“Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”
― Thomas Henry Huxley, Evolution and Ethics (1884)
- I created an interactive learning module highlighting psychological biases to doing good better. It is intended for people just getting engaged with EA principles, but it discusses psychology research relevant to everyone trying to do the most good.
- The module focuses on explaining and countering four biases: (1) scope-insensitivity ('Psychic numbing'); (2) feeling discouraged in the face of large problems ('Pseudoinefficacy'); (3) our tendency to only feel an emotional attachment to beings close to you in the moral circle; and (4) our aversion to prioritizing some people or causes over others.
- Alongside these four biases, the module discusses how our emotions lag behind our moral progress, the disconnect between doing good and feeling good, how individual biases can propagate into societal blindspots, and why the proper response to this module isn't to demonize emotions.
The learning module was built for interactive engagement: it includes a goal-setting exercise, questions to probe your beliefs, recall quizzes, and more. It takes approximately 20 minutes to complete.
If you prefer an overview of the contentinstead of the interactive module, read on. Since the content was built around interactive questions, some of which are excluded in this overview, some sections and transitions below may be clunky.
Emotions make us human. They grant us the capacity to love, to suffer, and to live all the complexities in between. They are so often what drives our desire to help others– to want others to suffer less and flourish more. And when it comes to helping others, we count on emotions as our trusted guides for who to help, how much, and when.
Perhaps too much.
Emotions can also get in the way of really helping others.
That’s the claim this module makes. We'll look through a series of well-studied, emotionally-grounded cognitive biases that systematically prevent our actions from having the positive impact that they could. By the end of the module, you'll have learned how to identify these biases – and how to overcome them.
However, the goal of this module is not to demonize emotions.
Emotions can be incredibly useful, and they are essential for figuring out what you care about. The module aims to add nuance to your understanding of emotions – to acknowledge that while emotions may be fundamental in driving our wish to help others in the first place, they can sometimes get in the way of actualizing that wish.
Feeling Good vs. Doing Good
Imagine you can donate $10,000 to one of two charities: Charity A or B.
- Charity A: You feel very emotionally connected to Charity A, so you feel great when you donate money there. With that money, Charity A is able to save 1 person's life.
- Charity B: You don’t have a strong personal connection to Charity B. Donating there makes you feel OK. But Charity B uses your money extremely effectively on evidence-based interventions, and with that money it's able to save 2 people's lives.
Would you rather donate to Charity A or Charity B?
Frankly, we think that if you care about helping others, the focus should be less on how you feel and more on what you do.
And if we want to do more to help others, we have to pay attention to the differences in impact across our actions, even if the choices feel similar.
Consider the difference between donating to a typically cost-effective charity versus an extraordinarily cost-effective charity. Research shows donations to the most cost-effective charities may help their recipients 20–100x more than donations to a typical charity.
That's a huge difference. That means that the same donation that saves 1 life at a typical charity could save somewhere between 20 and 100 hundred lives at a top charity.
But can our feelings can't track such enormous differences in effectiveness?
Not really. How good you instinctively feel after helping others isn’t always coupled to how much good you’re doing.
- It is possible to feel great without helping much, and to feel unsatisfied despite helping a lot.
- Our emotional “feel-good” response when we help others simply didn’t evolve to track how much we’re actually helping. (Though thankfully, there are some techniques to align how good we feel and how much good we do, which we’ll get to at the end of the module).
Our emotions haven’t caught up with our moral progress
Emotions like empathy evolved to help our early nomadic ancestors pass on their genes. They facilitated the (in many cases) tribal actions that kept our ancestors alive and reproducing.
But life has changed a lot since the days of nomadic foraging bands.
And so have our morals.
- We’ve recognized that everyone’s life has value– that our moral concern shouldn’t depend on nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, or geographic boundaries.
- Caring about everyone equally wasn’t always the case. For example, abandoning and shunning disabled people used to be normal in many cultures. Similarly, Romans used to view non-Romans "barbarians" as animals only fit to fight one another for their entertainment.
While our morals progressed, however, our brain's hardwiring – and the instinctive emotional responses ingrained in it – have remained quite stable. We have largely the same emotional hardwiring as our ancestors who often reserved compassion exclusively for people in the same ethnicity, tribe or family.
Our modern moral norms and upbringing has instilled in us a more inclusive compassion, and for many this becomes internalized at an emotional level. But still, many of our emotional tugs still don’t fully track the modern moral beliefs many of us endorse.
The next sections will explore four scenarios in which emotions can get in the way of doing good more effectively.
Obstacle #1: Psychic Numbing
Imagine two buildings have tragically burned down in a city.
One of the buildings was a one-bedroom house, in which 1 person lost their life. The other was a giant apartment complex, in which 100 people lost their lives.
How many times worse was the apartment complex fire than the house fire?
Both fires are a tragedy in this example, but if we agree that all lives are equal, the fire that kills 100 people is 100x worse than the fire that kills 1 person.
Unfortunately, our behavior often doesn't track such differences in outcomes; by default, we are 'scope-insensitive'.
As the number of people in need increases, we tend to stop caring as much for each additional person. This is a bias in our thinking known as Psychic Numbing – a tendency to feel less emotionally compelled to help in the face of large numbers of people in need.
- Because of the way our brains work, we have a much easier time emotionally latching on to a single (or small number of) identifiable victim(s) whose suffering we can empathize with. For example, we can be more gripped by a vivid story about a single girl suffering from a famine than an entire country; It's hard for us to empathize with multiple people.
- Prof. Paul Slovic, the leading researcher on this phenomenon, made the graph above to depict the surprising disconnect between how we want to behave (as if every life has equal value) and how we often do behave (as if some lives are worth more than others):
There’s an important point to be made about Psychic Numbing that generalizes to other types of biases we’ll get to: individual biases propagate into societal blindspots.
A poignant example is the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2015, a gripping picture of Aylan Kurdi, a refugee child, lying dead on a Turkish beach went viral. Prior to this image, the crisis had received little attention in Western media.
Donations poured in after the image went viral, but nearly two hundred fifty-thousand (250,000) refugees had died before Aylan Kurdi, and they were given no such sympathy or coverage.
- This example demonstrates how numbed we can be to large collections of individual suffering, each of which denotes tragedies similar to Aylan Kurdi.
- If enough people possess a psychological bias, it becomes a societal bias that snowballs to have broad ramifications in how governments and other powerful actors allocate resources.
So what can we do to prevent the phenomenon of Psychic Numbing?
How to overcome Psychic Numbing
- Step 1: Recognize the bias: Recognize when you or people around you encounter magnitudes of suffering (for example, a famine that affects an entire region) that will be difficult to intuitively, emotionally grasp. (This can happen as soon as more than one person is involved!)
- Step 2: Think in Individual Units: To motivate action in the face of large catastrophes that you may struggle to emotionally comprehend, bring to mind a single identifiable victim. For example, seek out a news story on one victim. Notice how much that one tragedy can afflict you. How much would you do to prevent that tragedy? Then extrapolate how much you would do to prevent many, many similar tragedies – each of which on its own could inspire that same urge to help. Research shows that such an exercise can help you act in a way that better appreciates the scope of a problem, but be sure to step away if it becomes distressing.
Obstacle #2: Pseudoinefficacy
Suppose you are interested in helping a group of 1,000 people suffering from malaria. You then learn of a place that has an additional population of 100,000 people who are also suffering from malaria.
Should finding out that there are more people suffering from malaria than you thought have any impact on your motivation to help the original people suffering from malaria?
We don't think so, unless it makes you more inclined to help since any solution you identify could help more people.
But research on real-world helping behavior has shown that we are typically less inclined to help one person after being made aware of the larger number of people in need that we are not helping. This distressing effect is known as Pseudoinefficacy
- In one study, researchers compared people’s donations after seeing a picture and description of a single starving young girl to people’s donations after seeing the same picture and description along with statistical information about the millions of others at risk of starvation. People who also saw the statistical information donated less than people who saw just the young girl.
Here’s the explanation behind this phenomenon: Learning about all the people you cannot help can make people feel discouraged – like what you’re able to contribute is only a single drop in a big bucket.
But, if you care about improving the world, this reaction is only going to prevent you from achieving your goal. There will ALWAYS be people you cannot help, and even partial solutions save whole lives.
Advice against feeling hopeless about big problems
Mother Teresa recognized "Pseudoinefficacy" years before researchers put a big name on it: “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will”
To stop feeling hopeless about big problems, we can either address the Pseudoinefficacy bias head on (Strategy 1) or try to avoid invoking it in the first place (Strategies 2 & 3).
- Strategy 1: Recognize the Bias: Recognize how you may feel discouraged when you think your actions are only a "drop in the bucket." But understand that it's the size of the drop that matters, not the size of the bucket.
- Strategy 2: Focus on Collective Action: If you don’t feel that your action will make a substantial difference, focus on what lots of people’s actions combined could do. (See Research). Remember that, while you are just one person, you can work together with others to cause genuine change. Additionally, your actions can motivate other individuals to chip in.
- Strategy 3: Set Sub-Goals: To avoid provoking a reaction of Pseudoinefficacy, it can be useful to set smaller sub-goals to motivate helping behavior. These smaller goals will be easier to achieve and will help you cultivate a sense of accomplishment, even if the problem you’re helping with is vast. For example, set a goal for yourself to protect five kids from malaria or provide cheap parasitic-worm preventing drugs for 100 kids.
Obstacle #3: A Narrow Moral Circle
Consider three questions to probe your ethical beliefs:
- Imagine someone is suffering and you can do something to prevent it. Does the 'badness' of that suffering depend on how geographically close or far away that person is from you?
- Imagine someone is suffering and you can do something to prevent it. Does the badness of that suffering depend on whether the person is alive today or if they will be alive in 100 years? (Imagine we know for sure they will be alive.)
- Does the suffering of non-human animals also matter?
These questions identify who you currently include in your moral circle. The moral circle refers to the beings we think are worthy of moral concern. You are at the center of the circle, surrounded by family and other people most like you.
- As you move further out, more differences arise between you and other beings. These include differences in skin color, in ethnicity, in nationality, in distance from you, in species, and in time period alive.
- Our early ancestors evolved to have very narrow moral circles, but most peoples' moral circles gradually expanded over time. (For example, peoples' moral circles expanded to include slaves and people from different nations).
Based on your answers, your moral circle includes [interactive module displays answers to questions above].
Research shows that it is easier to feel a strong emotional attachment to people close to us in the moral circle. As we layer on more differences and more distance (in space and time), the strength of our emotional attachment can fade or altogether disappear. For example, most people feel a much stronger attachment to people in their community than unfamiliar people far away.
This can lead to two problems:
- Since our emotional attachments influence who we help and how much we help, we're biased to help beings very similar to us even if there may be better ways to help others further out on our moral circle.
- A lack of any instinctive emotional attachment to others unlike us can also shrink our moral circle to exclude beings we might, upon reflection, wish to include.
Advice to expand your moral circle
- Step 1: Investigate beliefs: Consider deliberately reflecting on what beings you choose to include in your moral circle. If your moral judgments just rely on instinct and societal norms, it’s possible that you may act in ways that don't actually reflect your own values. You might be able to expand your moral circle by questioning why you feature some beings in your moral circle and exclude others. [The interactive module includes a drop-down with links].
- Step 2: Recognize emotions influence on helping behavior: Recognize how the attachment we feel to some groups over others can make us more inclined to only help groups like us, even if we believe other groups unlike us also deserve moral concern.
- Step 3: Cultivate (Radical) Compassion: Research suggests it may be feasible to learn to increase your compassion. If there’s a disconnect between your emotional attachments and your moral beliefs, practices like "loving-kindness" meditation appear to be a promising way to resolve this disconnect. (And they may provide a host of other benefits, like improving well-being). “Radical” compassion can also be cultivated at a more intellectual level.
Obstacle #4: Prioritization Aversion
During the peak of COVID-19, some hospitals were faced with a dreaded dilemma: There were more intensive care patients that needed ventilators than ventilators available.
Tragically, not all patients could be saved. As a result, some hospitals implemented a system of triage – classifying patients according to their estimated chance of survival, and prioritizing those whose lives can be saved through quick action.
Some patients weren't helped with this prioritization system, but by using their limited resources where they were most needed, these hospitals saved more patients than they otherwise could have.
In the case of over-capacity COVID-19 hospitalizations, do you think implementing a system of triage makes sense?
Keeping the tragedy of COVID-19 triage in mind: Suppose that you want to help people using your money (through donating to charity) or your time (through volunteering or working for a charity).
There are many different charities you can choose from, and many different ways to help – some of which help people much more than others.
When you have a desire to help but can't help everyone, are you not in a similar position as hospitals who have to choose which tragedies to focus their resources and attention on?
We are always making tradeoffs. In the context of helping people, spending time and resources helping some people implicitly means not spending the same time and resources helping other people.
We normally don't think about the people who we are not helping. For example, when we donate to a local charity, we don't think about the children around the world living on $2 a day that we are not helping.
When we begin making more deliberate prioritizations between different ways of helping, it makes the people we are not helping very obvious, which can feel really unfair and uncomfortable. Researchers have identified this phenomenon as Prioritization Aversion.
But by overcoming prioritization aversion and focusing our efforts on the best ways of helping, we affirm that helping more people is simply better than helping fewer people – that alleviating more suffering is better than alleviating less suffering, regardless of who is suffering.
- For example, if we expect that a charity focused on curing cancer can save one life with our donation, but that a charity focused on improving the quality of drinking water can save ten people with the same donation, prioritizing the water quality charity means prioritizing the lives of ten people instead of the life of one person.
Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to avoid every tragedy. But in our lifetime, we can save the most people if we focus on the worst tragedies.
Acting on your Beliefs
A fitting metaphor to summarize this module is that, when it comes to doing good, emotions are the gas pedal, but careful reasoning is a better steering wheel.
Even just recognizing the existence of the biases cataloged in this module empowers us to make more deliberate decisions about how we help others.
Two examples of where you might use what you've learned:
- Your friend tells you about a big catastrophe far away and you recognize that it will be harder to feel a corresponding emotional attachment because of the number of people, the size of the problem, and the victims’ distance from you
- Before choosing which charity to donate to, you recognize that choosing to prioritize one charity over another may feel wrong, even if prioritizing allows you to help more people.
Reconciling doing good and feeling good
Earlier, we discussed how feeling good doesn’t always track how much good you actually do. Thankfully, there are techniques that can reduce the disconnect:
- Strategy 1: Reflection: After helping others, take time to reflect on the good you have done. If you have to overcome some of these emotional challenges to help more people, recognize the virtue in what you’re doing, even if it can be difficult. Research has shown that acting altruistically can improve your well-being!
- Strategy 2: Channel Positive Emotions: Channel the joy and satisfaction you would get from a more emotional instance of helping. For example, it is estimated that you can save the equivalent of a child’s life by donating $3000-$4000 to highly effective charities. Imagine how good you would feel if you ran into a burning building and saved a child’s life! If you do something awesomely altruistic that might not feel immediately great, try to visualize a more emotionally compelling example to help you access the good feeling.
- Strategy 3: Purpose & Meaning: Focusing on helping others as much as you can in your life can provide a really strong sense of purpose and meaning. This sense of purpose can be coupled to doing good thoughtfully, not just what feels emotionally pleasing. Over time, doing good thoughtfully can become more and more emotionally appealing because it helps you achieve your goals!
- Strategy 4: Supportive Community: Try to surround yourself with supportive people who also recognize these challenges and are doing their best to help others. Check out Effective Altruism community groups near you, for example.
- Strategy 5: A tool to donate emotionally AND effectively: Researchers at Harvard recently created GivingMultiplier, an online tool that lets you split and multiply your donations. With the balance between instinctive emotion and effectiveness in mind, it allows you to give to both your favorite charity and a super-effective charity recommended by experts. And it multiplies your donations!
On Being Human
We’ve talked in detail about biases that require us to be skeptical of our emotions. But this can be hard. We’re humans, and emotions are a big part of being human and wanting to help others. It would be impossible (and undesirable!) to disentangle emotions from all our decisions.
Being too dismissive or closed off towards your emotions could actually backfire and reduce your urge to help in the first place.
You can also learn a lot from your emotions, especially when it comes to understanding your own personal values.
So strive for better, not perfect:
- Don’t neglect compassion for yourself when being compassionate towards others.
- Different people may need to balance the role of emotions in their altruistic actions differently, and that's fine.
Go forth and do good
If your goal is to help a lot, hopefully you're now better prepared to recognize and overcome obstacles in your way
If you’re excited by the project of helping others as much as you can:
- Check out the Leaving Your Mark on the World: The Essential Tool. While the present module focused on emotional challenges to doing good better, this module explores best practices for doing good more effectively.
- You’ll also be able to learn much more about how you can best help others through the Effective Altruism movement.
- Check out 80,000 Hours for career advice
You can also return to earlier links:
- GiveWell Charity Evaluator
- Multiplying your donations with GivingMultiplier
- The Case Against Speciesism - Centre for Reducing Suffering
- What We Owe to Future Generations - Vox
- Our descendants will probably see us as moral monsters. What should we do about that? - 80,000 Hours
Acknowledgments & Feedback
This learning module was originally created for ClearerThinking's Micro Grant program. Thank you to Spencer Greenberg, Holly Muir, and the GuidedTrack team for feedback and guidance at different application stages. Also, thank you to Stefan Schubert, Paul Slovic, and Manon Gouiran for helpful feedback on module content. All mistakes are my own.
If you'd like to leave feedback on the learning module, you can comment on this google doc.
We won’t show the graphic image here, but it can be seen in this NPR article.