Open Phil EA/LT Survey 2020: How Our Respondents First Learned About EA/EA-Adjacent Ideas

by reallyeli10 min read6th Sep 20211 comment

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Data (EA Community)LongtermismOpen PhilanthropySurveys
Frontpage

We'll be posting results from this survey to the frontpage one at a time, since a few people asked us not to share all of them at once and risk flooding the Forum. You can see the full set of results at our sequence.

This post is part of a series on Open Phil’s 2020 survey of a subset of people doing (or interested in) longtermist priority work. See the first post for an introduction and a discussion of the high-level takeaways from this survey. Previous posts discussed the survey’s methodology, background statistics about our respondent pool, our findings on what helped and hindered our respondents’ positive impact on the world, and our findings on impact from EA groups specifically. This post discusses results about how and when our respondents first came into contact with EA, rationalist, etc. ideas.

You can read this whole sequence as a single Google Doc here, if you prefer having everything in one place. Feel free to comment either on the doc or on the Forum. Comments on the Forum are likely better for substantive discussion, while comments on the doc may be better for quick, localized questions.

Summary of Key Results

  • See our graph of how our respondents said they first learned about EA/EA-adjacent ideas.
  • On average, our respondents reported first hearing about EA/EA-adjacent ideas when they were 20 years old. In particular, just 9% of respondents who reported first hearing about EA/EA-adjacent ideas said they heard about them when they were 16 or younger. So even our very-engaged respondent pool is not often being exposed extremely early in life. This might indicate that there’s substantial room for broad outreach or awareness-raising work which could reach these people sooner.

Results

First Exposure to EA/EA-Adjacent Ideas

We asked about our respondents' “origin stories,” as well as specifically how they first learned about EA/EA-adjacent ideas.

Briefly (in 1-2 paragraphs), how did you come to be a person who pursues or might potentially pursue longtermist priority work? What is your “origin story”? (You'll get more opportunities to elaborate on this later in this section.)


Tell us about how you first learned about EA/EA-adjacent ideas. (No need to repeat anything you’ve already said in a previous part of the survey.)

I then went through each respondent’s answers to these questions, with the intent of categorizing our respondents by how they first learned about each of these ideas.

It would have been convenient to be able to put everyone in just one category, but some of our respondents didn’t fit neatly into just one category. So I tagged respondents as having been exposed to EA/EA-adjacent ideas with up to three tags, though most people got only one tag. Here is the distribution, showing each tag by how many respondents it applied to.

alt_text

The “EA-adjacent ideas” here were most often rationality and Bostromian x-risk, and occasionally futurism/transhumanism, e.g. Kurzweil.

I applied multiple tags in about 15% of cases. These were situations where the respondent either didn’t remember or didn’t clarify which of several sources was their first exposure, or they described independently encountering multiple sources of EA/EA-adjacent ideas at around the same time — for example, reading Superintelligence and separately encountering 80,000 Hours’ website. In the second case, I only applied multiple tags if I was pretty sure the sources were actually independent.

Most respondents answered these questions. Those who didn’t, or who did but didn’t provide enough information for me to make a judgment, got an “unclear” rating.

Some notes on the tags:

  • Personal contact: This tag refers to a 1:1 relationship such as one with a friend, partner, or family member (rather than e.g. listening to someone give an in-person talk). I was somewhat discriminating with this tag, since a lot of exposures are aided by other people without them being a central feature of the exposure. It’s hard to draw a clear line, but if your friend casually mentions “Hey, you should check out this thing called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, you’d probably like it” and you check it out, love it, read the whole thing, and end up spending a bunch of time on LessWrong, I think that “I got into it via HPMOR” is a better description than “I got into it via my friend.” “Via my friend” would seem like a better description to me if the friend was contributing a lot to the experience[1].

    I also, separately, tracked the broader “did this exposure involve another person?” question, since it seemed interesting too — see below. About 36% of first exposures involved another person in the broad sense, so the difference between these was about 10 percentage points.

    It’s perhaps notable that no name shows up here more than twice. That is, no one person was mentioned by more than 2 of our respondents as having introduced them to EA/EA-adjacent ideas.

  • 80,000 Hours: This is all the 80,000 Hours website, as opposed to its other programs. Many respondents didn’t describe how they found the 80,000 Hours website, and some said they didn’t remember. Four respondents described encountering 80k via googling something related to impactful careers. Two described having it recommended to them by a friend.

  • Peter Singer’s work: Since Peter Singer predates the modern EA movement by so much, a number of respondents described having encounters with those of his works that do not directly mention EA (for example, Animal Liberation or Famine, Affluence, and Morality), and discovering “EA” later independently. Other respondents encountered works of his that do mention EA (for example, his TED talk) which were their gateway into the movement. I used this tag only to refer to the latter situation.

  • School class includes university and secondary-level classes, though all but one of the mentions were at the university level. All but one of these were philosophy classes — one was a computer science class. Peter Singer’s class at Princeton in particular was two respondents’ introduction to EA.

  • Wait But Why: Both this blog’s post on AGI and superintelligence (based on Bostrom and Kurzweil’s work) and its post on careers (which links to 80,000 Hours) were cited by respondents as their introduction to EA/EA-adjacent ideas.

  • Local or university EA group: A plurality of the time, the exposure happened through the respondent attending an event organized by the group. Some other respondents were exposed via a university mailing list, attending an extracurricular fair, or just by looking at the list of extracurriculars on the university website. One respondent found their local group via Meetup.com.

  • Will MacAskill’s work: We can further break this down.

alt_text

It’s interesting that podcast interviews were about half as many respondents’ first exposure as Doing Good Better, but the low sample size makes this weak evidence of anything.

  • Peter Unger’s work: This is another philosopher with a “Drowning Child”-style argument — the “Vintage Sedan” argument presented in his book Living High and Letting Die. Both respondents who mention his work also mention Peter Singer’s work.

Discussion

Wait But Why seems surprisingly effective at introducing folks to EA/EA-adjacent ideas; e.g. half as many people give it credit for introducing them as give credit to Giving What We Can.

“School class” being more popular than Slate Star Codex or Nick Bostrom’s work was also a surprise to me.

Comparison to the 2020 EA Survey

Here’s the equivalent chart from the 2020 EA Survey. (Note that theirs is a multiple-choice question, and did not allow multiple answers — so their percentages sum to 100%, while ours do not.)

2020 EA Survey chart

Doing a quick eyeball of the two charts, they look pretty similar insofar as they’re comparable. “Peter Singer’s work” doesn’t appear, but it’s because they didn’t have that category — that would fall under “Book, article, or blog post” or “TED talk.” “Personal contact” leads in both, though by somewhat more in ours. A somewhat larger percentage of our respondents came from LessWrong and from HPMOR (not a category on the 2020 EA Survey, but free-text analysis shows that it appears as part of their LessWrong category).

One clear difference is that only about 2% of our respondents mention being introduced via podcasts, while ~7% of the 2020 EA Survey respondents do. I think this is due to our survey having a sampling bias against people who got into EA/EA-adjacent ideas very recently, as described in here (while the 2020 EA Survey has less of that bias). Only 3% of EA Survey respondents who got involved before 2017 say they were first exposed via a podcast. There was a huge uptick in people getting exposed to EA via podcasts in 2020, which seems to have been driven mostly by Sam Harris’s podcast[2]; also, the 80k podcast started in 2017, though the EA Survey doesn’t record many people saying they first heard of EA that way.

Our respondents also look about 2x more likely than EA Survey respondents to have been introduced via a class at school, though I’m not sure how much of this is noise. (4% of our respondents gave this answer, vs. 2% for the EA Survey.)

Did This Exposure Involve Another Person?

Separately from the “personal contact” tag (see above), I tracked yes/no for whether the exposure involved a personal contact (as in a 1:1 relationship, such as one with a friend, not counting e.g. a workshop) in any way, vs. being entirely self-directed. 36% of the cases (79/217) seemed to involve a personal contact in this way.

Were There Two Independent Exposures to Different Clusters of EA/EA-adjacent Ideas?

As I looked through the data, I was interested to see people remark that they had encountered e.g. LessWrong and GiveWell separately and independently, only later discovering any connection between the two. Out of curiosity, I went back and tracked yes/no for whether people discovered two clusters independently as well. 6% of the cases (13/217) described something like this, though we were not really asking questions about it, so I’d guess this is much lower than the real incidence. The two different clusters were often rationality and EA, or Bostrom and EA.

Age of First Exposure to EA/EA-Adjacent Ideas

We asked our respondents how old they were when they first learned about EA/EA-adjacent ideas.

How old were you when you first learned about EA/EA-adjacent ideas?

90% of our respondents answered this question. The distribution of responses is below.

How old when first learned about EA

The mean was at age ~21.25, and the median was age 20. So our respondents on average first heard of EA/EA-adjacent ideas when they were college-aged. 27% of respondents reported first being exposed at age 18 or below. These results don't change substantially taking into account respondent weight.

First Exposure by Year

Here’s our respondents by (approximate) year of first exposure to EA/EA-adjacent ideas, calculated from age at first exposure and age.

Year of first exposure

The median year of first exposure was 2015[3].

So despite our emphasis on the last three years in our selection process, our respondents on average got involved before that — those who “came to the attention” of our advisors in the last 3 years took some time to do so. Since we asked our advisors to suggest people who had come to their attention since 2017, it looks like this took between 2 - 4 years for these respondents on average.


  1. I think this intuition is tracking replaceability — the friend is playing a role that anyone could play, while HPMOR has to be HPMOR — but that’s not something we’re otherwise trying to capture here. So this distinction may be ill-advised and inconsistent. Nevertheless, I applied this tag in situations where it seemed to me that the personal contact was a central feature of the exposure. Some examples of cases that involved other people but didn’t meet this bar: “my friend showed me the drowning child thought experiment,” “my friend recommended I check out the Sequences.” ↩︎

  2. In 2020 he did an interview with Will MacAskill and publicly signed the GWWC Pledge. The 2020 EA Survey’s free-text analysis shows that for ~60% of its respondents selecting “podcast” as the way they first heard about EA, the podcast in question was Sam Harris’s. ↩︎

  3. Because this calculation is based on subtracting two numeric ages, and not on birth date, it’s just an approximation. ↩︎

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Our respondents also look about 2x more likely than EA Survey respondents to have been introduced via a class at school, though I’m not sure how much of this is noise. (4% of our respondents gave this answer, vs. 2% for the EA Survey.)

 

For reference, I think the 95% CI for your figures would be about 2.1-7.7%, and 1.3-2.5% for the EAS.

Doing a quick eyeball of the two [OP and EAS] charts, they look pretty similar insofar as they’re comparable. “Peter Singer’s work” doesn’t appear, but it’s because they didn’t have that category — that would fall under “Book, article, or blog post” or “TED talk.” “Personal contact” leads in both, though by somewhat more in ours.

Notably, if we look at the EAS open comment data which I mentioned here, we can see that when Peter Singer references are counted as a single category, he's among the top-mentioned. 80,000 Hours don't appear among the top mentions in this analysis, most likely because they were a fixed category and respondents didn't feel the need to select 80,000 Hours and then write "80,000 Hours" in the further details box (personal contacts and EA groups often appeared in the further details of other categories, in contrast).