• Morten Ilseng Risnes
4. term, Psychology, Master (Master Programme)
Background: The development and application of new technologies is likely to introduce new risks to human existence. A moral case can be made that existential risk reduction is more important than any other global public good. Unlike all other types of catastrophic scenarios, human extinction would be a permanent end to mankind, meaning that a vast number of potential human lives would be permanently denied the possibility of existence. Despite this, there seems to be limited interest in the topic of existential risk among lay people and in public policy. It has been found that people do not consider human extinction to be uniquely bad, and that their judgment may be influenced by focus on immediate suffering and death rather than reflection on the greater consequences of extinction. Objectives: The aim of this thesis is to explore the possibility that human cognition may be poor for accurate perception and assessment of existential risk and scenarios involving premature extinction of mankind. This is a theoretical thesis with the objective of providing insights into the ways in which judgment and decision making potentially is made regarding the concept of premature human extinction. This is done with the following thesis statement: To what extent are we as humans able to understand and relate to existential risks? What cognitive limitations may restrict our ability to accurately assess risks of premature extinction?
Resources: The thesis statement is answered mainly with a basis in literature from the heuristics and biases program of cognitive psychology. Other viewpoints and critique are considered.
Results and discussion: Several of the cognitive principles from the heuristics and biases program were found to be relevant to better understand people’s assessment of existential risk. The heuristic principles of availability, representativeness, anchoring, and affect were discussed in relation to representation of existential catastrophe scenarios and risk perception. It is suggested that existential risk as an object to the mind is especially difficult to represent and make appropriate judgments on, due to its abstractness and uniqueness. The fact that we cannot learn from personal experience with human extinction was considered one of the reasons for why sound judgment may be difficult, in addition to other aspects related to accessibility of representations for objects in the mind. The theory of attribute substitution was considered as an explanation for the mechanisms underlying heuristic thinking. Judgment and decision making was further explored in light of Stanovich’ tripartite model of the mind, emphasizing that intuitive goals may be in conflict with goals at the intentional level. Thoughts and ideas for future research on the topic was presented.
Publication date18 May 2022
Number of pages52
ID: 470660630