Sure, who wouldn’t want to be more creative? But what about a pill to improve your self-control, or sociability? What if you enjoy being impulsive, or revel in your alone time? If a pharmacological enhancement changed a defining aspect of your personality, how would it change your perception of that enhancement?


Researchers at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia surveyed over 1,400 people to understand their reasons for “endorsing or eschewing” the pharmacological enhancement of twelve cognitive domains.

The researchers were led by Laura Y. Cabrera, a neuroethicist with an interest in the implications of cognitive enhancement. “The debate over the propriety of cognitive enhancement evokes both enthusiasm and worry,” the researchers write in the latest issue of Neuroethics. “To gain further insight into the reasons that people may have for endorsing or eschewing pharmacological enhancement (PE), we used empirical tools to explore public attitudes towards PE of twelve cognitive, affective, and social (CAS) domains (e.g., attention, mood, creativity).”


A peek at the study’s supplementary material (the paper is behind a paywall) reveals the domain descriptors and definitions used for the investigation:

In their paper’s abstract, Cabrera and her colleagues describe the results of their investigation, which I’ve highlighted in bold:

Participants (N = 1,408) from Canada and the United States were recruited using Mechanical Turk and were randomly assigned to read one (and only one) vignette that described an individual who uses a pill to enhance a single domain. After reading the vignette, participants were asked how comfortable they were with the individual using the enhancement. People were significantly more comfortable when they read about enhancement of certain CAS domains (e.g. creativity) than others (e.g. mood). We found a modest negative correlation between comfort level and the degree to which the PE was perceived as changing core features of the person. We also found a modest correlation between comfort level and the degree to which the PE was perceived as improving success in life. Finally, using a sequential mixed method technique, we found that participants who felt uncomfortable about PE use overwhelmingly focused on a lack of need and, to a lesser degree, expressed concerns about safety; those who felt comfortable about PE use most frequently mentioned the safety of the pill and its ability to provide a positive outcome. The data provide novel insights into public enthusiasms and concerns over the use of PE.

Test subjects, in other words, seemed to look most favorably on enhancements that would improve a person’s innate qualities and, by extension, that person’s success in life. In contrast, enhancements that changed “the core features of a person,” i.e. made them less themselves, were looked upon less favorably. Which is interesting, when you consider the nature of the domain descriptors looked at in the study. Considered in isolation, most of the qualities listed above would probably be described as positive. But considered in the larger context of someone’s personality, each quality becomes more than just a virtuous trait. Its presence (or absence), from a person’s cognitive and emotional makeup constitutes that person’s identity. And what could be more important than a person’s identity?


[Neuroethics via Adam Kolber’s Neuroethics & Law Blog]

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