September 16, 2003
Will Longer Lives Make People More Risk Averse?

University of Colorado aging researcher Tom Johnson takes exception with U Cambridge biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey's argument that life extension will make people more risk averse.

"Look at who dies in accidents now," he said. "It's people in their twenties, who already have the most to lose."

That's because people don't become cautious until they feel the first tinges of mortality in their joints, he reasons.

"And if you feel fairly youthful at the age of 100, you're more likely to go bungee jumping and sky-diving," he said.

But is this simply because those twenty somethings feel young? Or are they lacking in the experience and wisdom that comes with age that teaches people not to act so crazy?

Aubrey takes his prediction of risk aversion to the point of predicting the end of high speed ground travel.

back in 1999 I predicted that, once we cure aging, driving (even on the ground!) will be outlawed as too dangerous for others. Remember also that when we have so many more years ahead of us, we won't need to be in such a hurry all the time, so flying cars would only be for recreation anyway.

My own guess is that Aubrey is atypical in the intensity of his desire to avoid death. If he wasn't then there'd be a lot more advocates of a massive effort to reverse aging than there currently are and more people would make it the chief goal of their life. Though perhaps many would rethink their views if they knew they could entirely avoid aging and achieve engineered negligible senescence.

So will people choose to live less risky lives once we can stop and reverse aging? That depends on human nature. Some people are thought to have an innate urge for sensation-seeking and to be risk-takers by nature. One possible explanation involves differences in cortisol levels. Another proposed explanation is that genetic variations on dopamine receptor genes DRD2 and DRD4 as a cause of dangerous thrill-seeking behavior. However, that report has been contradicted by later studies that have failed to find confirmation for a link.

We are still in the early days for discovering the genetic factors that affect behavior. But it seems likely that there are underlying genetic causes of differences in the desire to engage in highly risky and thrilling behaviors. Once those causes are discovered it is almost a certainty that drugs and other therapies will be devised for modifying human personalities to make a person have a greater or lesser desire to engage in dangerous activities. So this brings us back to the question of what people will do once they have youthful life expectancies that are, for all intents and purposes, of an indefinitely long duration. Whether those who currently are risk-averse will become even more risk-averse and whether the risk-takers will become risk averse depends heavily on this basic question: What kinds of personalities will people choose to give themselves once they are able to make enduring changes to their personalities?

Your guess is as good as mine. What do you think? Will people choose to become risk averse and give up driving and flying? Or will the timid chartered accountants of the world decide to fulfill their dreams to become lion-tamers by having their personalities altered so that they can be fearless in the face of a dozen lions propped up on circus stands in the big top?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 September 16 03:08 PM  Aging Debate

Paul Banks said at September 17, 2003 10:27 AM:

I think that many people will become much less risk averse; if there is technology to prop up the human body and immune system well past the century mark, there is likely to be similar advances in rehabilitating injuries and damage caused by the types of acts were talking about (likely even brain repair). The threat of death, then, is much lower overall, and acts that today would be risky (speeding, sky diving, etc.) might be considered tame.


David A. Young said at September 17, 2003 2:43 PM:

The short answer is, "Yes." As with most things generally, I think there'll be the full spectrum of responses. However, I'm inclined to agree with the previous poster, Paul, in that the same advances which will extend lifespan will also expand our ability to repair damage. If breaking a spine becomes no more troublesome than breaking a limb, whose to say what activities people will see as genuinely "risky?"


Phil said at September 18, 2003 8:56 AM:

That's an interesting idea. Longer life might create a tendency towards risk aversion, while enhanced repair options create a tendency towards greater risk -taking. Perhaps the two will cancel each other out and everyone will stay about the same.

But I'm not sure I'm convinced. Throughout recent history, lifespan and risk aversion have grown together. Skydivers and X Games competitors are interesting precisely because they buck the overall trend. As I wrote a while back, death is less acceptable when it occurs less frequently. Compare the horror and revulsion that we feel towards Sudden Infant Death Syndrome with the almost casual attitude towards infant mortality of our ancestors had 150 years or so ago. It's not that they loved their children any less, but (by necessity) they viewed the death of an infant as more to be expected, more part of the natural order of things, than we can really fathom.

For society as a whole, we can expect that aversion to risk will increase as people find the notion of death (which we currently view as inevitable and, in a sense, imminent) less and less acceptable. I think the older folks, those of us who are alive now and can remember lving with death hanging over our heads, might be the most risk-tolerant segment of society.

That's one of my personal reasons for wanting to stick around. By the time the starships are ready to fly, they're going to need some of us Old Schoolers to man them. Our descendants may be too timid.

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