All of JoelMcGuire's Comments + Replies

EA and the current funding situation

Creating projects that are maximally cost-effective is now comparatively less valuable; creating projects that are highly scalable with respect to funding, and can thereby create greater total impact even at lower cost-effectiveness, is comparatively more valuable. 

I think this framing is wrong, or at best unhelpful because we shouldn’t avoid prioritizing cost-effectiveness. When you stop prioritizing cost-effectiveness, it stops being effective altruism. Resources are still finite. The effectiveness of solutions to dire problems still differs dramati... (read more)

Snakebites kill 100,000 people every year, here's what you should know

Very nice post. Snappily written and information-dense. With a quick scroll, I feel like I learned a lot. I would really like more posts like this. Thank you!

The Bearable Brightness of Wellbeing: The life of an HLI researcher

I'll assume you're asking about the times in which something was truly revealed to me, and I wasn’t (as is commonly the case) just confused?

In that case, I’d say the top realizations are:

  1. Most meta-analyses are limited in their usefulness for comparing the effectiveness of interventions. Because few papers study where most of the impact happens: over time and in the rest of the recipient’s household or community. If we don’t know what happens over time or to the whole family, I don’t think we can confidently compare the effectiveness of interventions.
  2. When r
... (read more)
Open Philanthropy Shallow Investigation: Civil Conflict Reduction

Hi Lauren, fascinating post! I liked the section about possible interventions; I learned a lot (having no background in this area) and thought it was well summarised.

I would be particularly interested to see more research on training facilitators for therapy; there is a fairly limited supply of trained psychologists to conduct interventions; I really only think this has legs if it’s fairly easy to train people to teach CBT.

From my work looking into non-specialist delivered psychotherapy, it seems that it’s pretty easy to train people to provide psychothera... (read more)

Against cash benchmarking for global development RCTs

More worringly: what we really care about is not the gap between the effects at a given point in time. What we care about is the difference between the integrals of those curves. The difference in total impact (divided by program cost).

Yes.  I don't think the issue is with cash transfers alone. It's that most RCTs (I'm most familiar with the subjective wellbeing / mental health literature) don't perform or afford the analysis of the total impact of an intervention. The general shortcoming is the lack of information about the decay ... (read more)

Milan Griffes on EA blindspots

I’ve thought about this a bit and don’t think #2 is incorrect, although I could quibble with it as an “important” factor.

I think broadly improving mental health could reduce catastrophic risk if:

A. Catastrophic technologies (i.e., Big Red Buttons) will become cheaper to access. B. Someone unhinged is likelier to press a Big Red Button.

The connection here doesn't seem mysterious at all to me. Sane people are less likely to end the world.

However, this may be more about reducing variance in mental health than increasing its average level.

Looking for Resources/Video on Well-being Metric from Happiness Research Institute

Hi Esmi, 

I think the video you're referencing can be found on our website. Alongside it should be some other information on the topic of measuring wellbeing. Let me know if you have any questions. Always happy to chat! 

Yes, perfect, thank you!
You can find the recordings of all our previous talks on our YouTube channel too: []
What questions relevant to EA could be answered by surveying the public?

I agree that moral uncertainty implies it's a good idea to know what people's moral views are. 

Related to your last point: 

given uncertainty about what promotes this / measurement error in our measures of it (and perhaps also conceptual uncertainty about what it consists in, though this may collapse into moral uncertainty), I think it's plausible we should assign some weight to what people say they prefer in judging what is likely to promote their wellbeing.

Many EAs want to maximize wellbeing, and many pursue that aim using evidence. Given that, ... (read more)

What questions relevant to EA could be answered by surveying the public?

I would be interested to know the results of such a survey on these topics.  

Similarly, if experimental philosophy hasn’t already answered these questions, then I’d like to know if the public has any coherent views on “what wellbeing is, and what’s the badness of death?” I haven’t found anything in the literature that I could use, but I’m not very familiar with the research in this space. I think David has mentioned there being some extant literature surveying views on the badness of death, but I was not able to find it.

I know that David, you said:&nb... (read more)

How big are the intra-household spillovers for cash transfers and psychotherapy? Contribute your prediction for our analysis.

Hi there,

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I should have edited the form to allow only one answer per column and multiple answers per row.

Comments for shorter Cold Takes pieces

I would be interested in reading a summary of real utopias if one is available.

Chapter 5 [] summarizes some of the book's themes. This Guidelines article [] by Erik is an even shorter high-level take.
Donating money, buying happiness: new meta-analyses comparing the cost-effectiveness of cash transfers and psychotherapy in terms of subjective well-being

Hi Derek, thank you for your comment and for clarifying a few things.

  1. Time discounting: We will revisit time discounting when looking at interventions with longer time scales. To be clear, we plan to update these analyses for backwards compatibility as we introduce refinements to our models and analyse new interventions. 
  2. Costs: You’re right, expenses in an organisation can be lumpy over time. If costs are high in all previous years but low in 2019 and we only use the 2019 figures, we'd probably be making a wrong prediction about future costs. I think a
... (read more)
Donating money, buying happiness: new meta-analyses comparing the cost-effectiveness of cash transfers and psychotherapy in terms of subjective well-being

Hi Derek, it’s good to hear from you, and I appreciate your detailed comments. You suggest several features we should consider in our following intervention comparison and version of these analyses. I think trying to test the robustness of our results to more fundamental assumptions is where we are likeliest to see our uncertainty expand. But I moderately disagree that this is straightforward to adapt our model to. I’ll address your points in turn.   

  • Time discounting: We omitted time-discounting because we only look at effects lasting ten years o
... (read more)
Thanks for the reply. I don't have much more time to think about this at the moment, but some quick thoughts: 1. On time discounting: It might have been reasonable to omit discounting in this case for the reasons you suggest, but (a) it limits comparability across analyses if you or others do it elsewhere; (b) for various reasons, it would be good to have some estimate of the absolute, not just relative, costs and effects of these interventions; and (c) it's pretty easy to implement in most software, e.g. Excel and R (maybe less so in Guesstimate), so there isn't usually much reason not to do it. 2. On costs: (a) You only seem to measure depression, so if costs affect some other aspect of SWB then your analysis will not account for it. (b) It is also a good idea, where feasible, to account for non-monetary costs, such as lost time spent with family, and informal caregiver time. In this case, these are probably best covered by SWB outcomes, rather than being monetised, but since they involve spillovers on people other than the patient, they were not captured in this case. (c) Your detailed CEA of StrongMinds [] does not make it entirely clear what you mean by "all costs"; it just says "Our estimates of the average cost for treating a person in each programme are taken directly from StrongMinds' accounting of its costs from 2019," with no details about those accounts. For example, if they bought an expensive building in which to deliver training in 2018, that cost should normally be amortised over future years (roughly speaking, shared among future beneficiaries for the life of the building). So simply looking at 2019 expenditure does not necessarily capture "all costs". I suggest reading Chapter 7 of Drummond et al [
How can we make Our World in Data more useful to the EA community?

Hi Ed,

Here are some imaginary fruit:

1. At the Happier Lives Institute we would be very interested to see something like a global burden of disease except for suffering. What are the largest sources of unhappiness across the world? 

2. OWID summarized the results of studies on important topics. That is, it collected and visualized meta-analytic information for important topics from databases like AidGrade or MetaPsy

Donating money, buying happiness: new meta-analyses comparing the cost-effectiveness of cash transfers and psychotherapy in terms of subjective well-being

Hi Michael, 

I try to avoid avoid the problem by discounting the average effect of psychotherapy. The point isn’t to try and find the “true effect”. The goal is to adjust for the risk of bias present in psychotherapy’s evidence base relative to the evidence base of cash transfers. We judge the CTs evidence to be higher quality. Psychotherapy has lower sample sizes on average and fewer unpublished studies, both of which are related to larger effect sizes in meta-analyses (MetaPsy, 2020; Vivalt, 2020, Dechartres et al., 2018 ;Slavin et al., 2016). FWIW I... (read more)

Donating money, buying happiness: new meta-analyses comparing the cost-effectiveness of cash transfers and psychotherapy in terms of subjective well-being

Brian, I am glad to see your interest in our work! 

1.) We have discussed our work with GiveWell. But we will let them respond :).

2.) We're also excited to wade deeper into deworming. The analysis has opened up a lot of interesting questions. 

3.) I’m excited about your search for new charities! Very cool. I would be interested to discuss this further and learn more about this project. 

4.) You’re right that in both the case of CTs and psychotherapy we estimate that the effects eventually become zero. We show the trajectory of StrongMinds effec... (read more)

Thanks for the flag, Joel. 

Brian, our team is working on our own reports on how we view interpersonal group therapy interventions and subjective well-being measures more generally. We expect to publish our reports within the next 3-6 months. 

We have spoken to HLI about their work, and HLI has given us feedback on our reports. It’s been really helpful to discuss this topic with Michael, Joel, and the team at HLI. Their work has provided some updates to how we view this topic, even if we do not ultimately end up reaching the same conclusions.

We’re ... (read more)

Donating money, buying happiness: new meta-analyses comparing the cost-effectiveness of cash transfers and psychotherapy in terms of subjective well-being

Hi Siebe, thank you for the kind words! We agree that using SWB could help us find new opportunities! We’re excited to explore more of this area.

I was also surprised by the things you mention, but I think they make sense on reflection. I can share more of my reasoning if you'd like (but I'm unsure if that's what you were asking for).

We don’t have enough information to estimate the relationship between cost and effectiveness, but this is an interesting question! The issue is that we lack studies that contain both the effects and the costs of psychotherapy. ... (read more)

Donating money, buying happiness: new meta-analyses comparing the cost-effectiveness of cash transfers and psychotherapy in terms of subjective well-being

Hi Michael and thank you for your comments and engaging with our work! 

I may be misremembering, but doesn't GiveDirectly give to whole villages at a time, anyway, making negative spillover very unlikely? If that's the case, it seems like all of the spillover effects should be positive (in expectation).

To my understanding, GiveDirectly gives cash transfers to everyone in a village who is eligible. GiveWell says this means almost everyone in a village receives CTs in Kenya and Uganda but not Rwanda (note that GiveDirectly no longer works in Uganda). So ... (read more)

Five Books Influential On How I Think About Global Poverty

(I deleted a previous comment of the same content that was posted using another account. I reposted the same comment using this account to clarify that I am a researcher with the Happier Lives Institute.)

Hello and thank you for your post! I know this is just a book review, but I have some quibbles with your comments on measuring SWB / happiness.

First quote to comment on:

However, it is very difficult to measure utility. Our best studies produce counterintuitive results, such as that income only increases life satisfaction to the extent that you are richer t

... (read more)
Our innovations in Togo and the future of cash distribution

Hello, this is quite exciting!

How do you expect this to change the marginal cost of delivering an additional cash transfer compared to the method GiveDirectly currently uses? Assuming GD spends $100 delivering every $1000 CT using its previous method, what would it look like with MobileAid?

Has GiveDirectly received any pushback about this new method? Such as if there's negative effects on those who self enroll and are excluded or general privacy concerns from users (regardless of their merit)?

Measuring Animal Welfare: Philosophical Foundations, Practical Indicators, and Overall Assessments

Hi George (presumably),

I found this report very helpful as someone who mostly thinks about measuring the well-being of humans. I think it lays things out nicely : philosophical foundations, then the types of measurement instruments, ending with a discussion of  "state of the art" of what's commonly used.

I also appreciate how the report lays out assessments of reliability, validity and interpersonal comparisons of utility for each class of welfare indicators. However, I think a reader like myself would feel more oriented if each section concluded with ... (read more)

Hello Joel, I agree that in hindsight a summary of each indicator would probably have been useful to provide the reader with an overall assessment given the information I reviewed in the report. That model is roughly the way I was thinking of this assessment, with validity and interpersonal comparisons being how much I would update on a perfectly accurate measure, and reliability giving some sense how wide the confidence interval would be from a real world measurement. The trade off of these, between groups of indicators and individual indicators, adds some nuance so that a single physiological measure is reliable but can vary due to numerous other factors but a combination of them allows us to measure the welfare benefit of things that health can’t capture easily. For example, it may be better to minimise disease rates instead of blood glucose levels if given no context but disease rates would be unable to assess the importance of different types of environmental enrichment. If more people comment to express interest in an overview of each section, I am happy to invest the time to go back through the report to add in these sections. I definitely agree, which is partially why I put an example of self-reports in humans (which are in my opinion as close to ideal as we can get) alongside the measures we have available in other animals. This is what I currently view as the best available ('ideal') system given the weaker methods available. In this context, many of these indicators struggle on cross species comparisons. Take cortisol for example, where different species have different cortisol levels, making it difficult to compare levels or even percentage changes across species. We can gain some sense of the relative importance of different improvements or events for an individual from the degree of change of an indicator. An example of this within an operant test could be a human showing a mild preference for social contact vs food compared to a fox who shows the
Hey thanks for asking, it's the paragraphs from "Looking back" to "raw base rates to consider" In some ways this feels like a silly throwback, on the other hand I think it is actually more worth reading now that we're not caught up in the heat of the moment. More selfishly, I didn't post on EA Forum when I first wrote this, but have since been encouraged to share old posts that might not have been seen.
The effect of cash transfers on subjective well-being and mental health

Hi Akash, It's been a few months since your comment but I'm replying in case its still useful.

I'd be curious if you have a "rough sense" of why some programs seem to be so much better than others.

General note is that I am, for at least the next year, mostly staying away from comparing programs and instead will compare interventions.  Hopefully one can estimate the impacts of a program from the work I do modeling interventions. 

That being said let me try and answer your question. 

One of the reasons why CTs make an elegant benchmark is there a... (read more)

Very fair Jack! 

I agree its uncontroversial that if there are multiple elements of well-being that don't necessarily have equal weights -- there will be a point at which getting more of the thing that matters less will be better overall than getting the thing that matters more. 

Since Kaj included the  Bryan Caplan quote it seemed to imbue the comment with a bit more opinion on what matters. 

And most thoughtful traditions say to focus more on meaning that happiness. Meaning is how you evaluate your whole life, while happiness is how you

... (read more)
1Jack Malde1y
Yeah I think he may actually be referring to life satisfaction, but calling it meaning as a sort of informal short-hand. I'm not sure "meaning" is a very common wellbeing metric anyway.
Why do EAs have children?

It's hard for an anti-natal social movement to last the test of time.

I'd like to hear more discussion about this. If EA as a value system should last a very long time, is it sustainable to  convert enough other people's children to make up for the fact that we aren't (presumably) having as many?

An example motivating that question follows. It builds on / rephrases one of David's replies. 

Assuming there was only EAs and ineffective egoists (and the value systems are incompatible), and 1. each group was equally good at converting people from the oth... (read more)

If I may abstract a bit from the Shakerism example...

I agree that we should be able to "convert" people more cheaply than other movements could in the past. But that doesn't mean EAs relatively lower fecundity couldn't pose some issues for the LR sustainability of the movement.

The question of "can we sustain the movement over time?" is whether 1. we can convert other peoples children more effectively than competing ideologies can convert ours and 2. that we can do so enough to make up for our relatively lower birthrates.

(Assuming we don't find a third way ... (read more)

Big +1

compared 132 different countries based on whether people felt that their life has an important purpose or meaning, African countries including Togo and Senegal were at the top of the ranking, while the U.S. and Finland were far behind.

I haven't explored this in depth, but it's worth stressing that this indicates that measures of meaning appear to lead to a much more counter intuitive ranking of countries than LS or happiness.

If meaning matters more to well-being than happiness or life satisfaction, then we are probably very, very wrong about what makes a life go well. 

To be fair to Kaj they only said that one may rationally trade-off happiness for meaning, not that meaning intrinsically matters more.

For example you could theoretically have both meaning and happiness as components of wellbeing, with both having diminishing marginal contribution to wellbeing. In this case it would likely be best to have some meaning and some happiness. If one was very happy, but with no meaning, one could rationally trade off happiness for meaning to improve overall wellbeing - and this wouldn't require thinking that meaning is intrinsically better than happiness.

Big +1

If SSC survey respondents were a good proxy for EA community then that seems to indicate EAs are having significantly fewer kids than the average American. 

Not sure if this apples to apples but this source suggests that 85%  of American women over 40 have had a kid

But the question isn't well defined, what is "so few?". If it means "basically none" then David's probably right. If it means "less than the average American" then probably. If it means "less than an average white westerner of similar education and income" then I don't know. 

Mostly agree - based on the post, I was thinking of "so few" as "basically none," but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it were less than average for the comparable group. And I don't think SSC is anything like a perfect proxy, and I assume it somewhat over-represents people who are less involved in rationality/EA, and are more likely to have kids, but it's the closest proxy I could easily find.
Ecosystems vs Projects in EA Movement Building

I think the Charter Cities Institute is as an example of an ecosystem coordinator — they really seem to be the go to people for the area.

The effect of cash transfers on subjective well-being and mental health

I realized my previous reply might have been a bit misleading so I am adding this as a bit of an addendum. 

There are previous calculations which include WELLBY like calculations such as Michael's comparison of StrongMinds to GiveDirectly in his 2018 Mental Health cause profile or in Origins of Happiness / Handbook for WellBeing Policy Making in the UK. Why do we not compare our effects to these previous efforts? Most previous estimates looked at correlational effects and give no clear estimate of the total effect through time. 

An a... (read more)

Thank you for following up and clarifying that.
Just on the different effect sizes from different methods, where do/would RCT methods fit in with the four discussed by Kaats? FWIW, I agree that a meta-analysis of RCTs isn't a like-for-like to a single RCT. That said, when(if?) we exhaust the existing SWB literature relevant t cost-effectiveness we should present everything we find (which shouldn't hard as there's not much!).
The effect of cash transfers on subjective well-being and mental health


Glad to hear you're excited!

Unfortunately, we do not have a clear picture yet of how many WELLBYs per dollar is a good deal. Cash transfers are the first intervention we (and I think anyone) have analyzed in this manner. Figuring this out is my priority and I will soon review the cost effectiveness of other interventions which should give more context. To give a sneak peak, cataracts surgery is looking promising in terms of cost effectiveness compared to cash transfers.

I see, thanks for the teaser :) I was under the impression that you have rough estimate for some charities (e.g. StrongMinds). Looking forward to see your future work on that.
Learnings about literature review strategy from research practice sessions

...a lack of good resources on how to actually do research.

Yes! It's hard to convey that you need to have already done a literature search to know what you need to search in the first place.

I second "Focus on breadth first!". Googling is cheap. Search longer than you think you need to. An additional good paper can be decisive in forming a view on a new topic. 

Searching smartly is often more effective than going down the citation trail.

I think "going down the citation trail" can often be very fruitful, especially if you search citations within a founda... (read more)

Thanks! Yes! You're totally right that going down the citation trail with the right paper can be better than search, I just edited to reflect that. This spreadsheet seems great. So far we've only found ways to practice the early parts of literature review so we never created anything so sophisticated but that seems like a good method
Some extremely rough research on giving and happiness

This an interesting topic, but one I haven't looked into much. I would like to see more work on this because while some claim that the link between prosocial spending and well-being is universal (Aknin et al., 2013) I wonder if that was a bit premature .  The study I reference found cross sectional correlations between subjective well-being and prosocial spending in 136 countries and followed this up with a few small experiments that concurred. 

Some other literature in the area for what it's worth: A series of recent pre-registered experiments (n... (read more)