Improved Cores Unwanted

The most interesting thing I learned at the Symposium last weekend was this two year old paper on a survey about enhancement.  Its main result was that the more people considered a feature to be a key part of their identity, the less they wanted to improve it.   Few folks want to improve their empathy, self-confidence, or self-control, while more folks want to enhance their rote memory, math ability, and wakefulness.   I suspect something similar holds for beliefs: the more important a belief is to our identity, the less eager we are to improve that belief via evidence or analysis.  Beware identifying with beliefs!

The paper’s main table:


Hat tip to Anders Sandberg.

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  • I consider myself intelligent, and I’d like to be more intelligent– but I seem to want more of the same sort of intelligence.

  • Dave

    How deeply odd. To my eye, it seems like people are less likely to desire to enhance the traits which would most likely make them more effective at achieving their goals in modern society.

  • Cog

    Wait a second here, you’re assuming that people judge their abilities equally well across areas. A more likely possibility is that most of the respondents believe -rightly or wrongly- that they have just enough kindness, empathy etc., thank you very much. Whereas we have all felt the frustration of bad reflexes, wonky memory and drowsiness and are willing to admit so to ourselves.

  • JB

    Um…were they allowed to state they wanted to improve in all listed areas? I’m pretty sure I’d pick all of them myself…

  • kevin

    Bizarre. Self confidence, mood. self-control, motivation, and creativity would be among my highest ranked for improvement.

    I wonder how people would respond to an offer of a general intelligence booster. Intelligence seems to me to be pretty important for identity, although I suppose most people think tney’re smarter than average.

  • Its main result was that the more people considered a feature to be a key part of their identity, the less they wanted to improve it.

    It would be more accurate to say “… the less they wanted to artificially boost it.” I take it there’s nothing here to suggest that people aren’t keen to improve themselves via more “natural” methods (therapy, training, etc.). They just don’t want to transform their identity via external interventions — which isn’t so surprising.

    • To make sense of this, we’d need some way to understand what are “natural” versus “artificial” ways to improve our features.

  • Jess Riedel

    Shouldn’t there be some sort of analysis about how the method of improvement affects people’s willingness to try it? I think people would be much more likely to want to improve an aspect of their brain through thinking exercises than through pharmaceuticals. It seems more plausible that (say) memory could be improved through exercises but empathy would require drugs.

    • pwno

      I think quite the opposite. A sad book, movie or even picture can easily make people more empathetic towards something. Memory capacity can’t be improved that quickly.

      • Jess RIedel

        The only important thing is that many people might *think* that memory can be improved with less invasive techniques, and that therefore the survey isn’t measuring what it claims to measure.

  • I wonder if this has anything to do with being a part of a community, and working with others–if we keep changing, we might be hard to work with. The more I identify with a certain trait, probably the more likely other people identify that trait with me, so if I become more able in that trait, it might create confusion when others are trying to coordinate with me.

    “You’re self confident, so we thought you could deal well with this, but we know you’re not so self confident to deal with this other problem, so we came to help with that one–but you seem to have dealt with it on your own, unexpectedly, because you developed more self confidence, and now we’ve wasted our time.” You’d think that people would learn and adjust though, so I’m not so sure this explanation works. There does vaguely seem like some value in remaining who you are to help in coordinating with friends.

    Another angle is competition–if you’re the best at something in your group, what incentive do you have to get better–I think of dominant companies in an industry versus upstarts and less dominant companies in that industry–you’d be more concerned with suppressing competition in your ecological niche, maybe, or perhaps expanding into other niches where you aren’t dominant as an insurance policy against rough times in your own niche, maybe.

  • pwno

    I think people are willing to admit they want to improve in areas that it’s more socially acceptable to need improvement in.

  • Michael C.

    Very interesting results. I’m reminded of a Woody Allen line from the hilarious Small Time Crooks: “I’ve always wanted to know how to spell Connecticut.”

    Learning a musical instrument or foreign language are things people can do. It requires effort, but it doable. Why then don’t more people speak a foreign language or play a muscial instrument?

    Do people really “want” to enhance those abilities? Or do they “want to want” to enhance those abilities?

    • gwern

      > Do people really “want” to enhance those abilities? Or do they “want to want” to enhance those abilities?

      An interesting suggestion.

      I was personally struck by the last results about how the reluctant to enhance essentially disappeared when the description was changed from ‘enhancing oneself’ to ‘becoming one’s true self’.

      This suggests to me that what people think of as their selves is very fragile and inconstant, changing with the social situation. Which suggests that this is an outgrowth of societal norms about ‘phonies’ and authenticity and deception; relabel a trait as not your true self, and one no longer worries about those norms and is free to grab the advantage. This looks to me like a simpler explanation than self-sabotage, although Johnson’s saving-face explanation is probably still simpler.

  • Eric Johnson

    It seems like the final five are more linked to social and mating status, and people wouldn’t want to admit they aren’t already near the top for those traits, or at least nicely above average. “I desire to enhance” shades into “I admit a deficit.”

  • anon

    I think pwno and Eric Johnson are right. The “Wanting to ban” and “Moral acceptability” scores don’t seem very well correlated with [un]willingness to enhance: that’s quite suspicious in my opinion.

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  • When I inititally thought of what I would do, I also did not choose to increase the more social skills such as kindness, empathy, etc. I was concerned about myself because of the response of this community… and then I realized that maybe you all were seeing it differently than me. I wonder if many of the respondents saw it the way I initially did.

    Robin Hanson is probably right that people who identify with character traits are going to be less likely to enhance them. People who interpret their actions as kind, empathetic, etc, will be less likely to intepret failures in this area to be due to a lack of kindness and empathy… they’ll be more likely to pin it on a misunderstanding by the other person or something. Afterall they were trying to be kind right, and judging my encounters with obviously mean people, they are certainly a step above the crowd (flawed thinking of course).

    But there is another problem, and this is the one that really made me respond the way I did. Not only did this bias of considering oneself perfectly kind hit me, but furthermore, I worried about how more kindness might harm my dealing with people. Kindness is something we variably show to others- based on their relationship to us, prior encounters, etc etc. I guess I saw this as just an increase in kindness- making us more kind in every encounter, even where perhaps our original level of kindness was perfectly appropriate. So on with empathy and other things.

    However, when I looked at it not as just this arbitrary increase at every event- but instead as a holistic improvement where one was just more sensitive to situations where kindness or empathy was appropriate… yeah then it sounds like a great idea! So I wonder if it isn’t a failure to want to be a better person as far as kindness and empathy goes- but a misunderstanding of how this increased kindness and empathy would influence their behavior…

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  • Oliver

    What justifies the assumption that kindness is an ability? I can see no reason to assume that too little kindness is worse than too much.

  • The things at the top of the list are goal-oriented. The things at the bottom are not. This suggests to me that people want to achieve their goals. Not a shocker.

    Increasing your kindness and empathy would hinder you from attaining any goals other than being kind and empathetic. Increasing your self-confidence could have more disadvantages than advantages, depending on where you start.

    Note that the subjects were “young healthy individuals”, hence not likely to be worried about the things at the bottom of the list.

    Also note that the researchers said that these were the results they expected to find:

    In the studies that follow, we examine, for the first time, whether the well-documented
    concern for the preservation of self-identity affects young healthy individuals’ willingness to
    take drugs designed to improve their own social, emotional, and cognitive abilities. We expected
    such individuals to share the misgivings of the President’s Council on Bioethics (2003, quoted
    above), and to resist tampering with their own self-identities. Indeed, despite recognizing that
    such enhancements would make life better, we expected people to be less willing to enhance
    fundamental aspects of themselves.

    Any study in which the researchers say that they expected to prove Bush’s Council on Bioethics right is highly suspect.

    Also note that I miss the “preview” feature of this blog.

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  • Sebastian H

    Interesting, I suppose it makes sense that people feel weird about changing things that make up the core of their personality (or what they perceive as the core).

    In a similar vein, I’d actually like to increase my self control and motivation. Are there practical ways to go about that as an adult?

  • techreseller

    I consider my ranking in empathy and kindness to be well below average. And I have no desire to increase my kindness and empathy. Perhaps the survey indicates exactly what people what to enhance and that which people do not want to enhance. The only items I would flip on this list are motivation and rote memory. Rote memory is declining in value while motivation will never decline in value.

  • My follow-up post here explains (in more detail than my above comment) why I think this post is misleading…

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