Modern medicine and technology can change the way we define our physical and psychological selves. Is a prosthetic arm “your own arm” in the same sense that its biological predecessor seemed to be? Might taking antipsychotic medication fundamentally change your personality? Could an organ transplant from a pig, or from a violent murderer, somehow change who you are?
Understanding how people think about significant medical interventions not only has practical implications, it can also shed light on how people conceptualize themselves and their bodies. That’s one reason psychologists have investigated how people think about organ transplants and their sources, with some intriguing results.
A 2011 paper by Bruce Hood and colleagues, for example, found that people were much less happy about the idea of receiving a heart transplant from a violent murderer than from a volunteer worker. The researchers speculated that this could reflect a fear of “moral contagion,” the idea that morally bad characteristics or their consequences can somehow be transmitted through physical contact. (In one famous illustration of the phenomenon, found that most people strongly disliked the idea of wearing a sweater worn by someone they considered evil – think Adolf Hitler – even after it had been carefully laundered.)
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