Elitism often gets a bad rap. Its role in EA is complicated, and though it sometimes leaves a bad taste in our mouth, we think that elitism is better understood in shades of gray rather than black and white. In this post, we’ll look at when elitism can be useful in EA and when it can be detrimental. Hopefully, a more nuanced understanding of elitism and its benefits/drawbacks can lead to a more productive conversation around its place in community building.
A closer look
Elitism in EA usually manifests as a strong preference for hiring and funding people from top universities, companies, and other institutions where social power, competence, and wealth tend to concentrate. Although elitism can take many other forms, for our purposes, we’ll be using this definition moving forward.
We’ve categorized several traits in the following table by whether they’ll be selected for during prestigious recruiting/hiring processes, or whether they’ll be independent/selected against. Feel free to propose edits or other traits in the comments! We’ve found this table useful for thinking through situations when elitism may or may not be appropriate.
|Traits that elitism tends to select for||Traits that elitism tends to select against (or neutral)|
- Ambition/desire for power
- Self-motivation and self-regulation
- Academic/intellectual competence
- Possession of social power
- Access to resources
- Altruism/desire to help others
- Critical thinking
- Risk-taking/rebelliousness (e.g. choosing safer career options like finance, medicine, Big Tech)
Pros of elitist selection
Prestigious programs select for a baseline of traits EA generally looks for. Making something more elite in an academic context will draw in competent and ambitious talent. Given that impact is heavy-tailed, there are often several orders of magnitudes difference between the expected impact of median vs top percentile talent
2. Class and social selection
Elite selection (e.g. at top universities) will often select for people who have a baseline of financial stability. EA careers aren’t as stable as alternative career pathways for most people (e.g. teacher, doctor, researcher), and financial stability is an important prerequisite to getting more involved. It’s far easier to consider earning to give if you’re making $100k+ a year.
Edit: It’s challenging for students/workers from even middle-class families to give up several hours a week to preventing a far-off risk while struggling to pay off $50,000+ in student loans and support their families.
Cons of elitist selection
1. Optics and Demotivation
As EA becomes more mainstream, we should be careful with how EA’s image grows. An elitist reputation may kneecap recruitment efforts and the movement’s impact. Additionally, internal perceptions of EA may turn sour as conferences and organizations start being viewed as “only for the elite” vs. “open-to-all.” It can be incredibly demotivating being told that your potential for impact is far less than a select few.
2. Epistemics and Homogeneity
Recruiting from the same 10-20 universities who all have similar demographics makes it more likely to end up engaging in groupthink. This is problematic since novel and creative solutions are in high demand. Lack of diversity is also already a problem that EA struggles with, and promotes a self-perpetuating cycle.
Prestige doesn’t select for people who want to do the most good. This can be counteracted by recruitment processes that select more heavily for altruism and the self-selection effects of EA as a movement, but given the importance of strong value-alignment within EA, this is potentially damaging in the long-term.
Elitist selection will miss great people who haven’t had access to these elite institutions and environments. It might pass over the weird and non-traditional candidates, the ones who might be able to make the largest impact. It doesn’t really select for traits that we might want, such as risk-aversion, contrarianism, and agency. At the same time, no selection process is perfect, and it all depends on the specific situation and traits that we want to select for.
When is elitism appropriate?
There are many situations in which elitist recruitment processes can be instrumentally useful. Here are a few examples:
In these cases, elitism can be beneficial because specialized competence and leadership are key to being successful in senior roles (e.g. CEOs, senior AI engineers, research leads) and these are traits highly correlated with elite environments.
Many of the points in the previous example also apply here. The initial team of an organization often makes or breaks it, so this team should be especially competent, cohesive, self-driven, and well-financed. Having a strong network of elite connections and access to resources is also crucial for ambitious ventures.
On the other hand, things are more complicated when we consider the type of organization that is hiring and the traits they are looking for. For new AI research labs, selecting for prestige probably correlates with finding good cofounders. If the organization is pursuing a riskier approach, where technical expertise is less necessary, elitism might select against the kind of people you’re looking for.
University groups at early stages
Early stage university groups seem to follow a principle of recruiting every new member to become an exec. Though useful for the short-term, it potentially sacrifices the group’s effectiveness in the long-term. Disagreements may crop up, and it’s much harder to remove discordous team members after placing them in positions of power.
The initial team also benefits greatly from being highly competent and self-motivated.
“The original Mac team taught me that A-plus players like to work together, and they don't like it if you tolerate B-grade work.” — Steve Jobs
Field-specific conferences—such as an AI safety or a biosecurity conference—benefit from restricting the conference to those with expertise. This ensures that everyone in attendance can contribute to the conversations or otherwise will benefit greatly from being exposed to the content.
When is elitism unhelpful?
On the flip side, in many instances being elitist isn’t the best tool for the job, and won’t select for the desired traits:
Project funding and entrepreneurship
Groundbreaking entrepreneurship usually requires a good amount of altruistic instinct, risk-taking, and ability to think outside the status quo of what already exists/is likely to be successful. These traits don’t correlate that much with elite environments, and funding regular people within EA also gives them access to resources they are less likely to have access to compared to people in elite environments.
For entry-level positions (e.g. research interns, junior engineers) competence differences between those from elite and non-elite backgrounds matter less. Favoring non-elites at this level also gives them an opportunity to gain experience, which is generally easier for elites to obtain.
EAGx conferences and some EAGs
General conferences are a great place for new people to gain connections and opportunities within EA, and are probably most benefited by people who would otherwise not have opportunities to network with working professionals
Skills that make people good generalists/managers/assistants are not fully correlated with elite environments. For example, traits such as critical thinking and a sharp intuition are useful for generalists.
Discussions about elitism in EA have tended to refer to it as a trait or a characteristic that should either be built in or phased out of EA culture. This tends to create an all-or-nothing understanding of elitism as a concept. We think that instead framing elitism as a tool that can be useful in some circumstances and anti-useful in others is a more accurate and productive way of tracking how it fits into EA culture and best practices. Sparking more discussion about elitism and the attitudes that community-builders have towards it would be really valuable for mapping the current and future landscape of community building, so any and all comments are much appreciated!
In EA, there’s a pretty solid correlation between people who have started big and impactful projects and their origins in elite environments (Sam Bankman-Fried, Will MacAskill, Holden Karnofsky, etc.). Some of the most successful companies in the world (e.g. Google, Apple, Paypal) have historically also been quite selective and operate within a sphere of prestige.