A taxonomy of EA origin stories

by Tom_Ash3rd Jan 201512 comments



As suggested by Peter Hurford, the topic for January's EA blogging carnival is EA origin stories. I've always enjoyed hearing these, both for their inherent human interest and for what they reveal about ways to get people into EA, and the sorts of people who are receptive to it. So here are some common sorts of origin stories, based on accounts people have given me and the answers people gave in last year's EA survey. I also give the raw figures from the survey. If you fit into one of these categories I'd love to hear from you in comments - and if you haven't yet taken the survey it would be valuable to get your answers via this! 

EA origin stories typically have two elements. One is how people first heard about the term or the community; the other is what convinced them of EA ideas. Many EAs I've spoken to about this - I think a majority - were already sold on EA ideas before hearing the term. A significant fraction knew them under another label, such as 'utilitarianism' or 'utilitarian or Singerite ideas about charity' - I was one of these. There was an active community discussing them on the utilitarian forum Felicifia.

In the EA survey we had two separate questions asking about these two elements. The first was "How did you first hear about 'Effective Altruism'?". This was a single choice question, which was explicitly about the term 'Effective Altruism', although several people interpreted it  as being about EA ideas. (I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts about what the most interesting such questions would be for this year's survey.) The second question was "Which factors were important in 'getting you into' Effective Altruism, or altering your actions in its direction?" This was a multiple choice question.

The kinds of EA origin story that I list below can apply to either of these questions. Some will explain how people heard about the term EA more often than they explain how they got convinced by EA ideas, and for some the opposite will hold. 

The list of origins


This category can be split into people who were convinced of effective altruism by friends and those who merely heard the term from them, but were already on board with the ideas or were easily sold on them. 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.

This category overlaps with some of the others below; for example, some people who got into EA through local groups made friends in these groups, and these friendships were sometimes more important than the other activities of the group. Some survey respondents in this boat likely only picked the 'local groups' option, so the numbers above will be underestimates.

I'm an example of someone who heard about EA (before the term) from a friend - Pablo Stafforini - but was already fully on board with the ideas, for example planning to give a large proportion of my income to effective charities. Lucas Zamprogno is an example of someone who got on board partly due to an existing friendship (in his case with Joey Savoie).

People who came to EA conclusions independently

There is some ambiguity in what this category means. Of course, no one reaches EA conclusions in a vacuum, and we are all influenced by the universe of ideas and arguments that we encounter. So the interesting questions are really to what extent people came across preformed EA ideas (for example through reading about them in Peter Singer's writings or an EA blog), and to what extent they convinced themselves of them rather than hearing persuasive arguments from others.

These are not easy questions to settle. For example, utilitarianism involves or implies several EA principles, so arguably someone who came to EA via encountering utilitarianism did not arrive at it independently. But saying this seems too strict, because someone who accepts utilitarianism and derives EA ideas from it has done a lot of the work themselves, compared to someone who becomes an EA through, say, reading the introductory articles on this forum.

I know many people who came to EA via utilitarianism, myself included, so my impression is that a lot of EAs fall into this category. It's hard to get numbers from the EA survey, but some of the answers people gave for the ways in which they first heard the term suggest they are examples of this. For example, 13 people said they heard about it through internet searches, and presumably some of them were searching for others convinced of positions that they already accepted. I know that this was the case for Joey Savoie. Likewise, the most common reported way for people to hear about EA was LessWrong (with 257 survey respondents picking this option). LessWrong readers will encounter arguments for EA, so it's hard to estimate how many of them were already convinced of it, but my impression is that if you find LessWrong you're likely to already share a certain perspective rather than getting convinced of it through reading.

Local groups

Local groups are a major form of EA outreach on the part of grassroots EAs (and of EA organisations, insofar as some groups brand themselves as chapters of these). There are 52 listed on the EA Hub, with more groups steadily creating pages there. Despite this only 12 survey respondents reported first hearing about EA through a group, and only 97 said one was important in getting them involved. However, these figures may be an underestimate, because some people will have picked out an EA organisation instead when they got involved through a chapter of this. For example, 82 people said they first heard about EA through GWWC, 42 through GiveWell, 41 through 80,000 Hours, and 38 through The Life You Can Save. These are still pretty low numbers however.

EA organisations, blogs and online communities

Many people may have come to EA conclusions independently, but they had to hear the term independently, and if it wasn't through a friend or local groups, it was likely via reading about it. One place to do so is on a website or blog, such as that of an EA organisation, or the broad EA blogosphere, including LessWrong and this very forum. Some of the people who reported hearing about EA through an organisation - listed above - presumably fall into this category. And significantly more people (257) reported hearing about it through LessWrong, such as David Perry and Alice Monday.

GiveWell is notable here in that relatively few people reported first hearing about EA through it - perhaps because it does not use the term often - but it was the second most common factor in getting people more involved after LessWrong, playing an important role for 267 people. It is after all what many of us rely on in choosing charities.

Media reporting

Besides the EA blogosphere, effective altruism has also been reported on by mainstream media with a very large reach. However I haven't personally heard of anyone getting involved in EA through this, and only a handful of people reported doing so in the survey.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer is arguably the world's most famous effective altruist, and has an enormous reach among both philosophy students and the general public. His TED talk alone has had 1.1 million reported views on the TED website, and 43 survey respondents reported hearing about EA through it, including Kelly Atlas and Jim Greenbaum. A few also singled out Singer as important in getting them into EA, such as Michael Dickens.

Other social movements

EAs sometimes identified with other social movements beforehand, and some were heavily involved in these. Not many people mentioned these as parts of their origin stories in the survey, but we did ask what movements people identified with. 311 said animal rights, 390 said environmentalism, 669 said rationalist/LessWrong, 374 said transhumanism, and 601 said skepticism/atheism. Presumably many of these did not come to EA through these movements. However, I have heard of people doing so, in particular through rationalism, skepticism and atheism. Of note, the Swiss EA group initially colonised some university freethought societies. 

The raw figures from the EA survey

As a reminder, Peter Hurford and the survey analysis team will be releasing the full results for this soon, but by way of a sneak peak here are the figures for the questions discussed above.

How did you first hear about 'Effective Altruism'?

TED Talk (Peter Singer)
Local Group
Swiss EAs

Which factors were important in 'getting you into' Effective Altruism, or altering your actions in its direction?

Personal contact
Online EAs
Peter Singer (including TED Talk and TLYCS)
Local group

What was your origin story?

As I mentioned above, I'd love to hear your origin stories in comments, and if you haven't yet taken the EA survey it would be valuable to get your answers via this. Can you think of paths to EA not covered by the above categories, and which are most common for people you know?