A model for engagement growth in universities

Thanks to Warren Sunada-Wong, Emma Abele, James Aung, Juan David Gil, Trevor Levin, Matt Burtell and Lovre Pešut for feedback.

Epistemic status: not very certain in anything. At first the post was filled with multiple “it seems that” per paragraph, but I went and deleted them to make it more readable, so preface the whole post with a big “it seems that”.

This post will contain a bunch of loosely connected thoughts on how to increase the number of highly-engaged EAs (“HEAs”) at university groups (where I use “highly-engaged” roughly to refer to people who dedicate most of their energy to EA cause areas).

This model is mostly constructed from my experiences observing and participating in EA Croatia (which I co-founded), and the EA community in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


In short:

  • We should be optimizing for increasing the number of highly engaged individuals, as most of the impact comes from a minority of highly engaged people.

  • To find promising people, we should have a campus presence so that anyone looking for us can find us, and promising people can be found quickly.

  • An individual’s engagement level is highly dependent on the engagement level of people they interact with.

  • Once someone becomes highly engaged, they are less likely to become less engaged than someone who is at a medium level of engagement.

  • We should create socials and retreats mostly populated with highly engaged people, with a few promising people sprinkled in until the promising people become highly engaged.

  • Groups should keep their engagement levels and epistemic norms very high, especially for people in organizer roles.

  • Fellowships and reading groups serve as a good way to find promising people, and get information out to people in a non socially taxing and accountable way.


What should community builders optimize for?

It seems that most of the value produced by EAs comes from a handful of highly engaged individuals, so we should be optimizing for increasing the number of HEAs.

It is easier for people to become HEAs during college than after college (I’m quite certain that it’s not significantly harder), as they’re less locked into their career plans, and are in a stage of life where they’re supposed to have their mind changed a lot.

How do you find promising people initially?

It’s important that most of the people on campus should know that the EA club exists, so that all the insta-EAs (people who become highly engaged after a relatively small amount of exposure) are caught early on. There should be a clear and low-friction way to reach out (a contact page, for instance) so that people on the fence can get a response and set up a 1-on-1 quickly.

Some low-cost ways to increase presence are:

  • Table at the club fair

  • Have a website

  • Merch (laptop stickers, t-shirts)

Some ways to get people to initially engage (ordered roughly by amount of friction) are:

  • Talks

  • 1-on-1s

  • Reading groups

  • Fellowships

Engagement through socialization

The main claims of this post are:

  • The engagement of individuals is highly dependent on the engagement of the people they come into contact with, either literally or by exposure to media created by someone.

  • High levels of engagement are relatively stable (harder to change than medium or low levels).

The second point comes mostly from intuition: If you imagine a highly engaged person surrounded by non-engaged people and a non-engaged person surrounded by highly engaged people, the non-engaged person’s engagement will probably increase faster than the engaged person’s engagement will decrease.

Very high levels of engagement seem to be hard to decrease. The high engagement “zone” is probably entered around the point when someone changes career plans and becomes embedded in the community.

Mutual support

The most obvious reason why engagement is contagious is probably because of people supporting each other in having a larger impact. Involving someone in a project is a good way to get them personally invested, and engaged people often tell each other to aim high about increasing their impact.

Internalization of importance

For most newcomers, “drop everything and work on an EA cause area” isn’t something they think about possibly doing in the future. Meeting people who have dedicated a lot of their time to EA makes it more palpable. I’ve seen quite a few people reply something like “I should think about doing that too” when they ask HEAs what they do.

I think many people who know much about EA but aren’t highly engaged haven’t internalized the information enough to put it to action. If you think there will be a flood tonight and then go to sleep in your basement, did you really internalize the fact that there will be a flood? Being exposed to people who have gone from thinking about EA to doing EA is a good way to internalize the implications better.

Locally making engagement high(er) status

I often hear people say things like “they’re so cool” or “they’re superhuman” about individuals who are highly engaged with EA. Saying this makes newcomers want to emulate these individuals more and become more engaged to get some of that sweet, sweet status.

Talking about ideas and pointing to resources

One of the most common things I hear in conversations where there is a high difference in engagement of the interlocutors is “you should really read this” or “I read/​listened to this really good thing the other day”. Some newcomers I’ve seen leave every social with a list of things to read (I still do this sometimes). Side point is that people are much more eager to read stuff that has been recommended by multiple people independently. I sometimes hear stuff like “Someone else recommended that to me too! I should really read that!”.

It’s important not to do this too much. If you, as an individual, recommend too much stuff, then people will probably take your recommendations less seriously. Make sure to be conservative about recommending new stuff, and err on the side of (gently) checking in if they’ve read something you’ve already recommended, rather than recommending something new. One recommendation per conversation is probably near the sweet spot.

Influence factors

The two main things that increase how much influence an individual has on someone else’s engagement levels are:

  1. Amount of interaction: people who interact more with others influence them more, up to a certain point where they interact with others so much that they become annoying (which seems to be hard to reach).

  2. Status: leaders and board members serve as role models of what an engaged person should be doing. Cool/​popular people who have credentials and/​or seem to know what they’re talking about have more influence (is that a tautology?).


Surround promising people with HEAs

We should create social gatherings and groups where most people are highly engaged, with a few promising people sprinkled in (making sure HEAs interact with them). When the promising people become highly engaged, we sprinkle in more promising people, and repeat.

There should be a lot of socials with varying levels of average engagement, but there should probably be at least 30% of HEAs at every social. Regular meals should be held as much as possible given the number of HEAs that could attend each one.

Socials mostly populated with HEAs (with a few promising people sprinkled in) are probably very good to hold often. Aside from the mutual support and increase in engagement, they can serve as an opportunity for promising members to get a glimpse into what the community is like, and increase engagement rapidly for selected promising people.

Be careful about quick expansion

Too much expansion in a short period of time could lead to the group becoming watered down in terms of engagement, making it harder to get new members more engaged. This probably mostly comes down to the fact that there are just fewer HEAs per newcomer, and it makes it hard to devote time to getting each of them to engage more.

Retreats should mostly have HEAs

Most retreat spots should be filled with people who are as engaged as possible, probably leaving around 10-30% of spots for promising people.

There are two posts about retreats that mention engagement levels of attendees (by Yale EA and by CZEA), and the Yale EA post says they admitted “20 people at Yale who have the highest level of EA understanding and motivation to actively engage”, while the “Expected number of hours participants plan to spend on EA activities” for people going into the CZEA retreat was 11.8 per week. So, both of them seem to have targeted highly engaged individuals.

When admitting too many newcomers, there’s also the risk of pockets of newcomers forming where they don’t interact much with the highly engaged people and/​or amplify epistemically unsound objections.

I’m especially curious about what people have to say about this ratio. It’s high stakes because, for example, a 10% absolute increase from 10% to 20% would double the number of newcomers being exposed to HEAs.

Fellowships and reading groups as mostly informational

Fellowships and reading groups can serve as low-friction ways to get people out of the zero engagement zone, but it seems that most of the value from them comes from two things:

  1. They offer a low-social-cost way of getting people to read things (while being held accountable) and get more knowledgeable about EA. Recommending all of the readings of a fellowship/​reading group one by one probably incurs a much greater social cost than just recommending the fellowship or reading group itself.

  2. They offer a good way to spend a lot of time with newcomers, and can be useful for finding promising people who can be sorted into activities that are further in the funnel.

Board members and leaders should be highly engaged

It’s very important that organizers are highly engaged. If they aren’t, then newcomers’ engagement will probably be quite bottlenecked, because not many people want to “be more Catholic than the pope”.

Members should maintain high epistemic standards

In a growth model that’s dependent on personal interaction with HEAs, it’s very important that HEAs have good epistemic standards. A lack of epistemic standards could lead to growth stopping a few steps in. It’s good to check each other’s epistemic standards, and perhaps rationality workshops/​reading groups for group organizers is something we should think about.

I’m unsure about what this practically implies for outreach strategy. The thing I’m pointing at is “we need to make sure EA doesn’t lose fidelity when being spread from person to person”, but how we can accomplish this is mostly a mystery to me.

Import HEAs if there isn’t a critical mass to begin with

If there isn’t a critical mass of people with whom you can start the process of surrounding promising people with HEAs, you can get HEAs from other places with relative sufficits to do residencies until you get the ball rolling. This went successfully in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when a bunch of HEAs from Stanford and Brown visited at the beginning of the fall semester this year and spent a lot of time with a few promising people (including myself). Some of those promising people have by now become HEAs. A similar thing seems to have happened at UPenn recently when Sydney and Thomas from Stanford EA helped University of Pennsylvania EA get off the ground.