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.
I'm so excited by all the recent public discussion about movement building. It's really encouraging to see so many brilliant people investing their time and energy into this neglected area.
That being said, I am concerned that we are reinventing the wheel, and ignoring a substantial body of empirical and theoretical work that has already been done on the subject.
Why are we starting from scratch and developing novel theories of social change? Why are we focusing on mathematics and philosophy instead of academic sociology research? I'm not an expert but, I'm familiar enough to know that lots of other smart people have studied the issues addressed in this paper. Lots of people are interested the growth and strategy of social movements.
If we were talking about ending global poverty, we would not be postulating new models of economic development. Why should we demand any less empirical/academic rigor in the context of movement building? Why are we so willing to trust our intuitions here?
I think there are two common reasons for ignoring academic sociology research here (but both of them are pretty weak):
To address the first point, I think that we have to consider "EA expert overconfidence" bias. As Rob Wiblin has pointed out, people who are experts in one area are often radically overconfident in other areas. I think EAs succumb to this pretty severely: we are all so shocked (rightly so) at how much cause prioritization is neglected by smart people that we think we have to basically do everything from scratch. But this isn't quite right. We need to distinguish between "effective means" and "effective ends." EA's might be world leaders when it comes to thinking about effective ends (i.e. worthwhile causes like global poverty, animal suffering, far future suffering etc.) but we have no reason to think we are superior when it comes to effective means. Smart people have been trying to understand the spread of ideas and the grow movements for a long time. We should be shocked if there isn't at least some good work done on the subject. My own shallow research has left me convinced that there is a lot of good stuff out there. Even though sociology has the reputation for being less rigorous than economics, there is a lot of serious, rigorous empirical and theoretical work out there.
I think the second point is also not a huge issue. First, lots of other social movements have faced the problem of maintain a broad base of support in the face of ever-changing goals/priorities (political parties and religions seem like good examples). But more importantly, even if we are unique in this regard, it seems that many of the big questions in movement building apply equally well to either case.
Ultimately, if I was GPP, I would try to convene a working group of non-EA academic experts on social movements before trying to do any more original thinking on the issue.
I mostly agree with this. No need to reinvent the wheel, and armchair theorizing is so tempting, while sorting through the literature can be painful. But I will say your reason #1 (the typical sociological research is of very poor quality) leads to a second effect: scouring the literature for the useful bits (of which I am sure there is plenty) is very difficult and time consuming.
I can tell you that when financial quants want to make money, they spend some time reading the academic literature on the market, but they are often very critical of its quality and usefulness for real-life decisions.
So what we really need are people to say "this particular topic was already addressed by this particular reference". Too often, the criticism to reinventing the wheel is "you should just read this vaguely defined body of work, most of which is inapplicable".
Note that we're not planning for this to be a focus area for GPP. We saw an opportunity to do something fairly quickly as it was based on existing insights that have come up in a few areas (the natural length of the paper expanded as I wrote it, and it ended up taking probably one to two weeks).
The main aim of this work was to give people in this community better tools for thinking about the counterfactual value of marginal movement-growing efforts. It should be complementary to empirical work; it might both help to interpret data, and to identify valuable information to seek out. I've been in quite a few conversations where people were unsure about how to count the value of attracting someone to the movement, even in principle. (There is also quite a lot of speculation in Part 2 of the paper, clearly flagged as such -- this was expanded because readers of earlier drafts wanted more examples of how to interpret the concepts.)
I think it's plausible this is covered in existing research, and would be very happy to discover it if so. I did look, but not deeply; I also spoke to people at EAO who had looked into more of the literature on social movements and were still wondering about these questions. I wouldn't be shocked if it isn't, though. I think EAs are unusually consequentialist, so the question they want to answer is "what's the (expected) total long-run effect of a bit more of this today?". This is not an easy question to get data on. Most academic areas rightly spend time exploring under the streetlight, because we can actually learn there, and the lessons may be transferable to darker regions. The literature on movement building seems to focus on shorter-term effects, presumably because you can get better answers there. I think such work is very valuable and worth paying attention to for finding out the relationship between interventions and short-term effects. I was trying to fill a gap by talking about how short-term effects translate into long-term effects, and therefore which short term effects are worth targeting.
I share this concern, and believe that EAs are often guilty of ignoring existing fields of research from which they could learn a lot. I'm not sure whether this concern applies in this particular case, however. I spent several days looking into the sociological literature on social movements and didn't find much of value. Have you stumbled across any writings that you would recommend?
I think this line of thinking has influenced a lot of community building efforts, mostly for better. But it feels a bit inside-baseball: I'm not sure how much I want meta pieces like this highlighted in "best of EA's first decade".
A key factor, which will vary between movements, will be how much the opposition cares and acts. Some thing elicit more hostile actions than others, not necessarily in proportion to the extent to which they elicit positive actions from other sectors of the population. Likewise, for some movements everyone starts with a tendency towards positive or neutral inclination.
I absolutely agree -- in fact I changed some of the language when you sent me this comment :) (but you may have missed it, since it wasn't where you commented).
We could ask what implications there are from this for effective altruism? I guess that the thing most likely to elicit hostile responses is the suggestion that there is a moral obligation to give, so this would provide an argument for framing it as an opportunity rather than an obligation.
Aha, I looked for that but didn't see it where I commented! I guess I should do a 'diff' (unless you want to point to the change :-)
I think you're right that that sort of thing - and in general anything likely to prompt defensiveness - is most likely to elicit hostile reactions to EA. Negative judgements of people are the main cause of defensiveness. EAs (myself not included!) do sometimes make these judgements, and often say things that imply or at least risk suggesting them (whether misleadingly or not).
In addition, veg*nism is associated with strong negative judgements of people. It prompts massive defensiveness and rationalisation on the part of meat eaters for this reason. To the extent that EA is associated with veg*nism, that'll bleed over.
On the positive side of the ledger, EA is primarily concerned with helping others, and these others are normally distant in some sense, and are groups that most people are neutral-to-positive about. It also has a focus on private action, as opposed to enforced social action through the state. This all reduces the effect to which it threatens people's interests, and thus the extent to which it'll promote defensiveness and hostility.
Actually, data suggests most people have positive associations of veg*nism. EA actually seems to have some of the most negativity towards veg*nism that I've seen.
That might be because some vegans associated with the EA community have a hardline "meat is murder" recruiting strategy, contrasting with typical vegans in the population at large.
It doesn't seem to me that the proportion of vegans with that approach is higher in communities around EA than in other communities. They don't seem particularly vocal either. I could be wrong.
These people operate in the San Francisco area and have substantial overlap w/ the EA community there: http://directactioneverywhere.com/ My vague impression is that they've been pretty divisive but I don't have much firsthand knowledge.
I'd also be interested in your expanding on this - though I'd understand if you don't want to, or don't want to here.
I'd love to believe that, but that source doesn't seem very reliable or persuasive (one small point: aren't the %s it cites significant overestimates?) Do you have other evidence for it? And do you disagree that suggestions that meat is murder and people are morally obliged to stop eating it provoke massive defensiveness and opposition?
Just to be clear, my comment was disagreeing with this claim:
But to your questions, there's not very robust evidence in either direction that I know of. And I think there's an important distinction between defensiveness and negativity. An example to illustrate this is military service. Most people think highly of military people, but would react with great defensiveness if you suggested they had a moral obligation to join the military. If veganism is similar, then we might expect that people would be excited about a high number of military people in EA but would only become defensive if you brought it up as a moral obligation.
More importantly, however, EA brings up a lot of moral obligations. I mean, donating 10% of your income is pretty widespread, as is being willing to reject your current altruistic endeavors if they're ineffective. I rarely see anyone in EA bring up concerns about these things being offputting, but it comes up almost every time veg*nism is discussed. I think this is an example of motivated reasoning.
BTW to fix the italics you can put a backslash in front of your asterisks: veg\*nism.
Good points. Definitely a case for trying to avoid those statements that may imply judgement, and for playing down associations between effective altruism and veg*nism.
Minor changes in the last paragraph of page 5 and the first paragraph of page 7.
Here are some 'polling data points' I gave Owen on various questions and claims he included (saying that I thought I should largely list areas where I have negative answers or disagree, leaving aside the many where I agree, and that he could more often than not take me as agreeing with what I haven't commented on). I'm curious as to other people's views - I imagine I could guess some!
"the movement has a natural maximum size that we cannot change"
I wouldn't be surprised by this (within some bounds.)
"it is very hard to change inclination"
I wouldn't be surprised by this. On this point and some others, see https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/permalink/867500613306297/?qa_ref=qd and my comments under that. I think what Tyler asked about is an important fact.
"the views of people around them have a significant effect on the inclinations of people towards the movement"
This is complex, and there are different subquestions here, but I think people may overestimate this.
"building political consensus will be useful for the direct work"
I doubt this is an important factor for efficient global poverty charity, partly because there's a relatively uncontroversial global poverty movement anyway, which any lobbying could be presented (and will likely automatically be perceived) as part of.
"Increasing awareness of the movement is important, but increasing positive inclination may be even more important."
For EA: " It seems that it would be hard to run out of effective things to do, so Saturation is impossible."
However, the saturation chart isn't impossible - that could be a result of reaching all the efficiently reachable people who are ever going to be EAs, rather than of running out of effective things to do.
For EA: "the movement could get very large"
I'm sceptical. It'd help to indicate roughly what very large means though.
For Owen's very approximate numerical estimates for EA: "I’d be mildly surprised if they were wrong by much over an order of magnitude"
I wouldn't, especially for numbers you honestly say "are basically pulled out of my head".
Anyway, there ends my laundry list of negative answers! I found it a very helpful paper which clarified my conceptual breakdown of the issues, and as Owen said helped identify and provide labels for disagreements.
Thoughts on how favorably or unfavorably pursuing movement-building compares to other EA career paths?
It's useful to think about the relative difficulty of changing inclination and awareness - and the size of the viable changes in each, and whether they will affect people's actions. These would affect the size of the horizontal vs. vertical arrows in Owen's charts.