TL:DR- Individual cause area re-prioritization is hard and may be getting harder.  It would be helpful to have a toolkit of techniques for making the process easier and better.  I highly recommend most of you give $20 to a charity in every major EA cause area, and also do some other things.


It's hard, and possibly getting harder, for an individual EA to re-prioritize between causes. There are a few simple and practical measures we can use to make the cause selection go more smoothly and effectively.  Here are a few reasons I've seen (or think I've seen) a lot of evidence for recently in myself and other EAs.

1) Sticking with one cause feels good/familiar, and unfamiliar other cause areas don't feel as good (maybe Mere-exposure effect has gotten to you, or maybe you were always more comfortable with one for separate reasons). 

2) You identify with a cause area or charity, and might lose that emotional connection if you donated* elsewhere (plus loss aversion twice over: once for losing the particular connection, and again for losing some confidence that you can or should become attached to a given cause or charity).  This is one I struggle with a lot.  

3) You fear you would lose status if you changed your mind, or that it would be socially difficult or costly to do so because of personal or professional relationships.

4) You "aren't the kind of person" who donates to a certain cause area (I heard slight variations on this 5-ish times at EAG, e.g. "I'm not a radical EA that gives to fringe causes").  You don't (just) identify with cause X, you identify with not-cause Y and Z. This makes me sad.

5) You thought hard about this a while back, and have since cached the idea that you've done the mental work of cause selection satisfactorily.  You may not be aware that there were holes in your original reasoning, or that new evidence has come to light that affects your earlier conclusions.

I expect all of these to grow more powerful over time. As our donation histories lengthen, we have more opportunities to identify more strongly with a certain charity or cause. More habituation takes place. Our community becomes more entrenched, and so we can expect more and stronger interpersonal relationships that make radical changes potentially costly. Reasoning that may have originally been sound is more likely to become outdated if it's not updated.

It's well worth small amounts of effort to fight identity ossification of this sort early and often, if the efforts are effective.  Identities are powerful, and we should actively manage them.  I fear these processes will decrease cause selection quality. On the other hand, longer exposure to EA means greater exposure to information about other cause areas. Hopefully the second force is stronger.  

Regardless, it would be helpful to have a toolkit of measures to push back against possible trends 1-5 without hurting the positive aspects of those trends, like stronger communities and more comfort with the process of giving.

What can we do about this? I'm not sure, but here are a few things I've been experimenting with.

Most simply:

1) Give a small donation ($20) to a charity in each major cause area, especially the ones you've never donated to before.  This will help prevent strong identification as a not-donor to cause area X or as only a donor to cause area Y.  It may decrease the perceived foreignness of other cause areas than your current favorite.  

But also:

2) Try Ideological Turing Tests to check how well you understand the arguments for other courses of action.

3) If you feel comfortable, make a habit of asking other EAs to explain how they picked their cause area, and invite them to try to convince you to change your mind, so they don't have to worry about being inappropriately aggressive towards people who don't want it.

4) Then document and share these arguments so lots of people don't unwittingly reproduce the same work.

5) De-stigmatize talking about emotional attachment to causes.  My strong impression is that many EAs have these attachments, but feel they have no place in the ideal EA conversation about cause selection, so they repress or subvert those feelings out of fear of looking irrational, or having their opinions be taken less seriously.


What else would people recommend to make cause re-prioritization easier? How can we manage our personal relationships and local community dynamics so that they are strong and meaningful, but interfere as little as possible with our donating decisions?


*throughout, I use "donating" as a shorthand for any action, including volunteering, professional work, journalistic coverage, political advocacy, and more, that's in support of a given cause area. 

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Perhaps the most important way to improve cause re-prioritization is for more people to write publicly about why they donate to the causes they do. I don't see many people doing this, and the ones who do don't usually offer much detail. I'd like it to become normal and even expected for EAs to give public justifications to wherever they donate.

One possible concern with this is it may pressure people to donate to popular causes. Hopefully people who write up their reasoning like this can get sufficiently rational feedback that they won't feel this pressure. I expect that even with this pressure, people will end up making better decisions than if they didn't talk publicly about their donation choices.

Of course, I don't really know if this would help. What we need to do is run an RCT where people try different cause re-prioritization strategies and see which ones work best.

The risk of having people write about their donation choices online is that discussion devolves in to a flame war. Any such discussions should be conducted with the highest levels of collegiality, to prevent slipping in to the "my cause is better than your cause" degenerate case.

I've found the advice of this post useful.

In particular, the suggestion to "1) Give a small donation ($20) to a charity in each major cause area, especially  the ones you've never donated to before."

I just acted on this advice by giving $20 to a group of Democrat senate campaigns which David Shor considers "the races where I think the marginal *small dollar donation* will go the furthest." This was my first political donation (besides a $1 donation in February to Yang's campaign that allegedly helped bring him to the debates.)

Previously, I followed the advice by donating small dollar amounts to a couple other organizations working to help animals (the Good Food Institute and the Wild Animal Initiative). While these acts haven't (yet) caused me to change which cause area I make the bulk of my donations to, I've noticed that they  seem to have had some effect on me psychologically, making me more open to seriously considering making substantial donations to these organizations/cause areas.

Nice ideas! I like #5, since donating for "fuzzies" reasons is often looked down upon. I discussed my grappling with fuzzies vs. utilons here.

Relevant to the issue of identity: I think it's telling that the empathetic advice here is described as "try ideological Turing tests" rather than "try to argue the other side convincingly," which is a much older principle and much more generally understandable.

Should making EA legible to the majority of the worlds' citizens, who are not and will never be computer scientists, be a goal? If so, we need to work on the language we use to discuss these issues.

Thank you, great tips! In response, I just sent a donation of $20 to MIRI. :‑)

It worked! I’m excited about MIRI now!

Another, selfish reason to donate to a broad variety of causes is to claim moral authority over people who don't donate at all. Say you donate mainly to a "fringe" cause area, and some non-EA is hard on you for this. Then you can respond by saying "well I also donate small amounts to a variety of other causes too, including some you would agree with, to avoid getting attached to a particular cause; what are you doing?" At which point the person you're talking to gets embarrassed if they don't donate at all.

3) If you feel comfortable, make a habit of asking other EAs to explain how they picked their cause area, and invite them to try to convince you to change your mind, so they don't have to worry about being inappropriately aggressive towards people who don't want it.

I think I'm a bit averse to pushing this responsibility onto others ("convince me!") rather than putting in the effort myself to research/understand. But there is a lot of material out there related to each cause.

Rather than many-to-many requests (each person asking multiple others for their reasons), or as an adjunct to doing that, is there a consolidated guide to the key reasons for or against each of the main areas? I haven't come across one, but may have missed it. I've seen intros/summaries from different EA orgs, but they're generally not steelmanned / responding to the objections of the other cause-foci.

If this doesn't exist, it might be a good project in terms of time-saving and mind-change facilitation and feeling like one community whose members understand one other (a sort of "Ideological Turing Test Prep").

I don't like proposing projects without volunteering to help them, which is probably a fault of mine, but that said I'd be willing to help with this if people think it's a good idea. Asking individuals for their reasons, as Claire proposed, and then collecting/aggregating/summarizing responses might be a good place to start with such a thing, since few of us (none of us?) are expert in the various areas.

Issa Rice has the Cause Prioritization Wiki, but most of the pages are pretty empty.

I imagine it could be highly valuable for many EAs to write up their reasoning about why they donate to the cause they do, and then publish these at some central location. I'm considering setting up a website to do this but I don't know if there would be sufficient interest.

I also think it would be great to have a centralized location, probably with both some general arguments about different cause areas and charities, and write-ups of individual decisions about donation and other forms of support. Unfortunately I just don't have time, but if you guys wanted to work on this some people in the Cause Prioritization Facebook group might help (perhaps Issa).

The biggest issue vis-a-vis changing one's mind about cause areas seems to me likely to be the routine epistemic difficulty of properly (deeply, charitably and effectively) considering opposing points of view (motivated reasoning, confirmation bias etc.). (Closest but not identical to 5).

So conducting Ideological Turing Tests on yourself seems to be the best solution to me. 3 seems a good idea too: you'd really need to work with someone with the other point of view for the ITT to be fruitful, I'm guessing. 1 seems much less useful. For me, giving a nominal sum to causes B and C, where I support cause A, would be about as fruitful as sending a nominal donation to a couple of conservative organisations (which I expect would not shift my views one whit).

The only thing I worry about with the ITT and deep investigation of alternative causes' arguments is that while these policies are very epistemically and morally virtuous, they seem extremely demanding. I don't go in for moral over-demandingness arguments, but I worry that becoming decently conversant with the arguments for a cause you don't yet agree with and thinking about it could require enormous amounts of time and that with anything less than enormous amounts of time and sincere effort invested, a person might do better to just defer to some authority. Alternatively, if you are really worried by apparent peer disagreement/lack of information, you could just split your donations between plausible-looking causes and exhort others to do the same. (This might be especially worthwhile if you think that people are unlikely to switch causes to the most rational, wholesale).

I really like the approach behind this post - too often EAs are hesitant to think about ways we can make use of our own psychology for pursuing altruism. It appears to some EAs that tricks like donating to a cause area (to avoid identifying too strongly in opposition to it) should not be part of a rationalist's toolkit. But accepting that we are all biased, and doing what we can to overcome those biases in favor of what we would rationally, reflectively endorse as the unbiased viewpoint, can only help us increase our effectiveness in pursuing our altruistic goals.

I like your idea of donating $20 in a number of different causes, and I think I'll follow through on that. For example I'm not opposed to the idea of working on existential risk but have spent relatively little time looking into X-risk charities and donating to them ($0 so far) compared to my primary areas of focus, poverty and animal rights.

In response to this article, I followed the advice in 1) and thought about where I'd donate in the animal suffering cause area, ending up donating $20 to New Harvest.


Perhaps the most important factor for helping me change my mind (about many things): exposure to conversation with someone much brighter than me who understands everything about my position, and still has different conclusions than me. It decreases overconfidence.

I recommend exposure to at least one such person every week.

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