How we can make it easier to change your mind about cause areas
TL:DR- Individual cause area re-prioritization is hard and may be getting harder. It would be helpful to have a toolkit of techniques for making the process easier and better. I highly recommend most of you give $20 to a charity in every major EA cause area, and also do some other things.
It’s hard, and possibly getting harder, for an individual EA to re-prioritize between causes. There are a few simple and practical measures we can use to make the cause selection go more smoothly and effectively. Here are a few reasons I’ve seen (or think I’ve seen) a lot of evidence for recently in myself and other EAs.
1) Sticking with one cause feels good/familiar, and unfamiliar other cause areas don’t feel as good (maybe Mere-exposure effect has gotten to you, or maybe you were always more comfortable with one for separate reasons).
2) You identify with a cause area or charity, and might lose that emotional connection if you donated* elsewhere (plus loss aversion twice over: once for losing the particular connection, and again for losing some confidence that you can or should become attached to a given cause or charity). This is one I struggle with a lot.
3) You fear you would lose status if you changed your mind, or that it would be socially difficult or costly to do so because of personal or professional relationships.
4) You “aren’t the kind of person” who donates to a certain cause area (I heard slight variations on this 5-ish times at EAG, e.g. “I’m not a radical EA that gives to fringe causes”). You don’t (just) identify with cause X, you identify with not-cause Y and Z. This makes me sad.
5) You thought hard about this a while back, and have since cached the idea that you’ve done the mental work of cause selection satisfactorily. You may not be aware that there were holes in your original reasoning, or that new evidence has come to light that affects your earlier conclusions.
I expect all of these to grow more powerful over time. As our donation histories lengthen, we have more opportunities to identify more strongly with a certain charity or cause. More habituation takes place. Our community becomes more entrenched, and so we can expect more and stronger interpersonal relationships that make radical changes potentially costly. Reasoning that may have originally been sound is more likely to become outdated if it’s not updated.
It’s well worth small amounts of effort to fight identity ossification of this sort early and often, if the efforts are effective. Identities are powerful, and we should actively manage them. I fear these processes will decrease cause selection quality. On the other hand, longer exposure to EA means greater exposure to information about other cause areas. Hopefully the second force is stronger.
Regardless, it would be helpful to have a toolkit of measures to push back against possible trends 1-5 without hurting the positive aspects of those trends, like stronger communities and more comfort with the process of giving.
What can we do about this? I’m not sure, but here are a few things I’ve been experimenting with.
1) Give a small donation ($20) to a charity in each major cause area, especially the ones you’ve never donated to before. This will help prevent strong identification as a not-donor to cause area X or as only a donor to cause area Y. It may decrease the perceived foreignness of other cause areas than your current favorite.
2) Try Ideological Turing Tests to check how well you understand the arguments for other courses of action.
3) If you feel comfortable, make a habit of asking other EAs to explain how they picked their cause area, and invite them to try to convince you to change your mind, so they don’t have to worry about being inappropriately aggressive towards people who don’t want it.
4) Then document and share these arguments so lots of people don’t unwittingly reproduce the same work.
5) De-stigmatize talking about emotional attachment to causes. My strong impression is that many EAs have these attachments, but feel they have no place in the ideal EA conversation about cause selection, so they repress or subvert those feelings out of fear of looking irrational, or having their opinions be taken less seriously.
What else would people recommend to make cause re-prioritization easier? How can we manage our personal relationships and local community dynamics so that they are strong and meaningful, but interfere as little as possible with our donating decisions?
*throughout, I use “donating” as a shorthand for any action, including volunteering, professional work, journalistic coverage, political advocacy, and more, that’s in support of a given cause area.