Empathic communication and strategy for Effective Altruism, Part 1

by LucasNarukami 24th Sep 201516 comments


Effective altruism continues to grow and seems to have a bright future ahead. However, we are facing problems when doing outreach that limit our capacity for growth and may even endanger the movement.

The way we currently present our ideas can sometimes generate resistance and negative associations. To solve this problem, we need to think about how to reframe our core ideas and about the language we use to communicate.

The following analysis will be based on:

  • Evolutionary Psychology

  • Group Psychology

  • Signaling Theory

  • Heuristic and Biases

  • And some other areas of psychology

The important insights that we can draw from these fields of knowledge are that:

  • Humans are cognitive misers. They avoid doing mental effort and rely heavily on heuristics, which often produce biases.

  • Humans care a lot about social status and determining who their allies and enemies are.

  • Humans are susceptible to priming and are heavily driven by chains of associations and meanings.

All of these claims are familiar to readers of Less Wrong, Overcoming Bias and books like Thinking and deciding, Thinking, Fast and Slow and books about Evolutionary psychology, among many others.

Based on these facts about human psychology, I make the following important claims:

1) While the quality and intellectual rigor of our arguments is important, the success of effective altruism depends even more on the things that people automatically associate with the movement.

2) To influence society, we have to be associated with very good things. The words “Effective altruism” should generate an automatic chain of positive associations and feelings.

We have to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What kind of feelings does Effective altruism generate on newcomers?

  • How are we perceived by society?

And most importantly:

  • Can we reframe our arguments and change the presentation of our movement in such a way that we start generating the right kind of associations?

Effective altruism should retain a high level of intellectual rigor, while seeking ways to attract a broader public. At the very least, we should seek to be associated with positive words. To accomplish this, we don’t need to change our ideas or to simplify them. We just need to rewrite and reframe them in ways that are more adjusted to human psychology.


1) Effective altruism is currently associated with many negative adjectives.

We know that effective altruism has amazing people. There are many intelligent and altruistic persons in this movement. The quality of the people in our movement is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. But the important question is:

Does the average outsider know this?

I claim that they don’t. In fact, I think many outsiders will think the opposite about the members of this movement.

Effective altruism is currently being associated with the following negative adjectives and ideas:

  • Heartless

We are people that quantify and take decisions based on numbers, and this is seen as cold and heartless. We put emphasis on ignoring our emotions and gut-feelings when it comes to altruism. To top it off, we frequently talk about helping people in other countries and about ignoring our local communities and those close to us. We are seen as utility-maximizing machines.

We are seen as people opposed to warm human emotions.

  • Judgmental and narcissistic

We can come off as implying that any form of spending money that isn’t the ones we recommend is immoral. We are “effective altruists’’, and it may seem that we imply that everybody else is just wasting their time and being stupid. In fact, our logic seems to imply that everybody else is responsible for the death and the parasitic infections of countless humans.

This is unfortunate, because we don’t want to come off as moralistic and judgmental, but sometimes we do.

  • Insensitive to social justice

Judgmental, utility-maximizing machines in an ivory tower know nothing about the struggle of real people.

  • Many other associated negative adjectives.

You can find these negative adjectives in any critique of effective altruism. They are quite common. Even someone as nice as Julia Wise says that she was often categorized as “some kind of heartless utility-bot”.


But of course, all those negative adjectives aren’t accurate. For example, we aren’t heartless: our movement has some of the most compassionate people in the world, and we do the math because we care.

We just didn’t make a big effort to avoid these kinds of negative associations, which are completely understandable from the perspective of an outsider.

Even many smart people won’t stick long enough to read our rational arguments. They will briefly come in contact with us, some negative associations will be triggered because we are not framing our arguments correctly, and they will leave.

We can counter these kinds of negative associations if we change our strategy and pay attention. And we should really seek to do this. We will fail to gain support from very valuable people if we keep being associated with negative ideas.

Nobody wants to take a status hit by supporting a group that is seen in a negative light by the general public, even if said group is doing really important things.


2) Changing how effective altruism is perceived

Let’s look at this:

We use evidence and reason to ask "Where can a small set of individuals make the biggest difference?" We’re entrepreneurs and economists. CEOs and scientists. Students and philanthropists. And if you're ready to rethink social impact, you're ready to join us.

This description of the movement comes from the main effective altruism site. It’s the first thing that many people will see about our movement. We should ask ourselves “does this generate the right impression about our movement?”

I claim that it doesn’t. Let’s think in terms of Warm words and Cold words.

Evidence, Reason, Scientists, Entrepreneurs, CEOs and Social impact are all Cold words. They won’t generate many warm feelings in the general public, even if many of them are positive. We must use these Cold words to describe our project, but we must remember that these words can have a strong positive impact if they are close to Warm words.

Empathy, Heart, Compassion, Save, Connection and Kindness are all examples of Warm words. They generate good feelings in those that read them and improve how the words close to them are perceived.

How many Warm words do we have in the main description of Effective altruism? There are zero Warm words. Overlooking these kinds of things in the main description of our movement might be harmful over time.

We do this all the time. We throw ten cold words without using a single warm word. This is okay when we write about theory, but we should avoid this when we write for the general public.

We are warm people, so using more warm words also represents us more accurately. These changes aren’t about lying to the public, but about transmitting our genuine enthusiasm.

This isn’t the fault of the person that wrote the description. The fact is that many of us saw it and thought there wasn’t anything wrong with it (including myself). We are sometimes being blind to some important subtleties of human psychology.

Fixing this will go a long ways towards getting rid of the “heartless” association. We will create a better impression by using more Warm words. When journalists write about Effective altruism, they will use the same Warm words that we use, and they may even be more charitable with us when it comes to article titles.

Main takeaway: When writing for the general public, we should use more Warm words. Looking for the proportion of Cold words VS Warm words should be in the to-do list of any effective altruist that is writing for the general public. And remember that this isn’t just about persuasion. This is about also about being accurate. We are Warm people and we need to transmit that.


3) Critics say: ''On the utilitarian view, a pound spent without maximal effect is a pound spent immorally.''

This quote comes from a recent critique of effective altruism, which unfortunately plays up the more calculating side of effective altruism.

The implicit claim that the critic is making in that quote is that effective altruists think that any way of helping that is different from what they recommend is immoral.

The impression that this generates is that Effective altruists are judgmental and narcissistic.

We frequently critique charities that are worse than those we recommend. It’s not hard for critics to imagine that we spend all our time narcissistically talking about the immorality of those that don’t make the same choices that we do.

We must insist on the fact that some charities are better than others by a huge amount. We should never give up on that point, but we must say it in a different way.

Saying or implying that others are immoral and stupid can put the philanthropic sector against us, and generates exactly the wrong kind of associations in the general public.

Consider what this imaginary effective altruist said:  

“Every altruist is a kind, wonderful person trying to do something good for the world. All of them are my allies, but good could be done even better. We talk about effective altruism because we care deeply about the people, and we hope that altruists all over the world will join our movement and start thinking in terms of cost-effectiveness.”

This effective altruist doesn’t sound like a judgmental person or someone eager to critique bad charities or people that help others in stupid ways. On the contrary, he recognizes that every altruist is a colleague of his. Every altruist is a kind soul in this difficult world, trying to fix things. The fact that he talks about effective altruism seems linked to his big desire to help others, not with a desire to judge or to claim that others are immoral.

This is reframing. We are still saying that some ways of helping others are much better, but we are doing so in a way that cancels any kind of negative associations and triggers only good ones.

Main takeaway: We should never put emphasis on how immoral others are. Rather, we must focus on how much better it would be if they followed our recommendations and started thinking in terms of cost-effectiveness. We must show kindness towards every altruist, even if they aren’t effective at the moment.


4) Our readers are effective altruists

Almost every person that comes in contact with effective altruism will already think that:

  • Poverty is terrible and we should get rid of it.

  • We should help people if we can afford it.

  • It’s better to help as many people as possible.

Your readers are effective altruists already. Tell it to them! Show them that effective altruism is a natural consequence of their beliefs.

When we write for the general public, let’s stop for a second and remind the reader that our position is the same as theirs.

There aren’t many better ways to generate warm feelings and predispose our readers to be charitable towards us than showing them that we think the same that they do.

Main takeaway: Make the readers identify with the movement. Tell them that they already agree with what we propose.


5) A critic might say, “Your dollars might go further overseas, but if you send them there, you are heartless”

Are you blind to the plight of those around you? Are you so high up in your ivory tower that you can’t see that people close to you are suffering? How can you ignore them?

…But of course, we don’t ignore them, and we are not in an ivory tower. There is a limited amount of resources, and we can do more good if we focus on helping those in third world countries.

The problem is that the public isn’t well aware of this. They see that we reject the notion of helping those around us and they suspect. This is reasonable from their perspective. We can easily appear as cold, emotionally detached and robotic.

The previous advice goes a long way towards preventing this. But we can handle this specific problem even better.

Consider what this imaginary effective altruist said:

“We understand the drive to help those closer to us. We feel a strong connection to every person that is struggling in this world, and naturally the plight of those that we can see with our own eyes affects us deeply. The people that help locally are wonderful, and we completely share their feelings. But we also think of those that are far away.

It takes a lot of effort to put yourself in the place of someone you have never seen. But if you do, you will find that their lives are worth just as much as those close to us. And we can help them even more!”

Notice how this is framed in such a way that it implies that giving overseas requires even more empathy, while at the same time avoids putting those that help locally in a negative light. The high density of Warm words will also ensure that the point is accepted easily.

Main takeaway: being warm is especially important when you are making a point that may imply that effective altruism is “heartless” or “emotionally detached”.  Let the public know that our decisions are a consequence of our empathy.


We still have to think about many other topics linked to outreach, but if we remember the advice mentioned in this text, I think we will do great.

This is part 1 of a series of texts about strategic communication for effective altruism.

Thanks to Jacy Anthis and Claire Zabel for looking the text and offering valuable advice. They were wonderful and they helped me improve. Any possible remaining errors or weird ideas are mine.