When I first started donating, I did so anonymously. My default is to be humble and avoid showing off. I didn’t want others around me to think that I have a stuffed head and hold too high an opinion of myself. I also didn’t want them to judge my giving decisions, as some may have judged them negatively. I also had cached patterns of associating sharing about my good deeds publicly with feelings that I get from commercials, of self-promotion and sleaziness.
I wish I had known back then that I could have done much more good by publicizing my donations and other goods deeds, such as signing the Giving What We Can Pledge to donate 10% of my income to effective charities.
Why did I change my mind about being public? Let me share a bit of my background to give you the appropriate context.
As long as I can remember, I have been interested in analyzing how and why individuals and groups evaluated their environment and made their decisions to reach their goals – rational thinking. This topic became the focus of my research as a professor at Ohio State in the history of science, studying the intersection of psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, and other fields.
While most of my colleagues focused on research, I grew more passionate about sharing my knowledge with others, focusing my efforts on high-quality, innovative teaching. I perceived my work as cognitive altruism, sharing my knowledge about rational thinking, and students expressed much appreciation for my focus on helping them make better decisions in their lives. Separately, I engaged in anonymous donations to causes such as poverty alleviation.
Yet over time, I realized that by teaching only in the classroom, I would have a very limited impact, since my students were only a small minority of the population I could potentially reach. I began to consult academic literature on how to spread my knowledge broadly. Through reading classics in the field of social influence such as Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Made To Stick, I learned a great many strategies to multiply the impact of my cognitive altruism work, as well as my charitable giving.
One of the most important lessons was the value of being public about my activities. Both Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and subsequent research showed that our peers deeply impact our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We tend to evaluate ourselves based on what our peers think of us, and try to model behaviors that will cause others to have positive opinions about us. This applies not only to in-person meetings, but also online communities.
A related phenomenon, social proof, illustrates how we evaluate appropriate behavior based on how we see others behaving. However, research also shows that people who exhibit more beneficial behaviors tend to avoid expressing themselves to those with less beneficial behaviors, resulting in overall social harm.
Learning about the importance of being public, including in online communities that reach far more people than in-person communities, especially by people engaging in socially beneficial habits, led to a deep transformation in my civic engagement. While it was not easy to overcome my shyness, I realized I had to do it if I wanted to optimize my positive impact on the world – both in cognitive altruism and in effective giving.
I shared this journey of learning and transformation with my wife, Agnes Vishnevkin, an MBA and non-profit professional. Together, we decided to co-found a nonprofit dedicated to spreading rational thinking and effective giving to a broad audience using research-based strategies for maximizing social impact, Intentional Insights. Uniting with others committed to this mission, we write articles, blogs, make videos, author books, program apps, and collaborate with other organizations to share these ideas widely.
I also rely on research to make other decisions, such as my decision to take the Giving What We Can pledge. The strategy of precommitment is key here – we make a decision in a state where we have the time to consider their consequences in the long term, and specifically wish to constrain the options of our future selves. That way, we can plan within a narrowed range of options and make the best possible use of the resources available to us.
Thus, I can plan to live on 90% of my income over my lifetime, and plan to decrease some of my spending in the long term so that I can give to charities that I believe are most effective for making the kind of impact I want to see in the world.
Knowing about the importance of publicizing my good deeds and commitments, I recognize that I can do much more good by sharing my decision to take the pledge with others. All of us have friends, and the large majority of us have social media channels and we all have the power to be public about our good deeds. You can also consider fundraising for effective charities, and being an advocate for effective altruism in your community.
According to the scholarly literature, by being public about our good deeds we can bring about much good in the world. Even though it may not feel as tangible as direct donations, sharing with others about our good deeds and supporting others doing so may in the end allow us to do even more good.