Who Wants to Live Forever?

Mike Treder reports some interesting poll results from Reader’s Digest:

So much for eternal youth! Most respondents to our latest global survey are just fine with their limited shelf life here on earth. Not even the younger crowd consistently chooses immortality. In fact, more than 50 percent of those 45 and under in seven countries (including the United States) report that they don’t want to live forever. Brazilian youth buck the trend, with 74 percent preferring no expiration date. Two surprises: In the Philippines, everyone over 45 wants life everlasting; in China, not a single older survey-taker does.

Mike provides this graph of the percentage answering ‘yes’ by country. A cursory glance suggests a negative relationship between GDP and stated desire to live forever. That could well be sampling bias, as the readers of Reader’s Digest in rich and poor countries are probably very different people.


I’m pretty convinced that if life-extension technologies were available, many more than this poll suggests would use them. Firstly, the decision of whether or not to live forever is never a decision anyone will actually have to make. Even if we can indefinitely expand lifespan, it will be possible to refuse them or commit suicide if life ever becomes a drag. I’m not quite sure whether I want to live forever, but I’m pretty sure I want to live longer than one hundred years, and suspect I’d be keen to keep living at least a few hundred. It’s pretty difficult to imagine far beyond that.

Secondly, expressive concerns about how we’d like to see ourselves and have others see us are bound to dominate in surveys. Living forever is generally seen as a weird and geeky idea, and not something that most respectable people want to be associated with. People see the acceptance of death as a sign of bravery and maturity, and that is exactly what it is when we can’t avoid death. Most people, for lack of imagination, continue to see a normal lifespan as the best they can hope for.

Finally, a good deal of it is just plain sour grapes. People, I would say incorrectly if they’re younger than 50 or so, assume that they cannot have immortality, so they engage in a heroic effort of rationalization to make themselves feel better about things. They wanted to die anyway. All new technologies which promise to make our lives radically better are greeted with suspicion. I just hope nobody I care about dies as a result of this suspicion.

2 Responses

  1. Why would you resort to a poll to validate whether or not people want to die?

    Polling is a scam, laden with response bias. It is amongst the very worst types of pseudoscience.

    The good thing is, once we get to infinite (or near-infinite) life extension, we will see that a hypermajority of folks will vote with their feet (assuming you plug in the life extension machine through your feet).

    • Agreed. I wasn’t meaning to suggest that the poll had any scientific validity, I just found it interesting and I think it does tell us something about people’s opinions. The Reader’s Digest poll isn’t a real survey, but I wouldn’t be surprised if properly-done survey gave comparable results.

      I completely agree that people will vote with their feet in favour of life extension, but unfortunately before that happens people will also vote with their uninformed opinions through the political system, which could hinder research. A (properly done) survey does test one thing extremely well: what people say they prefer when there is nothing riding on their answer. That’s pretty relevant to political behaviour.

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