The perspectives on effective altruism we don’t hear

This is my contribution to the December blogging carnival on “blind spots.”

If I’d heard about effective altruism in different circumstances, I think I could have reacted quite negatively to the whole concept. If I’d been introduced to the idea of effective altruism by a friend who put a slightly negative spin on it, saying it was cold or overly demanding or something, I can totally imagine myself forming a negative impression. I’d be surprised if I were the only person for whom this were true.

Perhaps we should be thinking more about how the ideas of effective altruism might be—and are being—perceived by different people, to ensure that people like me don’t end up being put off. It’s not that we don’t spend any time thinking about this—there’s certainly a fair amount of talk about how to “pitch” or “frame” effective altruism and giving. But most of this discussion is internal—just a bunch of people who are already convinced by EA talking about how it might be perceived. As objective as we can try to be, there’s obviously a massive selection bias here.

The opinions we don’t hear

My friend Uri Bram recently wrote a great little article for Quartz called “ The most important person at your company doesn’t work for you .” He makes the following point: the people who stay working at your company are a very non-random sample of all the people who could possibly work for you, obviously—they’re likely to be those who feel most positively about the company. This means that if you only seek feedback from your current employees, you’ll likely get the impression that things are going pretty much fine. It’s the people who left the company, or who never applied in the first place, who are most likely to have useful information about the company’s shortcomings.

I think the same point applies to the EA movement. If we want to really get an accurate picture of the shortcomings and possible failure modes of the movement, we need to do more than talk about it ourselves (although this is certainly useful.) We also need to actively seek out feedback from people who aren’t already convinced by EA, people who have a negative impression of EA, or perhaps people who were initially interested but were put off by something, or just didn’t get more involved. I can think of plenty of people like this myself, and yet I’m not spending much time asking for their opinions and considering them as valuable, relevant feedback.

Maybe you’re already doing this much more than me—I’m sure some people are, and that’s great. But I also think it’s not something we’ve prioritised or talked much about explicitly as a group. This is surprising, in a way—seeking negative feedback is such an obviously useful thing. So why aren’t we doing this more?

Valuing feedback isn’t enough

One possible explanation is just that seeking criticism is a psychologically difficult thing to do. I think this is definitely at least part of what’s going on. Most effective altruists I know really value feedback and criticism—much more than the average person—and are much better at seeking feedback than most as a result. But we’re all still human, and so for most of us, having our beliefs challenged still feels unpleasant sometimes. It feels especially unpleasant when it comes to issues that are close to your identity or social group—which is certainly the case for many with effective altruism.

Another, related problem is that it’s easy to immediately write off people who react negatively to EA as “just not like us.” This isn’t an explicit thing, but it can happen implicitly—I’ve noticed myself thinking something like this. Someone criticises some element of effective altruism and I’ll find myself writing their comment off with a thought like “they just don’t really get it”, or “they’re biased because x”, or “they’re not really the kind of person we’d expect to be interested.” I’ve had some fairly heated discussions with my parents about the GWWC pledge, for example—they don’t particularly like the idea of me donating a substantial proportion of my earnings right now for various reasons. When we initially had these conversations, I mostly wrote off their comments as “them just not getting it” at best, and “them being crazy unreasonable” at worst. It’s only recently that I’ve started to see these conversations as a useful piece of feedback—both a different perspective on how I should prioritise my spending, and on how certain ideas might be off-putting to others. This doesn’t mean I have to agree with them, but I do now see that their perspective is useful for me to understand.

Rejecting something someone else says with “they don’t get it” or “they’re being unreasonable” is essentially a defensive reaction. What this misses is that every piece of feedback—no matter how it’s framed or where it comes from—contains useful information.

Finally, actively seeking out feedback from others—especially those who aren’t immediately within our social circle—can just be effortful. Even if you know that seeking feedback is a good idea and you’re not actively avoiding it, it takes time and effort to actually go and ask questions, think about different perspectives, and to extract useful information from it. These conversations can also be awkward or lead to conflict. A big part of the reason I don’t always talk to my family and friends about effective altruism is that I don’t want to seem like I’m preaching, or get into a heated discussion.

How can we obtain more varied perspectives on effective altruism?

So what can we do, practically speaking, to reduce this selection effect and get more useful information about where the EA movement be going wrong? A few ideas:

  1. See casual conversations with friends and family as an opportunity to learn about their perspective . If someone you’re talking to isn’t immediately taken in by an idea you’re telling them about, it’s natural to think you can either switch topic or try harder to persuade them. But there’s a third option: you could try to better understand what their perspective is on what you’re saying, and why it might not appeal to them. You might not agree with their perspective, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. It’s still their reaction, and others might have a similar one—and it’s valuable for the effective altruism movement to see where these perspectives are coming from.
  2. Making more effort to understand the perspectives of those who are critical of effective altruism—people who write critical pieces online or argue in Facebook comments, for example. It’s so natural to get on the defensive in these situations, but it’s also so valuable to take a step back and ask: what is making them think or feel this way? Why does what I’m saying seem wrong or triggering to them? How might their beliefs and values differ from mine to make this the case?
  3. Actively seeking out feedback from people who seem to have a negative or not-entirely-positive view of effective altruism . This could include a range of people: friends and family, those who have spoken out publicly in criticism, or perhaps people who we might expect to be aligned with effective altruism but don’t appear that interested—there are a number of academics and public figures who might fit this description that it could be really valuable to talk to.
  4. Doing online studies and surveys to get more data on how people react to different framings of effective altruism . As I said at the beginning of this post, the way that messages are framed can make a massive difference to how people react to them. I think there’s still a lot that we could learn about how people respond to different ways of talking about effective altruism, and the kinds of people who find the ideas most appealing. Running studies online is one way we could get a lot of information on this at relatively low cost.
I’d be interested in what others think—whether we should be focusing on getting more diverse perspectives, and, if so, what the best strategies for doing that are.