Foreword November 2017
I wrote this article two-and-a-half years ago. Although I still agree with its points, I would write a somewhat different article today, in framing and substance.
On the framing, this article uses effective interventions to relieve global poverty as the main example of an idea one might to bring attention to. At the time this seemed the canonical central example for the effective altruism community, who were a good fraction of my audience. Even then I guessed it was not the most important idea to draw attention to, and I have become more confident since. Of course all of the arguments still apply to effective poverty interventions; I just wouldn't lend them so much implicit endorsement.
On the substance, I omitted an important consideration: that larger movements come with increased overhead costs for communication and coordination within the movements. Combined with diminishing returns from effort within an area, this reduces the value of making a movement very large: doubling the size might be substantially less than doubling the value. Moreover if one realizes that different people have different amounts to contribute to work on a given problem, the effect is that the value of bringing different types of people in varies significantly. The ideal for a given community might be to include as many as possible of the people who are very well placed to contribute, and not so many people beyond that so as not to impede coordination between that core. For some ideas or problems that might in practice mean quite a small community; for others a large one. The central example of global poverty made this omission less salient since it benefits from more supporters even when large.
Nonetheless, I think the original article contains useful ideas which I continue to make use of in my own thinking. I hope it remains useful to others.
Owen Cotton-Barratt, November 2017
Movement growth may be very important for young social movements. It’s obvious that movement building cannot always be better than direct work, but knowing how to compare them presents a challenge.
In this article I introduce and explore a model of movement growth which tracks individuals’ awareness of and inclination towards the movement. I aim to understand when movement building activities are better or worse than direct work, and apply the model to give my views on movement growth in the effective altruist and related communities.
Part 1: Theory
In the first half of this paper I introduce a model for thinking about movement growth, and terminology to refer to critical concepts. We model individuals as having varying levels of awareness about the movement, and varying inclinations towards it. We assume that these two characteristics can represent the major drivers of interaction with the movement. We explore the consequences of this Awareness/Inclination Model (AIM), particularly looking at the long-term counterfactual effects of direct work compared to ‘publicity’, which aims at increasing awareness of the movement, and ‘advocacy’, which aims at improving inclinations towards the movement. This involves analyzing different possible long-term trajectories the movement may be on.
If we accept the model, this has some general implications:
- For early-stage movements, the effects on movement growth are a key consideration in deciding between different activities. For relatively mature movements, direct work is usually better than movement growth.
- It is more important to focus on increasing awareness than improving inclination, if:
- the movement has a natural maximum size that we cannot change; or
- essentially everyone will join the movement after they know enough about it; or
- direct work earlier is much more important than direct work later; or
- it is very hard to change inclination relative to awareness.
- Otherwise improving inclination may often be better than increasing awareness (this is sensitive to beliefs about some parameters).
- It is particularly key to avoid being controversial and focus on improving inclination rather than increasing awareness, if:
- the views of people around them have a significant effect on the inclinations of people towards the movement; or
- the movement might plateau at a wide range of sizes, depending on how well-perceived it is; or
- building political consensus will be useful for the direct work.
Part 2: Application
In the second half of the paper, I apply the conceptual tools developed in Part 1 to answer questions about how to find the best work for the young effective altruism movement and related areas. The conclusions here are not certain, but represent my informed best judgement. Some of them are driven purely by qualitative considerations, and some are based in part on numerical estimates.
My conclusions are:
- Getting movement growth right is extremely important for effective altruism. Which activities to pursue should perhaps be governed even more by their effects on movement growth than by their direct effects.
- Increasing awareness of the movement is important, but increasing positive inclination is at least comparably important. Therefore we should generally:
- prefer advocacy to publicity;
- strive to take acts which are seen as good by societal standards as well as for the movement;
- avoid hostility or needless controversy.
- Direct work has a very important role to play in movement building. It is likely to increase positive inclination, by:
- Demonstrating commitment, and showing that the people engaged in the movement think the work is valuable;
- Increasing the credibility of the area by demonstrating that there is productive and valuable direct work that can be done.
- Within global poverty, work focusing on movement growth may be more effective than direct work for most people (at the margin today).
- Within areas that seem promising but do not have an established track record, direct work aimed at demonstrating that there are credible interventions may be one of the most effective forms of movement building.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Tom Ash, Daniel Dewey, Seb Farquhar, Michelle Hutchinson, Josh Jacobson, Toby Ord, and Kerry Vaughan for helpful conversations and comments.
Read the full article here.