Less often discussed EA emotional patterns
EA related emotions are often discussed from the perspective of demandingness and overwhelmingness, and EAs are encouraged to find a balance between the felt obligation to help others and taking care of their own needs.
To add to this valuable discussion, I want to raise some cases in which it might actually be compelling for EAs to experience some difficult feelings like the need for self-sacrifice or urgency.
As an example, a person might be inclined to believe the work they are doing is very urgent, but not because of the (possibly true) objective reasons for the urgency, but because they have a need to stay busy.
The motivation to experience outwards negative-seeming feelings and beliefs can originate from an external life situation or as a result from another EA related feeling or belief.
It can be helpful to understand the dynamics of one’s beliefs and feelings in order to better live with them and give them a proper amount of weight.
Even if all your personal EA motivation is strictly positive and you don’t experience these patterns yourself, it might be useful to be aware of the possible dynamics if you interact with other EAs who might experience these feelings.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional, just a person interested in keeping themselves and others healthy. The examples in this text are anecdotal and based on myself and people I know. Quotes should not be taken literally.
More than trading your happiness against the happiness of others
EA folks pay a lot of attention to mental health and durability. This is great! It is impossible to save the world if you are not taking care of yourself: common sense says that you must put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others.
Often, the EA mental health dilemma is presented as the difficulty of balancing between wanting to help others and needing to take care of yourself. The drowning child thought experiment shows to most people that they value their possessions less than the life of a stranger, but the consequences of truly internalizing this are too demanding for almost any person to meet. Often, the proposed solution is to keep in mind that neglecting self-care will make you less productive in the long run. Even if the thought experiment in some sense requires you to give away all your possessions until you are so bad off yourself that the best action for global welfare is to use the remaining resources to make yourself happier, such a sacrifice is probably not the best long-term altruistic strategy.
Simplified, in this case, the person is essentially trading their own happiness for the happiness of others. If they would never have heard of EA, they’d go around doing things they directly enjoy, spending money on themselves and trying to find a personally fulfilling career. But since they know about EA, they have decided to sacrifice some of their resources for others, like donating and pursuing an impactful career. And if they do this consciously and in a balanced way, they actually end up happier than they would have in their “selfish” life, because living according to your values makes you feel good in a different and better way.
However, it is quite rare for a person to be in this neutral state of just wanting to do whatever makes them happy, and I think it is even rarer for a person like this to become motivated about EA in the first place. And if you start engaging with EA ideas from the point of, say, “I feel very bad and I need to help others to distract myself from noticing how bad I feel”, you might have very different reactions to EA content than a neutral happiness-maximizing person.
Emotions and beliefs as tools for controlling other emotions
Naively, you might think people are trying to make themselves feel good, for example by spending money on an expensive holiday or donating money to something that makes them feel “warm fuzzies”, good about themselves for having done something altruistic. And in order to do truly altruistic things, they need to partly overcome the intuitive pursuit for personal happiness.
But in some cases people are actually optimizing for feeling less bad, or at least a different kind of bad – even if feeling good does not seem like an option, at least you can control what bad you are feeling at what moment. In these cases, effective altruism and all its demandingness can actually feel quite tempting, even if it feels exhausting or difficult at the same time.
In order to overcome limiting and negative beliefs, it can be helpful to examine why keeping the belief might have its uses. In treatment of clinical depression, the therapist might ask you what keeps you from getting better. This might seem ridiculous (“why would anyone want to be depressed”), but when prompted, many people can name a reason. (My previous therapist suggested my reason might be “if I stop feeling bad I won’t have any deep topics to write about”, but it actually was “if I get better I can never ask others for help again”. Then I noticed I also believe all people have the right to ask for help if they need help, and as a result, got slightly better.)
While people who would describe themselves as quite stable may not always pay that much attention to less straightforward motivations for beliefs, I think a lot of people experience that at some point of their lives. Let’s look a little deeper into EA beliefs that are attractive in situations where one wants to feel less bad.
The necessity of self-sacrifice
Self-sacrifice means doing things for others even with a (significant) cost to oneself. Sometimes, it is tempting to think you have a duty to sacrifice your own goals, dreams or resources for something bigger, because others need more help than you. Two personal examples:
I have a certain personal goal that I would really like to achieve, but working towards it is unpleasant and emotionally draining. So sometimes I think: What if it was morally right to just stop working towards it, and redirect all the effort to EA? It would make things a lot easier, and even if I would be sad for having sacrificed this important goal, I would know it was for the greater good.
If I feel bad about something not going the way I want it to go, I can sometimes distract myself by thinking about all the suffering in the world and how my problems actually don’t matter compared to it. That does not make me feel better but I feel bad in a different way that is somehow easier to handle.
Both of these thought patterns contain false information – not because trading personal goals for EA goals would never make sense or because there was no suffering in the world, but because they are built on motivated reasoning. I am not actually choosing between EA and my personal goal, I’m trying to use EA as an excuse to avoid the unpleasantness of working towards the personal goal. Similarly, acknowledging the suffering of others is not the same thing as using it to mask your problems. It has little to do with reason or empathy, and does not make your problems go away.
It is of course possible to use a similar distraction in a non-EA context, such as thinking about somebody you know personally and is worse-off than you. But EA makes this distraction especially easy, because it highlights trade-offs and gives you tools to think about very large amounts of suffering. If you are mathematically inclined like me, you might focus so much on the huge difference between your and the world’s suffering that you forget the comparison does not make sense. Any single person suffers less than everyone else combined. If “suffers less than the rest of the world” was a legitimate reason to discount a person’s suffering to zero, nobody’s suffering was morally relevant.
This thought pattern can be hard to get rid of, because you can also use it to prevent yourself from working on your mental health. Even if you realistically know that keeping your mental health in shape is an important priority for anyone who wants to be able to build an impactful career, you might dismiss it by thinking: “This only applies to people with real problems, but in my case, I obviously should focus on alleviating the suffering of others, they have it way worse.”
If you find yourself thinking things like this often, it might be a good idea to ask yourself whether you are saying this because you truly believe your problems don’t matter, or if it just seems more pleasant to ignore them and work on EA causes. Working on your mental health often does not feel like increasing your happiness and productivity and feeling better about yourself. It can also feel like an unpleasant, time-consuming and intractable task that you would rather avoid, kind of like my other personal goal.
But if you are aiming to optimize your lifetime impact, you might need to do things that don’t feel nice, such as focusing on your health even when EA feels a lot more motivating. Even locally, optimizing for maximal (feeling of) self-sacrifice is not the same as optimizing for maximally helping others.
Urgency/irreplaceability as a tool for avoiding having to slow down
In this thought pattern, you are so busy all the time with things you absolutely have to do now that you cannot afford taking breaks or slowing down. This is similar to the above point about self-sacrifice, but less deliberate and more likely to happen to people who don’t have huge problems: any situation where taking some time to think about you and your life would be somewhat unpleasant can cause you to be tempted by this pattern.
The phenomenon is far from unique to EA, but I think the urgency and irreplaceability narratives in EA can make it particularly attractive to people in situations where they just want to fill their calendar with something. After all, in order to maximize your impact you have to work on a neglected problem: you are probably doing well if you are spending your time on something important that nobody else would be doing if it weren’t for you. If you take x-risk truly seriously, it also means you are probably in a hurry: there is no time to take a break to solve the personal issue that is nagging in the back of your head, because if you waste time now, there will be much bigger problems for you and everyone else.
And some genuine beliefs do lead to the conclusion you are really in a hurry. However, it can be useful to ask yourself whether the reason you are so busy all the time is really x-risk prevention or having found a unique neglected opportunity – or avoiding something you don’t want to think about. Note you can be both genuinely busy and avoidant at the same time: noticing this allows you to make a conscious choice on what to spend your time on right now.
For me personally it is very hard to differentiate between urgency motivated by avoidance and actually wanting to spend a lot of time on something, because I also deliberately enjoy feeling productive and doing a lot of things. I mostly notice I’m being busy for the sake of it if the thought of having a free evening with nothing to do makes me anxious.
Impact as a building block of self-worth
I think a lot of EAs are familiar with this phenomenon. If you are not, here are some illustrative real-life quotes.
(on careers, half-jokingly) “Let’s see if I’ll be able to keep my EA job, or if I need to jump off a bridge.”
(on a would-you-rather type of thought experiment) “I think it is obviously better to save a million pigs than one human, because saving that many pigs via effective donations would cost hundreds of thousands, and an average person is not going to donate that much to charity over their lifetime anyway.”
(on the demandingness of EA) “In a way, the fact that I donate regularly is a justification to keep on living, because each month I’m alive, I keep producing positive value.”
Embarrassingly, the last quote is from me. I don’t endorse this opinion anymore, and I think I got over it partly because of an incident with an EA friend with a similar mindset. I was feeling stressed and complained to my friend that I was unsure if I had the right to be alive, and my friend tried to tell me I should not think about it in terms of rights and justice, because by donating, I had surely saved many lives already, so in a way I had “life-compensated” my life. I freaked out because my friend’s guess on how much I had already donated was way off and I thought all my friends are just my friends because they have a false idea on how altruistic I am and now they are going to find out I’m actually really selfish and ineffective and then I’ll be all alone again.
That didn’t happen and my friends are still my friends. And now I know that while tying your impact to your self-worth can help as a temporary patch, it is quite an uncertain and risky way of trying to fix the root issue of avoiding to recognize your personal intrinsic worth.
In these examples, the worth/impact dynamic actually appears in three slightly different ways:
my impact as “how much value I put on my own life”
my impact as “how valuable my friends perceive me as”
a (fictional) person’s impact as “how much value I perceive this person to have”
Notice how in the thought experiment example the speaker assigns intrinsic value to the pigs, but not to the human? The human’s value is redefined as their willingness and ability to save pigs, while the pigs are not asked how many pigs or humans they are going to save.
Of course, the question of whether a person’s life (such as your own life) has intrinsic value depends on your morals, so ultimately, you need to find your own answer to it. I personally think people’s lives have significant intrinsic value, and allowing exceptions to the rule (such as “ok, other people are valuable but I am not”) objectively doesn’t make much sense. Therefore, my true belief is that my life, too, has significant intrinsic value. As is often with beliefs, recognizing this true belief does not eliminate conflicting beliefs, but I am able to set them aside when they arise.
I think EA is very compelling for people who have trouble believing their lives have intrinsic worth. You cannot prove the intrinsic worth of anything (it is an axiom), but EA can give you a sense of estimating your instrumental worth, like how many lives you have saved by donating. This might feel like an objective proof of your worth, because it is based on science and numbers.
EA is attractive to people who think their worth is tied to their ability to help others, because it promises it will teach you to help others really really well, so if you learn the EA ways, you might get to feel very worthy. Unfortunately, EA will also teach you all the ways you are not able to help others, because you don’t have the right skills or just because you have to prioritize. Because of this, you might actually end up feeling worse than before.
Ironically, having your impact define your self-worth can actually reduce your impact in multiple ways:
It will make it harder to accept that whatever you are doing right now or have done in the past has not been as impactful as you hoped it was, because if you have less impact, you are less worthy. Failing to recognize your past and current mistakes limits your ability to improve in the future.
In order to avoid this scenario, you might become risk-averse and unwilling to let go of ways to “certain” impact, such as donating, even if you would have a high expected impact by choosing a financially risky strategy. Then you can be sure you can look back to your life and honestly state your life had at least some worth. On the downside, you might be missing out on unrealized impact.
You might feel a lot of pressure to succeed at your work or volunteering, and thus end up avoiding harder tasks so that you would not make any mistakes.
The obvious trick here seems to be tying your self-worth to your expected impact instead, thus always making it emotionally compelling to do the best thing in expectation. I however do not think this is humanly possible, and succeeding in this would still not eliminate the pressure part.
Even with the downsides, I think a lot of people are reluctant to let go of this belief: they might think it is necessary for them to keep up motivation, or they might simply think it is objectively true. Sometimes it can be hard to find the difference between “having an impact is really important to me” or “helping others is motivating and makes my life meaningful” which are positive things, and “my worth as a person is defined by my impact”, which in my opinion is both false and harmful.
Interactions between EA beliefs and tool beliefs
So far, I have discussed EA related thought patterns as reactions to pre-existing situations, such as having a difficult life situation one would not like to think about, or searching for a justification for one’s existence. Sometimes, thought patterns can also arise as a reaction to unpleasant EA related emotions and observations.
Self-loathing as a reaction to demandingness
EA can be very demanding, because it makes you notice that you can sometimes have a large altruistic impact by doing something that is also costly for yourself. Sometimes, you don’t want to pay the cost, even if you think it would be an impactful and altruistic thing to do.
In this case, comparing yourself to others and feeling bad about how you are doing can actually feel better than admitting not wanting to pay the needed cost.
I sometimes notice myself telling me that I am just too stupid and passive to ever get an impactful job in an EA hub, because it is somehow easier to think that instead of admitting that I just really don’t want to move to an EA hub (or anywhere from where I currently live). This is probably because I somehow think it is better to be stupid than selfish, or maybe it is because some part of me believes that I cannot fix stupidity, but I should be able to become more altruistic.
EA has a lot of intelligent, caring, ambitious and empathetic people. I think a lot of people don’t think of themselves as “valid” EAs not only because they have a low self-esteem, but also because they place an all-encompassing demand on intelligent people that actually care.
Of course, for optimal impact it is better to find out your real current limits to your altruistic budget (such as unwillingness to relocate) and then optimize within those. Coming up with excuses masks the real limits and leads to false beliefs.
Self-doubt as a reaction to uncertainty
Life is uncertain and making good decisions is difficult. Nobody, not even the EA movement, has a verified, all-encompassing model of the world.
This can be a hard thing to admit especially for people who first became attracted to EA because of the “reason and evidence” part. This was certainly really tempting to me: the world seemed confusing and difficult, and all possible actions to make things right seemed to have downsides; and then, suddenly, a movement that tells me that there are estimates and calculations on what you should do, so if you want to know what to do, you can just look at the numbers and follow the result.
Of course, EA is not as easy as that. Even within EA the world is still confusing and difficult. So for some time, I held onto the belief that there are correct actions out there and verified ways to calculate them, and if I don’t know what to do, it is just because I’m too stupid to understand the solution. Some people react to this with excessive deference and outsourcing all of their decision making to others: for me, it was more natural to try to become less stupid in hopes of finding more clarity on the way.
But since there are no verified correct answers, you can never reach the level where you are intelligent enough to find them. The perceived stupidity protects you from admitting that nobody can know for sure what the correct answer is.
Impostor syndrome as a tool for not admitting everyone else is lost too
Impostor syndrome means thinking you have accidentally fooled everyone into thinking you are qualified to do your job, when in reality, you are not as good as everyone thinks.
There can be many reasons for impostor syndrome, but I think sometimes it too has to do with uncertainty.
You might look up to people working in impressive, impactful jobs and imagine that they know correct answers about the world, and that they can do a good job in positively influencing the world. You want to be like them, but when you actually land in an impactful position, you start to get worried: you still don’t know all the answers and you still keep making mistakes and bad decisions.
There can be only two implications: either, everyone else knows what is going on and is taking good actions and you are the only impostor pretending to be like them, or everyone else also feels lost (at least sometimes). The latter implication is more terrifying, so it can be easier to just feel bad about yourself, while maintaining your trust in others.
Sadly, I think in reality often everyone else is actually lost too.
Trying to fix the surface level problem without paying attention to the root cause might be counterproductive
Imagine you have a really bright EA friend who constantly undermines herself and claims she is too stupid to ever have an impactful career. From your observations, her assessment of her own abilities is clearly misguided, and you feel sad because she is unnecessarily limiting her options because of perceived stupidness. In order to help her, you sit down with her and list all her achievements, showing in a clear and evidence-based way that she is actually really smart. But to each point, she keeps explaining that it does not count, and that she just got lucky or that the task was not so difficult or that laid out like this, you could make anyone seem smart. Or maybe she seems happy and thanks you, but later you find out she still didn’t apply for that internship she thinks is only for smart people.
If you have ever had this happen to you, it might be because the problem of your friend was not lack of evidence, it was lack of ability to update her beliefs based on it. A possible reason for this is that the belief “I am stupid” is protecting herself from something else. Even if she’d really enjoy feeling intelligent, the belief “I’m too stupid to work on AI risk” might be less crushing than “I would probably be able to work on AI risk, but I just don’t want relocate even if I get a job in the field, but also I think I should not mind relocating if it is necessary to work on AI risk because AI risk is super important, and if in 30 years everyone I love dies it’s going to be my fault”. Here, the perceived stupidness is protecting her from feeling ashamed or guilty for having preferences that are not optimized for saving the world.
Or maybe she sees downsides in being a person who believes this positive thing about themselves: “No matter how smart I actually am, if I start believing that, I might become an arrogant overconfident person who goes around making uninformed claims and bad decisions”. Here, she is protecting other things she finds valuable, such as epistemic humility and willingness to update in face of evidence (except in this particular case, of course).
Trying to make your friend overcome her perceived stupidness when she actually has a strong motivation to hold onto it might be counterproductive. By trying to make her feel less stupid you are threatening her defense against feeling guilty. Even if in the future she notices her underlying beliefs and manages to for example allow herself to only take jobs in locations she likes to live in, it will be harder for her to update her stupidity belief if she already has once discarded all the evidence you listed.
This does not mean you should never address your friends having unrealistic negative beliefs about themselves. As an alternative to trying to convince your friend of her smartness, you could ask her about her beliefs with empathy and curiosity. This can sometimes help people become more aware that their beliefs are not absolute truth, and that there can be underlying motivations and needs that the beliefs are protecting.
In the best case, you might be able to help her find an alternative protection to her underlying needs. As a practical example, you could propose to her you will let her know if you notice she’s becoming arrogant and overconfident, so she can safely experiment with believing she is smart. Often, there is not much need for a concrete solution like this: just noticing the needs behind your beliefs can help to loosen up the pattern.
Naively suppressing emotions might cause information loss
In order to find the best possible actions, you need a trustworthy world model. This is why effective altruists are wary of motivated reasoning, and try to avoid it. Pointing out that people might hold certain beliefs because of emotional reasons might look like accusing them of bad epistemics or doing EA for the wrong reasons.
In practice, things are more complicated than that. Many people in EA are well aware they hold several contradicting beliefs at the same time, and especially if you are used to feeling bad, you might be used to acting against emotionally motivated beliefs. For example, you might know that stress makes you emotionally believe everyone hates you, so you decide on the best action intellectually, recognize your need for support and call a friend, even if it feels like you are disturbing them. This is similar to the mindset of doing whatever results in the most good, despite how good it feels.
While it is possible to manually steer your life despite your emotions (and a lot of people do this), relying solely on that has its downsides. It requires a lot of work and thus takes more energy. It also causes information loss. For example, if you notice you tend to think you are bad in everything and decide to just stop caring that you feel this way, you lose your ability to make estimates on how good you are at something.
In particular, your emotions give you information about your values. For example, even if you recognize that tying your self-worth to your impact can actually cause you to have less impact in total, you might be afraid of letting go of this pattern, because you feel you might lose all your motivation for impact. But if you notice this, you can detect that some part of you that values impact regardless of your self-worth (since it wants to convince you to keep on feeling your self-worth depends on your impact, so that you would have more impact).
Even if you are annoyed by a certain part limiting you, it might be helpful to realize that it is trying to fulfill your needs and values. Recognizing this, you can try to create space between the value and the belief, and maybe try asking if the part really needs to scare you into helping others, or could it motivate you in a less demanding way?
Should you try to get rid of your emotional patterns?
I don’t think people are ever morally or socially obligated to have a certain experience or a certain set of beliefs. (If you are the type of person who believes your self-worth is tied to your ability to think clearly and rationally, you might disagree with me here.)
The psychological patterns I have described in this post are not necessarily harmful for everyone and can have positive effects when dosed in moderation. For example, if you have troubles with motivation and procrastination, having a belief of urgency can be very helpful and can in best case get you in a positive cycle of productivity. For me, keeping myself busy with EA stuff has been an ok coping mechanism for COVID-induced stress: a lot healthier than many alternatives, and while it also served as a mask for negative feelings, there was not much I could have done about the external circumstances causing them.
A psychologist once told me that ultimately, things like negative self-beliefs are only problematic if they disturb you. I think this is good advice. If you truly need to believe that donating is the only thing that makes your life worth living, it is probably better to keep on believing that than losing your only reason to stay alive. But if you feel like your self-doubt is limiting your ability to do things you want to do, it might be good to try to put an effort towards finding out if you can do anything about it.
The psychologist then asked me whether I see any downsides in my own negative self-beliefs. I answered that thinking unrealistically bad things about yourself probably leads you to harm others: for example if a person seems objectively smarter than you and tells everyone she’s very stupid, you might start to feel that you must be even more stupid. The psychologist said that while it is very empathetic to worry about others, I should probably try to think of a situation where the negative beliefs are disturbing me directly.
And while this is reasonable advice as well, sometimes an impersonal viewpoint can help me find self-compassion. For example, I think it would be a good thing for most people in the EA movement to not feel that their self-worth depends on their impact. Since I am part of the EA movement, this wish applies to me as well. I have also found it helpful to think of my mind as a system I am curious to learn more about: even if I dislike having some beliefs, on a meta level inspecting them can be interesting and even fun.
I am unsure if I can give others good advice on how to actually update your negative self-beliefs. There is some online material for that, but I think for a lot of people any out-of-the-box advice is not going to do much. Some people find therapy useful, some people benefit from meditation, some have very good results from different self-help methods, and some people need drastic changes to their external environment and situation before they can do anything about their beliefs. Everyone needs to find methods that actually work for them: just deciding you won’t believe in the beliefs you dislike anymore probably won’t work.
I think it is also important to look at the phenomenon of connecting EA thoughts to negative beliefs on a group level, not just focused on every EA individual. EAs have the possibility to either enforce or question harmful patterns of other EAs, so it makes sense to be aware of them even if you don’t ever experience any negative EA feelings and EA just feels engaging and fun and motivational to you all the time. As a simple example, if you notice that somebody in your local EA group is constantly overworking, you could discuss creating new norms that encourage taking breaks. Even if you can’t fix mental health issues for others, just talking about them can sometimes help people recognize and prioritize them.
The last thing I want to emphasize is that working on your mental health and developing sustainable working methods is not finding excuses to be lazy or selfish. Often, working on your mental health is locally a lot harder than sticking to the patterns you have learned. That’s why most people are only motivated to relearn their patterns only when they actually feel really awful.
But sometimes, doing altruistic things means doing something you don’t feel like doing. If working on your mental health seems like a daunting task you would rather avoid because spending your time working on EA things feels more urgent, other’s needs seem more important than your own, sacrificing yourself for others feels better than spending any effort on yourself – then spending significant effort to get better could actually be the best action for you right now.
A person who proof-read this pointed out they don’t think focusing on one’s own mental health feels selfish or lazy, but rather like a high-risk intervention in which you put a lot of effort in, but success is uncertain. Thus, they are resistant to doing introspection: the sought-after results, such as doing good more effectively, might never show up. It also poses a danger of altering your values to the extent that you will feel less motivated to help others in the future. I think these are valid concerns, because even effective mental health interventions might make you feel temporarily worse, and they might cause changes in your values. I would not advise a friend to omit working on their mental health because their mental health might not be important for their productivity or because their values might change, but ultimately, it is everyone’s own call to decide what to spend their time on.