All of bfinn's Comments + Replies

A Happiness Manifesto: Why and How Effective Altruism Should Rethink its Approach to Maximising Human Welfare

Thanks for this. There's been quite a bit more research since that paper, including by Easterlin, so not sure how relevant it is now. The latest I know FWIW is from last year's book by Richard Layard, Can We Be Happier?, which says it's unclear but maybe economic growth often increases happiness but not always.

Ineffective entrepreneurship: post-mortem of Hippo, the happiness app that never quite was

(Belatedly) Re trusting that people will do the work they say they will: in particular this illustrates that developers are notoriously unreliable & hard to manage (due to typical personality type). And unless they are very experienced, they underestimate how long development will take, by a factor of at least 2; because they fail to take into account the time required for specification, testing, bug-fixing, rewriting, documentation, management, admin, and unforeseen problems. Development is mostly not writing code, but doing these other thin... (read more)

Yes, these are some of the many things I wish I'd known in advance of starting on the project!
Million dollar donation: penny for your thoughts?

Looks good from a quick read-through.

To make an obvious point, as relevant information (including about new charities/causes) will presumably improve a lot over the next 5 years, there seems a case for updating your recommendation annually rather than the donors committing upfront to donating 5 years' worth to particular charities (if that was the idea).

Depending to some extent on whether a 5-year commitment is essential for the programmes being donated to. If it is, a middle way might be to commit upfront to donating for 5 years subject to the progra... (read more)

1Stephen Clare2y
One thing to note about the bounds of the FP cost-effectiveness estimate is that they aren't equivalent to a 95% confidence interval. Instead they've been calculated by multiplying through the most extreme plausible values for each variable on our cost-effectiveness calculation. This means they correspond to an absolute, unimaginably bad worst case scenario and an absolute, unfathomably good best case scenario. We understand that this is far from ideal: first, cost-effectiveness estimates that span 6+ orders of magnitude aren't that helpful for cause prioritization; second, they probably overrepresent our actual uncertainty. On TaRL specifically, the effects seem really good--whether or not we can get governments to implement TaRL effectively seems to be where most of the uncertainty lies.
Multiyear commitments have a particularly high value to charities, especially when they can be used for operational support. They allow charities to take more risks, act more directly in line with their mission, and spend less time on report writing. They are much rarer in the sector.
Will protests lead to thousands of coronavirus deaths?

There's also the complication that by deciding to protest, individuals incur a non-negligible personal cost (in time and risk), but only make a tiny difference to the size & hence effectiveness of the demonstration. Also any benefit arising mostly accrues to others. All that on top of the risk of you spreading the virus to others.

All told, it's far from clear it's worth people's while to demonstrate, even for major issues like this one. It depends on things like the size of the demonstration and your degree of altruism. I did a roug... (read more)

162 benefits of coronavirus

Indeed, I looked at Trump's approval rating over time and it's been about average for US presidents with little pandemic effect. Possibly the US is a bit of an outlier in this regard though, or it's a bit early for an assessment.

Because the ultimate Covid death toll will be a stark, objective measure of performance relative to other countries, I suspect later in the year it will be harder for voters anywhere to maintain illusions about how well or badly their country has handled the pandemic. (That said, much is not really down to the leader... (read more)

162 benefits of coronavirus

Indeed I think it will accelerate this issue, though maybe not resolve it.

In the UK, and no doubt elsewhere, universities have cancelled courses for the rest of the year, or are making them online-only, but refusing to refund students; which will make students acutely aware of what value for money they're getting, or not.

That said I did read somewhere the observation that as degrees are as much about status & signalling as actual learning, it may make little difference. People will still prefer the prestige of an Ivy League or Oxbridge education if they can get it. That said, that prestige is rather bound up with physical attendance in grand surroundings, surrounded by top-notch professors etc.

Yeah, even if it just leads to acceptance that higher education is about signaling, that seems like a step in the right direction to me. It at least lays the groundwork for future innovators who can optimize for signaling as opposed to "education."
162 benefits of coronavirus

I've just been through it all. A great resource - with harms too. Glad to see I had thought of almost all the long-term benefits (!), but have added a few more from it here, and thought of several further points too.

162 benefits of coronavirus

Great, thanks, I'll check it out.

Dying for a day at the beach

Thanks for the feedback here and on Facebook. I've just revised the post as a result - tightened up my arguments and added a few new points.

Dying for a day at the beach

A significant further thought:

The above calculation is done on life expectancies, treated as expected utilities; but human psychology doesn't work like that:

Arguably in Chris's particular case she may lose somewhat less than half her quality of life by conforming with the lockdown. In which case her behaviour looks irrational in life expectancy terms.

But Chris's behaviour is rational if she is risk-seeking. She prefers gambling her life (and perhaps others') by going to the beach, to the alternative of suffering a sure loss of quality o... (read more)

Dying for a day at the beach

Layard is one of the top happiness economists.

Indeed the Guardian review of the book was dreadful. I almost wrote a point-by-point refutation of it (but no-one would read it). Turns out the reviewer is a self-described Marxist with a website called 'Leninology' so has a political axe to grind. As is hinted at towards the end of the review - for Layard advised the Blair government (on increasing mental health funding), and Blairites are the enemy.

Quite why a national newspaper would commission & publish such a misleading, bilious, partisan piece is beyond me.

Dying for a day at the beach

Presumably they need to keep public transport operating for key workers, e.g. medical staff, supermarket staff etc. So if it's available then others will use it to get to parks.

Dying for a day at the beach

Yes there's lots of research & data on this, particularly in recent years. The best summary is the new book Can We Be Happier? by Richard Layard. The largest factors (from memory) are health (especially mental - much larger than physical health), not being unemployed, having a partner, income. The most common measures are happiness and satisfaction with life, on a 0-10 self-reported scale.

Indeed people may lack perspective; so there's lots of work on how objective these self-reports are, what precisely they measure, whether they are absolute... (read more)

Never heard of Layard, but the Guardian hates him despite him being Labour Party, so I take that as a strong signal that he's credible.
Dying for a day at the beach

Interesting and curious. I wonder if this is partly due to health only being one aspect of quality of life (happiness/life satisfaction).

Also I wonder whether the framing of the question is important. People have trouble thinking about this stuff clearly.

More understandable with $ trade-offs (people being funny about money).

Dying for a day at the beach

Well, the specific caller in question aside, a fall from 8/10 to 4/10 (on a happiness or life satisfaction 0 to 10 scale) is plausible for a significant minority of people, e.g. if you're elderly and live alone and have nothing much to occupy you indoors. In the UK (more so in some other countries) you're not allowed out to relax; you need to be exercising, e.g. walking, not sitting on a bench or whatever (and police in my area are enforcing this); and the guideline is max 1 hour per day. And many with underlying health conditions in the UK are b... (read more)

Do you have data or expert analyses to back up that loss of utility? I agree that people might fill out surveys saying their happiness has halved, but I think that's because they lack perspective on how much worse life could be. This is something that calls for some hard analysis of the factors that contribute to quality of life, from experts (economists, psychologists, public health people, I'd accept anyone in the general vicinity).
Dying for a day at the beach

The comparison is with her not going to the beach, socializing etc. for a year (rather than one-off), which I'm arguing could well halve her quality of life, so be equivalent to losing 0.5 years of life expectancy.

I assume the concerns about people visiting open spaces - even if social distancing - are largely about the other associated risks, from people using public transport to get there, going into shops to buy sandwiches/drinks, etc.

Why not restrict only those sources of contagion? Is it easier to prevent people from accessing parks than buses? (honestly, I don't know) This [] confirms my priors that outdoor contagion must be really rare. Moreover: if that's true, then outdoors / environmental disinfection would be a waste, if not overall harmful.
Coronavirus: how much is a life worth?

OK, well reworking the numbers with a 2/10 neutral point (and Imperial's latest figures as noted below):

Death is now a fall from 5.17 to 2 points, i.e. by 3.17 points, though presumably out of 8 not 10 as we've compressed our scale. So 4.5 years = 4.5 x 3.17/8 = 1.78 WALYs lost. So 1.9 to 24 million deaths = 3.4 to 43 WALYs lost.

Presumably the WALYs lost by the financial crisis is also out of 8 not 10, i.e. 0.2/8 per person = 194 million WALYs. Which is 4.5 to 57 times worse than the deaths.

Coronavirus: how much is a life worth?

I've just updated the figures (in footnote 7) using Imperial College's latest global forecast of deaths. Previously a global recession like the last one came out as about 1 to 4 times as bad as pandemic deaths (in terms of impact on well-being); now it is 2.8-35 times as bad.

Coronavirus: how much is a life worth?

I'm not an expert, but I assume (from a glance at the second paper) this is because the 1%-59% is a cost (opportunity cost), not a value of a life year as such; i.e. in a very poor country you can extend a life by a year for as little as $3, maybe with a vaccine or micronutrient supplement. Actually that seems an order of magnitude too low to me; but nonetheless, it's a great deal!

Hm. It may be both - the opportunity cost (if one loses one QALY, they lose some percentage of annual income) and the value it costs to extend life for one QALY (e. g. through vaccine or micronutrient supplementation). I actually dread it is the opportunity cost only, to which healthcare intervention costs are compared. For example, if an additional farmer contributes only $3 per year, because their work can be done by family members, then a global health organization will not support that farmer's health if it costs more than $3 per QALY.
Coronavirus: how much is a life worth?

Indeed, though if working from existing 0-10 life satisfaction scores I don't think it's plausible that those who responded below 5/10 thought they'd be better off dead. (Maybe those responding below say 2/10 would.) Otherwise suicide rates would be far higher.

(But indeed some kind of calibration of death and worse-than-death states is needed more generally. E.g. it concerns me that almost all the bad in the world may be located in extreme pain that is hugely underweighted, and so almost all efforts to improve the world may be missing the point.)

Suicide is a very poor indicator of the dead/neutral point, for a host of reasons. A few small, preliminary surveys I've seen place it around 2/10, though it ranges from about 0.5 to 6 depending on whom and how you ask. (I share your concerns in parentheses, and am doing some work along these lines - it's been sidelined in part due to covid projects.)
Coronavirus: how much is a life worth?

Hi Michael

Thanks for this. (I hope my summary of value of life was mostly right!)

Yes I haven't really given any thought to what the best way of handling the situation would be, or would have been. Clearly complex given that there are sociological/political constraints too (e.g. how would the public react if x% of them die in a new dramatic way - as contrast with, die routinely from seasonal flu or traffic accidents).

It seems to me a global recession could reduce income/employment & hence quality of life without having much effect on life expectanc... (read more)

Yes, good point. Now inclined to think your and Paul F's analyses need to be combined in some way, not immediately clear to me how. He is indeed converting money into quality and quality of health, not just quantity, my mistake.
Oddly, Britain has never been happier

Belatedly - thanks. I'm not sure what to make of this. That survey is quite large (30-50,000 people p.a.), so much larger than Eurobarometer, though smaller than ONS (around 150,000). Eurobarometer shows a large rise 1996-2016 (7.19 to 7.74/10), and the later-starting ONS shows a smallish but non-negligible rise 2012-2016 (7.45 to 7.67/10). Possibly again the question wording might have an influence.

But 5.2 to 5.3 is a rise, even if (statistically?) insignificant. It's unfortunate that the paper cites other surveys (in other countries) which conf... (read more)

In defence of epistemic modesty

On a separate small point, I think your probability estimate for ESP is too low, for two reasons:

Firstly, it is a taboo topic (like UFOs and the Loch Ness monster), which scientists are therefore far more likely to dismiss from a position of ignorance, or with weakish arguments (e.g. 'it lacks an explanatory mechanism', 'much of the research methodology is flawed', or 'some of the research has been on fraudsters' - hardly disproof). Few skeptics have domain expertise, i.e. of having conducted or investigated research in the ar... (read more)

In defence of epistemic modesty

Great article. I'm very late to the party in reading it & commenting, but I hope not too late to be of use!

I have three further reasons for epistemic immodesty in some circumstances. They all involve experts, or those who follow their advice, being overconfident about the experts' relevant knowledge. (Though I note your comments about debunking experts; none of these arguments show an amateur is better than some other, probably small, set of experts who have taken these considerations into account.)


You mention that expert vi... (read more)

Oddly, Britain has never been happier

Actually there has been one change in method - in 1998 it was made illegal to sell large quantities of paracetomol, to make casual suicide harder. The suicide rate has been falling since but there was no sudden drop, so I'm not sure we can attribute much effect to that.

Oddly, Britain has never been happier

For comparison, when converted to a 0-10 scale, the Eurobarometer survey shows a rise by 0.7/10 between 1999 and 2019.

Oddly, Britain has never been happier

Thanks for this.

The ONS suicide data is from 1981, showing a decline by about a third by 2007 - pretty big, and I'm not aware that any popular suicide method became less available in that time.

(Unlike e.g. coal gas used in ovens, once a popular suicide method but it was phased out in the 1960s and 1970s leading to a suicide reduction - I don't think coal gas was available thereafter as the last plant closed in the late 1970s. And guns have never been generally available in the UK.)

The methods used have apparently changed popularity in recent year... (read more)

Actually there has been one change in method - in 1998 it was made illegal to sell large quantities of paracetomol, to make casual suicide harder. The suicide rate has been falling since but there was no sudden drop, so I'm not sure we can attribute much effect to that.
Hi bfinn, maybe have a listen to this episode of the Freakonomics podcast: [] It's one of the things that shaped my view that cross-country differences in suicide are best explained by culture rather than underlying happiness.
Oddly, Britain has never been happier

Thanks, very useful. The World Happiness Report data (from Gallup World Poll; I'd seen the figures before but couldn't find more info) does show a rise of about 0.25/10 over the period - about one-third of the rise in the other ONS and Eurobarometer results (when Eurobarometer converted to a score out of 10).

I suspect the difference is in the wording of the question, which defines 0 as 'the worst possible life for you' and 10 as 'the best possible life for you' and asks where they are now. (It doesn't mention the word &ap... (read more)

I also thought the World Happiness Survey looked flat but it has gone up. 0.25/10 is not be sniffed at. WHS has a much smaller sample size - around 1,000 per year - whereas the Office of National Statistics asks around 300,000 people a year. ONS data also shows a rise of about 0.3/10 between 2011 and 2019 ( [(]
Oddly, Britain has never been happier

Thanks. It's a very cool site. I couldn't figure out how to find the source, but never mind. The figures for England (the vast majority of the UK population) do indeed show a slight decline so at least that's consistent with my hunch, though not explaining much of the misery fall (and it shows anxiety as completely flat). Possibly there was a bigger mental health improvement in the 1970s/1980s. More likely these figures measure presenting or treatment rather than pure prevalence, so hard to conclude much.

Oddly, Britain has never been happier

On the aging thing I've just done a rough estimate. The median age increased about 3 years between 1999 and 2019, and as it's around 40 which is before the mid-life crisis (life satisfaction being U-shaped as you age, the lowpoint around 50), an age increase of 3 years would if anything lower happiness. (Of course it would be a mix of some going down and others up depending on their ages, but the overall effect would presumably be down. Incidentally the bottom of the U-shape hasn't noticeably got older as the population aged over this period... (read more)

Oddly, Britain has never been happier

More consistent with the blue line falling due in part to better treatments. (If they’re significantly better; may well be more widely prescribed anyway.)

Oddly, Britain has never been happier

Do you know how this data was gathered? The prevalence of mental health problems is presumably hard to determine (see my footnote 7). I’m inclined to believe the falling suicide stats as a proxy, as they’re objective.

I also don't trust mental health time series to show whether conditions are becoming more common, because it's equally or more likely that more people are coming forward as having, e.g. depression, as it becomes very acceptable to talk about it. But suicide rates are hugely influenced by the social acceptability of suicide specifically, and easy access to suicide methods that allow you to successfully kill yourself on impulse (e.g. guns, which have become less accessible to people over time). So unfortunately I don't think suicide rates are a reliable way to track mental health problems over time either.
Some background on the IHME tool here: [] And I believe you can download all the underlying data & citations from there as well.
Oddly, Britain has never been happier

The aging did occur to me, but without doing the numbers I doubt it would have an effect that fast on happiness, and certainly not that fast on misery.

Re immigration, research shows immigrants mostly take on the happiness of the country they move to, partly retaining their previous happiness. And as most recent immigration has been from less happy countries (eg Eastern Europe), I’d expect the effect to be a small fall in happiness not a rise. Though again without doing the figures I doubt it would be big enough to affect the general shape of the graphs.

List of ways in which cost-effectiveness estimates can be misleading

Good article. Various things you mention are examples of bad metrics. Another common kind is metrics involving thresholds, e.g. the number of people below a poverty line. Since they treat all people below, or above, the line as equal to each other, when this is far from the case. (Living on $1/day is far harder than $1.90/day.) This often results in organisations wasting vast amounts of money/effort moving people from just below the line to just above, with little actual improvement, and perhaps ignoring others who could have been helped much more even if they couldn't be moved across the line.

A Happiness Manifesto: Why and How Effective Altruism Should Rethink its Approach to Maximising Human Welfare

Very good article. Re marriage, and also the Easterlin Paradox:

Re fig 1, marriage, more recent research shows the apparent reversion of satisfaction to singlehood level (or less) a few years after marriage actually just results from not controlling for age properly. Specifically, from the U-shaped happiness curve during the life course - people tend to marry before middle age, so get less happy as they approach middle age, not because of the marriage. (I think this may be mentioned in the recent Origins of Happiness book.)

Re fig 3 for UK, actually if you... (read more)

I am really puzzled by those graphs, mm. But as to the Easterlin paradox, it's still alive: [] Happiness has been increasing, and so has GDP, but the rates of increase still don't seem to have much of a relationship.
Collective Action and Individual Impact, Part II

A very interesting post (as was the previous one). On this point:

It seems most likely to me that marginal impact would have an S-shape... An additional person would probably do much more good for a small- or medium-sized march.

I expect in fact it's a large march where they make the most difference.

I model my guess at the likely curve shape and resulting benefit in a recent post, Rationality of demonstrating & voting.

Tiny Probabilities of Vast Utilities: A Problem for Long-Termism?

Very interesting - by pure chance I spent this morning thinking about this topic (from a position of relative ignorance). I look forward to the rest of the series!

Is Suffering Convex?

Not sure this follows. If we're capable of intelligently working out what's good for us, that makes us able to work out how to avoid the pain. But it doesn't seem a good reason for evolution to reduce the pain, as that would reduce the incentive for us to try to avoid it.

Is Suffering Convex?

I agree. I'm extremely wary of suggestions that you can compare the strength of children & adults' emotions/pain from their behaviour (or perhaps any other way). So it seems to me the only reasonable assumption is that they are the same for all humans who are fully conscious. (I.e. possibly lower for young babies, some mentally disabled; though the precautionary principle suggests we shouldn't assume this.)

I agree that it is morally justifiable to treat them as equal absent convincing evidence, but I don't think it's correct to claim we should assume they are equal.