Status Quo Bias in Bioethics: The Case for Human Enhancement

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Status Quo Bias in Bioethics: The Case for Human Enhancement


Nick Bostrom

Toby Ord


It is difficult to predict the long-term consequences of major changes. Even if we knew what these consequences would be, it could still be difficult to evaluate whether they are on balance good. In these matters, our only recourse is often intuitive judgments. Such judgments, however, are prone to biases. We present a heuristic for correcting for one kind of bias (status quo bias), which we suggest affects many of our judgments about the consequences of modifying human nature. We apply this heuristic to the case of a hypothetical technology for enhancing human cognitive capacity. Using the heuristic to eliminate status quo bias, we find that the consequentialist case for cognitive enhancement is very strong. We show how our method can be generalized for use in a wide range of cases of both ethical and prudential decision-making.

1. Introduction

Suppose that we develop a medically safe and affordable means of enhancing human intelligence. For concreteness, we shall assume that the technology is genetic engineering (either somatic or germline), although the argument we will present does not depend on the technological implementation. For simplicity, we shall speak of enhancing “intelligence” or “cognitive capacity”, but we do not presuppose that intelligence is best conceived of as a unitary attribute. Our considerations could be applied to specific cognitive abilities such as verbal fluency, memory, abstract reasoning, social intelligence, spatial cognition, numerical ability, or musical talent. It will emerge that the form of argument that we use can be applied much more generally, to help assess other kinds of enhancement technologies (as well as other kinds of reform). However, to give a detailed illustration of how the argument form works, we will focus on the prospect of cognitive enhancement.

Many ethical questions could be asked with regard to this prospect, but we shall address only one: Do we have reason to think that the long-term consequences of human cognitive enhancement would be, on balance, good?

It is impossible to know what the long-term consequences of such an intervention would be. For simplicity, we may assume that the immediate biological effects are relatively well understood, so that the intervention can be regarded as medically safe. There would remain great uncertainty about the long-term direct and indirect consequences, including social, cultural, and political ramifications. Furthermore, even if (per impossible) we knew what all the consequences would be, it might still be difficult to know whether they are on balance good. When assessing the consequences of cognitive enhancement, we thus face a double epistemic predicament: radical uncertainty about both prediction and evaluation.

This double predicament is not unique to cases involving cognitive enhancement or even human modification. It is part and parcel of the human condition. It arises in practically every important deliberation, in individual decision-making as well as social policy. When we decide to marry, or to back some major social reform, we are not – or at least we shouldn’t be – under any illusion that there exists some scientifically rigorous method of determining the odds that the long-term consequences of our decision will be a net good. Human lives and social systems are simply too unpredictable for this to be possible. Nevertheless, some personal decisions and some social policies are wiser and better motivated than others. The simple point here is that our judgments about such matters are not based exclusively on hard evidence or rigorous statistical inference, but rely also – crucially and unavoidably – on subjective, intuitive judgment.

The quality of such intuitive judgments depends partly on how well informed they are about the relevant facts. Yet other factors can also have a major influence. In particular, judgments can be impaired by various kinds of bias. Recognizing and removing a powerful bias will sometimes do more to improve our judgments than accumulating or analyzing a large body of particular facts. In this way, applied ethics could benefit from incorporating more empirical information from psychology and the social sciences about common human biases.

In this paper we argue that one prevalent cognitive bias, status quo bias, is responsible for much of the opposition to human enhancement in general and to genetic cognitive enhancement in particular. Our strategy is as follows: First, we briefly review some of the psychological evidence for the pervasiveness of status quo bias in human decision-making. This evidence provides some reason for suspecting that this bias may also be present in analyses of human enhancement ethics. We then propose two versions of a heuristic for reducing status quo bias. Applying this heuristic to consequentialist objections to genetic cognitive enhancements, we show that these objections are affected by status quo bias. When the bias is removed, the objections are revealed as extremely implausible. We conclude that the consequentialist case for developing and using genetic cognitive enhancements is much stronger than commonly realized.

2. Psychological evidence of status quo bias

That human thinking is susceptible to the influence of various biases has been known to reflective persons throughout the ages, but the scientific study of cognitive biases has made especially great strides in the past few decades.1 We will focus on the family of phenomena referred to as status quo bias, which we define as an inappropriate (irrational) preference for an option because it preserves the status quo.

While we must refer the reader to the scientific literature for a comprehensive review of the evidence for the pervasiveness of status quo bias, a few examples will serve to illustrate the sorts of studies that have been taken to reveal this bias.2 These examples will also help delimit the particular kind of status quo bias that we are concerned with here.

The Mug Experiment

Two groups of students were asked to fill out a short questionnaire. Immediately after completing the task, the students in one group were given decorated mugs as compensation, and the students in the other group were given large Swiss chocolate bars. All participants were then offered the choice to change the gift they had received for the other, by raising a card with the word “Trade” written on it. Approximately 90 percent of the participants retained the original reward.3
Since the two kinds of reward were assigned randomly, one would have expected that half the students would have got a different reward from the one they would have preferred ex ante. The fact that 90% of the participants preferred to retain the award they had been given illustrates the endowment effect, which causes an item to be viewed as more desirable immediately upon its becoming part of one’s endowment.

The endowment effect may suggest a status quo bias. However, we have defined status quo bias as an inappropriate favoring of the status quo. One may speculate that the favoring of the status quo in the Mug Experiment results from the subjects forming an emotional attachment to their mug (or chocolate bar). An endowment effect of this kind may be a brute fact about human emotions, and as such may be neither inappropriate nor in any sense irrational. The subjects may have responded rationally to an a-rational fact about their likings. There is thus an alternative explanation of the Mug Experiment which does not involve status quo bias.

In this paper, we want to focus on genuine status quo bias that can be characterized as a cognitive error, where one option is incorrectly judged to be better than another because it represents the status quo. Moreover, since our concern is with ethics rather than prudence, our focus is on (consequentialist) ethical judgments. In this context, instances of status quo bias cannot be dismissed as merely apparent on grounds that the evaluator is psychologically predisposed to like the status quo, for the task of the evaluator is to make a sound ethical judgment, not simply to register his or her subjective likings. Of course, people’s emotional reactions to a choice may form part of the consequences of the choice that have to be taken into account in the ethical evaluation. But status quo bias remains a real threat. It is perfectly possible for a decision-maker to be biased in judging how people will accommodate emotionally to a change in the status quo.4

Explanations in terms of emotional bonding seem less likely to account for the findings in the next two studies.

Hypothetical Choice Tasks

Some subjects were given a hypothetical choice task in the following “neutral” version, in which no status quo was defined: “You are a serious reader of the financial pages but until recently you have had few funds to invest. That is when you inherited a large sum of money from your great-uncle. You are considering different portfolios. Your choices are to invest in: a moderate-risk company, a high-risk company, treasury bills, municipal bonds.” Other subjects were presented with the same problem but with one of the options designated as the status quo. In this case, the opening passage continued: “… A significant portion of this portfolio is invested in a moderate risk company… (The tax and broker commission consequences of any changes are insignificant.)” Result: An alternative became much more popular when it was designated as the status quo.5

Electric Power Consumers

California electric power consumers were asked about their preferences regarding trade-offs between service reliability and rates. The respondents fell into two groups, one with much more reliable service than the other. Each group was asked to state a preference among six combinations of reliability and rates, with one of the combinations designated as the status quo. “The results demonstrated a pronounced status quo bias. In the high reliability group, 60.2 percent selected their status quo as their first choice, while only 5.7 percent expressed a preference for the low reliability option currently being experienced by the other group, though it came with a 30 percent reduction in rates. The low reliability group, however, quite liked their status quo, 58.3 percent ranking it first. Only 5.8 percent of this group selected the high reliability option at a proposed 30 percent rate increase in rates.”6
It is hard to prove irrationality or bias, but taken as a whole, the evidence that has accumulated in many careful studies over the past several decades is certainly suggestive of widespread status quo bias. In considering the examples given here, it is important to bear in mind that they are extracted from a much larger body of evidence. It is easy to think of alternative explanations for the findings of these particular studies, but many of the potential confounding factors (such as transaction costs, thinking costs, and strategic behavior) have been ruled out by further experiments. Status quo bias plays a central role in prospect theory, an important recent development in descriptive economics (which earned one of its originators, Daniel Kahneman, a Noble Prize in 2002).7 Psychologists and experimental economists have found extensive evidence for the prevalence of status quo bias in human decision-making.

Let us consider one more illustration of empirical evidence for the pervasiveness of status quo bias. One source of status quo bias is loss aversion, which can seduce people into judging the same set of alternatives differently depending on whether they are worded in terms of possible gains or losses.

The Asian disease problem

The same cover story was presented to all the subjects: “Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows.” One group of subjects were presented with the following pair alternatives (the percentage of respondents choosing a given program is given in parentheses):

If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. (72%)
If Program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved. (28%)
Another group of subjects were instead offered the following alternatives:
If Program C is adopted, 400 people will die. (22%)
If Program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. (78%)8
It is easy to verify that the options A and B are indistinguishable in real terms from options C and D, respectively. The difference is merely one of framing. In the first formulation, the outcomes are represented as gains (people are saved), while in the second formulation, outcomes are represented as losses (people die). The second formulation, however, assumes a reference state where nobody dies of the disease, and Program D is the only way to possibly avoid a loss. In the first formulation, by contrast, the assumed reference state is that nobody lives, and ordinary risk-aversion explains why people prefer Program A (the safe bet).

The bias to avoid outcomes that are framed as “losses” is both pervasive and robust.9 This has long been recognized by marketing professionals. Credit card companies, for instance, lobbied vigorously to have the difference between a product’s cash price and credit card price labeled “cash discount” (implying that the credit price is the reference point) rather than “credit card surcharge”, presumably because consumers would be less willing to accept the “loss” of paying a surcharge than to forego the “gain” of a discount.10 The bias has been demonstrated among sophisticated respondents as well as among naïve ones. For example, one study found that preferences of physicians and patients for surgery or radiation therapy for lung cancer varied markedly when their probable outcomes were described in terms of mortality or survival.11

Since changes from the status quo will typically involve both gains and losses, a tendency to overemphasize avoidance of losses will tend to favor retaining the status quo, resulting in a status quo bias. (Choosing the status quo may entail forfeiting certain positive consequences, but when these are represented as forfeited “gains” they are psychologically given less weight than the “losses” that would be incurred if the status quo were changed.)

Having noted that a body of data from psychology and experimental economics provide at least prima facie grounds for suspecting that a status quo bias may be endemic in human cognition, let us now turn to the case of human cognitive enhancement. Does status quo bias affect our judgments about such enhancements? If so, how can the bias be diagnosed and removed?

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