Binding Fuzzies and Utilons Together

by guicosta, LuisMota7 min read25th Apr 20206 comments

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

Written by Luís Mota and Guilhermo Costa.

(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.

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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.

Acknowledgments

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.

Bibliography

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.

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