Why You Should Be Public About Your Good Deeds

(cross-posted on the Giv­ing What We Can blog, the In­ten­tional In­sights blog, and Less Wrong)

When I first started donat­ing, I did so anony­mously. My de­fault is to be hum­ble and avoid show­ing off. I didn’t want oth­ers around me to think that I have a stuffed head and hold too high an opinion of my­self. I also didn’t want them to judge my giv­ing de­ci­sions, as some may have judged them nega­tively. I also had cached pat­terns of as­so­ci­at­ing shar­ing about my good deeds pub­li­cly with feel­ings that I get from com­mer­cials, of self-pro­mo­tion and sleaz­i­ness.

I wish I had known back then that I could have done much more good by pub­li­ciz­ing my dona­tions and other goods deeds, such as sign­ing the Giv­ing What We Can Pledge to donate 10% of my in­come to effec­tive char­i­ties.

Why did I change my mind about be­ing pub­lic? Let me share a bit of my back­ground to give you the ap­pro­pri­ate con­text.

As long as I can re­mem­ber, I have been in­ter­ested in an­a­lyz­ing how and why in­di­vi­d­u­als and groups eval­u­ated their en­vi­ron­ment and made their de­ci­sions to reach their goals – ra­tio­nal think­ing. This topic be­came the fo­cus of my re­search as a pro­fes­sor at Ohio State in the his­tory of sci­ence, study­ing the in­ter­sec­tion of psy­chol­ogy, cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science, be­hav­ioral eco­nomics, and other fields.

While most of my col­leagues fo­cused on re­search, I grew more pas­sion­ate about shar­ing my knowl­edge with oth­ers, fo­cus­ing my efforts on high-qual­ity, in­no­va­tive teach­ing. I per­ceived my work as cog­ni­tive al­tru­ism, shar­ing my knowl­edge about ra­tio­nal think­ing, and stu­dents ex­pressed much ap­pre­ci­a­tion for my fo­cus on helping them make bet­ter de­ci­sions in their lives. Separately, I en­gaged in anony­mous dona­tions to causes such as poverty alle­vi­a­tion.

Yet over time, I re­al­ized that by teach­ing only in the class­room, I would have a very limited im­pact, since my stu­dents were only a small minor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion I could po­ten­tially reach. I be­gan to con­sult aca­demic liter­a­ture on how to spread my knowl­edge broadly. Through read­ing clas­sics in the field of so­cial in­fluence such as In­fluence: The Psy­chol­ogy of Per­sua­sion and Made To Stick, I learned a great many strate­gies to mul­ti­ply the im­pact of my cog­ni­tive al­tru­ism work, as well as my char­i­ta­ble giv­ing.

One of the most im­por­tant les­sons was the value of be­ing pub­lic about my ac­tivi­ties. Both In­fluence: The Psy­chol­ogy of Per­sua­sion and sub­se­quent re­search showed that our peers deeply im­pact our thoughts, feel­ings, and be­hav­iors. We tend to eval­u­ate our­selves based on what our peers think of us, and try to model be­hav­iors that will cause oth­ers to have pos­i­tive opinions about us. This ap­plies not only to in-per­son meet­ings, but also on­line com­mu­ni­ties.

A re­lated phe­nomenon, so­cial proof, illus­trates how we eval­u­ate ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior based on how we see oth­ers be­hav­ing. How­ever, re­search also shows that peo­ple who ex­hibit more benefi­cial be­hav­iors tend to avoid ex­press­ing them­selves to those with less benefi­cial be­hav­iors, re­sult­ing in over­all so­cial harm.

Learn­ing about the im­por­tance of be­ing pub­lic, in­clud­ing in on­line com­mu­ni­ties that reach far more peo­ple than in-per­son com­mu­ni­ties, es­pe­cially by peo­ple en­gag­ing in so­cially benefi­cial habits, led to a deep trans­for­ma­tion in my civic en­gage­ment. While it was not easy to over­come my shy­ness, I re­al­ized I had to do it if I wanted to op­ti­mize my pos­i­tive im­pact on the world – both in cog­ni­tive al­tru­ism and in effec­tive giv­ing.

I shared this jour­ney of learn­ing and trans­for­ma­tion with my wife, Agnes Vish­nevkin, an MBA and non-profit pro­fes­sional. To­gether, we de­cided to co-found a non­profit ded­i­cated to spread­ing ra­tio­nal think­ing and effec­tive giv­ing to a broad au­di­ence us­ing re­search-based strate­gies for max­i­miz­ing so­cial im­pact, In­ten­tional In­sights. Unit­ing with oth­ers com­mit­ted to this mis­sion, we write ar­ti­cles, blogs, make videos, au­thor books, pro­gram apps, and col­lab­o­rate with other or­ga­ni­za­tions to share these ideas widely.

I also rely on re­search to make other de­ci­sions, such as my de­ci­sion to take the Giv­ing What We Can pledge. The strat­egy of pre­com­mit­ment is key here – we make a de­ci­sion in a state where we have the time to con­sider their con­se­quences in the long term, and speci­fi­cally wish to con­strain the op­tions of our fu­ture selves. That way, we can plan within a nar­rowed range of op­tions and make the best pos­si­ble use of the re­sources available to us.

Thus, I can plan to live on 90% of my in­come over my life­time, and plan to de­crease some of my spend­ing in the long term so that I can give to char­i­ties that I be­lieve are most effec­tive for mak­ing the kind of im­pact I want to see in the world.

Know­ing about the im­por­tance of pub­li­ciz­ing my good deeds and com­mit­ments, I rec­og­nize that I can do much more good by shar­ing my de­ci­sion to take the pledge with oth­ers. All of us have friends, and the large ma­jor­ity of us have so­cial me­dia chan­nels and we all have the power to be pub­lic about our good deeds. You can also con­sider fundrais­ing for effec­tive char­i­ties, and be­ing an ad­vo­cate for effec­tive al­tru­ism in your com­mu­nity.

Ac­cord­ing to the schol­arly liter­a­ture, by be­ing pub­lic about our good deeds we can bring about much good in the world. Even though it may not feel as tan­gible as di­rect dona­tions, shar­ing with oth­ers about our good deeds and sup­port­ing oth­ers do­ing so may in the end al­low us to do even more good.

P.S. This ar­ti­cle is part of the EA Mar­ket­ing Re­source Bank pro­ject lead by In­ten­tional In­sights and the Lo­cal Effec­tive Altru­ism Net­work, with sup­port from The Life You Can Save.