EA risks falling into a "meta trap". But we can avoid it.

by Peter_Hurford25th Aug 201566 comments


Movement StrategyCriticism (EA Movement)

If you think a typical EA cause has very high impact, it seems quite plausible that you can have even higher impact by working one level of “meta” up -- working not on that cause directly, but instead working on getting more people to work on that cause.

For example, while the impact of a donation to the Against Malaria Foundationseems quite large, it should be even more impactful to donate to Charity ScienceGiving What We CanThe Life You Can Save, or Raising for Effective Giving, all of which claim to be able to move many dollars to AMF for every dollar donated to them. Likewise, if you think an individual EA is quite valuable because of the impact they’ll have, you may want to invest your time and money not in having a direct impact, but in producing more EAs!

However, while I agree with this logic, I’m nervous about going too far. As Dylan Matthews says, “if you take meta-charity too far, you get a movement that's really good at expanding itself but not necessarily good at actually helping people”. This is what leads to what Matthews called “[d]oing good through aggressive self-promotion” or what I’m calling “the meta trap”. While some meta-projects may have the highest impact in expectation, there are higher-order reasons to want to avoid giving all your resources to meta orgs.


Meta Trap #1: Meta Orgs Risk Not Actually Having an Impact

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable? (1) Linda is a bank teller or (2) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

When asked by Tversky and Khaneman, the majority of people picked #2. However, this isn’t possible, since the probability of two events both occurring cannot be greater than the probability of one of those two events occurring.

This is called the conjuction fallacy, and it is a classic bias of human rationality. However, it’s also a classic bias of meta-charity.


When you chain different probabilities together, every additional step in the chain will, in almost every case, weaken it. This is also true with chaining together steps of meta-charity together -- while you’re getting higher returns in expected value, you’re also reducing the chance the impact will actually occur.

Consider someone who is considering donating to fund the salary of a staff member to work full-time finding volunteer mentors to advise new EA chapters at various universities. These EA chapters will in turn bring more college students into EA, and these new EAs will then graduate and will all earn-to-give for GiveWell top charities. (While a bit silly-sounding, this plan is so realistic in EA, I’ve actually funded a form of it.)

This plan could have quite a high impact. While donating to AMF all our lives is great, if we can spend our effort to get two people to donate to AMF instead of us, we’ve doubled our impact. If we can spend our effort creating an entire college group to get dozens of people to donate AMF, so much more impact! And then we can expand an entire network of college groups! And then we can become even more efficient in expanding this network. So much impact!

However, we’ve also now constructed a meta-chain that is five steps removed from the actual impact. There’s a lot that can now go wrong in this chain -- the chapters could get set up successfully but fail to get enough people to donate, the chapters could fail to get set up at all due to problems unrelated to the mentoring, the mentors themselves could fail to be better than if the full-time staff member just advised full-time instead, and the staff member could end up being really bad at recruiting volunteer mentors.

This doesn’t mean the chapter chain doesn’t have high expected value or that it’s not worth doing. It just means that it’s risky, and I’m nervous that as the levels of meta scale up, the additional risk taken on by introducing ways to break the chain might be much greater than the additional leverage taken by introducing another meta step.

I do think meta-charities are worth pursuing and I fund them myself. But for every time I think about how good of an opportunity the connections facilitated at EA Global are, I also worry about whether the new EAs brought into the movement really are going to create more counterfactual impact than the considerable cost of the conference.


Meta Trap #2: Meta Orgs Risk Curling In On Themselves

When I was in college, I once joked about a fictitious club called “Club Club” with the only purpose of perpetuating the club. Every Club Club meeting would be about how to advertise Club Club, how to recruit more Club Club members, and how to better retain the members that Club Club already had. Club Club wouldn’t actually do anything. On days where I’m especially grumpy, I worry that EA may become that.

The problem is that if we spread the idea that meta-orgs are the highest impact opportunity too well, we risk the creation of a meta-movement to spread the meta-movement and nothing else. Once meta-orgs get to the point where it’s all about EAs helping other EAs to help EAs, we’ve gotten to the point where there’s serious risk that actual impact won’t occur.

Consider that plan again where we get someone to full-time find chapter advisors for setting up lots of EA chapters. Now imagine that instead of advocating to the college students that they earn to give for GiveWell charities we suggest that this chapter building project is really the best possible thing to be doing, so they should get involved in, donate to, and volunteer for it. Now we’ve got chapters developing chapters to perpetuate developing more chapters. But what does this actually accomplish? We might as well have them working to set up Club Club.


Meta Trap #3: You Can’t Use Meta as an Excuse for Cause Indecisiveness

EA is made up of quite a few different object-level causes and it can be hard to figure out which one is the best. Is it global poverty? Existential risk reduction? Animal welfare? Or something else?

Somehow, meta-work became it’s own cause in this list, but I think that’s a mistake. Meta-work isn’t a cause, it’s a meta-cause, and it’s supposed to make the above actual-causes go better. To understand the meta-impact that meta-work has, it’s important to understand the object-level causes and have opinions on which one is best.

However, I feel like far too often people (including myself) hide behind donations to meta-charity as a feel-good way to support the EA movement as a whole without doing the hard work of figuring out which object-level causes are the best. Unless you’re funding cause prioritization research or hoping to bring in EAs who will shed more light on the question of which cause is the best, this seems like a big risk. It avoids learning opportunities and discussions we could be having about what the best causes actually are, which also pushes the entire movement forward.


Meta Trap #4: At Some Point, You Have to Stop Being Meta

Abraham Lincoln is purported to have said “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” I think this is generally a good philosophy to follow. But at some point you have to swing the axe and actually chop down the tree. If you have six hours to chop down the tree and you spend all six hours sharpening the axe, you’re obviously doing it wrong.

The problem we face with meta tasks is that we don’t really know how much time we have, and we have to allocate this unknown amount of time to axe sharpening (meta-work) and tree chopping (actual impact). At what point should we start chopping? I’m nervous that we may get so carried away with meta-work we forget to actually chop at some point.


Meta Trap #5: Sometimes, Well Executed Object-Level Action is What Best Grows the Movement

GiveWell is considered a meta-org, but they focus on direct research about which cause is best. Historically, they have not focused much resources on outreach or marketing. Instead, they just focused on doing a very good job on their research and delivering high-quality recommendations. In turn, they attracted many donors, including a big foundation. As GiveWell says, “Much of our most valuable publicity and promotion has come from enthusiastic people who actively sought us out” and that they “have generally felt that improving the quality of [their] research, and [the] existing audience’s understanding of it, has been the most important factor in [their] growth”.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, doing really well on object-level stuff could also be one of the best things we can do to grow a quality movement. People aren’t attracted to marketing, they're attracted to people doing a good job. Marketing is only useful in so far as it draws attention to good work.


How Can We Defuse The Meta Trap? 

To be clear, I don’t think the EA movement is in a meta trap yet. I think we’re doing good work and making a lot of progress on important, object-level issues. But I want to be careful. I think the meta trap is a real problem.

Here are two steps I think would work to defuse it:

1.) The more steps away from impact an EA plan is, the more additional scrutiny it should get. The idea of a meta-meta-org may sound unusual, but many EA plans are actually that. This doesn’t mean they’re wrongheaded -- I just think they warrant extra skepticism. Are we really getting extra impact from each step? Or are we just introducing a lot of risk by bringing in another chain that might collapse the whole thing?

2.) More EAs should have a substantial stake in object-level impact. Right now I’m aiming at donating 50% of my pool to the best meta-projects I know and spending the other 50% on direct impact through GiveWell’s top charities. I don’t know if 50% is the correct number, but I hope this will set an example of what I want the movement as a whole to do.

I think Jeff Kaufman at EA Global put it best:

So yes, we should do this, we should put substantial effort into growing the movement. But this isn't the only thing we should do. We can't have an entirely meta movement that goes grow, grow, grow, build growth capacity, bring in people to bring in people, bigger and bigger, and then shift focus? Turn your giant optimized-for-growth movement into an optimized-for-helping one? Not going to work.

We need to do things that help people alongside growing the movement, and personally I try to divide my efforts 50-50. As I argued above, for the doing-good-now portion I think global poverty is our best shot. This isn't settled—EA is all about being open to the best options for helping others, whatever those causes happen to be—but today I think the best you can do to help people now is donate to GiveWell's top charities.“

Since I wrote this post, more discussion has occurred: Ben Todd has written a reply and Rohin has expanded upon my work to add three additional traps. In a comment on that second post, Howie also adds two more traps.