Being Vocal About What Works

by aaronmayer7 min read8th May 20217 comments

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I’ve been a vegetarian (nearly vegan) for 6 years.

As veteran vegetarians (vetereginarians?) know, vitamin B12 isn’t really found in plants, and so people who don’t eat animals are often deficient in this important nutrient.

I’m not exactly sure how this information eluded me for all this time, but I only found out about the whole B12 thing a few months ago…

An EA friend of mine gently told me “Aaron, I’m really glad you’re a vegetarian, but that means you gotta take B12 supplements.”

He told this to me out of a good natured desire to help me. He knew something about health and wellbeing that I didn’t know, and he told me about B12 because he likes me and wants what’s best for me.

We do this for our friends all time.

If we stumble on a wellness routine that improves our health and happiness, we (rightly) evangelize it to others.

The same is true of book recommendations, restaurant suggestions, and a litany of other areas in which we give advice to our friends — not pejoratively or paternalistically, but from a desire to see our friends flourish.

However, I’ve noticed that not all advice is not readily shared.

Investment advice falls into this category, and I’m often surprised by how cagey people can be when talking about the stocks they invest in. At first I thought that being secretive might be a competitive advantage when picking stocks, but telling people won’t influence the price of the stock by much (if at all), so I can’t see why we shouldn’t at least tell our friends when we’ve found investment opportunities that work.

Similarly, I take drugs that I believe will have a measurable impact on my healthspan (sometimes called anti-aging drugs). I would love for my friends to take these drugs too since I want them to live long, healthy lives, but I’m reticent to bring it up in conversation because I fear my friends would raise an eyebrow and think I’m a weirdo (which is accurate, I guess 😅).

So I’m left with conflicting impulses: on one hand, I feel compelled to share the practices and habits and routines in my life that make me feel healthy, wealthy, and wise; on the other hand, I don’t want to seem like a paternalistic braggart or an annoyingly evangelical weirdo.

It seems as if there’s a reticence-evangelism spectrum on which certain practices tend to fall. Taking B12: evangelical. Stock picks: reticent. Favorite brand of tea: evangelical. Favorite brand of sex toys: reticent.

But for suggestions, advice, and recommendations that we have good reason to believe will truly and directly enhance the lives of our friends and family, is this reticence justified?

I’m going to make an argument that I don’t think it is.


If you know anything about Effective Altruism, you’re familiar with Peter Singer’s drowning child thought experiment. The central message is that if you can significantly help someone at relatively little cost, then you ought to help that person.

I think the same can be said of good advice.

The cost of giving advice is practically non-existent, and if we have evidence to suggest that someone following our advice would increase the amount of global happiness, then it stands to reason that we ought to be quite vocal about that advice. There may be some slight discomfort in the moment if the advice is given poorly (i.e. you could come across as preachy and take a hit to your social capital), but if done in good faith, anyone can plainly tell when earnest advice is given with sincere desire to see others thrive.

I’ll share an example from my life about gratitude journaling.

So grateful for gratitude

There is ample scientific evidence to suggest a correlation between gratitude journaling and increased levels of self-reported well-being (and fewer instances of depression and anxiety).

My friend Max told me about his experience with gratitude journaling and how he felt it positively impacted his life, and so I tried it myself after he urged me to give it a shot.

I am so grateful that I have a gratitude journal in my life now! 🙏

I add a few items to it every day, and it really has made a big difference. I feel happier and more mindful of the positive things in my life. Also, I sometimes change my behavior in order to be able to add to my gratitude journal, like closing my laptop so I can watch the sunset. Whether it’s the sunsets or the journaling that’s making me happier is irrelevant — in either case, gratitude journaling is having a constructive influence on my life.

If Max hadn’t been as evangelical, I might not have taken up the practice, or maybe it would have been a few more months or years until I started gratitude journaling. There’s no way to know for sure, but I can say with certainty that Max improved my life, if only by catalyzing a good ritual that’s led to my betterment. I’ve since become an advocate for gratitude journaling myself, and I’ve had friends thank me several months after I shared the advice who told me how the practice has had a noticeable impact on their lives.

So the good word spreads, and we adopt practices and behaviors that enrich us. We share these suggestions not out of paternalism, but out of love.

And now for the pitch: I think Effective Altruism deserves to be shared more readily.

EA has radically improved my sense of well-being. For me, I feel pride and joy by donating to causes that I know will have a major impact on other people’s lives, and I feel intellectually energized by the discussions I have with the other members of the EA community.

If you’re an EA like I am, I suspect that EA has improved your life, too. Maybe you’ve attended an EA speaker event , or you’ve made a contribution to a GiveWell charity, or you’ve met some cool people through online socials. In any case, you’ve benefited from EA, and it’s a practice/community that promotes your sense of fulfillment and adds to the joy you feel in life. You probably wouldn’t consider yourself an EA if it didn’t improve your life.

Put simply, EA helps people flourish.

Why, then, should we be reticent to share what is in fact a source of great richness in our lives?

I don’t think we ought to be so demure — if we practice a set a values that makes us feel fulfilled, then let’s encourage others to at least try it out for themselves. It’s good when people take B12, it’s good when people keep a gratitude journal, and it’s good when people are Effective Altruists. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and there’s no reason to be coy about something that makes us feel better.

How do I put this into practice? My approach is to push myself to be 10% more vocal about EA.

With care and sensitivity, I bring up Effective Altruism 10% sooner than I ordinarily would in conversations with new people. Out of every ten friends of mine, I pick one who I think is most likely to be receptive, and bring it up with them. I’m 10% more eager to share an 80,000 Hours podcast episode with people. Etc.

Obviously, how eagerly we disclose certain types of information will depend on our relative closeness with the people we’re speaking to. I’ll be much more likely to bring up EA with my family than with my coworkers, and for some people, they might feel the reverse. 

Be judicious, and don’t barge into your next conversation with guns blazing shouting “Have you heard about the impending robot apocalypse?!”

But for the people who listen to us and respect our judgement, let’s share what’s worked well in our lives without expectation that they follow suit. We should be open and honest that EA is an unfinished project and that it’s an ongoing quest to figure out how to do the most good we can. At its core, EA really isn’t as objectionable as we sometimes mythologize it to be.

As a community, we as Effective Altruists have stumbled onto something that works, both for the world and for us as individuals. We shouldn’t feel unduly reticent to talk openly about a practice that, at its core, is about being kind. The world could use a lot more kindness, and so we don’t have to hold ourselves back or feel nervous about sharing our experiences honestly. 

If a friend of yours donates to the Against Malaria Foundation thanks to your encouragement, then you’ve done far more than just ensure that someone in need gets a mosquito net: you’ve helped your friend feel enriched and fulfilled, too.

When we unlock the altruism in others, we give the gift of giving.

And that could be the most altruistic thing we ever do.

 

[Cross-posted on Medium and Substack]

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You probably wouldn’t consider yourself an EA if it didn’t improve your life.

I don't think EAs should keep doing things that make them miserable (as with the noisy housing example someone gives below), but I don't think personal benefit is or should be the main reason to do EA. I'm not a fan of the obligation/excitement dichotomy because I feel some of both, but the word that fits best to me is "determination."

I get benefits from being part of EA, like friendships with smart and caring people. But there are other smart and caring people I could have met in other communities, and I'd probably be personally a bit happier if I made some other community my main focus, one with less emphasis on animal suffering and existential risk.

To paraphrase a Greg Lewis piece, it would be surprising if the community that's best for improving the world is also best for my personal satisfaction. I've chosen to make this community my main focus because I think it lets me make progress on problems in the world, and it also feels sustainable for me to do so (even though not the most enjoyable thing I could focus on). And part of what makes it sustainable is also having family/parenting as the other major focus in my life, so that EA is not the only thing going on for me.

I am not sure Effective Altruism has been a net hedonic positive for me. In fact, I think it has not been. 

Recently in order to save money to donate more, I chose to live in very cheap housing in California. This resulted in many serious problems. Looking back arguably the biggest problem was the noise. If you cram a bunch of people into a house it's going to be noisy.  This very badly affected my mental health. There were other issues as well. My wife and I could have afforded a much more expensive place. That would have been money very well spent. I was really quite miserable. 

During the 2017 crypto bull run, I held a decent amount of ETH. Pretty close to the top I gave away half since I felt like I had hit a huge windfall. Of course, ETH crashed to around 87 from a high of 1400. So I ended up not as rich as I thought. It didn't help that I handled the bear market poorly. Maybe it was good that I donated the ETH instead of selling it for far less. But maybe I would have handled the bear market better had I kept more ETH or cashed some out for myself. 

 In the end, things went fine for me. But the decision to donate so much at the top really haunted me for years. Of course, I did not donate 10%. A 10% donation threshold would mean donating 10% of the ETH I cashed out (potentially 0 dollars). Until you sell you don't have any taxable income. I have again donated all the crypto I cashed out. But this time I have donated a much smaller percentage of my bankroll. 

I am also quite terrified of the singularity. It has not been easy for me to deal with the 'singularity is near' arguments I hear in the rationality and EA communities.

Of course, I think my involvement with EA has been positive for the world. In addition to donations, I gave some money to some poorer friends. They certainly appreciated it. But effective altruism has not been an easy road.

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I think it's valuable to get anecdata on downsides so people have clearer expectations going in.

I think the common factor, among forms of advice that people are hesitant to give, is that they involve some risk. So if, for example, I recommend a supplement and it causes a health problem, or I recommend a stock and it crashes, there's some worry about blame. If the supplement helps, or the stock rises, there's some possibility of getting credit; but, in typical social relationships, the risk of blame is a larger concern than the possibility of credit, which makes people more than optimally hesitant.

I like this framing a lot - not seeing EA (or any kind of moral imperative) as a sacrifice but something that can be additive/fulfilling is crucial, I think.

However, I want to add a cautionary note against only focusing on the positives of spreading/joining the EA community. I don't think you intended to suggest that at all, but in my experience EA can exacerbate perfectionist tendencies in a way that is deleterious to mental health, and being aware of that might be important in ensuring that spreading EA leads to fulfillment. I think this can be mitigated by emphasizing the social aspect and encouraging people to view EA as a community instead of purely a framework/standard. Fortunately your point lends itself well to this, since spreading word of EA to one's friends is inherently social!

Peter Hurford made a related argument in To Inspire People to Give, Be Public About Your Giving, though it's more focused on maximizing impact vs helping your friends find fulfillment.

I like this post, thanks for writing!

I often consider two things when giving advice: (1) the quality of the advice and (2) my relationship with the person to whom I'm giving advice. Point (1) seems natural: by default, ideas are cheap and we shouldn't necessarily share them. The more an idea has helped me, the more readily I'll share it. Also, +1 to the risk aspect that jimrandomh mentioned.

Regarding point (2): I think that we need to somehow earn the right to speak into the lives of others. Advice is often demanding, as in "I think you should do X". Advice without a good relationship to the other person is just advertising or propaganda, and I'm skeptical when strangers give me advice. However, once I know and respect someone, that person has earned the right to give me advice, and I'll be ready and happy to follow it.