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The desire for legacy is a mental glitch but we can use it for good

The strange drive to be remembered after death may result from a cognitive glitch, but it could help solve big problems from climate change to inequality

By Conor Feehly

10 October 2023

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Ben Giles

CONSIDER two scenarios. In the first, you have a life filled with love and meaning and enough money to get by comfortably. However, after you die, something terrible is revealed about you – which may not even be true – and people come to despise you. In the second, you have a life of relative hardship and obscurity, but after you die, it is revealed that you were an incredibly talented artist and your reputation is assured forever. Which option would you choose?

If you picked the second, you aren’t alone, as Brett Waggoner at the University of Otago, New Zealand, discovered when he carried out this thought experiment. It may seem like a counterintuitive choice, but it reveals our deep concern for legacy. Across time and cultures, people seem to have acted with a desire to etch their names into the history books, from the pharaoh Khufu’s Great Pyramid of Giza to acts of scientific discovery, works of art, sporting achievements and public philanthropy. Nevertheless, such behaviour is something of a paradox. Why devote so much time and energy to being warmly recalled when you won’t be around to see the benefits?

Researchers trying to answer this question have come up with some surprising answers. Some suggest it gives individuals an evolutionary advantage. Others see it as a sort of glitch in the way we think – a mistake based on various cognitive biases. Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that our desire to be positively remembered is far more than just self-aggrandisement. Nurtured in the correct way, it could be leveraged to tackle long-term, global issues, including climate change, biodiversity …

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