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Research into people's willingness to change cause *areas*?

by Davis_Kingsley1 min read24th Jul 202114 comments

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Moral psychology
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One question that I'm curious about with respect to EA strategy is the extent to which people are or are not willing to change not just specific organizations they might donate too, but overall cause areas that they consider important focuses. I'm especially interested in "average donors" and people who are not necessarily explicitly EA -- I think this question is quite meaningful with respect to what kinds of outreach most generate value in the world.

Is there any research into this topic people could point me to, either from within the EA community or elsewhere?

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Rethink Priorities' analysis of the 2019 EA survey concluded that 42% of EAs changed their cause area after joining the movement, 57% of change was away from global poverty, and 54% towards long term future / catastrophic and existential risk reduction.

Rethink Priorities, and Faunalytics also have much content on how to do effective animal advocacy, which would likely be useful for your purposes.

This is probably not the extent of research that Rethink Priorities has on this issue, but it's what I could remember reading about.

At Animal Advocacy Careers, we ran two concurrent studies of our one-to-one careers advice calls and our online course. We had a measure in there for cause prioritisation (a subcomponent of our overall "attitudes" metric), amongst many other outcome measures. Both interventions devoted at least some effort to encouraging (some) people to shift cause prioritisation.

We found evidence that the interventions each had significant effects on some outcomes (e.g. career plans, "career-related behaviours,"), but neither had significant effects on attitudes. In fact, there was some somewhat concerning evidence of a backfire effect on the cause prioritisation question, although this seems to be reduced to nothing in some of the sensitivity analyses.

So in short, we found that our intervention failed to persuade people to change cause areas despite being effective at some of the other things we tried. Ofc, this could be a reflection of our interventions. But it's at least weak evidence that persuading people to alter their cause prioritisation is difficult in general.

I've finished the write-up of this but am waiting on some additional feedback and we haven't published it yet. Feel free to email me (jamie@animaladvocacycareers.org) if reviewing the current draft would be helpful.

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Do we have strong evidence that "average donors" even have "cause areas," as an accurate/descriptively useful mapping of how they understand the world? My young and pre-EA self feels so distant from me that it's barely worth mentioning, but I vaguely recall that teenage me donated to things as disparate as earthquake relief in Sichuan, local beggars, LGBT stuff and probably something something climate change. 

I don't think I ever consciously considered until several years later how dumb it was to a) donate to multiple things at the tiny amounts I was donating at the time and b) to have multiple cause areas of very varying cost-effectiveness and theories of change.

I think there's definitely something to this.

As is suggested by this report, even donors who are very proactive, are often barely reflecting about where they should give at all. They are also, often, thinking about the charity sector in terms of very coarse-grained categories (e.g. my country/international charities, people/animal charities). On the other hand, they often are making sense of their donations in terms of causes and an implicit hierarchy of causes (including particular, personal commitments,  such as to heart disease because a family member died from that, and so on). They also view charitable donation as highly personal and subjective (e.g. a matter of personal choice) [there is some evidence for this in here and unpublished work by me and my academic colleagues].

I think the overall picture this suggests is that people are sometimes thinking in terms of causes, but rarely explicitly deliberating about the optimal cause or set of causes.

To address the original question: I think this suggests that trying to get people to "change causes" by giving them reasons as to why certain causes are best may be ineffective in most cases, as people rarely deliberate about what cause is best and may not even be aiming to select the best cause. On the other hand, as many donors give fairly promiscuously or indiscriminately to charities across different cause areas, it's plausible you could get them to support different causes just by making them salient and appealing.

They also view charitable donation as highly personal and subjective (e.g. a matter of personal choice)

Yeah - I think this paper also supports that.

I (very anecdotally) think there are lots of people who are interested in donating to quite specific cause areas, e.g. "my father died of cancer so I donate to cancer charities" or "I want to donate to help homelessness in my area" -- haven't studied that in depth though.

Thank you for posting this question. It has spurred me to consider taking some action; I am now interested in creating a survey on this topic, and then submitting it to my college.  

I am interested in advice on this idea in general (once each section has been read) and on each of the individual sections listed below (execution details, hanging variables, proposals for survey questions, narrowing / expanding the scope, redefining the objectives, etc...) .

Should you find that this has the potential to be effective or informative, I am interested in receiving help and discussing the content/execution of the survey. Should you think this is a waste of effort, or should you have any criticisms, please notify me, I would greatly appreciate the feedback. 

Objective and Measurements

The objectives  (in order) of this survey are to evaluate (1) which issues people believe are worth donating to, coming into the survey, (2) what people believe it would take for them to change what they believe is worth donating to, (3) how people evaluate EA affiliated organizations' cause-area selections, and (4) how people change their evaluations of which issues are worth donating to once they are exposed to EA affiliated organizations' measurements / reasoning of the importance of the cause-areas (e.g. scale, neglectedness, solvability ratings for a cause or metrics attached to a problem area) .

Questions by Objective

These are initial conceptualizations of questions  for each of the objectives listed above. Some questions depend on previously asked questions, so there are multiple sequences of questions that can be used. There are many other ways this survey can be created, so please do not think that I am set on these questions, or even on this particular ordering or set of objectives. 

(1) which issues people believe are worth donating to, coming into the survey

  • What issues are worth donating money to?
  • Please list the top five issues you think are worth donating money to.
  • If you had money to donate, which issues would you donate to?
  • Please list the top five issues you think are worth donating money to. Specify why each is important to you personally and to humanity as a whole.
  • Please list the top five issues you think are worth donating money to. Specify why these are the top five issues humanity should focus on solving.
  • (follow up): Please list some other issues that are maybe slightly less pressing, but are still important.
  • You have $[quantity of funds] you must donate to some issue/s:  What causes would you donate the money to? How much would you donate to each cause?

(2) what people believe it would take for them to change what they believe is worth donating to

  • What would it take for you to consider [iterate through EA affiliated organizations' cause-areas or a subset of causes areas, where the subset could differ between surveys] to be in your (top five) or (selection) of causes worth donating to?
  • Why isn't [iterate through EA affiliated organizations' cause-areas or a subset of causes areas, where the subset could differ between surveys] in your list of causes worth donating to?

(3) how people evaluate EA affiliated organizations' cause-area selections

[iterate through EA affiliated organizations' cause-areas or a subset of causes areas, where the subset could differ between surveys] 

  •  Which of these causes shouldn't be considered causes? Why? 
  •  What would you change about this list? Why?
  • Please select the elements of this list that should be removed, and add the ones that you think are missing. Please provide some reasoning behind your decisions.

(4) how people change their evaluations of which issues are worth donating to once they are exposed to EA affiliated organizations' measurements / reasoning of the importance of the cause-areas

x = [iterate through EA affiliated organizations' cause-areas or a subset of causes areas, where the subset could differ between surveys] 

y = [a quantitative negative or positive outcome]

  • What if you knew working on [x] would/might result in [y]; does this change your cause-area selection?
  • Quantitative statement about the pressingness of [x]; would you now consider donating to this? 
  • Quantitative statement about the pressingness of [x];  do you think this is pressing enough to replace one of your original cause-areas to donate to?

Implementation

Given my circumstances, I am 75% confident that I will be able to submit a survey on this topic to at least two of the following departments [Economics, Neuroscience, Computer Science, Mathematics, Sociology, Anthropology, Philosophy] in my college. Additionally, I am somewhat confident that I will be able to convince EA groups at two other colleges in the area to host this survey in at least one department. Finally, there is a small chance that my non-EA affiliated friends will be able to host this survey and, should the survey be formulated well, a small chance that some members of this forum will take the survey or consider spreading it. 

Across all of these, I estimate that I can get at least 50 survey responses. 

Some Final Remarks

I can envision this survey beginning with a scenario where people divide 1,000,000 hypothetical dollars between cause-areas they personally find important. Then they'd choose how to reallocate funds in subsequent questions that pertain to different objectives (e.g. after reading about the reasoning EA affiliated organization use to select cause-areas, they'd have the option to reallocate money to another cause). A situation where the participant reallocates hypothetical money  to donate upon learning new information could be a short survey-game, similar to Explorable Explanations , but perhaps of a slightly shorter duration. 

Thank you for taking a look at this; I will wait for some feedback before taking more serious steps to conduct this survey (I will still be thinking about question phrasing, objectives, and implementation details). 

I recommend making this comment into a full post, so that more people will see it and have a chance to share feedback!

After some more thought, I've decided that I am going to create a separate post for this. 

I was hesitant because (1) I wasn't sure whether something of this nature already existed, and I just hadn't seen it (there doesn't seem to be any work on the particular question of cause-switching) and (2) I wasn't sure how related the Rethink Priorities 2019 Cause-prioritization survey was to this idea, but it seems to me now that this line of work could be distinct enough to continue pursuing.

Given that the forum's reasoning and creative abilities can more easily be accessed by making a full post, I will go ahead and do so. The post will consist of a considerably expanded version of my previous comment. 

edit: I added Aaron Gertler / Davis_Kingsley to a draft; I am looking to publish the post by tomorrow morning.

For some reason I can't see the draft, when I click on the notification I received for it it says "Error: app.operation_not_allowed" and kind of glitches out the interface until I refresh. Apologies!
 

(edit: fixed now, thanks!)

Thanks, I'm impressed by this reply and your willingness to go out there and do a survey. I will have more substantive feedback later as I want to consult with someone else before making a further statement -- ping me if I haven't replied by Friday.

Thank you for your kind words. I will ping you midday-evening Eastern time on Friday if I see no reply. I am going to make a full post (probably by this evening), so please reply to that instead of in this comment thread, if possible. Hope you have a nice day.

There are some studies suggesting people sometimes donate to less effective charities even when informed that other charities are more effective. E.g. this paper found that people prefer to donate to cancer research even when told that arthritis research is more effective. We made similar findings in this paper

These papers just ask one-off questions, though - they don't concern whether sustained persuasion would cause people to change cause area. But they do indicate that preferences for particular cause areas often override effectiveness information.

Thanks! Good to know.