It’s not every day that a Sherlock Holmes story inspires an important psychological study.
When University researchers began discussing “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” in which a youth-seeking professor starts acting like a monkey after using a drug derived from monkeys, they became interested in the belief that inner bodily substances can affect personality characteristics.
Researchers from the Department of Psychology studied how people felt about receiving an organ donation from someone who is different from them in any way, and examined whether they believed receiving an organ could change a recipient’s personality traits to be more similar to that of a donor. This belief is called essentialism, which maintains an internal or bodily force can determine outward appearances and behavior.
Psychology Prof. Susan Gelman said her team were particularly interested in how responses from Indians and Americans might differ, because of the heightened cultural concerns surrounding contamination in India and the country’s history with transplant operations.
“There was a period of time where you could pay to get a transplant, and that led to terrible situations where somebody might give up an organ just for the money,” Gelman said.
She also said the team expected India’s rigid caste system to affect thoughts on transplants more so than in a country like the United States. However, there were more similarities than expected between respondents from both countries.
Participants were asked to rank the desirability of a given organ donor based on characteristics such as gender, age, background and sexual orientation. They were also asked if they were looking for characteristics they see in themselves — positive or negative — and were asked to state their beliefs concerning whether or not a transplant would cause a recipient’s personality or behavior to become more like that of their donor.
Ultimately, the study found that people are not in favor of receiving an organ from a person who is different from them, or from someone who they perceive as having negative characteristics. The desire to receive a donation from a similar person appeared to be the most widespread, but receiving a donation from a perceived “good” person was also an acceptable option.
A blood transfusion scenario yielded similar results: the study showed that people much prefer to receive blood from someone who is similar to them.
“This was interesting, and surprising,” Meyer said. “Blood transfusions are pretty common, but people have this sort of discomfort about getting blood from someone different from them.”
The researchers noted that neither the gender nor country of origin of participants seemed to be differentiating factors. The same essentialist beliefs were found equally in men, women, Indians and Americans.
Gelman said the question that yielded the strongest opinions were related to cross-species transplants.
“Animal transplants were seen as particularly troublesome,” she said.
Though the transplant of a full animal organ into a human has never been done successfully and is still a heavily debated topic in the medical field, Gelman said receiving even part of an organ — like a heart valve from a pig — was generally looked down upon by participants.
Rackham student Sarah Stilwell, who also co-authored the study, wrote in an e-mail interview that that there are upsides and downsides to xenotransplantation, or animal-to-human transplants.
“There are a tremendous amount of individuals in need of transplants, but a widespread human organ shortage in clinical implantation,” she wrote. “However, there is a very high risk of organ rejection due to the foreign animal tissue being rejected by the body’s immune system, even with anti-rejection medication.”
With the final publication of this study, the team is moving on to examine essentialist beliefs in children.
“Children lack formal scientific knowledge that would be incompatible with intuitions about transplants,” Meyer said.
While participants were asked to provide demographic information, the study did not take into consideration medical past. Namely, it did not pointedly examine how essentialist beliefs change when a person is actually in need of a transplant or has received a transplant.
Small samples of people who have had organ transplants have reported that these people experience “a nagging worry” that they will take on characteristics of their donor.
Gelman said behavioral changes can result from having a major surgery more so than the actual organ.
“We don’t think there’s any good evidence for it, but just because there’s no evidence doesn’t mean that it’s not true.”