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How do people hear about and get involved in effective altruism (EA)? We have good data about this for active community members who fill out the EA survey, but it’s harder to get data on people earlier in their exploration or people in demographic groups that have less outreach and services specifically for them.

Here, I share some data from 63 smart, curious, and altruistic UK teenagers who participated in programmes run by myself (aka Leaf) who reported to have heard of effective altruism before.

The key results and takeaways:

  • The most common places that people first or primarily heard about EA seem to be Leaf itself, Non-Trivial, and school — none of these categories show up as prominently on the EA survey.
  • Many people heard about EA from multiple sources. Using a more permissive counting system, the most common sources people mentioned at least briefly were Leaf and hearing from a friend.
  • (More tentative) 80,000 Hours, LessWrong, and podcasts seem to have been less important for this group than you might expect from having seen the EA survey.

 

Methodology & context

This information comes from 15-18 year olds in the UK who were offered a place on one of two programmes by Leaf this year (2023):

  • Changemakers Fellowship: One-week summer residential programme with follow-up mentorship to meet other changemakers tackling pressing social issues, and fast-track your progress towards making a major difference. Students of any and all subjects.
  • History to shape history (for the better): 5-week online fellowship exploring how to use the lessons of history to make a positive impact and steer humanity onto a better path. History students.

I advertised both of these programmes as for “smart, curious, and ambitiously altruistic” teenagers — effective altruism was not discussed on the programme landing pages but was highlighted for transparency on Leaf’s “About” page and FAQ.

After being offered a place on the programme, participants were sent a consent form, which included various other questions. The data in this post all comes from people who first answered “Yes” (out of “Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”) to the question “Before hearing about this programme, had you heard of the term ‘effective altruism’?”.

 Changemakers FellowshipHistory to shape history
Applied758154
Filled out consent form54 (7% of applicants)66 (43% of applicants)
Answered “Yes” to having heard about EA36 (67% of respondents)27 (41% of respondents)


 I then informally analysed free-text, qualitative responses to the question “If you had heard of effective altruism and/or longtermism before hearing about this programme, please describe in your own words how you heard about them or explored them.”

Applicants to the Changemakers Fellowship who hadn’t participated in Leaf programmes previously were 28% white and 40% male. History to shape history applicants were 50% white, 27% male. All were aged 15-18 and live in the United Kingdom.

This appendix contains:

  • A table separating out results for the participants of the two programmes and providing one example of an answer from each type of category
  • The full set of qualitative responses and my categorisations of them
  • A table with info about how people heard about Leaf itself

 

Results

I categorised responses twice:

  • “Primary” — I selected only one option from each response, prioritising whichever seemed to come chronologically first for them or (if this was unclear) seemed more important to their journey.
  • “Permissive” — counting as many different things as they mentioned, however briefly, and using a more permissive standard for what counted as relevant as opposed to “NA”.
CategoryPrimaryPermissive
Indirectly or earlier via Leaf14 (22%)18 (29%)
Non-Trivial7 (11%)8 (13%)
Through a class or teacher at school5 (8%)9 (14%)
Peter Singer4 (6%)6 (10%)
Through a school or extra-curricular club4 (6%)9 (14%)
Friend3 (5%)13 (21%)
YouTube or TED talk3 (5%)8 (13%)
Article / media / other book2 (3%)7 (11%)
Will MacAskill (inc WWOTF)2 (3%)6 (10%)
LessWrong or rationality community2 (3%)3 (5%)
Googling or independent research1 (2%)8 (13%)
80,000 Hours1 (2%)3 (5%)
Other EA book0 (0%)4 (6%)
EA Forum0 (0%)2 (3%)
Philosophy / ethics interest0 (0%)8 (13%)
NA*13 (21%)9 (14%)

*Likely a misunderstanding, hadn't actually heard about it until hearing about this programme, or didn't answer the question.
 

My thoughts

The main point of this post was just to share the raw data. But here are some brief reflections:

  • I was surprised that EA was filtering through to so many school teachers or classes. This doesn’t show up at all on the EA Survey, so is presumably a reflection of increased salience of effective altruism generally.
  • Although the number of accepted applicants who reported having heard of effective altruism was more than double what I’d expect in the general population, a decent number of these people heard about it either primarily or additionally because of programmes aiming at their demographic specifically — Leaf and Non-Trivial.
  • It’s interesting how many of these people decided to dig into EA further themselves after whatever source first introduced them to it. On the other hand, there were quite a few people who encountered EA through multiple different mechanisms. Overall, my view doesn’t change much on how optimistic I am about the value of light touch, low-cost outreach for scooping up low-hanging fruit.
  • Relative to the EA Survey, 80,000 Hours, personal contact, LessWrong, and podcasts (plus, of course, uni groups!) seem to have been less important as the first point of contact, although I used different categories and definitions which makes direct comparison messy, especially for “personal contact”.
  • Pushing in the opposite direction, compared to the EA Survey, contact from school, Leaf, and Non-Trivial all seem to have been more important than I would have expected. Likewise for Peter Singer and YouTube / Ted talks too, though to a lesser extent. [Edit: The importance of school seems roughly in line with some unpublished findings from Rethink Priorities, separate to the EA survey.]

I haven’t gone into detail about the various caveats and limitations of this ‘data’; I think they’re probably pretty self-explanatory. I wouldn’t change your beliefs too strongly about ~anything from this info, though I firmly believe that weak evidence is often still useful evidence!

 

Your thoughts?

I’d love to hear what surprises you, if anything, in the comments.

I wrote this post as a bit of a test. There are a bunch of other mini posts like this that I could write up based on data from Leaf’s programmes. Writing these up probably won’t help me or Leaf in any very tangible way, and I don’t have a very clear reason or theory of change for actually writing them up; these things lead me to think it’s not worth spending time on it. So if you would find any of these topics useful to have a writeup on, please let me know (and why), otherwise it probably won’t happen:

  • Why I’m deprioritising residential programmes
  • Cause prioritisation changes: pre-post comparisons from 3 Leaf programmes
  • Objections raised to videos about EA and longtermism by teenagers encountering them often for the first time (analysis of application form questions, a bit like this post)
  • Data and analysis of the marketing successes and failures for Leaf
  • Rough and ready cost-effectiveness modelling for EA talent search programmes, using Leaf as an example (BOTECs / Fermi estimates, not rigorous research!)
  • Miscellaneous lessons and hot takes from ~4 years of paid nonprofit entrepreneurship (~10 years unpaid with a looser definition)
  • Miscellaneous lessons and hot takes about EA-adjacent programmes for school kids
  • Some other topic you expect I might have insight or experience into?

For reference, this post took me ~3.5 hours to write, and most of the above would take (much) longer.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:19 AM

The most common places that people first or primarily heard about EA seem to be Leaf itself, Non-Trivial, and school — none of these categories show up on the EA survey.

 

"School" does appear in the EA Survey, it's just under the superordinate "Educational course" category (3%) of respondents. 

We have 3 surveys of our own assessing where non-EAs more broadly heard of EA, which also find that education is among the most important source of hearing about EA:

  • In a survey of US students more broadly (not just EAs), we ran for CEA (referenced here) education was the most common source of hearing about EA. 
  • In a different survey of students only at elite universities (also unpublished, referenced here), we also found that hearing about EA either on campus or through a class were among the most common sources. 
  • In additional unpublished results from our survey on how many people have heard of effective altruism, we found >20% of people first heard of EA from an education source.

Peter Singer, and YouTube / Ted talks all seem to have been more important than I would have expected.

Peter Singer is actually very frequently mentioned in the EA Survey, as I have noted before. Individuals just don't appear in the top-line listed categories, which focus on orgs or media. As we highlighted here, Peter Singer was mentioned in 17.6% of people's qualitative comments about where they heard of EA. At a glance, the results for TED Talk and YouTube don't seem too different.

Of course, people who get involved with EA during their teens are a very small minority of total EAs, so I would not be surprised if that particular very small sub-population differs from the broader population in some ways, especially since some major sources like university groups and careers advice (from 80K) are most relevant to slightly older people.

It's also worth bearing in mind that any differences found in a sample of 63 people could easily be noise. For example, purely by way of illustration, if we randomly sampled 63 people from a larger population and found 7 people were such-and-such, the estimated proportion of 11% would be bounded by 95% confidence intervals of around 5-21%.

Those additional unpublished-but-referenced results are v helpful comparisons, thank you!

I've noticed a fair few times when people (myself included, in this case) are gesturing or guessing about certain factors, and then you notice that and leave a detailed comment adding in relevant empirical data. I'm a big fan of that, so thank you for your contributions here and elsewhere!

I'll tone down the phrasing about Singer and Ted talks and make a couple of other wording tweaks.

Agree with your caveats!

This is super interesting Jamie, thanks for writing it up! FWIW I would be interested in the marketing successes and failures of LEAF as well as pre-post cause prioritisation changes, if they weren’t too time intensive to write up.

(The former is for me thinking about podcast marketing and the latter is general interest)

Jamie - thanks for sharing these helpful data.

Do you have any impressions about the role of social media in raising EA awareness among teens? 

Or any thoughts about the potential of using the main social media platforms that teens tend to use (eg TikTok, Intagram, Snapchat, and YouTube shorts), as distinct from those that older adults tend to use (eg Twitter/X, Facebook). 

On the one hand, we can stereotype TikTok users as shallow, superficial, unlikely to be EA material, etc; on the other hand, I can imagine a lot of key EA ideas could actually be conveyed very quickly and clearly in TikTok or YouTube short videos.

Hi Geoffrey! I did try a campaign with paid Meta ads for History to shape history, mostly on Instagram, and it went really quite poorly. But (1) this was partly due to technical issues with my account, and (2) I know that Non-Trivial and Atlas have had much more success with paid ads. (My suspicion is that having a financial incentive for programme participation is a big multiplier on the effectiveness of paid ad campaigns, at least for this age group.)

It sounds like you're asking more about broad outreach rather targeted promotion of specific programmes. I could share miscellaneous thoughts on this, but I don't think I really have any particular insight or evidence on this based on the work I've done.

Jamie - yes, I was thinking mostly about general outreach and EA education, rather than paid ads.  I could imagine a series of short videos for TikTok explaining some basic EA concepts and insights, for example. 

Executive summary: A survey of UK teenagers interested in effective altruism found the most common sources were Leaf, Non-Trivial, school classes and clubs, Peter Singer's work, and friends. This differs from the EA Survey results.

Key points:

  1. 63 UK teenagers interested in EA reported first hearing about it via Leaf (22%), Non-Trivial (11%), school (14%), Peter Singer (10%), friends (21%), or other sources.
  2. These results differ from the EA Survey, where uni groups, 80K Hours, LessWrong, podcasts and personal contact are more common intro points.
  3. The author speculates EA ideas may be filtering into more schools and classes now.
  4. Many teenagers encountered EA from multiple sources or dug deeper themselves after an initial introduction.
  5. Light-touch, low-cost outreach may still efficiently identify promising teenagers open to EA ideas.

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

To add a datapoint, I've told a lot of my non-ea friends (e.g from shared game communities) about EA, and a good portion (majority?) of them are teens