Hi reader! This is the first post in a sequence I’m trying out, and I’m still figuring out how to present the findings I’m presenting, and making the posts useful to you. Please let me know if you have any ideas or suggestions on how to do this in the comments.
Epistemic Status: I am 100% sure people have told me what I’ve reported, but I am very unsure about their conclusions or the validity of their claims.
In my role as a community builder in Boston (and online) for the past year, I have heard the same theme/concern arise out of ~10 different conversations which I have had about the EA community with non-EAs. Unfortunately, none of them were willing to write this up themselves, but I felt that their views were significant enough that I would try and offer a very low-effort way for them to have their views shared, which they did think was important to do.
So what I’ve done here is (with permission) summarized and collated these concerns into a succinct couple of points which I hope will be taken into consideration with other points about EA community building and mental health within the EA community. I also hope that it might (even temporarily) cause us to pay closer attention to our own and our EA friends’ mental health.
For the sake of readability I am writing the first two sections in the voice of the collective of people who expressed these views - these are not my views (my views are the last two sections).
“EA as a Crutch
We don’t know many EAs (some of us know one, some of us know a couple, some of us have attended a house party or an event with EAs also in attendance) but those who we do know seem to have bad mental health, and don’t recognize it. One way we see this manifesting is that our EA friends seem to be more and more sucked-in to EA as their depression or anxiety gets worse - they spend more time with other EAs, or spend more time working long stints, and not seeking help. There are two ways this seems to work:
- EAs tend to focus on really drastic and dire topics and, by working on them, we think our friends are able to ‘justify’ their depression or anxiety as being a rational response to what they’re thinking about all the time.
- We think our EA friends are using discussions with other EAs (or within the EA community) and with us as a way of trying to address some of these issues instead of seeking professional therapy, which we think they need."
"How this relates to Selecting for “Rationalism”
We’ve come to think that EAs tend to lean in the direction of ‘emotionally inexpressive’, or ‘emotionally unaware’. We think this might be a trait which exists prior to people joining EA, rather than something happening to them as a result of joining EA. This seems important because of the way that rationalism seems to lead practitioners to try and engage with ‘heavy’ topics using logic and reason, rather than emotion, which one might then try to suppress in order to ‘become better’ at rational thinking.
We think the type of ‘emotional expressiveness’ we’re worried about is when someone is experiencing physiological pain or dealing with complex and uncomfortable emotions, but doesn't feel comfortable or articulate enough to ask for help or support. It seems like this could lead to very bad outcomes because it's likely that the types of causes EAs think about might make mental health worse, and then these friends get trapped in a downward spiral.
Another thing we think EA might be selecting for is people who are bad at conversing with normal people/having regular conversations. Whilst this is not a bad thing, it does likely mean that when a non-EA meets an EA, chances are that the EA is more likely to behave in a socially unpleasant way, which is probably not good for the public impression of EA, and what EAs are like - but more worryingly, what EA ‘does’ to people in it.”
My Commentary on these views
I think it's plausible that these claims are true. It's interesting to think about what “EA” selects for - we already think it's likely that it selects for people who have some background in economics and philosophy, wealthier people, and younger people, but we haven’t looked much into selection based on psychological or temperamental traits, as far as I know. The idea that EA selects for lower EQ or the presence of mental health issues seems like a massive and spurious claim, but it’d be super interesting to investigate. It’d be especially interesting if it was true that there is something about EA that selects for (or causes) poor social interaction or low personability, as this is something I think is a limiting factor in current outreach/community building efforts on the ground.
Notes on the methodology of this post
This is my first time trying to report on what is essentially a single-blind focus group on the forum, which is not something I think I've seen on the forum in general. That’s understandable, given how iffy and contentious most of the information and sourcing is, and how it's probably not epistemically sound.
There's a really good point there, I'll restate it: People act like the difficult problems in front of them are the reason for the low moods they are having. As a result of misidentifying the source of the their low mood, they try to solve the mood problem by pouring themselves into working on the issue, but this often just wont work.
I think this is resting on a common myth about human psychology. There actually doesn't need to be a relationship between the difficulty of the problems in front of us and our emotional affect, or energy levels. It's a nonsequitur. No matter what problem is in front of you, there's always something you can do, some next step to take (if you don't know what the next step is then the next step is figuring out the next step!), and if you are walking forward as well as you can, you should be able to take satisfaction in that. If not, it's a health thing.
Sometimes this is true! In which case I recommend contemplating "Detach the grim-o-meter."
Here's a separate error that I've made many times: People believe that their intellectual knowledge of the world's problems causes them to act a certain way, when in reality they act that way because of their mood.
I should elaborate the model a little: I think it's common to be have your mood influenced by the difficulty of problems (I've experienced that a lot), but it doesn't need to be, and this is usually a result of not respecting the problems enough to acknowledge that every small step towards solving them counts for a lot, or not having enough faith that you'll be able to continue making progress, or believing too much that you are trapped on a particular course.
Good post! I think that addressing these concerns is definitely important; I have recently updated based on some similar conversations that I have had that the non-EA perception of EA is worse than I thought for reasons like these. However, on the object level, while I think that the mental health and social skills claims are probably true, I would be very surprised if EA's were particularly bad at paying attention to their own feelings. Particularly in the Bay Area EA community, but AFAIK more broadly as well, I feel like there is a lot of focus on mental health, techniques like rationalist "focusing," meditation, IFS etc. to get you in touch with your feelings, and lots of community discourse about these topics. Similarly, there is a lot of community attentions to problems like EA being a social bubble, burnout, and other ways in which EA can become too all encompassing. Am I missing something?