Making Effective Altruism more emotionally appealing

by Gleb_T 13th Oct 201522 comments


I'd like to open a discussion on making Effective Altruism more emotionally appealing. I'm especially interested in this topic due to my broader project, Intentional Insights, of spreading rational thinking, including about Effective Altruism, to a wide audience. As part of doing so, I find that I and other members of Intentional Insights engage with a number of people who are interested in EA when I present it to them, and accept the premise of doing the most good for the most number, but have trouble engaging with the movement due to the emotional challenges they experience. To be clear, this is in addition to some of the problematic signaling coming from the EA movement that Tom Davidson described well in his recent piece, "EA's Image Problem," and not explicitly due to the things outlined there, although they play a role indirectly.


What I am talking about is people who are interested in effective giving optimized to save the most lives, but then have trouble buying into the EA approach to it emotionally. They have challenges accepting that they have inherent cognitive biases that make their intuitions about optimal giving skewed. They have challenges letting go of cached patterns of giving to previous causes and accepting that their previous giving was suboptimal. They experience guilt over their previous giving or the lack thereof, something that causes them to flinch away from the EA movement. They have difficulty connecting emotionally with the data presented by venues like GiveWell as evidence for optimal giving, it doesn't feel emotionally rewarding to them. Moreover, they have emotional challenges with the difficulty of the many things they need to learn to "get" Effective Altruism - data analysis, utilitarian philosophy, rationality, etc. Many accept intellectually that an African life is worth the same inherently as an American life, but then have trouble emotionally enacting the implications of their intellectual recognition by optimizing their giving through contributions to alleviate African vs. American suffering.


For instance, right now Intentional Insights is focusing on spreading rational thinking and effective altruism to the skeptic/secular movement. People I talk to who accept the premise of optimizing giving to do the most good try to rationalize their current giving to secular communities as optimal for saving lives by saying things like "well, if I give to my secular community, it will create a venue where other secular people will feel safe and respected, and then we can give later to save the lives of Africans." Now, this is an awfully convenient way of justifying current giving, and I suspect it does not actually optimize for saving lives, but is just an example of confirmation bias. Sure, I present data from GiveWell on the benefits of giving to developing countries, but they still have an out that lets them preserve their self-image as rational people, since the QALYs of giving to a secular community and then potentially giving together latter are hard to quantify. Moreover, they often have trouble engaging with the dry data analysis, it just doesn't ring true to them emotionally. 


This example illustrates some of the problems with accepting cognitive biases, letting go of cached patterns of giving, connecting emotionally with data, and enacting the implications of their emotional recognition, also known as the drowning child problem. Now, you might think the stances I described above are weird, and do not feel intuitive to you. I hear you, and my gut reaction also does not accept these stances. If I learn that something is true - i.e., if my goal is to give effectively to do the most good - then it is relatively easy for me to let go of cached patterns and update my beliefs.


However, I think I, and the brunt of EAs in general, are much more analytical in our thinking than the baseline. If we want to expand the EA movement, we can't fall into typical mind fallacy and assume that what worked to convince us will convince others who are less analytical and more emotionally-oriented thinkers. Too often, I have seen effective altruists try to convince others by waving data in their face, and then calling them intellectually dishonest and inconsistent thinkers when those others did not change their perspective due to their internal emotional resistance. We need to develop new ways of addressing this emotional resistance, in a compassionate and generous way, to grow the EA movement.


Something that I find worked with our outreach efforts is to help provide people interested in EA goals with emotional tools to address their internal emotional challenges. For instance, to address the guilt people experience over their previous giving, to address cached patterns, and help people update their beliefs, it helps to use the CBT tool of reframing by encouraging themselves to distance their current self from their past self, and remember that they did not have this information about EA when they decided on their previous giving, making it ok to choose a new path right now. Another approach I found helpful is to encourage people to think of themselves as being at the ordinary human baseline, and then orient toward improving, rather than seeing oneself as never able to achieve perfect rationality in one's giving. To address guilt in particular, teaching non-judgment and compassion toward oneself is really helpful. To help people connect emotionally with the hard data, we know what works to pull at people's heart strings - we should tell stories about the children saved from malaria, of the benefits people gained from GiveDirectly, etc. Indeed, I found that telling stories, and then supporting them with numbers and metrics, works well. Likewise, it helps to have effective altruists share personal and moving stories of why they got into effective altruism in the first place and why they are passionate about it, stories that illustrate their own strong feelings and go light on the data.


On an institutional level, I would suggest that EA groups focus more on being welcoming toward emotionally-oriented thinkers. Perhaps having people who are specifically assigned as mentors for new members, who can help be guides for their intellectual and emotional development alike.


What are your thoughts about these, and more broadly strategies for overcoming emotional resistance to Effective Altruism? Also happy to discuss any collaboration on EA outreach, my email is


EDIT: Title edited based on comments


P.S. This article is part of the EA Marketing Resource Bank project lead by Intentional Insights and the Local Effective Altruism Network, with support from The Life You Can Save.