at June 22nd, 2018 12:30 PM

Hello Ham, thanks for that, just a 2 cent,

I know I might sound a bit dramatic there (ok maybe a lot), but though the sample is small, it is in multiple countries thus enhances its merit and validity. I know we should not take it at 100% face value and get all histerical up-in-arms dramatic paranoiac (doomandgloom endoftheworld). I still believe there is some value in that survey, not Entirely accurate, but accurate enough. Had this been done in a single country, I would have discredited it, but it was not.

I use to work as a survey rep over the phone for 10 years asking shtty surveys to people in homes, Everything, from their favorite color to their most hated thing (generally, the answer to that one was 'me calling them for a survey ').

I do know that large samples can change things strongly once the huge lot of missing ones' POVs are accounted/factored in final stats. All I'm saying is we should not so easily dismiss these results, even if less than.

As survey rep I was surprised that sometimes small population surveys could be good surrogates of Total Population Pulse,
a good 'estimate', in some cases, if you will: within a reasonable margin of error (making said small survey valid and extrapolateable to the entire country's population's 'overall' feel. In essence, I was shocked that it could still somewhat accurately give an overall picture of million of other people's thoughts, that were just never revealed by them since it was small sample/small survey)).

I really hope the other large mass is thinking contrary to the small sample of fatalists in that world survey)).

As for people not being able to do anything about a gov deciding to kill us at 120, when I look at the China example I agree, Chinese are 1 billion, captive, and not up-in-arms against their own gov (it makes me think of famous Hernàn Cortés and Francis Pisaro whom, Spanish Conquistador and Portuguese Colonizer, knew how to control 100s of millions of Mexicas people by taking hostage/keeping captive the state's emperor (thus the state itself) - all these millions of people were under emperor state command - but the state/emperor was now in a standstill/gridlocked. The millions were now captives of Cortés and Pisarro's every command))).

An insurection is unlikely today, but what if people Don't want to die, should they just give in to live a 'safe' state-sponsored and governed 120 years, and then die when gov says 120 limit is reached. Many, like you said, will not dare mutinize and compromise the fact they are actuality Alive right now, and don't want jeopardize that by going against the gov, manifesting in riots until full scale civil war, the military may even decide to change camp and support the Will to Live above 120, there will be desertion, it's:
You live to 120, accept that compromise and Die.
Or, You Fight, and might die, but your actions could allow infinite lifespan to be legal.

Just a 2 cent.

Posted by: CANanonymity at June 22nd, 2018 1:19 PM

Perhaps it's an accurate representation of the world population, but maybe not. I can't read the whole study, but different populations in different regions have varying world views and subcultures. Just look at the US. Anyway, if you asked all of these people who wanted to die at 90, and asked them at 89 years and 364 days if they still wanted to die at 90 (and they were in good health) I'm willing to bet the far majority of people would like to postpone. People are unpredictable and bad at looking into the future. That's partially why I think surveys like this are nonsense to begin with.

As far as China, all I can really say is that their society is a lot different than western society. As far as the government mandated execution at 120, I'm not suggesting that it will happen or even be likely, especially given how likely everyone is to protest anything in today's world. I'm also not advocating to lay down and die if that's what the case turns out to be, either... it's just much harder to fight against the government than it was 300 years ago. Also, something like suicide is still taboo in much of western society, so I don't see government mandated execution being popular with the populace, especially if they're healthy and able bodied. Nor do I see every or most countries adopting such a policy.

And again, as unpleasant as it seems, personally I'd welcome being killed at 120 by the government over being killed by cancer or Alzheimer's at 80. But again, I honestly don't see it happening, unless we had a situation where everyone lived to 120 in a decrepit bedridden state for 30 years. /shrug

Posted by: Ham at June 22nd, 2018 2:06 PM

They obviously did not ask me. Infinite health lifespan rejuvenating periodically to young adult and with the ability to change expressed genes up to including gender... in my perfect world!

Posted by: Robin at June 24th, 2018 8:46 AM

The negative spin about this survey is kind of misleading. The actual data from the paper indicates that most of the respondents want healthspans of at least around 150 and about 30% want immortality. The paper does claim that the median desired healthspan is 120, but as far as I can tell, the data itself doesn't support this claim. Even if 120 was correct, that would mean 50% of the respondents want 120 or more.

Posted by: Florin Clapa at July 14th, 2018 7:01 PM
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