Spreading EA messages to friends - including giving the hard sell

by Tom_Ash17th Apr 201519 comments


Building effective altruismEffective altruism messaging

I’ve long argued that word of mouth is a powerful way of spreading effective altruism and that there should be systematic efforts to encourage this. And, as detailed below, last year’s EA survey showed that a good number of people got involved through it. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on all this. Below, I raise a few questions, make some scattered observations, and describe a pretty extreme hard and widely targeted sell I’ve tried recently.

Word of mouth as a powerful way of spreading effective altruism

Drawing on data from the EA survey, I discussed how people got into effective altruism in A taxonomy of EA origin stories. I distinguished between how people first heard about the term or the community, and what convinced them of EA ideas or got them into EA. 126 survey respondents reported first hearing about EA from friends, 237 said personal contact was important in getting them into it, and 196 said the same of friends or family. Note that since the question about the factors that were important in getting people into EA was multiple choice, there was some overlap between the last two categories. Also, as discussed in the taxonomy post, these figures are underestimates within the survey sample.

These are sizeable numbers within a small movement. To them I’d add the following:

  • My anecdotal observation is that word of mouth’s been a common factor among EAs I know.
  • Michael Bitton suggests that there’s a core group of people inclined to quickly buy EA and that it’s thus valuable to reach them through “spray and pray” marketing - spreading shallow exposure to our ideas to as many people as possible.
  • There are also others who require in-person conversations, repeated exposure, or peer pressure (though these people’s commitment to effective altruism may thus be fragile, particularly if the peer pressure doesn’t persist). Friends are an unusually good way to get this.
  • To the extent that peer pressure (or, to put it more positively, a social norm) is important, friends are an unusually strong and lasting source of this.
  • EA’s grown disproportionately in a few cities, and in those cities with which I’m familiar this seems to have been more through friendship circles than through people simply hearing talks.

People’s resistance to selling EA

Despite this, many people are reluctant to raise EA with friends, let alone to try selling it, let alone to apply moral pressure or give a hard sell of the sort I describe trying below. It’s socially awkward, can feel implicitly boastful, carries some relationship cost, can make our friends uncomfortable, and conflicts with some common norms. And, given all this, we’d expect to have a strong irrational bias against it too.

I’d argue that we should try to counteract this bias, because there’s a possibility that doing so will lead to people taking EA actions (such as donating even small amounts to effective charities) which would outweigh these costs. The size of this possibility is very uncertain though; it would be valuable to pin down.

It’s interesting that people are willing to donate or pledge 10% of income but not raise EA with friends. Gently describing EA ideas to them seems less costly than donating 10% (although this would not obviously be the case with giving a hard EA sell to every single person you meet).

Possible actions

Given the above, it could be valuable to find a way to make spreading EA messages to friends less awkward, and to coordinate and motivate people to do so. I’ve created an idea entry for this on .impact in case anyone’d like to take it on. For instance, people could write sample messages or I-was-asked-to-forward-this-email campaigns. It would also be useful to gather evidence as to how well it works. To this end, I’ve created a spreadsheet in which anyone can record their attempts and results, and put in some of my own to start with. And it’d be valuable to learn about the conclusions of other groups with more experience of evangelism through friends, such as peer-to-peer salespeople, religions and veg*ns.

What to say, and how hard a sell to make

There are many different EA messages which you could choose to communicate, and different ways to present them. This raises a number of questions. Should you mention your own example? How much moral pressure should you apply? How hard a sell should you make? What are the risks of making people defensive?

Participating in a fundraiser can be one of the best excuses to bring up the subject, as it’s normal to approach people for donations or sponsorship. Charity Science runs several of these fundraisers for the EA community, including birthday and Christmas fundraisers and Experience Poverty. That’s one good reason to take part in them (consider joining Experience Poverty today!) There are also even less demanding opportunities to bring up EA ideas, like sharing some interesting content or a cost-free action that your friends can take, like directing 5% of their Amazon spending to top charities. (It is less natural to make a pitch for donating to particular charity in these contexts though.)

I’ll conclude with an extreme example of spreading one EA message. I recently took advantage of my own Experience Poverty fundraiser to send the following message to every single non-EA I reasonably could. I used an expansive definition of ‘reasonably’, sending the message to everyone I knew except for rare cases where I’d talk to them often and the social cost would be too high. This included many people I hadn’t spoken to in years, every colleague at every past workplace, most people I’ve ever studied with, every past neighbour I knew, people I’d only spoken to once since I was five, etc. It was an uncomfortable thing to do! As you’ll see, my message was quite the hard sell:

Hi [who I was writing to],

[Any personal things I wanted to write to them about anyway, such as checking what they were up to. I always enjoy catching up with people anyway.] For my part, we now have our core budget funded and after quite a search have found a new apartment to move into. I have one big thing coming up, which partly prompted me to write: I'm taking part in a large international fundraiser that I created and have led on (eating my own dog food - almost literally, as you'll see!)

From Monday the 20th to Friday the 24th, I'll be living on less than £1 (~CAD$2)'s worth of food a day, and getting sponsored to help those living in extreme poverty. We've signed up over a hundred people around the world to do something similar simultaneously, going for three days and spending £1.50 (what the median person in the world spends on food). I picked £1 because it's the international poverty line, and I really want my fundraiser to have the biggest positive impact possible. Both figures are already adjusted for how much they'd buy in poor vs. rich countries.

I'm writing in case you want to sponsor me here - entirely up to you - but much more importantly to pass on what may be the most important fact you ever learn (seriously). This is the reason why I picked the charity I did, and why it'd be a good one for you to donate to through this, or (what'd make it important) for the rest of your life. It's that some charities are hundreds or even thousands of times better than others, that an excellent charity evaluator called GiveWell picks these based on solid evidence, and that the one I've picked cures children of horrible parasitic worms for around 20p each. This means that if you donate £250 today you'd spare a whole village from this suffering, for at least a year - and if you donated nothing else, this would likely do more good that anything else in your entire life, even including all the deeply important things you do for those you know. (I personally find that a startling, profound and challenging thought.)

If you donate £25,000 to the best charities over your life you'd help a staggering number of people a great deal, doing more good than most ever do. Donate to other top charities and you'd save many lives; if you saved someone in person, you'd see it as something enormous, the greatest difference you ever made, and there's no less reason to do it when you can't see who you help. The numbers would scale as you donated ten times as much, and so on. And donating to charities which aren't quite as effective means that many more people suffer than otherwise would have. That's why these facts would be the most important ones you ever learn, if you act on them in any of these ways.

The charity I picked is Deworm the World. You can dig into it by reading the ​short summary I wrote for Charity Science, or ​GiveWell's detailed review. If you have any questions or concerns or thoughts about the charity or anything I've said, there's nothing I'd like more than to talk about them by email or Skype. Because it's so good you might want to consider making any sponsorship be your overall donation for the year, but in truth I don't care whether you donate through sponsoring me or not, and the important thing would be these facts influencing your future donations.

I know this email is a strong sell, and heavy stuff; I'm essentially doing what evangelists do. I wouldn't normally do this and have never sent an email like this before for anything, but I hope you can tell that the reason I'm doing so this once is that I care passionately about it, and think that it would spare huge amounts of suffering if you acted on it, either now or throughout your life. I do promise never to bring it up again if you don't want to talk about it! I would love to hear what you're up to, and don't want fear of preaching to put you off ;)

All the best,

19 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:32 AM
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This topic is of much interest to me as someone new to EA, who (as a lawyer) has a lot of friends with a lot of money. I'm holding off on the hard sell until I'm sure I know what I'm doing. Giving What We Can's calculator gave me this idea for a REALLY HARD sell, which plays on the role of default-based biases. The numbers assume a U.S. lawyer about six years out of law school who is paid market rate and gives away 75% of his income:

Yesterday the managing partner at my firm visited me and said, Michael, you've been working very hard for a long time, and the executive committee has taken notice. Indeed, because of your hard work you've been rewarded with an annual salary that puts you among the top 0.4% wealthiest people in the world. But we think you can do better. We are willing to increase your salary to put you among the top 0.1% wealthiest people in the world, and all it will cost is the lives of 65 people/year -- but don't worry, those people live thousands of miles away. What do you say?

Cool! It sounds like you've done this quite a bit, so I'd love to hear how it went for you:

  • How many people have you tried hard-selling this way?
  • How did the responses break down (positive vs. negative vs. none)?
  • Of the positive responses, what ended up coming of it (donations, other actions)?

Ah, I actually only started experimenting with hard-selling when I sent the emails above for my current Experience Poverty fundraiser, the last of which I sent just before posting. I'll report back later here and in the spreadsheet! (Though it'll be hard to tell the results, especially via emails to people I won't see in person - I have come up with a few ideas for how to tell, not replicable by others.)

I sent 66 of these emails, and may send a few dozen more. I've had a trickle of replies already, all positive and around half strongly so (saying "Yes it is a strong sell but it worked on me!", or that they'd share the info with their friends - the only significant action that I heard of).

Before this I've mainly done weak sells, and a handful of mid-strength ones. I've recorded some of these in the spreadsheet and may add some more. Broadly my experience has been that some people are receptive and others aren't, and that going up to a mid-strength sell doesn't affect this (except in one case, where I convinced someone to pledge 5% from being quite sceptical).

Cool. For what it's worth, I tried doing similar things in college for a while without very much lasting effect--people would come to a couple events or otherwise be initially positive but not really sustain interest or motivation. After a while I noticed and stopped being so vocal and only mentioned EA when it came up naturally (events, HCEA-related stuff, etc.). A couple years later, a bunch of the people I tried to sell on it earlier got interested of their own accord.

Our samples of people probably differ a lot, and obviously the long game isn't practical for people you don't see frequently--just mentioning this as another anecdotal datapoint.

I had essentially the exact same experience.

Looking forward to the results! Definitely would be interested in seeing this replicated for other people -- maybe I'll get the courage to try it myself. Could also try randomly varying the magnitude of the sell.

Of the positive responses, what ended up coming of it (donations, other actions)?

I'm curious how easy it would be to detect these actions conditional on them happening.

Diffusion of Innovations is a book that shows that only the most innovative few percent of people adopt innovations from mass media - everyone else generally adopts because of word of mouth.

I'd be interested to get WIll Crouch or Toby Ord's views on this - they both persuaded me to go from a floundering altruist concerned about making a difference to someone that thinks broadly and comparatively about how to make the most difference. They both did it pretty quickly - i.e. 10 minutes of conversation. They did it without reference to the work they were doing but with reference to the decisions and issues I was bringing up myself. They didn't ever once use the words 'effective altruism'.

The success of this approach ties in well with sales theory: question first talk later. Tailor your message etc. etc.

And from what I've seen of evangelism in christianity, you always start with someone's problems / where they're at. Then you demonstrate how they could be solved. Let it stew for a bit, then, for some ofthe less sublte forms, create some amazing social / emotional experience.

Having said all this, I've been useless at persuading people. I think I get too excited and fail to listen deeply enough. People close to me have been receptive over a long period of time. I think you need to have some solid background altruism to start with if you're going to be convinced?

[-][anonymous]6y 1

Very good ! I share the intuition that influencing friends directly is one of the most effective ways we have of spreading important issues (EA).

For friends that I expect will continue to be part of my life for a while, I introduce them to some of the important issues (effective charity, veganism, wild-animal suffering, existential risk) piece by piece, making sure that they like me as much as possible before I introduce an issue. I have a set amount of weirdness points, and I must spend them wisely. Making long-term associates/friends dislike me has a huge cost, since I can't influence anyone that dislikes me, and if someone dislikes me, that'll affect others' opinions of me as well, which makes it harder to influence them. I admit that I have only been doing this for a year, so I don't have much experience.

Also, bravely done with the letters. : )

Which of those issues do you find them most receptive to?

(Update on how this went to come - it's been on my to do list for months, but with too much else above it, so I figured that at this stage I should flag that it's to come.)

Thanks for this Tom.

When you talk about the negatives of selling, you focus on the personal negatives. I think there may also be substantial negatives in the longer term for the amount of good people do in the world. The basic mechanism is that people only get first impressions of a set of ideas (such as effective altruism) once, and if you give them a negative impression this could colour their future reactions and turn them off the ideas, when if their first experience was more positive they might end up supportive.

I think it's important to be aware of and steer clear of these dangers. In a forthcoming report I look into how we can estimate the true counterfactual impact of different activities which impact movement growth. Right now my impression of your email is that it is probably net positive if we can gather useful information and learn from it, but might well be net negative to scale up.

The people I emailed are very unlikely to hear about effective charity or effective altruism (through some medium that they seriously register) in any other way.

This could be true in the short term. In the longer term I think we should hope that the concept takes off, as environmentalism has, and that most people will hear about it, so "very unlikely" seems unduly pessimistic.

I think it's appropriately pessimistic, or, as I'd prefer to put it, realistic ;)

I'd love to hear your view on the 10th percentile / median / 90th percentile sizes the group reaches before stagnating.

This is really interesting. I have a lot of thoughts about this (most of which I might elaborate in a separate post) but I'll post a quick summary here.

I think one of the biggest challenges to spreading EA right now is perhaps that we rely too much on word-of-mouth. It would be better to have some sort of centralized social media or infrastructure that we can use to share EA more broadly. EA.com is a very good one, but even that requires a large amount of reading, and people might be put off by the large amount of learning/background info needed to get involved.

In Kahneman's "Thinking Fast & Slow", he repeatedly points out that the main way in which most people decide to donate to charities is by intensity matching--they look at a charity (e.g., saving dolphins), quickly assess how much they feel about a certain cause ("yeah, I care a bit about saving dolphins") and then match a net value to that amount ("sure, I'll donate $50 to that"). Most charities draw on a person's System 1.

EA, of course, does not do this. EA's core tenet is basically to draw upon someone's System 2, and as a result, it almost excludes people who donate to charities based on S1. Perhaps one could argue that since we want EA to teach people to actively use their S2 to evaluate charities, not catering to S1-centric charity evaluators might be desirable. However, I think the net utility gained from:

a) widely promoting S1-type ad campaigns,

b) still allowing people to access S2-type information

would generate a lot more money and involvement than just making an S2 hard-sell. This is not too different from EAs who say "Yes, I'll donate to GiveWell's top charities [even though I don't want to spend the time to actually learn why these charities are effective myself]".

tl;dr: To actively promote EA and reach wider audiences, we should be doing more to produce the heartwrenching sob-story ad campaigns (youtube videos, etc.) that other big name charities do, and only really promote the analysis to people who have interest in hearing it.