Could tailor-made babies give rise to new forms of discrimination?
In a Wall Street Journal article titled, "A Baby, Please. Blonde, Freckles--Hold the Colic," Gautam Naik notes that "a Los Angeles clinic says it will soon help couples select both gender and physical traits in a baby when they undergo a form of fertility treatment. The clinic, Fertility Institutes, says it has received 'half a dozen' requests for the service, which is based on a procedure called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD."
While some might argue that legitimate labs would never cross ethical lines by producing "designer babies," there is disagreement from crucial quarters:
Naik quotes the director of the Los Angeles clinic who says, "This is cosmetic medicine. Others are frightened by the criticism but we have no problems with it."
There's a way to help children exercise it
Eric Wargo's recent article in the Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), is a fascinating distillation of existing research on willpower and self-control.
In Resisting Temptation, Wargo notes that new findings suggest that willpower can be flexed and fatigued like a muscle.
"But the $64,000 question," says Wargo, "is this: If willpower acts like a muscle, can we strengthen it through exercise? Evidence so far suggests the answer is yes."
How does this square with 20th-century Behaviorist belief in determinism? It does throw some kinks into the machinery. And further investigation indicates that there may be some very good reasons to welcome back a belief in free will.
"Recent research suggests that a world that disbelieved in free will would be a worse place, not better," says Wargo. "In a study by [Kathleen] Vohs and APS Fellow Jonathan W. Schooler (University of California, Santa Barbara) participants who read a passage about free will's nonexistence by the biologist Francis Crick (the discoverer of DNA) were more likely to cheat on a subsequent arithmetic task than were controls who read a neutral essay. In another study, participants read a series of passages that either affirmed or denied the existence of free will and then answered a set of GRE questions; they checked their own answers and rewarded themselves monetarily for their number correct. Again, there was significant effect: Belief in determinism promoted cheating."
The upshot seems to be that if children are taught to believe they can control impulses while also learning how to control them, they are more likely to score higher in self-control and self-mastery as adults. As Walter Mischel's famous 1970s experiments in deferral-of-gratification have demonstrated, those who are able to control self-gratification as children grow up to be more well-adjusted and academically successful than their counterparts who lack this kind of self control.
So how does a child—or anyone else, for that matter—exercise the willpower muscle? Apparently it happens most effectively when we engage in fairly easy but regular self-control activities such as modifying our moods or paying attention to our posture.
Mental re-imaging can also be an important tool for increasing willpower. Mischel's experiments suggest to Wargo that "viewing temptations abstractly—'cooling' immediate stimuli—helps redress the here-and-now bias produced by temporal discounting [putting off immediate gratification for a later reward], enabling us to take a longer perspective. By the same token, making long-term priorities hot adds weight to those goals, helping them defeat our short-term impulses." In other words, when faced with temptation, the ability to weigh the alternatives and see the greater value in the long-term goal makes all the difference.
Another strategy is revealed through studies of implementation intentions. In 2004, researchers Peter Gollwitzer, Kentaro Fujita and Gabriele Oettingen found that if we use "if—then" reasoning to plan specific reactions to possible temptations, anticipating and planning for likely obstacles—other mental capacities can be brought to the fight, reinforcing the willpower muscle.
Certainly these are thought processes parents can help children develop through small, self-regulatory "exercises." Of course, this might require spending enough time with children to become aware of the choices facing them on a daily basis.
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