Oct 17, 2015
As an Effective Altruist who is skilled at marketing, education, and outreach, I think we can do a lot of good if we improve the effectiveness of Effective Altruism outreach. This is an issue that was touched on in a couple of recent forum posts (1, 2), and I wanted to devote a separate piece to discussing it. I am not talking about EA pitches in particular, although these are of course valuable in the right time and place, but more broadly issues of strategy. I am talking about making Effective Altruism outreach effective through relying on research-based strategies of effective outreach.
To be clear, I should say that I have been putting my money/efforts where my mouth is, and devoting a lot of my time and energy to a project, Intentional Insights, of spreading rational thinking and effective altruism to a broad audience, as I think I can do the most good through convincing others to do the most good, through their giving and through rational thinking. Over the last year, I devoted approximately 2400 hours and $33000 to this project. Here's what I found helpful in my own outreach efforts to non-EAs.
I found it quite helpful to focus much more on speaking to people's emotions rather than their cognition. Now, this was not intuitive to me. I'm much more motivated by data than the typical person, and I bet you are too. But I think we need to remember that we suffer from a typical mind fallacy, in that most EAs are much more data-driven than the typical person. Moreover, after we got into the EA movement, we forget how weird it looks from the outside - we suffer from the curse of knowledge.
Non-EAs usually give because of the pull of their heartstrings, not because of raw data on QALYs. Telling people emotional stories is a research-based strategy to pull at heartstrings. So I practice doing so, about the children saved from malaria, of the benefits people gained from GiveDirectly, and other benefits. Then, the non-analytically inclined people become open to the numbers and metrics. However, the story is what opens people up to the numbers and metrics. This story helps address the drowning child problem and similar challenges.
However, this is not sufficient if we want to get people into EA. Once they are open to the numbers and metrics through the story about a concrete and emotional example, it's very important to tell the story of Effective Altruism, to get people to engage with the movement. After leading with a story about children saved or something like that, I talk about how great it would be to save the most children most effectively. I paint a verbal and emotion-laden picture of how regrettable it is that the nonprofits that are best able to tell stories get the most money, not the nonprofits that are most effective. I talk about how people tend to give to nonprofits with the best marketing, not the ones that get the work done. This is meant to appeal to arouse negative emotions in people and put them before the essence of the problem that EA is trying to solve.
Once they are in a state of negative emotional arousal about other charities, this is the best time to sell them on EA, I find. I talk to them about how EA offers a solution to their problem. It offers a way to evaluate charities based on their outcome, not on their marketing. They can trust EA sources as rigorous and data-driven. They can be confident in their decision-making based on GiveWell and other EA-vetted sources. Even if they don't understand the data-based analytical methodology, an issue I address below, they should still trust the outcomes. I'm currently drafting an article for a broad media forum, such as Huffington Post or something like that, which uses some of these strategies, and would be glad for feedback: link here.
A big issue that many non-EAs have when presented with Effective Altruism is the barrier to entry to understanding data. For example, let's go to back to the example of saving children through malaria nets that I used earlier. What happens when I direct people to the major EA evaluation of Against Malaria Foundation, GiveWell's write-up on it? They get hit with a research paper, essentially. So many people who I directed there just get overwhelmed, as they do not have the skills to process it.
I'd suggest developing more user-friendly ways of presenting data. We know that our minds process visual information much quicker and more effectively than text. So what about having infographics, charts, and other visual methods of presenting EA analyses? These can accompany the complex research-based analyses and give their results in an easy-to-digest visual format.
Research shows that people desire social affiliation with people they like. This is part of the reason why as part of Intentional Insights, we are focusing on secular people as our first target audience.
First, the vast majority of EAs are secular. This fact creates positive social signaling to secular people who are not currently EAs. Moreover, it is clear evidence that Effective Altruism appeals to them most. Second, network effects cause it to be more likely for people who already became Effective Altruists to cause others in their contact networks to become EAs. Therefore, it pays well and is highly effective in terms of resource investment to focus on secular people, as they can get others in their social circles to become EAs. Third, the presence of prominent notables who are EAs allows good promotion through a desire to be socially affiliated with prominent secular notables. Here's an example of how I did it in a blog post for Intentional Insights.
There are so many secular people and if we can get more of them into the EA movement, it would be great! To be clear, this is not an argument against reaching out to religious EAs, which is a worthwhile project in and of itself. This is just a point about effectiveness and where to spend resources for outreach.
Meta-Comments About Outreach
To do so, I think we need to focus much more efforts - time and money - on developing Effective Altruist outreach and communication (this is why I am trying to fill the gap here with my own project). We haven't done nearly enough research or experimentation on how to grow the movement most effectively through communicating effectively to outsiders. Investing resources in this area would be a very low-hanging fruit with very high returns, I think. If anyone is interested in learning more about my experience here, or wants to talk about collaborating, or just has some thoughts to share better suited for one-on-one than for discussion comments, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org and Skype is gleb.tsipursky
In conclusion, I strongly believe we can do much better at our outreach if we apply research-based strategies of effective outreach. I'd love to hear your thoughts about it.