Hide table of contents
"A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."
Attributed to Joseph Stalin.

(Epistemic status: speculative)

In this post, we argue that producing more emotionally appealing materials related to EA cause areas could yield some beneficial results. We present some possible research designs to assess the empirical validity of our claims, and call for EAs with a background in psychology to lead this research project.


In Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately, Yudkowsky argues that, if we want maximize our impact, we should be explicit about which of our "good deeds" we do with the intention of really helping the world to become a better place, and which are done in order for us to feel good about ourselves. By clearly separating these two types of actions, the argument goes, we could have both a larger positive impact on the world and get to feel even better about ourselves. We think that this is very valuable advice at the individual level. However, when considering the strategic approach the EA movement as a whole should have, we believe that merging warm fuzzies and utilons together, to some extent, might possibly be a good idea.

Some ideas in the Effective Altruism movement are a deliberate attempt to correct a market failure in the "market" of doing good. Some cause areas and interventions, due to a wide range of psychological biases, are less emotionally appealing than others, which means that, when left unchecked, they would receive less resources than what would be optimal, and the opposite holds for the more emotionally appealing causes. The approach EA usually seems to take is to acknowledge this phenomenon ("neglectedness" in the ITN framework) and try to reallocate resources to where they would be the most efficient, without directly taking into account the emotional appeal of the cause. In this post, we argue that a further step in correcting this failure could be to explicitly targeting emotional appeal when designing the marketing of these neglected cause areas, in a way that would attenuate, in part, the very characteristics that make the cause neglected on the first place. We hypothesize that while trying to focus explicitly on improving the emotional appeal of EA cause areas could make the movement easier to promote to non-EAs, a significant part of the benefits of this strategy could come from the effect of increased engagement of those who are already EAs. If this hypothesis is valid, increasing the emotional appeal of marketing materials in EA organizations could prove to be a cost-effective intervention.

In this post, we will develop this general idea in more detail. We will specify what kinds of interventions would fit what we have in mind, and we will present some potential upsides that these interventions might have. We have a simple idea in mind that should be empirically verified before being put into practice, and so we also tentatively present some research ideas that EAs with the necessary skills could pursue. We will also present some objections to our ideas and points of uncertainty as an important factor for our belief on the importance on further research. Finally, neither of us have a background in psychology, so take what is written here with a grain of salt.

Binding Fuzzies and Utilons

The hypothesis to be presented in this article is the following: explicitly focusing on increasing the emotional appeal in the marketing of EA organizations could prove to be a powerful tool to help move more resources towards these areas. As we will discuss in the next section, these could be both monetary and human resources, and we believe this effect could hold both for non-EAs and for EAs.

A striking anecdotal example of the role played by emotional appeal in EA versus non-EA charities can be seen by comparing the websites of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Against Malaria Foundation. Whereas AMF's website has a spartan aesthetic, emphasizing numbers and statistics, Make-A-Wish's website immediately presents visitors with a specific anecdote about a sick child, making use (knowingly or not) of the identifiable victim effect, a well-known bias in the scientific literature which states that people are more likely to be charitable towards a specific individual than towards members of a statistical class. We believe that this example is illustrative of a general trend in which conventional charities place a greater emphasis in emotional engagement, whereas EA organizations tend to present mostly quantitative results.

Obviously, we are not proposing that EA organizations should be any less rigorous when implementing their programs, nor are we suggesting that numbers should be hidden from EA web pages. What we are proposing is that, by also producing more emotional marketing material, these organizations could get people to engage both intellectually and emotionally with their material, thus increasing the benefits people have from dedicating themselves to the cause. In turn, this could lead people to be more motivated to work on the cause, increasing the amount of resources devoted to it.

Concretely, what could EA organizations learn from conventional charities in order to improve its emotional appeal? The space of possible actions that fit this description is, of course, very large. Here, we will limit ourselves to presenting a few, already existing materials from EA cause areas that illustrate the aforementioned idea, and thus show the kind of materials we believe should be produced more frequently if our hypothesis finds empirical support. Our examples will concern two main EA cause areas, namely longtermist causes and global health and development. We believe that the other main EA cause area, animal welfare, already produces enough emotional marketing content, as many organizations in this cause area target viewer engagement directly.

In the case of global health and development, there is one organization that appears to be an exception to the general trend we presented, which is GiveDirectly. Their website contains a section dedicated to sharing testimonies of beneficiaries. They also often share content on social media related to specific beneficiaries, or even about their empoloyees. Besides GiveDirectly, another example is The Life You Can Save's 3 minute introduction. Vividly sharing stories of individual beneficiaries can be a great tool for this cause area, and a good model for this could be the testimonies in the Humans of New York webpage.

For longtermist causes, we are even more unsure about the potential validity of this idea, since, by definition, there are no currently-existing beneficiaries that could share their testimonies. However, there are some materials that either provide an inspiring vision the future or a dystopia to be avoided, helping make the far future more concrete. Examples include Nick Bostrom's The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant (which has a video animation) and scifi works such as Max Tegmark's The Tale of the Omega Team. Two other examples worth mentioning are Wait But Why's The Road to Superintelligence, and Black Mirror episodes White Christmas and Black Museum.

Potential Upsides

Here, we present a list of potential upsides of increasing the emotional engagement of EA material, in order of decreasing confidence.

  • More donations: The scientific literature on the identifiable victim effect shows that exploiting a specific cognitive bias can lead to increased willingness to donate, as can be seen in the meta-analysis by Lee and Feeley (2016).
  • More EA members: The increased willingness to donate mentioned by Lee and Feeley (2016) is also logically linked to attracting more members to the EA movement, although the long-term nature of commitment to a movement makes generalizing results more difficult.
  • More, faster engagement: We can speculate from the identifiable victim effect literature that, just as people are willing to donate larger amounts to charity, it may occur that people may become engaged in EA causes more easily and faster if the emotional connection to the causes is increased. However, as far as we know, this possible phenomenon has not been studied in the literature.
  • More productivity for EA workers: Grant et al. (2007) and Grant (2008) provide evidence that increasing emotional engagement can increase worker productivity, with large effect sizes. However, the lack of replications or other research about this topic make us wary of this finding.

Research Ideas

We tentatively suggest a few possible research approaches that could be undertaken as to ascertain the effects of interventions in the space mentioned above. Our goal is to give researchers in the area some ideas for further developing this project, and not for these ideas to be strictly followed. We lack a reasonable background in psychology and experiment design, so we are very uncertain about the quality of our proposals and welcome suggestions and criticism.

We believe a promising research design would be to try to assess the impact of an emotionally engaging marketing material on the motivation of people who already donate to EA organizations. A researcher, together with an EA organization, would prepare an emotionally engaging material, such as a video where a beneficiary from the EA organization tells how the aid changed their life. This material would then be randomly sent to half of the donors of that organization in the follow-up email after a donation. The follow-up email to all donors would also contain an explanation that the organization is doing an assessment of the motivation of its donors, and a link to a questionnaire for those who want to help this assessment. The linked questionnaire would be designed by the researcher in order to assess the impact of the intervention on, for example, the perceived importance of the cause, or the intention to donate to the organization in the future.

To get a more direct relationship with the EA movement, the research could be carried out with the aid of local EA groups. The groups could change their typical introductory material (or their follow-up email after an EA introductory presentation) to include emotionally appealing content in some cases, or it could present emotionally appealing content to randomly chosen group members.

Many other research designs are possible, with varying degrees of rigorousness, such as using Amazon Mechanical Turk to do a similar experiment to the first design we proposed, or estimating the first-difference or difference-in-differences impact of this kind of intervention by EA organizations with already existing data. Also, simply studying marketing strategies in the charity sector could provide valuable insights.

Objections and potential downsides

We have considered a few important objections to further study and applications of the interventions detailed in this post. The first, and perhaps most important one, is the possibility of organizational value drift. Part of the reason EA organizations do not focus too much on emotional appeal is that they heavily emphasize maximizing the effectiveness of their interventions. A move towards higher emotional appeal mean they would have to reduce somewhat their resources dedicated to maximizing effectiveness, especially in the short run, and the appropriate balance may be hard to reach. More importantly, if more emotional appeal brings in significant additional donations, these organizations may be tempted to invest more resources in marketing than what would be ideal, which over time could lead the organization to become less effective. Independent evaluation by e.g. GiveWell may be able to restrain this process to some extent, but nonetheless we believe this could pose a key threat. We are very uncertain about the likelihood of such an outcome.

The second objection is related to the first, and has to do with value drift at a personal level. The added emphasis on emotional appeal may have negative effects on the broader EA community by making members focus less on effectiveness, and potentially leading to value drift. An informal study on the retention rates of the EA movement suggests that EA values are not so stable, and, therefore, we should not assume that value drift is very unlikely a priori. Additionally, making introductory EA material more emotionally engaging may select for new EA members that are less focused on effectiveness.

Finally, this increased emphasis on emotional engagement may change the dynamic of movement of EAs between cause areas. In particular, an increased focus on emotional appeal may reduce interest for longtermist causes, as it may be hard to produce emotional content for this area. However, since they are currently less emotionally compelling for most, the marginal effect of improving their emotional engagement may be larger for these causes. We are very uncertain about the effect of these changes on the EA movement.


It is very common for mainstream charities to be able to generate a "warm glow" in their supporters, and, so far, it seems that this aspect is mostly missing when it comes to Effective Altruism. We hope this post was successful in presenting why investing more in this type of intervention may or may not be a promising path towards improving the overall impact of the EA movement. As we tried to emphasize, the current degree of uncertainty is still very large, especially given the objections in the previous section. Therefore, we would not recommend charities to make large investments in this direction. Inexpensive interventions, such as compiling already-existing material, could be a viable path for now, and we would not see much trouble in a few EA members trying to individually explore whether engaging with emotionally appealing material appears to help their motivation.

In our opinion, based on the evidence presented here, more research is essential, and we believe that is the most promising next step from where we are now. Unfortunately, we are not psychologists and, as such, are not qualified enough to produce the required high quality research. Therefore, we would like to see more expert attention to this area.


We would like to thank Aaron Gertler, Chloe Malone, and Lucius Caviola for their helpful comments and suggestions. All mistakes in the post are ours.


A. M. Grant. The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of applied psychology, 93(1):108, 2008.

A. M. Grant, E. M. Campbell, G. Chen, K. Cottone, D. Lapedis, and K. Lee. Impact and the art of motivation maintenance: The effects of contact with beneficiaries on persistence behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 103(1):53–67, 2007.

S. Lee and T. H. Feeley. The identifiable victim effect: A meta-analytic review. Social Influence, 11(3):199–215, 2016.





More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Anecdotally, The Precipice played a huge part in getting me into longtermism because it combined philosophical arguments with emotional appeal: "Trillions of lives are at stake. Save them." "We need to do right by our ancestors." "Everything you care about is at stake. Protect our future." I think it's likely that the book's emotional weight will be a major factor in its persuasiveness.

Post summary (feel free to suggest edits!):
Some interventions are neglected because they have less emotional appeal. EA typically tackles this by redirecting more resources there. The authors suggest we should also tackle the cause, by designing marketing to make them more emotionally appealing. This could generate significant funding, more EA members, and faster engagement.

As an example, the Make-A-Wish website presents specific anecdotes about a sick child, while the Against Malaria Foundation website focuses on statistics. Psychology shows the former is more effective at generating charitable behavior.

Downsides include potential organizational and personal value drift, and reduction in relative funding for Longtermist areas if these are harder to produce emotional content for. They have high uncertainty and suggest a few initial research directions that EAs with a background in psychology could take to develop this further.

(If you'd like to see more summaries of top EA and LW forum posts, check out the Weekly Summaries series.)

(tldr: We might not be psychologically capable of handling highly emotionally compelling portrayals of our largest-scope, most important cause areas.)

Eleni & Luis -- this is a fascinating and thoughtful post, and raises some insightful pros and cons of EA adopting more mainstream emotionally appealing marketing & PR methods.

As someone who's worked in psychology for almost 40 years, and done a fair amount of consulting with market research companies, ad agencies, and consumer product companies, I support the general idea of some EAs becoming a bit more familiar with the psychology of persuasion, marketing, and influence.

However, I want to point out another possible downside of turning our rational interest in tractable, neglected, scope-sensitive problems into more emotionally compelling images and narratives.

The key problem is that a lot of EA deals with such large-scope problems (e.g. animal suffering, nuclear war, pandemics, longtermist cosmic stakes) that any emotionally impactful, truly compelling, highly memorable presentation of these problems could be extremely depressing, psychologically paralyzing, and traumatically damaging. It would be like being trapped in the 'Total Perspective Vortex' in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.

I think the current EA messaging/influence strategies embody a  tacit understanding that we're willing to engage with large-scope problems that would seem utterly overwhelming if we really felt the true suffering impact of the problems we're fighting against, all day, every day. 

Other charities have the luxury of presenting their relatively small-scale cause areas using emotionally compelling narratives, precisely because ordinary people can handle the scale of those problems without losing their sanity. For example, the Make a Wish Foundation highlights the suffering of individual kids with terminal illnesses; that's sad, tragic, and poignant, but emotionally engaging with their plight isn't psychologically crippling. 

By contrast, any truly emotionally compelling portrayals I've seen of truly large-scope, high-stakes, global-scale or cosmic-scale EA cause areas might be so traumatizing to most people that they'd become counter-productive. Just as our brains didn't evolve to reason clearly about how to reduce suffering beyond the scale of prehistoric hominid clans, our brains might not be prepared to handle emotionally compelling presentations of suffering beyond that scale. 

Consider some specific examples. 

Wild animal suffering: In my 'Psychology of Effective Altruism' class, I've learned that I simply can't assign students the Brian Tomasik essay on wild animal suffering, because it can induce serious depression, extreme anxiety, and even panic attacks. It's  just too emotionally compelling, and the scale of the problem is too overwhelming. Similar considerations apply for sharing with students any truly compelling depictions of animal suffering under factory farming. (Vegan activists have learned from bitter experience that there's an optimal degree of factory farming gore that they can show to non-vegans to convince them to give up meat, and that degree is non-zero, but it's not very high.)

S-risks: the Black Mirror episode 'White Christmas', which depicts a future in which uploaded criminals are tormented in virtual hells for many subjective millennia, is simply too distressing for most people to handle; it haunts their dreams for weeks. I still wish I'd never seen it. (The Iain M. Banks novel 'Surface Detail' (2010) raises similar issues.) The S-risks of virtual hells are very important to consider, but it might be most productive to consider those issues at a somewhat abstract, rational level, rather than a truly visceral level.

Nuclear war: Most people have seen science fiction movie depictions of global thermonuclear war, which induce varying levels of fear, horror, disgust, and dread. But very few movies, TV series, books, etc really try to capture the full scope and scale of the impact on a nuclear holocaust on billions of people. Any such attempt would simply be too depressing and horrifying to engage with. (Consider also movies like The Road (2009) that try to do an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of post-apocalyptic life -- they're often praised by critics, but rarely re-watched by ordinary folks.)

In short, I think a distinctive strength of EA is that we can set aside the highly emotive portrayals of the largest-scope cause areas that we rationally know are most important. We can keep the suffering impacts of these cause areas off to the side, in our peripheral vision, so to speak, with some degree of awareness -- but without the paralyzing level of emotional response that we'd feel if they were always front and center in our imaginations. 

I would caveat this point in two ways.

First, there can still be crucial roles for positive, inspirational, optimistic portrayals of success in solving various large-scope problems -- e.g. how awesome life would be if we solved longevity, achieved nuclear security, promoted happier animal lives, and secured a great long-term future for our descendants. I think Nick Bostrom's Letter from Utopia is a good example of this genre. We need more such fictions and inspiring tales of success. Engaging with our positive emotions can be great; relying on negative emotions elicited by accounts of mass suffering  can be much trickier.

Second, at the outreach level of recruiting talent and money, some slightly more emotionally compelling narratives and influence methods could be useful. We just have to pitch them very carefully -- eliciting an optimal degree of concern that's somewhere in the middle between apathetic indifference and paralyzing horror. And discovering those optimal degrees of concern, as the original post mentioned, is very much a matter for empirical psychological research, rather than armchair reasoning. 

Thanks for the detailed comment, Geoffrey! 

First off, there is a point worth clarifying here. Scope insensitivity makes it impossible to have feelings that adequately scale with the number of beings affected, and I don't think that there is much that can be done here (sidenote: this Wait But Why post and its sequel are the best ways I'm aware of to try to get an intuitive sense for the magnitude of large numbers). On the other hand, we can get a very good sense for the intensity of suffering in situations that are presented to us, which is what you point out as being the problematic part.

My sense is that it would be a really bad idea to try to get people to have a very intuitive grasp of intense suffering, for all of the problems you point out. I think that maybe the idea here is to try to give people some sense for it, but in a very small dose, which is sufficient to allow people to relate to other's suffering but not nearly enough to cause them harm. Of course, there isn't a right level for everyone (I think that watching the White Christmas/Black Museum episodes of Black Mirror was an adequate level of this for me, in that sense), but I think that a small enough dose here would be beneficial, and my claim is that this dose can be higher than simply "hundreds of thousands of people die of malaria every year". Make-a-Wish does make some effort into describing the children's situation, but they don't go as far as describing the details of their suffering in a way that could be traumatizing, even though that's possible to do in many cases. 

And yes, there are definitely ways to frame this in a more positive and inspirational way, which I strongly favor!

I agree with the main premise of this post and I have been thinking about this a lot for the last few months. Having said that, I think this marketing strategies should be utilized mostly within charities that are EA aligned, and not within EA itself.

A very strong case for producing more emotional content is that there is already an X amount of money donated by people, and it's better that this money goes to effective charities than in-effective charities. I think this is also very important to do this in "saturated markets" that get a lot of donations, simply because all we will need to do is re-direct funds to better charities, in oppose to telling people why the cause area is important in the first place.

I do think that this is some kind of blind spot within EA. If we really want to do the most good and be as effective as we can be at doing good, we can not strictly rely on the work and donations of the minority who will be drawn to the core ideas of EA. The entrance of effective charities to the regular-people donation market is, in my opinion, a no-brainer, though i'm not sure when and how this should happen.

What I do think is very important is that there will be a clear separation between EA and EA aligned non-profits to avoid harming the culture within EA, and also making sure that the marketing of foundations that are related to us stays honest and "morally sound".

To summarize, I would aim to keep EA relatively small (but maybe more inviting than it is right now) and harness the power of EA - the framework of finding the best opportunities to do good - to redirect donors and volunteers to better, more effective charities. If the way to do this is more emotional marketing, than emotional marketing it is. The means definitely justify the cause in my opinion.

I wouldn't necessarily think investing in the marketing of EA orgs is a no-brainer. The comparative advantage of EA orgs is that they are effective, but overall they don't fare very well when it comes to emotional appeal. Investing more explicitly in emotionally appealing marketing could help them somewhat, but the biggest and more well funded traditional charities already optimize to a large extent in appealing to people, so I think it would be very hard for EA non-profits to compete in that front. Therefore, even with this kind of marketing, I doubt it would be able to make these orgs get significantly more funding from non-EAs.

What I think could be the main advantage of EA non-profits spending money on emotionally appealing marketing is that it could help people who are already interested in effectiveness to get more motivated for the cause. This includes both non-EAs who are interested in EA ideas, but it could also include people who are members of the movement, because this emotional connection could have a boosting effect on their motivation that volunteers of traditional charities usually already have. In turn, if what we are proposing in the post is successful, it could be the case that this gain in motivation by EAs and EA-aligned people would lead them be more eager to learn more about EA, donate more, and maybe even change their career plans to work on EA cause areas.

First of all, I want to make clear that entering the broader market of charities can simply mean a different website design - I don't know how this should play out, and I believe that we need to be very careful to spend budgets, but I do think that there could be a way for organizations to be both appealing for EA's and non EA's without investing too much on marketing. It doesn't necessarily mean competing with big, well-funded charities that spend enormous amounts of money on marketing, it could simply mean learning what they do well and implementing small changes to at least be easier for me and you to convince our friends to donate to effective charities.

Furthermore, I want to refer to the second point you've raised - I also think that emotional appeal can boost the motivation within EA's. Things like GDlive give me a boost in motivation, not because the numbers are not sufficient to make a strong case but simply because there are some EA's, like me, that are more feeling-oriented than other EA's and I personally want them on board as well.

In turn, if what we are proposing in the post is successful, it could be the case that this gain in motivation by EAs and EA-aligned people would lead them be more eager to learn more about EA, donate more, and maybe even change their career plans to work on EA cause areas.

I think that alone can be a good enough reason to make an effort to seem more emotionally appealing.

Agreed! I think our views on the issue are quite similar then :)

Although I'm all for variance in opinions within the community, in the case of outreach and marketing I'm kind of happy that we do (:

More from eleni
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities