Summary: By exchanging gifts for Valentine's Day of donating to effective charities, you can both improve your health and well-being, and also advance global flourishing.
At least one person who read a draft version of this post, after talking to his girlfriend, decided to adopt this new Valentine's Day tradition, which is some proof of its impact. The more it's shared, the more this new tradition might get taken up, and if you want to share it, I suggest you share the version of this post published on The Life You Can Save blog. It's also cross-posted on the Intentional Insights blog and on Less Wrong. Thanks to Agnes Vishnevkin, Jake Krycia, Will Kiely, Jo Duyvestyn, Alfredo Parra, Jay Quigley, Hunter Glenn, and Rhema Hokama for looking at draft versions of this post.
The Valentine’s Day Gift That Saves Lives
Last year, my wife gave me the most romantic Valentine’s Day gift ever.
We had previously been very traditional with our Valentine’s Day gifts, such as fancy candy for her or a bottle of nice liquor for me. Yet shortly before Valentine’s Day, she approached me about rethinking that tradition.
Did candy or liquor truly express our love for each other? Is it more important that a gift helps the other person be happy and healthy, or that it follows traditional patterns?
Instead of candy and liquor, my wife suggested giving each other gifts that actually help us improve our mental and physical well-being, and the world as a whole, by donating to charities in the name of the other person.
She described an article she read about a study that found that people who give to charity feel happier than those that don’t give. The experimenters gave people money and asked them to spend it either on themselves or on others. Those who spent it on others experienced greater happiness.
Not only that, such giving also made people healthier. Another study showed that participants who gave to others experienced a significant decrease in blood pressure, which did not happen to those who spent money on themselves
So my thoughtful wife suggested we try an experiment: for Valentine’s Day, we'd give to charity in the name of the other person. This way, we could make each other happier and healthier, while helping save lives at the same time. Moreover, we could even improve our relationship!
I accepted my wife’s suggestion gladly. We decided to donate $50 per person, and keep our gifts secret from each other, only presenting them at the restaurant when we went out for Valentine’s Day.
While I couldn’t predict my wife’s choice, I had an idea about how she would make it. We’ve researched charities before, and wanted to find ones where our limited dollars could go as far as possible toward saving lives. We found excellent charity evaluators that find the most effective charities and make our choices easy. Our two favorites are GiveWell, which has extensive research reports on the best charities, and The Life You Can Save, which provides an Impact Calculator that shows you the actual impact of your donation. These data-driven evaluators are part of the broader effective altruism movement that seeks to make sure our giving does the most good per dollar. I was confident my wife would select a charity recommended by a high-quality evaluator.
On Valentine’s Day, we went to our favorite date night place, a little Italian restaurant not far from our house. After a delicious cheesecake dessert, it was time for our gift exchange. She presented her gift first, a donation to the Against Malaria Foundation. With her $50 gift in my name, she bought 20 large bed-size nets that would protect families in the developing world against deadly malaria-carrying mosquitoes. In turn, I donated $50 to GiveDirectly, in her name. This charity transfers money directly to recipients in some of the poorest villages in Africa, who have the dignity of using the money as they wish. It is like giving money directly to the homeless, except dollars go a lot further in East Africa than in the US.
We were so excited by our mutual gifts! They were so much better than any chocolate or liquor could be. We both helped each other save lives, and felt so great about doing so in the context of a gift for the other person. We decided to transform this experiment into a new tradition for our family.
It was the most romantic Valentine’s Day present I ever got, and made me realize how much better Valentine’s Day can be for myself, my wife, and living beings all around the world. All it takes is a conversation about showing true love for your partner by improving her or his health and happiness. Is there any reason to not have that conversation?
I worry that you're basically shoehorning everything into an opportunity for EA. Like, "Halloween? The perfect time to do EA outreach! What's scarier than malaria, factory farming, and x-risks!" "Thanksgiving? How better to give thanks for your good fortune than to help the less fortunate!" "Fourth of July? Celebrate the birth of our great nation by, uh, helping with something that's not-so-great."
I doubt donations would be the most romantic gift for most people. They may be the most altruistic ones, but don't confuse altruism for everything else that's nice in the world. The idea that the most altruistic thing would also be the most romantic thing seems like a really obvious example of suspicious convergence. Either it's somewhat deceptive, or you two were damn lucky.
For people that aren't EAs, I think this seems spammy, which makes EA look bad. For people that are already hardcore EAs (i.e. most of the people on this forum) I think the connection between EA and romance seems contrived. For me, since I spend time with mostly EAs, a donation would be the most common, obvious, impersonal type of gift I could plausibly imagine being given (which is great from acquaintances and extended family and distant friends, less amazing from a romantic partner).
I am in favor of people for whom altruism feels romantic doing altruistic things on Valentine's Day or anytime else. I'm weakly in favor of people who want altruistic gifts asking for them (although I worry that people often fail to consider how this affects the gift-giver). But overall, the link here seems especially tenuous and irritating to people trying to enjoy the not-so-altruistic but romantic spirit of Valentine's Day.
I hear your concerns, and thank you for sharing them!
I think the issue of "making everything about altruism" is an important one to address. However, we seem to have different takes on how to go about this.
Let's take a bird's eye-view of our society. Currently, we have the consumer industry predominating our cultural space. The consumer industry creates a hedonistic treadmill around all aspects of our lives, including holidays. Valentine's Day is a classic example of a Hallmark Holiday, popularized by the consumer industry to inspire the population to buy stuff.
Now, I see our goal as trying to channel people's money into effective charity instead of consumerism. By comparison to the messages of consumerism out there, we're a tiny drop in the bucket. If we get even a bit more of our message out there, it would be a wonderful thing, I think. This article is an example of an effort to redirect a tiny proportion of that huge Valentine's Day spending into effective charities.
You postulate that for people who aren't EAs, this seems spammy. I would love it if that was the case! It would mean they were regularly exposed to such messages. From an effective giving marketing perspective, it would be a dream scenario. It's also incredibly unlikely to happen, given the current systemtic incentives.
Now, you might mean that it feels spammy to you. Might it be that you're more exposed to such messages than most people? I know that already a number of people indicated to me they will pursue this course of action. How much money has already been redirected toward effective charities because of that?
Here's some further evidence. Judging by the fact that this post got 500 FB likes the first day it was posted on The Life You Can Save Blog, which is followed by EAs and non-EAs, people are not finding it spammy. Note, the baseline for posts on TLYCS blog is about 100-200 likes over their lifetime, not the first day.
Here's another piece of evidence. It was just accepted for publication to The Plain Dealer, the 16th largest newspaper in the US. They would be highly unlikely to accept anything their audience would find as spammy.
Finally, regarding romance. This is something on which people will differ. If altruism doesn't float someone's romantic bubble, well cool - no pressure. For me, and potentially many others, it does. Regarding romance, I think of it as a feeling that I want to help the other person have a great life, be happy, and flourish, and a confidence that they want the same for me, with sex thrown in. That's perfectly compatible with altruism for me, but different people define romance differently :-P
Hope that helps relieve your concerns, and much appreciate you raising these issues!
It can be 'spammy' on the EA Forum, and not so on other publications.
Yep, it's not repetitive and will contain fresh information in publications like a newspaper!
The reason for posting it on the EA forum is that there were some EAs who decided to change their Valentine's Day rituals after reading this article. If others who read the EA Forum do so, then it's more money going to effective charities. Seems like a worthwhile aim to me!
I don't think that "spammy" just means "messages that the viewer often sees". I can't really put into words what I think it does mean, but if someone had a post like this about how the best Valentine's Day gift was to donate to a fund that provided good architecture in cities, I would consider that spammy (unless it was really well-written, interesting, and not written by an organisation dedicated to promoting good architecture).
This is evidence, but my intuition is that it isn't very strong. I know that some of the largest newspapers in Australia print things which I would think of as low-quality and bordering on spammy. I also find it plausible that the 16th largest newspaper in the US might occasionally have trouble getting content, and would have to accept unusually low quality content.
That being said, I also think it's probable that different people have different criteria for what strikes them as spammy, and that there's a significant proportion of people to whom this isn't spammy.
As someone who has studied PR quite extensively, I can assure you that the 16th largest newspaper in the US has no trouble getting content :-) It reaches over 400,000 people with its Sunday edition, which is the only venue where editorials are printed, and has 5,000,000 unique visitors online per month. This is a huge impact, and regularly has publications from major national figures. Making a rough Fermi estimate, if even .1% of the Sunday edition readers and .01% of the monthly website visitors try out this strategy, this is 400 50 2 + 500 50 2 money redirected toward charity from consumerism.
That's good evidence although spamminess is not dichotomous.
Assuming that the EA forum is mostly read by EAs, I would concede that it’s rather redundant here, but I think it’s written with a different audience in mind anyway.
I see great potential in the typical EA messaging that signals being scientific, objective, and cerebral, which is probably also what I found attractive from the start. This sets it apart from the usual charity fundraising messaging. Whereas the usual charity pamphlet would show one child or cat and give them a name and a story, the EA pamphlet would cite papers on the identified victim effect and scope neglect.
But most EA outreach already follows that strategy, and it has been working well, for example for the EA Foundation, for recruiting the sort of people to whom this type of messaging appeals. What Gleb is trying here – or at least that is one aspect of InIn’s current experiments as I understood it – is to appeal to the people for whom this messaging doesn’t work, because all these other charities would probably have given up on their strategy long ago if it weren’t sufficiently effective. This type of audience is probably not found in this forum (and good arguments have been put forward that it’s not the right messaging for growing the movement), but they are probably the majority of the readership of the newspaper outlets that InIn is publishing in. Thus the article can build rapport with people whose instrumental value for EA is probably lower but who maybe make up for it with their numbers. I’m highly unsure about whether this is the case, but it’s the context in which I read the article.
And from that perspective I think it works. Romantic is probably for many people (at least for me ^^) not an unchanging attribute but something that is susceptible to social proof. When an author first manages to signal to the readers that they’re like them (and some degree of authority comes automatically with publishing in a newspaper), and then relates their experiences with romantic donation situations, it’s not so much a suspicious, spurious observation about supposed convergence but a normative influence. If this influence is net good in the end, I’m all for it. There may still be an opportunity cost to Gleb’s work, but if there is, I think Gleb is well qualified to find out, so that the value of information should make up for it.
In this context I don’t see a great danger of spamminess reflecting badly on EA either; rather I’m worried that the article won’t stand out among all the other messaging from charities and for-profits that product X and activity Y are sooo romantic according to the most relateable celebrity they could hire. People already get so much of that that it’ll get mentally spam-filtered long before they read to the EA part or even past the headline, and if they do it won’t stand out either.
Also upvoted, mostly because I’m curious about the result of InIn’s experiment.
Indeed, the purpose of the InIn experiment is to use research-based marketing strategies to promote giving to effective charities. Notably, we are not pursuing explicit EA outreach, so as not to attract people to the movement who are not really value-aligned, but just leaving hooks to the EA movement in the article for those who want to follow them. This is why we at InIn prefer to talk about promoting effective giving rather than explicitly effective altruism for what we do.
I hear you about the concern of the article not standing out. I think what helps it stand out is the combination of emotional engagement, authentic narrative, and scientific backing, with the latter an element not typically found in nonprofit messaging. I think that's the only reason the newspaper accepted the article - it stands out in a distinct way. So hopefully that will have the intended impact.
The Plain Dealer reaches over 400,000 people with its Sunday edition, which is the only venue where editorials are printed, and has 5,000,000 unique visitors online per month. Making a rough Fermi estimate, if even .1% of the Sunday edition readers and .01% of the monthly website visitors try out this strategy, this is 400 50 2 + 500 50 2 money redirected toward charity from consumerism.
The asterisks in the comment got interpreted as Markdown. 400 * 50 * 2 + 500 * 50 * 2 = 90k. Cool! Maybe the newspaper has some estimates on the number of people that read a given article on a certain page of the print version; they’ll surely have that data for the the online version. Then you can make a more precise estimate.
In terms of the ability-motivation-trigger framework, the article provides ability (links to charities) is deliberately cautious about the motivation, and uses Valentine’s Day as trigger. Providing a credible trigger is always a bit tricky, since it’s almost necessarily contrived and often overused.
Maybe a meta approach may work too, where you explain the need people have for such triggers for behavior change, pick something funny for them, and ask them to try it out?
Oh, thanks for catching the asterisks issue!
I will check with the newspaper.
I will think about the meta approach. My intuition suggests that meta works only for people who are already meta, and won't work for the broad populace, but something to think about.
This is pretty weird, although I'd totally date a girl if she did this.
I guess not that weird, then!