Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Prospection Errors are Obstacles to Longevity Science

This excellent article by Gilbert and Wilson outlines some basic prospection errors that humans typically make when they think about the future.

Imagine future event X. The amount of hedonic experience you will feel in thinking about X will be influenced by the mental representations you have of X, and by contextual factors (like events occurring in the present).

Gilbert and Wilson identify a number of common prospection errors, like the fact that simulations are unrepresentative, essentialized, abbreviated, and decontextualized.

I believe that prospection errors explain the prevalence of "gerontologiphobia" (see my earlier post). Recall, Miller defines gerontologiphobia as follows:

There is an irrational public predisposition to regard research on specific late-life diseases as marvelous but to regard research on aging, and thus all late-life diseases together, as a public menace bound to produce a world filled with nonproductive, chronically disabled, unhappy senior citizens consuming more resources than they produce. No one who speaks in public about longevity research goes very far before encountering the widespread belief that research on extending the life span is unethical, because it will create a world with too many old people and not enough room for young folks.

I am working on a new paper (hence why blogging has been sparse) that examines how misperceptions about the present and future state of global health are themselves major obstacles to tackling aging.

Because simulations are based on memories, medical research that proposes to eliminate a disease is much more likely to invoke hedonic experiences in our simulations then is a medical intervention that retards aging.

These prospection errors explain why this is what usually happens in our simulations:

Imagine a world without cancer.... lots of hedonic experience.... we have a moral duty to prevent people from dying of cancer.

Imagine a world where humans age slower than they currently do.... simulations invoke memory of "being old", then ask "Why would we want to be old for longer?".... then imagine a world filled with lots of old people.... invoke concerns about inequality, invoke concerns about overpopulation, climate change, etc.

Very few hedonic experiences occur in this second simulation. And this is a big problem as slowing aging would reap larger health and economic dividends than eliminating cancer.

I believe there are many complex factors at play here, factors that keep the medical sciences wedded to the "disease-model". But our inability to make accurate, sensible simulations of what a future of retarding human aging would entail (for both the developed and developing world) is itself one of the greatest obstacles to prioritizing aging research. And this problem needs to be redressed.