Epistemic status: uncertain about reasoning and effectiveness of proposed strategy, highly certain that it’s good to try out. Could be projecting a lot.
TL;DR: Specifically targeting STEM, logic, debate, and philosophy competitors with short outreach could increase high school outreach effectiveness as it would select for high-performing students who are more likely to engage with EA ideas. This would give these individuals more time to think about career choice and enable them to start building flexible career capital early and might make them more open to engaging with EA in the future. Short exposures to EA might be most effective.
This is heavily based on a discussion with Richard Annilo, who originally put a similar idea forward. I want to thank him for the great discussion we had. Thanks to Alison Xin for very helpful feedback!
Increasing effectiveness by targeting competitors
Posts on the EA Forum have already discussed reaching out to high school students about EA. It seems that university outreach is more effective than high school outreach according to current metrics, and that one of the main factors making high school outreach ineffective is a lack of selection.
I want to discuss a possible modification to the strategy of high school outreach - specifically targeting high-level STEM (+logic, philosophy, and debate) competitors.
It seems that this narrowing down would select for people who would be more likely to act on EA ideas. This could also simultaneously select for high-impact individuals.
As many other members of this community have stated, I would have benefited significantly if I'd heard of EA sooner, and I think the main benefit would be the extra time I'd be able to research EA topics, career choice, and college choice. High school students probably have more time to spend researching similar topics than college students do.
Anecdotal evidence and uncertainties
This mainly stems from my observations gathered on the competitions I've participated in around 2 or 3 years ago, and from conversations I've had with other highly-engaged EAs.
I've noticed that at least around half of the highly engaged EAs I've brought up the subject with have competed in STEM or debate. Maybe we should run some sort of survey asking HEAs about this?
There might be some heavy selection bias happening (I interact with people similar to me, or I notice such people more). There might also be some projection going on here, where I assume the other competitors are more similar to me than they actually are.
For context, I've participated in a few national competitions and one international one. I'm from Croatia so my points might not hold in countries with different competition systems.
Common EA-aligned traits in competitors
These are some traits I've noticed in other competitors that might make them more prone to engaging with EA:
- Scientific/rational mindsets
- Propensity to like philosophy
- Affinity towards reading books
- Extensive internet use for knowledge and community
- Relatively common discussions on ethics and philosophical problems, like the trolley problem, the existence of god, abortion, teleportation, existential risk
- It might be relevant to add that these tend to be held without knowledge about philosophical/rationalist lingo. I'd say the best explanation for this is that most of the people who participate in these discussions haven't come to the point where they seek out literature or communities on these issues.
- It could also be that I've noticed this because I am quite likely to start philosophical and ethical discussions, but I remember instances where other people started these discussions as well.
Possible low-cost tests
Some low-cost ways to test the waters could be:
- Holding talks about EA at competitions
- Holding giving games at competitions
- Giving out books at competitions
- Using competition mailing lists to promote EA
I think the most effect can be probably had by targeting third-year or fourth-year students, as students in their first or second year probably think much less about college/career choice.
I think that the most effectiveness would probably be achieved by keeping these exposures short (around an hour long). I'm very uncertain how much effect "planting a seed" about EA has, but I'd say that being once exposed to EA might make someone more willing to engage with it in the future. It might be that compared to college students, high school students have less resistance towards attending an event about something that they aren’t very interested or knowledgeable in (as there has been less career/interest lock-in).
When I say "at competitions", I mean at the talks and events that are held for competitors before or after competitions. In Croatia it's common to arrive at a hotel one or two days before a competition and participate in prepared talks and events during this time. Someone who participated in US science competitions (Alison Xin) confirmed that this is also common in the US.
Some more thoughts
This would in its selection effect probably be similar to projects like the numerous applied rationality summer schools. It would cost much less, which could allow for relatively easy testing and iteration.
I'd predict that exposing national or international STEM, logic, philosophy, and debate competitors would very likely get 5% of the participants interested in EA (where maybe signups to a book giveaway and follow up emails could be used as a proxy).