Michelle_Hutchinson

I work as an Advisor for 80,000 Hours, before which I worked at the Global Priorities Institute and ran Giving What We Can.

Comments

What are your main reservations about identifying as an effective altruist?

I don't feel comfortable saying 'I'm an effective altruist', though if someone asks me if I am one the most truthful answer is clearly 'yes'. I think I'm not that keen on labels in general, though there are some I'm comfortable with, including 'feminist' and 'utilitarian'.  I was one of the participants Jonas mentions. 

This is basically an instinct rather than a thought-through opinion, but at a guess, the biggest reasons for my hesitation are: 
- It feels self-aggrandising to call myself 'an effective altruist'. It feels hard to really know that I'm altruistic (as opposed to doing work I find fulfilling for example), and even harder to know that insofar as I'm altruistic, I'm being effective about it. On the other hand, I understand utilitarian to mean something like 'I think better outcomes are the ones with more wellbeing in, and those are the ones I'm aiming at'. That feels like something I'm happy to claim. 
- Identifying some people as 'effective altruists' feels like it's dividing people unnecessarily. I think most people want to help others, and most people would like to do so in a way that's effective rather than ineffective. Obviously, I really like the idea of there being tools and mechanisms (like this forum) for helping people do that, and also a community of people trying particularly hard to do this and do so in particular ways. And having some label for those does seem useful, so it does seem hard not to do this 'identifying'.  

EA Funds is more flexible than you might think

Relevant for people trying to get funding for a project: 

People could consider writing up their project as a blog post on the forum see if they get any bites for funding. In general, I think I'd encourage people looking for funding to do more writing up one page summaries of what they would like to get funded. It would include things like: 

  • Problem the project addresses
  • Why the solution the project proposes is the right one for the problem
  • Team and why  they're well suited to work on this

I'd guess if you write a post like this there'd be quite a few people happy to read that and answer if it sounds like something they'd be interested to fund / if they know anyone to pass it on to / what more they'd need to know to fund or pass it on. Whereas my perception is that currently people feeling out a potential project and whether it could get funded are much more likely to approach people to ask to get on a call, which is far more time consuming and doesn't allow someone to quickly answer 'this isn't for me, but this other person might be interested'. 

Why EA groups should not use “Effective Altruism” in their name.

I love the specificity of your 'How to pick a name' section. I imagine that will be really useful in helping people follow through finding a good name.

80,000 Hours one-on-one team plans, plus projects we’d like to see

Thanks for this feedback! It's really useful to know that this would make it easier to put yourself out there. We're in the process of changing the application form to connect better with our career planning process, to hopefully make filling it out a commitment mechanism for getting started on making a career plan (since doing so is often aversive). As part of that, we aim to send people a google doc of the relevant answers in a readily shareable format and encourage people to send it to friends and others whose judgement they trust.

I also find it pretty scary to email people out of the blue, even if I know them, particularly to ask them for something. But my hope is that if someone already has a doc they want comments on, and it's been explicitly suggested they send that to friends, it will make it a bit easier to ask for this kind of help. Increasing the extent to which people do that seems good to me, since my impression is that although people find it hard to reach out, most people would actually be happy to give their friends comments on something like this!

80,000 Hours one-on-one team plans, plus projects we’d like to see

It is extremely upsetting for people to apply and get turned down, especially if they found 80k materials at some emotional time (releasing they are not satisfied with their current job or studies). It is very hard to not interpret this as "you are not good enough".

I am so sad that we are causing this. It is really tough to make yourself vulnerable to strangers and reach out for help, only to have your request rebuffed. That’s particularly hard when it feels like a judgement on someone’s worth, and more particularly on their ability to help others. And I think there are additional reasons for these rejections being particularly tough:

  • If you’re early on in your career (as most of our readers are) and haven’t yet experienced many rejections, they will hit harder than if you’re more used to them
  • Effective altruism is often experienced as an identity, above and beyond its ideas and the community. This makes a rejection feel particularly sensitive
  • Whenever you’re being judged, it’s hard to keep in mind how little information the person has about you. Our application is far shorter and more informal than, say, university applications. We therefore often have pretty little information about people and so are correspondingly likely to make the wrong call. But since the person filling in the application knows all about themselves, it’s hard for them not to take it as an indictment of them overall.

I do want to highlight that our not talking to someone isn’t a sign we don’t think they will have an (extremely) impactful career; rather it is simply a sign that we don't think we’ll be as helpful to them as we could be to some other people. So while I deeply empathise with the feelings I describe above and I expect I would feel the same way in a similar situation, I don’t think people are actually right to feel like they “are not good enough”.

I realise it’s probably no consolation, but, on a personal note, needing to turn down people who are asking for my help is unquestionably the worst part of my job. We spent a significant part of last year trying to find an alternative model we believe would be as impactful as our current process but wouldn’t involve soliciting and then rejecting so many applications. Unfortunately, we didn’t find one. I think it’s my responsibility to implement the model we think is best, but it’s hard to feel like I’m doing the right thing when I know I’m disappointing so many people. I often only get through reviewing applications by reminding myself of our mission and trying to bring to mind the huge numbers of people in the future who may never get to exist and are entirely voiceless, and for whose sake it is that I have to refuse to help people in front of me today that I care about.

80,000 Hours one-on-one team plans, plus projects we’d like to see

By focusing on people "for whom you’ll have useful things to say", you talk to people who do not need additional resources (like guidance or introductions) for increasing their impact. The contrafactual impact is low. For example, testimonials on the website include PhD Student in Machine Learning at Cambridge and the President of Harvard Law School Effective Altruism.

I don’t quite agree here. I was counting ‘additional resources’ like guidance and introductions as ‘things to say’. So focusing on people for whom we have useful things to say should increase rather than decrease the extent to which we talk to people who need these resources to increase their impact.

I agree we’re not always good at figuring out which people could most benefit from our providing resources / introductions. We try to keep calibrating on this from our conversations. That’s clearly easier in the case of noticing people we talk to for whom we couldn’t be that useful than the opposite. To counter that asymmetry, we try to do experiments with tweaking which people we speak to in order to get a sense of how useful we can be to different groups.

With respect to your concrete examples:

The descriptions we’ve given of people on that page is actually from where they’re at a year or two after we speak to them. That’s because it takes a while for us to figure out if the conversation was actually useful to them. For example, I think Cullen wasn’t President of HL EA when we spoke to them.

That aside, on the question of whether we should generally speak to people with these types of profiles:

Being a PhD student in Machine Learning doesn’t seem like an indication of how much someone knows about / has interacted with the effective altruism community. So it doesn’t seem to me like it should count against us talking to them. (Though of course the person might in fact already be well connected to the EA community and not stand to benefit much from talking to us.)

It seems like a hard decision to me whether someone running an EA student group should count in favour of or against our speaking to them. On the one hand, they might well be steeped enough in effective altruism they won’t benefit that much from us recommending specific resources to them. They’re also in a better position to reach out to other EAs to ask for their advice than people new to the community would be. On the other hand, it’s a strong signal that they want to spend their energies improving the world as much as possible, and so our research will definitely be applicable for them. It’s also not a foregone conclusion that someone running a student group has had much opportunity to sound board their career with others who feel equally strongly about helping the world, let alone those with similar values but more experience. So I could imagine us being really useful for EA group leaders, despite the caveats above.

80,000 Hours one-on-one team plans, plus projects we’d like to see

A month-long period of reviewing the application is prohibitive and disappointing.

I agree this is too long, and I’m sad that it was actually longer than this at times. Right now I’m mostly managing to review them within a week, and almost always within 2 weeks. I wouldn’t want to promise to always be able to do this, but it’s much easier now we have a team of people working on advising.

I have an impression that 80k accepted a long time ago that that wait time will just have to be pretty long.

I'm actually really keen to avoid us having long wait times. Career decisions are often pretty time sensitive due to application and decision deadlines. Thinking about your overall career also seems pretty aversive to me, so I think it's important to capitalise on people's enthusiasm and energy for doing those occur. Right now we're aiming to have slots available in the next couple of weeks after we've accepted an application, though it might take a few weeks before there are slots that work for a person, particularly if they're in a very different time zone than us.

80,000 Hours one-on-one team plans, plus projects we’d like to see

Thanks for sharing your view. It’s useful for us to get an overall sense of whether others think our work is useful in order to sense check our views and continue figuring out whether this is the right thing for us to focus our time on. It's also important to hear detail about what the problems with it are so that we can try to address them. I’ll respond to your points in separate comments so that they’re easier to parse and engage with.

80,000 Hours one-on-one team plans, plus projects we’d like to see

I'm afraid I don't really know anything about discord (me and tech are not the best of friends...), but from your description it sounds good! I think there is some EA activity on discord, so maybe you could build off that. I don't know anything about the form it takes or how to find it though unfo - but I'm guessing others on this forum do.

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