Attitudes to existential risk and longtermism
Increasing humanity’s chance of flourishing by understanding how we reason about our future

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This profile is tailored towards students studying psychology, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

Preserving humanity’s future might be one of the most critical moral issues of our time. However, one key bottleneck that limits all efforts trying to address existential risk is highly neglected: human psychology. To date, relatively little research directly addresses the question of how people reason about existential risk and the long-term future. Even though there is little direct research on the question, there is a wealth of relevant findings and theories in psychology, which can be applied to reasoning about existential risks and longtermism. Therefore, this area might be highly tractable. For more information listen to the podcast below on the topic.

 

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If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

Cognitive and decision-making psychology has identified several robust cognitive biases and heuristics (for larger scale replications, see, e.g., work by Gilad Feldman or the experimental economics replication project) with applicability to reasoning about existential risk and longtermism. For example, deliberate ignorance could be studied as a potential mechanism for why people neglect existential risk, interventions against scope insensitivity could be generalised to make people more aware of the scope of the long term future, and existing work on temporal discounting could be applied to understand how people value the long-term future.

Several areas in social psychology have implications for reasoning about existential risks and longtermism. For example, intergenerational public goods games have been used to study how people deplete resources that could be used by future generations, a line of research that can be extended to existential risk; moral psychology has a variety of relevant applications, such as people’s intuitions about population ethics; and climate psychology has identified interventions to increase climate change awareness that could be applied to other existential risks (however, see a recent meta-analysis that suggests effect sizes are small).

The research agenda ‘Psychology for Effectively Improving the Future‘ also suggests many research questions, such as:

  • How do people think about risks that could permanently curtail the future of humanity? Do people underestimate or overestimate such risks? Do they underappreciate the importance of mitigating such risks?
  • What do people think about emerging technologies that have the potential to cause global catastrophic risks? Are they too optimistic or pessimistic relative to the views of experts? What drives these attitudes?
  • What do people think about human extinction and the future of humanity? Do people find human extinction good or bad, and why? Do people find it morally important to safeguard the future of humanity?

Further resources

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Contributors

This profile was last updated 26/10/2022. Thanks to Maximilian Maier for creating this profile. Learn more about how we create our profiles.

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