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We Want Our Organ Donors to Be Like Us

New research suggests that we prefer organ donations from people most like us in both body and mind. But should we trust those instincts before going under the knife?
Andrew Overton
Κείμενο Andrew Overton
Photo via Flickr / CC

There are always more people looking to receive organs than there are people looking to donate them, hence the international black market. Despite the scarcity, however, people still show signs of choosiness when considering just whose organs they’d want to let inside.

Consider the logic of the polyjuice potion from the Harry Potter series. By ingesting the potion, which contained a sample of another person’s bodily essence—perhaps DNA, though J.K. Rowling never made any explicit mention of nucleic acids—the drinker would adopt their appearance, down to every last detail.


This potion’s mechanism of action, reliant on DNA from another person, seems to have conformed to “essentialist thinking,” which maintains that “some internal, unseen essence or force determines the common outward appearances and behaviors” of something.

A recent study published in the journal Cognitive Science, from which the above definition comes,examined essentialist thinking in the context of participants’ attitudes when it came to accepting organ donations and blood transfusions from hypothetical donors with various personal characteristics.

Here's how it worked. Researchers at the University of Michigan presented potential organ recipients with a list of possible donors of various ages, genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds. The list also contained people with mixtures of either "good" or "bad" qualities that were unrelated to the recipient. For example, some were said to be highly intelligent, gifted in the arts, or prone to philanthropy; others possible donors were said to be stupid, homeless, thieves, or murderers.

The donor’s possession of good qualities or bad qualities was a significant predictor of participants’ willingness to receive organs from them, with the repelling effect of the donors’ bad qualities holding more sway than the trust-building effect of the donors’ good qualities. Participants articulated fears that transplants from undesirable donors would contaminate them, and that they would somehow inherit the bad qualities to the detriment of their personalities and behavior. According to NPR, one patient ruminated that "the cruel murderer's qualities will come to me."

It was a perceived similarity to the recipients themselves, however, that seemed to most validate donors in the recipients’ eyes. Be they "good" or "bad," participants tended to skew toward those donors they perceived as being more like them.

One of the study’s lead authors, Meredith Meyer, suggests one possible explanation for the trend. "People dislike the prospect of any change in their essence—positive or negative," Meyer writes, "and so any salient difference between the donor and recipient leads to increased resistance to the transplant.”

Our preference--our tendency, really--to think of ourselves as being stable and consistent is a well-documented cognitive quirk. With increased recognition of phenomena like the “end of history illusion”, however, the evidence becomes increasingly compelling that we are always subject to change. What is still somewhat mysterious though is whether in confronting this reality we should also entertain the idea, as the participants of this study did, that other peoples’ bodily “essence” can impose this change on us.

Read the rest over at Motherboard.