To grow a healthy movement, Go For low-hanging fruit

To grow a healthy movement, Go For low-hanging fruit
Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

We’ve all met people who will never be open to the ideas of effective altruism (EA) no matter the framing: your neighbor who thinks that doing good is purely a matter of personal preference, or your uncle who argues it’s wrong to compare charities because they’re all doing good. Despite hours of discussion, no real progress is made. We’ve all also had the opposite experience: your friend who’s on board a minute into the conversation; the one who was excited to learn that others thought the same way that she already did. You were likely such a person yourself – you merely needed to learn of the movement to become a supporter.

Many potentially highly-engaged effective altruists (EAs) haven’t even heard of EA yet. If we knew who these folks were, we could grow the movement far more quickly and sustainably.

Much of the debate about how to build the EA movement is focused on how to frame issues to convince people of the merits of the general EA worldview. Should we talk of giving as an opportunity or an obligation? Should we emphasize global health and poverty over artificial intelligence and animal ethics? Such discussions are vital, but crafting our message can only get us so far. Many potentially highly-engaged effective altruists (EAs) haven’t even heard of EA yet. If we knew who these folks were, we could grow the movement far more quickly and sustainably. It’s far more effective to prioritize identifying people who are already highly predisposed towards the tenets of effective altruism than it is to struggle with those who are a much harder “sell.”

In the ”Awareness/Inclination” model developed by the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), Cotton-Barratt proposes that movement-building is made up of two elements: making people more aware of EA ideas and making people more inclined towards EA ideas. CEA notes that it’s much harder to increase inclination than awareness: “Our current way of resolving this is to focus our efforts on increasing the awareness of those who already have relatively high inclination.” This isn’t to say that we should be closed to people radically changing their beliefs (quite the opposite), but let’s prioritize the low-hanging fruit.

To do so, we need to find people who are highly inclined towards EA, yet currently unaware of EA ideas. Indeed, a forthcoming agenda from The Life You Can Save explicitly aims to target “demographics that are likely to be receptive to effective giving concepts relative to the general population.” We’ve all come to assume it’s the white, atheist, male, developer in the bay who listens to Sam Harris and reads Less Wrong. Perhaps for good reason: the 2017 EA survey found that the current movement is 89% white, 81% atheist, 81% ages 20-35, and 70% male. But are these numbers representative of those receptive to effective altruism? Or do they simply reveal how EA has historically spread through homophilic social networks, software engineering teams, and elite universities.

In a recent study, we’ve explored these questions to identify who may already be receptive to EA. We ran an online study with 530 Americans to determine what predicts support for EA. After participants read a general description of EA, they completed measures of their support for EA (e.g., attitudes and giving behaviors). Finally, participants answered a collection of questions measuring their beliefs, values, behaviors, demographic traits, and more.

…the typical stereotype of the “EA personality” may be somewhat misguided.

The results suggest that the EA movement may be missing a much wider population of highly-engaged supporters. For example, not only were women more altruistic in general (a widely replicated finding), but they were also more supportive of EA specifically (even when controlling for generosity). And whites, atheists, and young people were no more likely to support EA than average. If anything, being black or Christian indicated a higher likelihood of supporting EA. Moreover, the typical stereotype of the “EA personality” may be somewhat misguided. Many people - both within and outside the community - view EAs as cold, calculating types who use rationality to override their emotions—the sort of people who can easily ignore the beggar on the street. Yet the data suggest that the more empathetic someone is (in both cognition and affect), the more likely they are to support EA. Importantly, another key predictor was the psychological trait of ‘maximizing tendency,’ a desire to optimize for the best option when making decisions (rather than settle for something good enough). That is, it’s not enough to just care about others, or to only have a tendency to optimize. When a person scores high on empathy and maximizing, they’re much more likely to endorse EA. We set out to increase the return on investment of movement-building work; in doing so, we discovered an underexplored, much more diverse group interested in EA, and found that the EA personality may be somewhat misunderstood. For more on these results, see this brief summary.

Most agree that the movement needs more highly committed supporters, but the questions is how to acquire them. There are concerns that movement building may lead to “movement dilution,” the worry “that an overly simplistic version of EA, or a less aligned group of individuals, could come to dominate the community, limiting our ability to focus on the most important problems.” To avoid this problem, some suggest that we should instead focus on increasing the commitment of existing EAs. While neither focus precludes the other, traditional movement building approaches may have thus far primarily attracted low-alignment supporters, making it less valuable. Spreading ideas through the mass media is a low fidelity way to communicate, and framing EA to better convince people may only persuade those who aren’t closely aligned. The approach we advocate for here sidesteps these worries: evidence-based movement-building can help us identify highly-aligned supporters. The minimal effort required to increase the awareness of someone who is already highly-inclined may immediately result in a high level of contribution to the movement. The full discussion is outside the scope of this post, but this trade-off merits more evaluation.

Where do we go from here? This work is just the tip of the iceberg, and there’s much more to sort out. Not enough work has been done to craft evidence-based models of sustainable movement-building. Some organizations are starting to build these tools: Students for High-Impact Charity (SHIC) has started to “collect a variety of metrics to find students most inclined to engage with effective charity in the long-term” and the Giving Game Project is also collecting survey data toward a similar end. Once we have enough data on key traits predicting openness to the ideas of EA, we should work to find groups of people that are high in these traits and focus our efforts where there will be greater return. We’d love for this to snowball in the community as the EA movement incorporates data-driven decision-making more generally.

If the EA movement better understands who may already be interested in what it has to say, then it will be able to grow sustainably at much faster rate. This may seem obvious, but it is not the current approach. This could change not only who we try to engage with effective altruism, but how we hire people, how we run fundraising campaigns, and more. It’s time to understand who tends to support effective altruism, and why. By embracing evidence-based approaches to building the evidence-based altruism movement, we can do even more good with our resources.

Nick Fitz
Nick Fitz
Nick and Ari are behavioral researchers at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight & Startup Lab, and are co-founders of Sparrow, an app that integrates effective giving into everyday life.
The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.

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