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.
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.
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.