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Surprising new Pew Research Center Study indicates most Americans dont want radical life extension
Kevin LaGrandeur   Nov 4, 2013   Ethical Technology  

A Pew Research Center survey of 2,012 American adults done between March and April, 2013 shows, somewhat surprisingly, that a majority of those surveyed (58%) would not like to live radically extended lives—although they think that other people besides themselves would.

When asked their idea of what constituted an ideal length for their own lives (in good and full health), most named 90 as the desired length.  They thought 120—a benchmark for radical life extension—was too long.  The top reasons given against radical life extension had to do with social beliefs: most (over two-thirds) thought that only the wealthy would have access; that scientists would offer treatments before they were completely understood; and that longer life would strain natural resources. 

Additionally, more than half (58%) thought that treatments would be “fundamentally unnatural.”  Most were skeptical that techno-medical  advances would lead to radically extended life by 2050, anyhow, with just 25% believing it would happen. 


Here are some key statistics, in graphical form, from the study:

This is really food for thought for those who are enthusiastic about life extension and the transhuman: how would they address the public's skepticism about these issues?  Especially since they don’t fall into the three major categories of objections to longevity that one is used to seeing. That is, in this survey, the issues of “sour grapes” (if I can’t have it, it’s not good anyhow), and the so-called “thithonus fallacy” (extended mortality equals extended morbidity and living longer with debilities) were not presented as issues.

In fact, the premise given to respondents was that if radically extended life (i.e.—to 120 years), lived in good health were widely available, would you want it for yourself? And the second question was “do you think others would want it”? The third most common objection to longevity—population and resource problems—was, however, a big source of objections to deferred mortality.

I am curious how the IEET community would respond to this survey. Do you find it shocking? Do any of these misgivings hold water?  Why or  why not?  If the public is not only skeptical, but hostile to radical life extension, then what does that imply for future efforts to move that agenda forward?  There are probably more questions raised here, but I, for one, was pretty surprised by this public reaction.  

Perhaps, like many, I tend to assume people will act in their own interests and so most would be enthusiastic about attaining longer, healthier lives. I am going to hold off on giving my own views at the moment, because then they would become the focus of response, and I would like to see how others respond to this survey.

The complete article reporting the results of this study can be found at the Pew Research Center website:

IEET Fellow Kevin LaGrandeur is a Faculty Member at the New York Institute of Technology. He specializes in the areas of technology and culture, digital culture, philosophy and literature.


“I tend to assume people will act in their own interests…”

Sadly, such an assumption seems to be particularly unwarranted for our current moment in Pax Americana.

I am not in the least surprised by the results of the Pew survey. Cryonics has been around for almost 50 years and there are perhaps a few hundred people in cryonic suspension worldwide. Hell, I’m not signed up for it myself (can’t afford it / can’t get life insurance.)

Many of us involved with life extension and transhumanism underestimate the ways in which cultural influences can trump individual interests. Since prehistoric times, humans have planned their lives around the Biblical “threescore and ten” as the normal lifespan. We have a certain sense of a structure for our lives with a fixed end: as Ecclesiastes puts it, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens.  A time to be born, and a time to die. . .”

The idea of an indefinite lifespan is thus very unsettling to our deepest sense of self. It often produces an automatic, visceral revulsion to the idea that we rationalize with environmental, economic or quality-of-life arguments.

Most people would literally rather die than to challenge the norms of their society, let alone their sense of self. Nations have never found it hard to get citizens to charge machine gun nests or fly kamikaze missions.

I am not rendered pessimistic by attitudes such as this, but we who support life extension may need to change our marketing strategy. There should be more emphasis on the social benefits of fighting age-related disease and disability through life extension. Much of the research needed would be the same, but “live a long life and be healthy and fit until the end” is an easier sell than “live forever.”

It does not surprise me. Most people seem to be unable to think about and accept long term change.

On the other hand, nobody will put their money where their mouth is. If they are 90 and in good health no one will kill him/herself because ‘it is the natural thing to do’. Especially not if they will be 90 with the body of a thirty year old.

Yes, the Pew Study is disconcerting indeed, but not wholly unexpected. Tom Mooney mentioned the Pew study and the statistics found in the paper during his talk in the recent Radical Life Extension Conference in Washington D.C. this past September (Co-sponsored by LongeCity, MaxLife, MILE, Better Brains Institute, Center for Transhumanity and the Coalition to Extend Life), His talk was about how we are at the beginning of a long educational campaign on the feasibility of aging, and on our ability to manage its potentially-problematic consequences, and Tom cited the Pew study as indicative support for that claim - that one of the biggest bottlenecks for RLE is sheer common ignorance regarding RLE’s feasibility and the manageability of its potentially problematic demographic consequences.

Two other Canadian Poll on RLE also conducted this year showed more promising results in terms of feasibility and worse in terms of anticipated problems (e.g. limitations on availability, overpopulation and depletion of resources) . Albeit the Pew research poll surveyed people of all ages, whereas one of them (the one by CARP, slogan: A New Vision of Aging for Canada) targeted their own members, whose average age is 70.

Below is the excerpted abstract from the other study, and the one by CARP follows.  All asterisks are mine.

Paper:—“Canadians’ support for radical life extension resulting from advances in regenerative medicine.” in the Journal of Aging Studies.

“This paper explores Canadian public perceptions of a hypothetical scenario in which a radical increase in life expectancy results from advances in regenerative medicine. A national sample of 1231 adults completed an online questionnaire on stem cell research and regenerative medicine, including three items relating to the possibility of Canadians’ average life expectancy increasing to 120 years by 2050. Overall, Canadians are strongly supportive of the prospect of extended lifespans, *with 59% of the sample indicating a desire to live to 120 if scientific advances made it possible, and 47% of respondents agreeing that such increases in life expectancy are possible by 2050*. The strongest predictors of support for radical life extension are individuals’ general orientation towards science and technology and their evaluation of its plausibility. These results contrast with previous research, which has suggested public ambivalence for biomedical life extension, and point to the need for more research in this area. *They suggest, moreover, that efforts to increase public awareness about anti-aging research are likely to increase support for the life-extending consequences of that research program*.”

So to sum up, the first study showed a *great* response by Canadians to feasibility of life-extension, and an even better response to its desirability. Of 1231 surveyed Canadians (all aged 70+), 59% wanted to live past 120 and 47% thought it would be feasible by 2050.

The report on the second poll indicates a *worse* response than the Pew Study.

Excerpted from the CARP’s interpretation of the data (i.e. “key findings & conclusion”):


“Key Findings:

CARP members are aware that there are radical life extension possibilities but are unlikely to embrace it for themselves. They are much less supportive than their American counterparts – even allowing for age differences in the sample – and cite resource pressures, think it is fundamentally unnatural and would not lead to a more productive economy.

When asked in detail, most CARP members think radical life extension is a bad thing, because it will lead to resource depletion and seniors will run out of savings.

CARP members are half as interested in taking part in these life extension techniques as Americans, and much less convinced than Americans that others would like to take part.

If they did take part in these treatments, CARP members are most concerned that their extra years would be healthy, not necessarily well-provided for.

CARP members expect to live as long as Americans wish to live, but they wish to live even longer, which may be reflection of greater confidence in our health care system.

In a similar vein, CARP members are more confident humans will routinely live to be 120 years old by the year 2050 than Americans are.

In a curious and counter-intuitive finding, CARP members are less likely than Americans to say these treatments would be available to everyone, and are more likely to say they will be reserved for the wealthy when they are available.

CARP members are more likely than Americans to agree these techniques would strain natural resources, are equally likely to find them fundamentally unnatural and are much less likely to think they will lead to a more productive economy.

Most CARP members say they would not change what they are doing if they had an additional 20 years, while others say they will travel or volunteer.


CARP members are more aware of, and more skeptical of the benefits of radical life extension than are Americans. They are more likely than Americans to see the obstacles and pitfalls to radial life extension, and less likely to think it will be embraced by many. It may be that Canadians, with expectations of adequate health care for all rather than glamorous health care for the wealthy, do not see these treatments being paid for by the government.”

Also see the following post by CARP on the report, with some actual quantitative data on their findings:


“August 26, 2013

Toronto, ON: CARP members don’t see much value in extreme longevity, neither for themselves nor for society at large. Medical science might let people live to 120 but not many want to.

CARP members are aware that there are radical life extension possibilities but are unlikely to embrace it for themselves. They are much less supportive than their American counterparts – even allowing for age differences in the two samples – and cite resource pressures, think it is fundamentally unnatural and would not lead to a more productive economy.

“Science holds out the promise of extreme longevity but CARP members have a more levelheaded reaction – they worry about staying healthy and the societal effects. They expect to live longer than their American counterparts – perhaps due to our universal health coverage – but are half as likely to undertake life extension treatments. If they had more years, they’d do the same as they do now.

Our members, for the most part, are happy with their lives, and don’t wish to extend them beyond a natural span. The American public, on the other hand, is always attracted to bright shiny objects, and the promise of immortality is one of the brightest and shiniest of these” said Susan Eng, Vice President Advocacy for CARP.

Pew Research surveyed over 2000 US adults in Spring, 2013 about extended life spans More than 1,800 CARP members responded to this weekend’s poll on some of the same questions.

The Pew poll was taken among a general population sample, weighted to reflect current US census data, and therefore containing all ages. The CARP sample is made up of CARP members, whose average age is about 70 in this sample. This will lead to significant differences in attitudes to health care and longevity between the two samples.

CARP members want to live to age 94 on average [a bit longer than the American sample of age 89] but expect to live to about 88 on average. Less than 10% in either sample wanted to live to 120.

CARP members are half as interested in taking part in these life extension techniques as Americans, and much less convinced than Americans that others would like to take part.

The single most common concern about living to 120 is that these extra years be healthy years (52%), followed distantly by concern about retirement savings (11%).

If they had 20 more years of good health and sound financial footing, most CARP members would spend their extra time doing what they do now (38%), followed by travel (24%), volunteering (13%) and spending time with kids and grandkids (12%).”

Notice that both polls used the same numbers - living past 120 years, and whether it would be feasible by 2050. However, just to be perfectly clear, they’re definitely different polls, the most obvious indicator being their starkly-contrary findings (i.e. data) and interpretations.

A lot depends on how you ask the question in any case. For me the best argument for radical life extension is simply that it is, to use Kevin Kelly’s phrase, what technology wants. Also, I understand that numerous psychology studies have shown that people always assess others’ qualities more accurately than we do our own (we tend to overestimate our own, for fairly obvious reasons), so it may be more significant that people think that others want to live longer than that they think they don’t. What the latter does show is that people think there is something wrong with wanting to live longer, but that is hardly surprising given our conditioning.

I was surprised that the number of people favorable to life extension were so large. When working to get people to support life extension, it seems a lot more like around 1% in favor. The reality that 41% of people in the US said that radical life extension would be good for society is tremendous. The black protestants polled at 54% for the same question. If we had a candidate on a ballot then it seems like we may already be primed to be able to pull in the votes. These numbers seem to reflect a harvest of the work that life extension supporters have been putting in for the past 5 decades. If people were asked questions like if they would take proven pills and therapies that could extend their healthy lives on indefinitely then I would expect now to see good numbers on questions like that too.

Another way to look at this is to consider the self-replicating potential of an idea like, “I want to live forever.” For the moment, this kind of idea is relatively poor at replicating itself, since it appears very self-orientated, and our current culture is (thankfully) rather hostile to ideas that are that self-orientated. Furthermore, simply declaring that one wants to live forever doesn’t actually make one live longer, so it doesn’t get the benefit of improving the health and longevity of its propagators. By contrast, an idea like, “It’s important to visit one’s doctor from time to time” does much better: it looks more altruistic (it’s generic advice, rather than a self-orientated declaration of intent), and it’s effective in improving the health and longevity of its propagators.

This suggests two operational conclusions for those of us who are interested in radical life extension. Firstly, we need to talk more about societal benefits, so as to avoid appearing self-orientated. Secondly, we need to incentivise such talk by engineering direct health-and-longevity benefits for those who participate. This points towards life extension societies (such as the Brussels-based Healthy Life Extension Society, Heales) focusing more on societal benefits and facilitating more generalised mutual support between their (and each others’) members.

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