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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?

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During freshman year of college ('09-'10), I decided to donate some money to charity on a whim. After some reflection on how much to donate, I decided that the morally correct option was to live on as little money as possible and donate the remainder. (Extremism is very attractive to college freshmen.) I lived as ascetically as I could and gave away the possessions and money that I thought I didn't need. I looked like a homeless person, with my feet sticking through the ends of my falling apart sneakers, and I sewed patches over the holes in my clothes rather than buy new stuff. (In retrospect, these things weren't worth the time and reputation costs. Basic clothes and shoes are cheap.) I drank 7 cups of tea a day to avoid hunger and also would scrounge whatever half-eaten food I could find around my dorm. (Some of the "candy" I ate was actually psychedelic drugs, I think.)

As a coincidence, a few months after I began this endeavor, I met Jason (Gaverick) Matheny. My mom was working as an assistant for him, though neither of my parents are EAs. He came over for dinner one night, and we talked about our shared interest in altruism. (The term "effective altruism" didn't exist at the time.)

Jason has been a valuable mentor for me over the years. I had the altruism part down, but he's helped me think a lot more about effectiveness. He eventually introduced me to 80K, and from there I connected with the rest of the EA community.

Wow, I didn't know Gaverick had played this role in your life. He is a true pioneer, and one of my favorite living people. (As you probably know, he did some pretty extreme things too upon first encountering Singer's ideas, though eventually realized that altruism is not about sacrifice.)

It might be good to disclaim that you don't think that the survey is such a representative sample of anything in particular. We've caught maybe a quarter or a half of EAs, but we've probably caught a lot more LessWrongers and users of the Facebook groups at the neglect of some in-person meetups. (The methodology was to try to get as many people as possible to complete the survey by posting it to LW and relevant facebook groups, emailing it via group leaders, etc.)

So probably fewer people came to EA from LW than are represented here. Still, it could be a lot. So it's interesting to think that maybe a lot of EAs had started out by reading HPMOR or other stuff by Eliezer Yudkowsky and speaks to the fact that a bunch of EAs owe LW a bunch of big ideas.

Oh, as for my personal origin story, I met people who helped start the EA movement by discussing Peter Singer's ideas online.

Thanks for this post!

Likewise, I think this survey will make your beliefs more accurate if you treat it as a survey of EAs on LessWrong. But it may make your beliefs less accurate if you view it as a survey of EAs as a whole.

This isn't right, as a significant majority of survey-takers came from places other than LessWrong - to get a picture of those people, you'd instead look at the breakdown for them, which Peter includes in his draft analysis.

Yes that's right, it's best to take these numbers as count data: absolute numbers of people who fit these categories, providing a lower bound for the numbers of EAs in the world who fit them, but likely not in the same proportions as all EAs in the world would be. In particular, they probably do as you say include disproportionately many people who frequent online venues like the Facebook group and LessWrong.

However I still would have expected more survey respondents to have picked out local groups. Many of the groups shared the survey with their members, so it's not like we didn't reach these people, and I know that many people who took the survey do attend local groups.

Personally, I read Singer's Practical Ethics in 2005, which convinced me that I ought to donate a share of my income to charities. I can't say that notion was new to me then, but I found his argument particularly persuasive. The article Faith, hope and charities in the 13 November 2010 issue of The Economist convinced me that donors often do not exercise due diligence before deciding where to give. Despite this, it wasn't until several years later that I came into contact with the website of Giving What We Can.

I'm curious, what is the typical length of time between when people were convinced of EA ideas and when they first heard about the term or the community? Did the survey cover this?

Typo in Local Groups section? Showing 2 different numbers for TLYCS.

"78 through The Life You Can Save, 41 through 80,000 Hours, and 38 through The Life You Can Save"

Good catch, fixed - the first figure should have been "42 through GiveWell".

Do you think maybe this data would be more usefully presented as percentages of survey respondents rather than raw numbers?

I'm unsure, and would appreciate others' perspectives. I presented it as I did to avoid any misreading of percentages as implying that these were representative of all EAs in the world, as explained in my reply to Ryan. Perhaps that was overcautious, as we could clearly state that these are percentages of survey respondents rather than all EAs in the world, who'll have somewhat different proportions. The absolute numbers of people reporting different answers are "count data", and hard to misinterpret.

Yeah just so long as you're clear that these are proportions of your sample and not all EAs, it's fine.

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