In (mild) defence of the social/​professional overlap in EA

The EA community has both a professional aspect and a social aspect; sometimes, these overlap. In particular, there are networks of EAs in major hubs who variously date each other, are friends with each other, live together, work at the same organizations, and sometimes make grantmaking or funding decisions related to each other. (I’ll call this the ‘work/​social overlap’ throughout).

Recently, lots of people have criticised the work/​social overlap in EA, blaming it for things like the misogynistic, abusive dynamics described in the recent Time article, or for the FTX collapse. In this post, I talk a bit about why I’m wary of calls to “deal with” or “address” the work/​social overlap in some way (this includes, but isn’t limited to, calls to “deal with” polyamory in EA specifically).

This is partly because I think that the work/​social overlap has some strong benefits, which is why it exists, and the benefits outweigh the drawbacks (though we should certainly try to mitigate the drawbacks as best we can). If you want to get rid of something, you should first try to make sure that it’s not importantly load-bearing first; I think in fact that EA work/​social overlap probably is importantly load-bearing in some ways. (I never thought that I’d be invoking a Chesterton’s fence argument in support of polyamorously dating all your coworkers :p but there we go).

And it’s partly because I think it’s immoral and harmful to try to prevent people from consensually forming relationships with whom they want, and it’s only a little better if the mechanisms you use to attempt this are supposedly “soft” or “non-coercive”.

In Forum tradition, disclosures and caveats first:

I’m fully embedded in the EA work/​social overlap. I work as a freelancer, mostly with EA clients, some of whom I know socially; I live in London and am friends with many other London EAs; and I’m dating two other EAs.

I also want to acknowledge that there are downsides to the work/​social overlap—the critics aren’t wrong about their points, they are just missing important other parts of the story. In particular:

1. The work/​social overlap gives rise to conflicts-of-interest (and this is more of a problem in highly poly communities, because there are just more conflict-of-interest-ish relationships)

2. The work/​social overlap means that people who are engaged with EA professionally, but not part of the social community, may miss out on opportunities. The recent ‘come hang out in the Bay Area’ push seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that this is, in fact, how it works. It’s good that Bay Area EAs tried to mitigate this by inviting non-locals to visit the Bay and get more plugged in to the in-person social community, but it would be better, in my opinion, if organizations in hubs were less clique-y and more willing to hire people who weren’t part of the social community (and indeed, people who don’t identify as EA at all).

3. You’re putting all your eggs in one basket. If you live with EAs, date EAs, are friends with EAs, and work with EAs, it makes the thought of leaving the EA community really hard. This is bad for epistemics: for a while, I found it really hard to think clearly about where I stood on EA philosophical/​ideological positions, because I felt so ‘locked in’ to the community in all parts of my life.

(I got past this thanks to a fruitful coaching session with Tee Barnett, where he pointed out that my social relationships formed through EA are now much deeper than our EA connection, and when I actually thought about it, I realised that most of my EA friends wouldn’t ditch me or disown me if I came to disagree with EA, so leaving EA wouldn’t really mean losing access to my social community. So, thanks Tee!)

I would really support efforts to mitigate these downsides to the work/​social overlap. But I don’t think the answer is ‘get rid of the work/​social overlap’. I think working with one’s friends and friendly fellow community members is really motivating and meaningful, and to the extent that EAs do that healthily, it’s actually a real benefit to the community.

People choose whom they date and befriend—no-one is forcing EAs to date each other, live together, or be friends. EAs associate socially because they share values and character traits. If you show me a random EA, I’ll be quite confident (though not 100%) that they’ll be altruistic, interested in discussing unusual ideas, and invested in thinking clearly about deep issues. These things are really important to me, and I really want to date and be friends with people who share these traits. Of course, it’s not only EAs who have these traits (and not all EAs have the traits); but the EA community concentrates this sort of people. I’ll probably find more compatible potential friends/​partners at an EA gathering than at gathering of randomly-selected people. So I find it unsurprising that many EAs living in hubs have, like me, ended up dating and befriending each other.

Even though the work/​social overlap is inevitable, it might still not be good. But I think there are advantages. First, you spend a lot of time at work. Would you rather work with people you like and care about, or people you don’t like and don’t vibe with? Ordinary workplaces do team-building exercises because they recognise that there are productivity and morale benefits when colleagues trust each other, respect each other, and have fun together. If you work with friends—or befriend your coworkers, e.g. by regularly hanging out with them outside of work, or sharing a group house together—you get these benefits for free.

(Of course, a dark side to this is that people might hire their friends at the expense of better-qualified non-friends. This is a problem, to the extent that it happens).

I’ve worked with friends, and people I know socially, before. There are some challenges; for example, one person didn’t really like what I wrote for them, and that felt a little awkward, perhaps more awkward because we were friends (they were very nice about it though!) I can also imagine that it might be especially awkward if I had to nag friends to pay me. But there are also benefits: when working with friends, I feel like I can trust them more, I can be more honest with them, and I feel especially motivated to do good work for them.

I basically think that while the degree of work/​social overlap in EA is unusually high by modern Western standards, it’s not unusual historically. Like, I’m guessing that if you were a peasant living in a medieval village, you didn’t have separate ‘work colleagues’ and ‘personal friends’. You’d farm your land alongside your family. You’d bring in the harvest with your fellow villagers, who you’d also go to church with on Sundays, drink with, marry and have children with, etc.

Obviously, ‘default’ doesn’t mean ‘good’. But more importantly, most plausible utopian futures I can imagine also involve little work/​social separation. I imagine utopia as a close-knit group of mutually chosen people, who care about each other and enjoy each other’s company, spending most of their time together, either working together to do things that the community needs, or not working (because that’s done by robots). Inasmuch as some pockets of the EA community seem to have achieved this, that seems kind of utopian to me.

I also think that power dynamics are the source of the biggest problems in the work/​social overlap, so a flatter power structure might be a good way of avoiding some of the pitfalls and abuses of the work/​social overlap.

On nudges and norms

Above, I’ve been arguing that there are some advantages to the work/​social overlap. I now want to make a slightly different point: even if I thought that the work/​social overlap was net bad, I’d feel extremely wary about attempts to intervene to change this. I think that autonomy—particularly in the matter of relationships—is incredibly important. It’s bad to infringe on people’s free choice to do things that would improve their lives, and saying that you’d do it supposedly “non-coercively”—e.g., using nudges or norms—doesn’t make the situation much better for me.

I’m sometimes frustrated by these conversations, because people are often vague about what changing the culture might entail, concretely—a vagueness that cloaks serious harms, as vague language often does. In an exchange about polyamory in the community, I wrote:

To get a sense of why poly people are upset about this, imagine if someone was like ‘there are better outcomes if people are celibate—you save so much time and emotional energy that can be spent on research! So you should break up with your partner’.

…which my interlocutor Jeff Kaufman fairly called out as unreasonably hyperbolic. But what I was getting at was… I don’t see any way you could meaningfully “address” the work/​social overlap without trying to get people not to date, live with or befriend people they otherwise would have dated, lived with, or befriended. And if you put it in those terms, it seems messed up, right?

I think most people, in response, would say ‘of course I wouldn’t support telling people to break up with EA partners or never see EA friends! We should just change community norms, or implement nudges to make the work and social spheres less intertwined.’

Inasmuch as the punishments meted out by norms or nudges are lesser than punishments meted out by, e.g., systems of rules or laws, they are less bad and less ‘harsh’. But in my opinion, a lot of the harm that comes from (many) laws, rules and norms is just that they prevent people from doing harmless things that they want to do.

For example, there are some drugs, like modafinil or Wellbutrin or MDMA, that I have reason to believe might improve my wellbeing a lot, but which I either can’t legally access at all, or can only legally access if I successfully bypass medical gatekeeping. Why are these laws harmful? Part of it is that dealers might go to prison. If dealing and taking these drugs was not illegal, but there was merely a strong social stigma against it, that harm would be less. But a major reason these laws are harmful is that they work as a deterrant and lots of people don’t take the drugs—drugs which would maybe make their lives better! And inasmuch as a social norm against taking these drugs actually worked, and dissuaded some people from taking the drugs who otherwise would have benefited—it would be harmful. ( And inasmuch as it didn’t work and didn’t meaningfully change people’s behaviour, it would be pointless, of course).

I feel the same way about the idea of ‘nudges’ to make the community have less of a work/​social overlap, ‘be less polyamorous’, or anything else that aims to alter consensual social dynamics in the community. The harm isn’t in the harshness or softness of the punishment—it’s friendships nipped in the bud, beautiful relationships that can never even get started. I think people should think harder about the sacrifices that in practice people would have to make, and about how important social relationships are.