August 24, 2008
Would You Change Your Mental Identity?

When drugs, gene therapies, and cell therapies become available that will allow you to change your personality will you opt to do so? Most people in a recent study indicated they don't want to change cognitive traits that they think are fundamental to their identity. So which traits do you think are fundamental to your identity? Would you like to change any of them?

Healthy people are more willing to take drugs to enhance traits that are not fundamental to their identity.

According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, people's willingness to take a pill or drug depends on whether the trait the drug promises to enhance is one they consider fundamental.

Authors Jason Riis (NYU, Harvard Business School), Joseph P. Simmons (Yale University), and Geoffrey P. Goodwin (Princeton University) examine the moral dilemmas that arise as technologies develop that not only cure disease but also enhance already-healthy people. As many young people without diagnosed disorders or deficits take Ritalin or Adderall to improve concentration or anti-depressants to lift their moods, this study examines what makes healthy people willing to take pills.

People do not see increasing their ability to concentrate as something that would alter their identity.

The researchers determined that people do not feel comfortable using a pill to enhance a trait they believe to be fundamental to their identity. But less-fundamental traits, including concentration, are more acceptable targets.

"We suggest that people's willingness to take psychological enhancements will largely depend on beliefs about whether those enhancements will alter characteristics considered fundamental to self-identity," the authors write.

During a series of studies, the researchers found that young people were less likely to agree to take a drug to increase their social comfort than one that increased their ability to concentrate. The most common reason participants said they wouldn't want to take a pill was because it would "fundamentally change who I am."

But with proper marketing it is possible to sell people on more kinds of changes to who they are.

Not surprisingly, the marketing message affected participants' responses. When the researchers tested different advertising taglines, they found that participants responded more positively to a drug promising to help them become "more than who you are," than one that would allow them to become "who you are."

"Together, this research converges to highlight the importance of identity expression and preservation in governing the choices and lives of consumers," write the authors.

Will introverts opt to become extroverts? I think it more likely introverts will decide to become extroverts than vice versa. What do you think?

Imagine you could make yourself more likely or less likely to become angry when you see something that you think is morally wrong. Would you tune your emotional response? If so, in which direction?

If public nudity makes you deeply embarrassed would you like to alter your brain so that you do not feel any embarrassment or shame when nude in front of others? Or would you like to suppress the embarrassment response in any other circumstances?

Would you be willing to use biotechnology such as neural stem cells to make you more relaxed or more confident or change something else about your mental state?

Here is one of the most fundamental traits: Do you find yourself having moral reactions that you intellectually disagree with on some level? Would you like to alter what you find morally wrong or morally acceptable?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 August 24 10:53 PM  Brain Enhancement

Brock said at August 24, 2008 11:48 PM:

My concern is more about what personality traits the state will forbid or require, and whether standards will be universally applied in such respects. We could create societies of universal (and mandatory) social trust, or societies of segmented interests and authority. Will the political organs that decide what traits are necessary be susceptible to political capture? Is water wet? How wet?

Josh said at August 25, 2008 12:12 AM:


I'm big on state-hate too, but I don't see the government requiring a certain personality and medicating those who don't display it. That doesn't seem to be their style. More likely, as more personality-altering drugs are developed, we'll see increased measures to ban or restrict them. This won't be justified with any reason better than "it's unnatural", but the reasons they give is obviously going to be far separated from the real reasons. Of course the drug companies have their lobbies too, but they aren't strong enough to overcome a good old populist mob mentality.

Finnsense said at August 25, 2008 12:45 AM:

This is an interesting topic and I think there's something to the "fundamentally change who I am" point. Frankly, I'd change anything I consider mostly negative about myself - especially if it were reversible. I feel like different people on different days anyway, but it's surely my past that defines who I am more than anything else.

I would love to be less embarrassed. There are several studies that show extroverts are happier than introverts.

Aron said at August 25, 2008 6:55 AM:

My going forward on personality changes may depend heavily on my ability to go backward. However, there are plenty of primate leftovers I could deal without. The world forgetting by the world forgot.

David A. Young said at August 25, 2008 10:00 AM:

Can't say that I'd be interested in changing my emotional/moral responses. They seem to work pretty well for me. The things I'd like to change are those which are more "utilitarian." Better concentraton, better memory, perhaps more control over sleep cycles (i.e., being able to go to sleep quickly "on-demand," and not having to sleep so long).

Frank said at August 28, 2008 2:50 PM:

Brock - I'm curious. The federal government is already telling us what kinds of toilets and light bulbs we can have in our houses. Having stooped to this level, why do you think they wouldn't elsewhere - especially when it gives them an edge?

Frank said at August 28, 2008 2:53 PM:

That last post is addressed to Josh, not Brock. Sorry for the confusion.

Brett Bellmore said at August 29, 2008 5:37 AM:

In a heartbeat: I have a decided tendency towards clinical depression; I may keep it largely in check with SAMe and cod liver oil, now, but it made a wreck of much of my life, and I suspect that even now it's making me less successful than I might otherwise be.

gwa.45 said at August 29, 2008 11:55 AM:

Where it's going to get ugly: People taking drugs to enhance their economic value, leading to an "arms race", resulting in the unenhanced human simply being uncompetitive.

You heard it here first.

Scrit said at August 29, 2008 12:36 PM:


No, we heard it in Gattaca first. Or was it in some 1950s pulp sci-fi story. Well, probably the latter.

Something that I'm not seeing anyone here mention is physical/spacial/kinetic awareness/intelligence. Suppose it's all the eggheads here, but kinetic intelligence is not something that we should undervalue alongside purely cognitive abilities. Just because your smart and can concentrate doesn't mean your hand-eye coordination is gonna improve too much.

William said at August 29, 2008 2:49 PM:

I'm an introvert. I cherish the introspection that often goes with introversion, but I would take a drug to reduce my "people fatigue" in a minute. I would also take a drug to increase concentration or intelligence. My worry is what happens when rich people really are superior to poor people? What do you do when $1000 a month gives a priviledged few an extra 15 points of I. Q.? What happens if an already above average intellect gets to be even smarter with the application of money? What happens when all the old aristocracy's views of the proles come true? The peasants are revolting...

James said at August 29, 2008 3:14 PM:

I'd think that the class envious should be happy, William. Rich people would be the beta testers, so by the time it gets cheap, the bugs are all ironed out. The last thing I'd want to risk wrecking is my intelligence... such as it is.

Orion said at August 29, 2008 4:24 PM:

We already have a drug that does that: it's called a-l-c-o-h-o-l and lots and lots of people take to to change their behavior and personality to something they consider more appealing and suitable to the occasion.

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