January 16, 2004
Will Eternal Youthfulness Lead To Less Ambition?

In a post entitled "Would potential immortals be risk-averse?" Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution also explores the question of whether long-lived people will be less ambitious.

A related question is whether immortals would be less ambitious, since they might always feel they could accomplish their goals in a more distant future. As long as we are citing fiction, I recall seeing a television show about immortal beings. They were content to remain homeless and spent most of their time sitting around a campfire and talking. They accumulated few possessions. They never feared such a course of action would lead to death, and they always held the option of trying to do more.

In my own post on this topic "Will Longer Lives Make People More Risk Averse?" I explored the question of whether the development of medical treatments that will offer eternal youthfulness will cause people to become extremely risk averse. Aubrey de Grey thinks people will go so far as to stop flying in airplanes and even stop driving cars. I don't think this will happen for reasons very similar to why young people do dangerous things even though they have many decades to live: a lot of people are bored and want to get their kicks. Many (though by no means all) people are biologically wired to be strongly motivated to desire experience of intense and dangerous thrills. Plus, human brains are not wired to accurately measure risks and therefore some people are bound to do things that are more dangerous than they believe to be the case.

One factor tends to argue against the idea that eternal youthfulness will lead to low ambition: A young mind and body is an energetic mind and body. An energetic mind and body will find ambitious undertakings much easier to perform. If something feels like it takes less effort to accomplish it then people are more likely to try to accomplish it. My guess is that youthfulness will increase accomplishment by making work seem more effortless. My further guess is that this feeling of effortlessness will outweigh the effect that will come as the prospect of a long life removes the sense of urgency for the need to ccomplish things before getting too old. So the possibility exists that external measures of ambition will rise even as internal feelings of ambition decline. People might actually end up feeling less ambitious even as they accomplish more due to the ease with which they will be able to exert themselves.

Whether future eternally youthful people will become less ambitious also depends on the answer to the same question I raised about eternal youthfulness and risk aversion: What kinds of personalities will people choose to give themselves once they are able to make enduring changes to their personalities? People could choose to give themselves hard driving highly motivated and goai-oriented personalities. In that case, people might use multi-thousand year lifespans to carry out plans that take hundreds or thousands of years to execute. Or they might just keep going around and finding new goals to achieve that take less time to accomplish.

The bigger question I have about personality engineering is this: Are there personality types which people are less likely to change away from and therefore will people who periodically change their personalities eventually end up at one of the personality types that people tend to not want to switch away from? One might imagine each personality as having something akin to an energy state. The lower the energy state the less the likelihood that a person, once in that state, would ever decide to leave it. Perhaps once it becomes very easy to change personality types the human race will gradually distribute out into the "low energy state" personality types. There may be radically different personality types which each cause the people who think as those types to totally lack the desire to become another type. So humanity might end up dividing up into those types, whatever those types might be.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 January 16 12:49 AM  Aging Debate

Dave Gobel said at January 16, 2004 5:18 AM:

I subscribe to the "Groundhog Day" thesis. In the movie, each setting was identical and the only variable was the "actor's" evolving responses to the environment. To make a long story short, he learns that self-indulgence eventually leads to his becoming a "living black hole"...everything comes to him - and this virtually destroys (kills) him - even though he's immortal ... Until he learns that integrity, sharing, caring, giving, growing, learning etc. are the only anti-entropic ways to live, gain purpose and really enjoy life.

Life expectancy has already doubled since 1840. So we already have a laboratory of the effect of life extension. Are people more risk averse today? I'd say no - there are more safeguards that allow one go closer to the "edge"...and many people go to that edge for fun and profit. So, it's quite possible that the aged of today at 75 are as risk averse as old people (35) in 1840. Perhaps when society's perpetual age is ~26, we will see research turn from anti-aging tech to personal invulnerability tech.

There will be a spectrum of responses to longevity both individually and societally - just like today. I expect that when I'm 120 that I would hardly recognize the person I am today...and who knows after that? Let's just get there and find out :-)

Phil said at January 16, 2004 6:00 AM:

If I could choose my own personality, I'd make myself more confident, ambitious and driven. And I'd probably make myself a lot less concerned about what other people think about me. These characteristics seem to have a good deal to do with getting ahead in the world. Interestingly, these are also the characteristics that I think would make a person less inclined to want to change.

So maybe our desire for material success, combined with the ability to tailor our own personalities, will mean that we end up being a bunch of type-A jerks. The species will then die out, since no one will be able to stand anyone else, and since we'll all refuse to make ourselves nicer.

Zarathustra2101 said at January 16, 2004 11:16 AM:

Young people engage in risky behavior because they're bored, sure. But another reason young people are more risk-prone is that the parts of the brain that apprehend long-term consequences of behavior are not completely "wired up" until late adolescence. (This is one of the most persuasive arguments against holding juveniles to the same standards of accountability as adults in the criminal justice system). So at least part of the answer to this issue is biological.

Biology can also tell us something about risky behavior in fully-developed "normal" adults. Once a person's risk-assessment module is fully wired up, presumably it will equip a person to take those sort of reasonably calculated risks that would have been adaptive in our evolutionary environment. Because the evolutionary environment differed from the modern environment (i.e., life was more brutish, nasty and short and it paid to get out there, kick some ass, achieve status and win mates as early and often as possible), present-day humans are undoubtedly more risk-prone than we "ought" to be given our changed circumstances. Remember: the goal of evolution is reproduction, not longevity, and so the evolutionary response to a riskier environment is, paradoxically, increased risk-taking behavior, as long as it doesn't get you killed before you have the opportunity to reproduce. This "legacy software" is undoubtedly part of the reason that, as Dave Gobel noted above, we don't notice any drastic changes in risk-taking behavior accompanying the doubling of life expectancy over the last century or so. But I bet if we looked closer we would find at least some differences due to the fact that our environment is less dangerous than it was a century ago. The disconnect between our evolved risk-assessment apparatus and our current circumstances will only be exacerbated as life-spans continue to lengthen - at least until we can re-wire the brain to bring them back in line (assuming we want to do that).

Environmental factors also influence risk-taking behavior, mediated, of course, by biology. I've seen references to studies (sorry, no cite) showing that young, underprivileged males (regardless of race) are far more risk-prone than their more affluent, suburban counterparts. This probably has very little to do with genetic differences. More likely, it's because underprivileged urban males have shorter lifespans (even if they aren't killed by their own risky behavior), and precious few "successful," risk-averse adult role models. In other words, their environment is more nasty and brutish and they respond accordingly (and in an evolutionary sense, rationally) - by going out there and kicking ass, achieving a sort of primitive macho status and winning mates as early and often as possible.

Assuming all this is true, it shows that within biologically defined limits, risk-taking behavior is fairly responsive to environmental signals. If that's the case, then as lifespans continue to increase we should expect a corresponding decrease in risk-taking behavior only to the extent that people think they have "something to live for." Under the present state of medical science, increased longevity pretty much translates into added years of senility, decrepitude and dependency, so it's not surprising that average risk-taking behavior hasn't undergone any major changes. Once medical technology allows rejuvenation instead of mere longevity, then we might see some actual changes in peoples' risk-taking behavior - but again, only withing the limits imposed by our evolutionary legacy software.

Randall Parker said at January 16, 2004 11:58 AM:


You state "within biologically defined limits, risk-taking behavior is fairly responsive to environmental signal". I agree. But there is genetic variation in how much we want to take risks and also in how much we respond to environmental signals. There are risk-taking members of the middle and upper classes. Look at the affluent people who do mountain-climbing, hang-gliding, parachuting, and the like. Look at the people who drive very expensive motorcycles. They are all choosing riskier activities.

Risk takers are probably that way in part due to variations in dopamine metabolism. They get a bigger rush out of risky activities than do the rest of us. Increase their lifespans and the amount of rush they get from risk-taking will not decline. In fact, make their minds young again and they might even become bigger risk-takers. I say this because it is likely that risk-taking, like drug addiction, becomes less of an issue with old people because their minds change in ways that reduce the thrill of risk-taking and of recreational drug use.

Sorry, I know I'm not providing citations to support these conjectures. When I have some time I'll dig up some research results that support this general line of argument.

Zarathustra2101 said at January 16, 2004 12:33 PM:

Randall, I think most people who study these issues agree that there's a "risk-taking gene" that has something to do with dopamine metabolism. Such a gene would account for variation within the population - accounting for, as you pointed out, wealthy upper-class skydivers and the like. But by "biologically defined limits" I'm referring to upper and lower bounds of individual variation within the population at large. Take the example of height - the variation in height within a population is something like 70% genetically determined, regardless of socioeconomic status. The other 30% of height variation within a population is linked to diet, which is environmentally determined - so we could expect that kids who lack access to high quality protein and calcium will grow up to be, on average, shorter than their more privileged counterparts, all other things (including genes for height) being equal. But regardless of socioeconomic status, and absent severe genetic abnormality, you simply don't see people who are one foot tall or nine feet tall. Similarly, I would be very surprised to learn that anybody alive today has a risk-assessment module equipped to deal with a 1000-year lifespan. (And if such a person existed, I don't think he or she would be very fun to hang out with.)

Aside from that clarification, I agree with you - especially your second paragraph.

Kelly Parks said at January 16, 2004 12:45 PM:

Young people's risk-taking nature and old people's risk-avoidance are both biochemical. When you're young (especially a young male) surviving risky behavior advertises your biological fitness as a mate. So, if the "immortality treatments" restore your youth, including your youthful hormone levels, you will feel the need for speed and be attracted to risky activities again. Unless research into nuerotechnology lets us adjust behavoir-altering brain chemistry as we see fit. Then our behavior will be whatever we wnat it to be.

Randall Parker said at January 16, 2004 2:17 PM:

Z, I agree with you for the most part except I have one small bone to pick: In some populations the variation in height due to environment will be quite high. In other populations quite low. Ditto for IQ and a great many other things. Upper middle class families are going to feed their kids so well that their brains and bodies will develop to their genetic potential. Also, the kids will be exposed to fewer toxins. So the variation due to environment will be lower. But in the lowest classes the environmental effects will be larger.

Also, as foods have gotten cheaper and people have become more affluent a larger fraction of the population has been able to supply their kids with basic nutrients. So I'd expect at least the nutritional part of environment to have declined over the last couple of centuries in the United States (excepting immigrants) as an influence on height, IQ, etc.

As for whether TV, Walkmans, and the like are helping or hurting intellectual development I do not know. Plus, in the last generation has the quality of food eaten by kids worsened as more drink soda than milk? It is a real possibility.

Zarathustra2101 said at January 16, 2004 3:57 PM:

Randall - You're right!

Here's more info.

According to the article, heritability of height is actually a lot higher than I thought - at least among Western Europeans. And the contribution of environment to variation does indeed diminish as environmental effects become more uniformly distributed. Presumably, the same rationale applies to personality characteristics like risk tolerance (although if I remember correctly, personality characteristics are usually no more than 40% heritable - implying that the expression of personality traits is a lot more sensitive to environmental influences).

Kelly - Yes, risk-taking/avoiding is biochemical. But our biochemistry is the way it is (individually, and on average among populations) because of a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and nothing else.

The really interesting question to me is: Will the "normal" (i.e., nonpathological) range of risk tolerance imposed on us by Darwinian evolution be "appropriate" for eternally youthful posthumans? I think a cost/benefit analysis exposes a real paradox here: If the benefit is eternal youth, then no risk is worth taking. But because we are biologically driven to endure some level of risk for the sake of status or mates or pure dopaminergic bliss or whatever, we are virtually guaranteed to behave, in some sense, irrationally. This is especially true if, as Kelly pointed out, rejuvenation therapy restores youthful hormone levels. The bigger the forfeit (and cutting short potentially eternal youth is a pretty big forfeit) the more irrational any risk-seeking behavior becomes. The only rational thing for an immortal to do is to live a passive, sterile, contemplative, cocoon-shrouded life. Sheer torture! For these reasons, I think any radical life extension therapies would have to be accompanied by a re-engineering of the brain so that posthumans could continue to experience the subjective states that make life exciting and worth living, without exposing themselves to as much risk as we are (apparently) programmed to crave.

Fly said at January 16, 2004 4:17 PM:

With the changes coming in the next decades, I think we have little idea what the world will be like in one hundred years, much less a thousand. I donít think ambition or boredom will be a problem. Inability to keep up or adjust in a world of accelerating change and increasing diversity might be. (The world isnít going to stop changing just because people stop aging.)

Phil, material wealth may not mean much in a nanotech world. Power or success might consist of skill in organizing and influencing people. Being nice might be a more successful trait in the future. As it becomes easier and easier to record, organize, and transmit our experiences the penalty for poor behavior might increase. Imagine if a personís worst behavior was easily accessible public knowledge. Would a woman date a man after watching a video of his verbal abuse kindly provided by his target?

Oleg Dopertchouk said at January 16, 2004 4:52 PM:

According to Robert Ainsley (in "Breakdown of Will") older people tend to have more rational discount curves. That is they learn to evaluate the relationship between distant rewards and rewards in the near future. People get wiser with age.
A person with a rational (exponential) discount curve still might take advantage of an instant gratification opportunity but only if that doesn't hurt his/her long term goals.

So people with a very long lifespan will probably be more rational about their risks and rewards. I don'tsee why their risk-aversion (that is the discount rate) should be all that different from the risk-aversion of, say, 25 year olds (who have already got over their hormone rush but still have a long life to live).

Randolfe Wicker said at January 18, 2004 4:35 PM:

There is some research indicating that compusive gambling is based on the need for the hormonal rush that gambling produces.

covington said at January 19, 2004 10:13 AM:

Two thoughts -

One, few people actually have real goals other than BREED and RETIRE.

The life-extension would enable people to have a much longer period of freedom and productivity both before and after having kids, so certainly our life-time productivity cycle would be affected.

Two, compounding interest over a 200 year lifespan would be something to see... we'd see some interesting battles between the 200 year olds and the newborns over tax policy and societal priorities.

Oh, and a bonus third thought... imagine the resistance if life-extension is expensive and restricted to the very rich, or cheap and so restricted to the non-fundamentalist religious.

Kathy said at January 19, 2004 5:50 PM:

if you had an understanding of buddhist philosophy - the four noble truths, the laws of cause and effect, and the true nature of mind - you would know that everything you are wondering and writing here is really inconsequential...only more of the same cycle of samsara....

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