By Gleb Tsipursky
Effective Altruism does a terrific job of appealing to the head. There is no finer example than GiveWell’s meticulously researched and carefully detailed reports laying out the impact per dollar on giving to various charities. As a movement, we are at the cutting edge of what we can currently evaluate about the effectiveness of how we optimize quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), although of course much work remains to be done.
However, as seen in Tom Davidson’s recent piece, “EA’s Image Problem,” and my “Making Effective Altruism More Emotionally Appealing,” we currently do not do a very good job of appealing to the heart. We tend to forget Peter Singer’s famous quote that Effective Altruism “combines both the heart and the head.” When we try to pitch the EA movement to non-effective altruists, we focus on the head, not the heart.
Now, I can really empathize with this perspective. I am much more analytically oriented than the baseline, and I find this to be the case for EAs in general. Yet if we want to expand the EA movement, we can’t fall into typical mind fallacy and assume that what worked to convince us will convince others who are less analytical and more emotionally oriented thinkers.
Otherwise, we leave huge sums of money on the table that otherwise could have gone to effective charities. For this reason, I and several others have started a nonprofit organization, Intentional Insights, dedicated to spreading rational thinking and effective altruism to a wide audience using effective marketing techniques. Exploring the field of EA organizations, I saw that The Life You Can Save already has some efforts to reach out to a broad audience, through its Charity Impact Calculator and its Giving Games, and actively promoted its efforts.
I was excited when Jon Behar, the COO & Director of Philanthropy Education at The Life You Can Save, reached out to me and suggested collaborating on promoting EA to a broad audience using contemporary marketing methods that appeal to the heart. In a way, this is not surprising, as Peter Singer’s drowning child problem is essentially an effort to appeal to people’s hearts in a classroom setting. Using marketing methods that aim to reach a broad audience is a natural evolution of this insight.
Jon and I problem-solved how to spread effective altruism effectively, and came up with the idea of a catchphrase that we thought would appeal to people’s emotions well: “Be a Superdonor!” This catchphrase conveys in a short burst crucial information about Effective Altruism, namely that one can have the most powerful impact of one’s donations through giving to the charities that optimize QALYs for the most.
More importantly, it appeals to the heart well. Superdonor conveys the feeling of power – you can be super in your donations! Superdonor conveys an especially strong degree of generosity. Superdonor conveys a feeling of superiority, as in better than other donors. In other words, even if you donate less, if you donate more effectively, you can still be better than other donors by donating more effectively. This appeals to the “Keeping Up With the Joneses” effect, a powerful force in guiding our spending.
Just as importantly, “Be a Superdonor!” is easily shareable on social media, a vital component of modern marketing in the form of social proof. People get to show their pride and increase their social status by posting on their Facebook or Twitter how they are a Superdonor. This makes their friends curious about what it means to be a Superdonor, since that is an appealing and emotionally resonant phrase. Their friends check out their links, and get to find out about Effective Altruism. Of course, it is important that the link go to a very clear and emotionally exciting description of how one can be a Superdonor through donating.
Likewise, people should get credit for being a Superdonor through getting others to donate through sharing about it on social media, through talking about it to friends, through getting their friends to go to their local EA groups. Thus, we get the power of social affiliation, a crucial aspect of motivation, working on behalf of Effective Altruism. A particularly effective strategy for social affiliation here might be to combine “Be A Superdonor” with Giving Games, both the in-person version that TLYCS runs now and perhaps a web app version that helps create a virtual community setting conducive to social affiliation.
Now, some EAs might be concerned that the EA movement would lose its focus on the head through these efforts. I think that is a valid concern, and we need to be aware of the dangers here. We still need to put energy into the excellent efforts of GiveWell and other effective charity evaluators. We still need to be concerned with existential risk, even if it does not present us in the best light to external audiences.
Therefore, as part of the Superdonor efforts, we should develop compassionate strategies to educate emotionally-oriented newcomers about more esoteric aspects of Effective Altruism. For example, EA groups can have people who are specifically assigned as mentors for new members, who can help guide for their intellectual and emotional development alike. At the same time, we need to accept that some of those emotionally-oriented thinkers will not be interested in doing so.
This is quite fine, as long as we remember our goal of making the strongest impact on the world by optimizing QALYs through not leaving huge sums of money on the table. Consider the kind of benefit you can bring to the EA movement if you can channel the giving of emotionally-oriented thinkers toward effective charities. Moreover, think of the positive network effect of them getting their friends to donate to effective charities. Think of whether you can make a much bigger difference in doing the most good per energy of effort by focusing more of your own volunteering and giving on EA outreach in comparison to other EA-related activities. This is what inspired my own activities at Intentional Insights, and the recent shifts of the TLYCS toward effective outreach.
What are your thoughts about reaching out to more emotionally-oriented thinkers using these and other modern marketing strategies? If you support doing so, what do you think you can do personally to promote Effective Altruism effectively? I would love to hear your thoughts about it in comments below, and happy to talk to anyone who wants to engage with the Intentional Insights project. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an effective altruist, social entrepreneur, writer, scholar, and science popularizer. He leads Intentional Insights (www.intentionalinsights.org), a nonprofit that promotes rational thinking and Effective Altruism. He authored the best-selling Find Your Purpose Using Science, the forthcoming Reach Your Goals Using Science and other books, and regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, Slate, and Lifehack. He serves as a tenure-track professor at Ohio State. He can be reached at email@example.com.