Six Ways To Get Along With People Who Are Totally Wrong*

* The people you think are totally wrong may not actually be totally wrong.

Effective altruism is a ‘broad tent’

As is obvious to anyone who has looked around here, effective altruism is based more on a shared interest in the question 'how can you do the most good' than a shared view on the answer. We all have friends who support:

  • A wide range of different cause areas.
  • A wide range of different approaches to those causes.
  • Different values and moral philosophies regarding what it means to 'help others'.
  • Different political views on how best to achieve even shared goals. On economic policy for example, we have people covering the full range from far left to far right. In the CEA offices we have voters for every major political party, and some smaller ones too.

Looking beyond just stated beliefs, we also have people with a wide range of temperaments, from highly argumentative, confident and outspoken to cautious, idiosyncratic and humble.

Our wide range of views could cause problems

There is a popular saying that 'opposites attract'. But unfortunately, social scientists have found precisely the opposite to be true: birds of a feather do in fact flock together.

One of the drivers of this phenomenon is that people who are different are more likely to get into conflicts with one another. If my partner and I liked to keep the house exactly the same way, we certainly wouldn't have as many arguments about cleaning (I'll leave you to speculate about who is the untidy one!). People who are different from you may initially strike you as merely amusing, peculiar or mistaken, but when you talk to them at length and they don't see reason, you may start to see them as stupid, biased, rude, impossible to deal with, unkind, and perhaps even outright bad people.

A movement brought together by a shared interest in the question ‘what should we do?’ will inevitably have a greater diversity of priorities, and justifications for those priorities, than a movement united by a shared answer. This is in many ways our core strength. Maintaining a diversity of views means we are less likely to get permanently stuck on the wrong track, because we can learn from one another's scholarship and experiences, and correct course if necessary.

However, it also means we are necessarily committed to ideological pluralism. While it is possible to maintain ‘Big Tent’ social movements they face some challenges. The more people hold opinions that others dislike, the more possible points of friction there are that can cause us to form negative opinions of one another. There have already been strongly worded exchanges online demonstrating the risk.

When a minority holds an unpopular view they can feel set upon and bullied, while the majority feels mystified and frustrated that a small group of people can't see the obvious truth that so many accept.

My first goal with this post is to make us aware of this phenomenon, and offer my support for a culture of peaceful coexistence between people who, even after they share all their reasons and reflect, still disagree.

My second goal is to offer a few specific actions that can help us avoid interpersonal conflicts that don't contribute to making the world a better place:

1. Remember that you might be wrong

Hard as it is to keep in mind when you're talking to someone who strongly disagrees with you, it is always possible that they have good points to make that would change your mind, at least a bit. Most claims are only ‘partially true or false’, and there is almost always something valuable you can learn from someone who disagrees with you, even if it is just an understanding of how they think.

If the other person seems generally as intelligent and informed about the topic as you, it's not even clear why you should give more weight to your own opinion than theirs.

2. Be polite, doubly so if your partner is not

Being polite will make both the person you are talking to, and onlookers, more likely to come around to your view. It also means that you're less likely to get into a fight that will hurt others and absorb your precious time and emotional energy.

Politeness has many components, some notable ones being: not criticising someone personally; interpreting their behaviour and statements in a fairly charitable way; not being a show-off, or patronising and publicly embarrassing others; respecting others as your equals, even if you think they are not; conceding when they have made a good point; and finally keeping the conversation focussed on information that can be shared, confirmed, and might actually prove persuasive.

3. Don't infer bad motivations

While humans often make mistakes in their thinking, it's uncommon for them to be straight out uninterested in the welfare of others or what is right, especially so in this movement. Even if they are, they are probably not aware that that is the case. And even if they are aware, you won't come across well to onlookers by addressing them as though they have bad motivations.

If you really do become convinced the person you are talking to is speaking in bad faith, it's time to walk away. As they say: don't feed the trolls.

4. Stay cool

Even when people say things that warrant anger and outrage, expressing anger or outrage publicly will rarely make the world a better place. Anger being understandable or natural is very different from it being useful, especially if the other person is likely to retaliate with anger of their own.

Being angry does not improve the quality of your thinking, persuade others that you're right, make you happier or more productive, or make for a more harmonious community.

In its defence, anger can be highly motivating. Unfortunately it is indiscriminate about motivating you to do very valuable, ineffective and even harmful things.

Any technique that can keep you calm is therefore useful. If something is making you unavoidably angry, it's typically best to walk away and let other people deal with it.

5. Pick your battles

Not all things are equally important to reach a consensus about. For good or ill, most things we spend our days talking about just aren't that 'action relevant'. If you find yourself edging towards interpersonal conflict on a question that i) isn't going to change anyone's actions much; ii) isn't going to make the world a much better place, even if it does change their actions; or iii) is very hard to persuade others about, maybe it isn't worth the cost of interpersonal tension to explore in detail.

So if someone in the community says something unrelated or peripheral to effective altruism that you disagree with, which could develop into a conflict, you always have the option of not taking the bait. In a week, you and they may not even remember it was mentioned, let alone consider it worth damaging your relationship over.

6. Let it go

The most important advice of all.

Perhaps you are discussing something important. Perhaps you've made great arguments. Perhaps everyone you know agrees with you. You've been polite, and charitable, and kept your cool. But the person you're talking to still holds a view you strongly disagree with and believe is harmful.

If that's the case, it's probably time for you both to walk away before your opinions of one another fall too far, or the disagreement spirals into sectarianism. If someone can't be persuaded, you can at least avoid creating an ill-will between you that ensures they never come around. You've done what you can for now, and that is enough.

Hopefully time will show which of you is right, or space away from a public debate will give one of you the chance to change your mind in private without losing face. In the meantime maybe you can't work closely together, but you can at least remain friendly and respectful.

It isn't likely or even desirable for us to end up agreeing with one another on everything. The world is a horribly complex place; if the questions we are asking had easy answers the research we are doing wouldn't be necessary in the first place.

The cost of being part of a community that accepts and takes an interest in your views, even though many think you are pulling in the wrong direction, is to be tolerant of others in the same way even when you think their views are harmful.

So, sometimes, you just have to let it go.



If you agree with me about the above, you might be tempted to post or send it to people every time they aren’t playing by these rules. Unfortunately, this is likely to be counterproductive and lead to more conflict rather than less. It’s useful to share this post in general, but not trot it out as a way of policing others. The most effective way to promote this style of interaction is to exemplify it in the way you treat others, and not get into long conversations with people who have less productive ways of talking to others.

Thanks to Amanda, Will, Diana, Michelle, Catriona, Marek, Niel, Tonja, Sam and George for feedback on drafts of this post.

Comments (19)

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 24 February 2015 01:27:38PM 11 points [-]

Thanks Rob, this is a great exposition and I really like your examples of the different kind of diversity of opinion people hold.

I think there's a relatively broad consensus behind this thesis. The two top voted posts on the forum deal with the fact that if we're wrong we should want to know, and why it's important to be nice when offering criticism. Michelle and Jess wrote a piece with some great practical advice for how to avoid people misreading you as hostile, and I've written about how to deal with the fact that we disagree about the best causes and the instrumental benefits of being nice.

Comment author: RyanCarey 24 February 2015 11:14:10PM 1 point [-]

Yep, it's good that one of the first issues that we've formed consensus on involves the rules of conversational engagement.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 24 February 2015 02:42:24PM *  8 points [-]

If I was going to add another I think it would be

7. Have fun

Talking to people who really disagree with you can represent a very enjoyable intellectual exploration if you approach it the right way. Detach yourself from your own opinions, circumstances and feelings and instead view the conversation as a neutral observer who was just encountering the debate for the first time. Appreciate the time the other person is putting into expressing their points. Reflect on how wrong most people have been throughout history and how hard it is to be confident about anything. Don't focus just yet on the consequences or social desirability of the different views being expressed - just evaluate how true they seem to be on their merits. Sometimes this perspective is described as 'being philosophical'.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 25 February 2015 07:46:21AM 1 point [-]

I agree. However, detaching ourselves from our own opinions and feelings, even if we think of ourselves as first-time onlookers, can be hard. Debates had about effective altruism aren't of the garden-variety. Often they're about what lives matter, what's the best way to help others or, what the nature of each of our own obligations are. While I want helping others, and engaging others on how to do so, to be fun, it can be hard. These are all topics we take seriously. I wouldn't fault someone for not seeing the 'fun' in such debates, or feeling a 'fun' attitude was unfitting.

Comment author: Ruairi 24 February 2015 01:46:01PM 8 points [-]

When I saw "let it go" as a link there was only one place I was hoping it would take me, was not disappointed.

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 24 February 2015 02:27:42PM 18 points [-]

I dunno, I was kind of hoping Rob had recorded a cover and uploaded it. I think I'd pay good money to see him do the Elsa flounce...

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 24 February 2015 02:33:26PM *  15 points [-]

How much? :P

I offer very competitive hourly rates for flouncing.

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 25 February 2015 09:17:52PM 2 points [-]

Hmm, at least two drinks worth? But if we passed the hat round CEA offices on a Friday evening, I think we could make it worth your while :)

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 27 February 2015 02:20:33PM *  4 points [-]

Haha let me know ahead of time and I can practice some Elsa mimicry.

16 votes - I think this request for me to flounce might be the most up-voted comment on the forum so far!

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 04 March 2015 07:52:06PM 3 points [-]

Good to see we are all about srs biznis here!

Comment author: Gerald 25 February 2015 01:53:50AM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure I like the way Disney films are heading, Let It Go? Really? I'm very happy Simba didn't sing that after Scar killed Mufasa. Would've made for a boring film.

Comment author: jmd40 25 February 2015 02:46:48AM 4 points [-]

He did sing though, Hakuna Matata. Which pretty much translates to the same idea, don't worry just let it go. :)

Comment author: Richard_Batty 24 February 2015 07:10:12PM 6 points [-]

Do you have any examples of successful 'broad tent' social movements that we can learn from?

One example would be science, which is like effective altruism in that it is defined more by questions and methods than by answers.

One counterexample might be liberal christianity, which is more accepting of a diversity of views but has grown much more slowly than churches with stricter theology. This phenomenon has been studied by sociologists, one paper is here: http://www.majorsmatter.net/religion/Readings/RationalChoice.pdf

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 24 February 2015 05:24:39PM *  2 points [-]

Thanks for posting this! Very good and well-crafted post. I also like the tactical thinking (playing the long game, etc) further down in the thread. Considering the very real risk that we won't be able to live up to these points, and that that presumably would have a very significant negative effect, I think this is a topic we need to keep returning to.

Here's a post from CivilPolitics.org (run by Jonathan Haidt a a number of other political psychologists) on evidence-based interventions to improve inter-group civility which might be useful for those of you who haven't read it.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 25 February 2015 03:18:54AM 1 point [-]

If my partner and I liked to keep the house exactly the same way, we certainly wouldn't have as many arguments about cleaning (I'll leave you to speculate about who is the untidy one!)

We don't need to speculate.

Comment author: Telofy  (EA Profile) 24 February 2015 03:34:50PM 0 points [-]

Especially the number 6 is hard (for me). I have colleagues who are completely content with their explicit opinion that suffering becomes irrelevant if it’s sufficiently far away from them spatially. One of them admits that he might be wrong but no longer wants to adapt his world view to new evidence. It’s a situation where I see no other way than number 6. But whenever I saw them I was reminded of all the suffering they disregard, in graphic detail. It became hard to concentrate on anything they said at work. What helped me was what Peter Singer writes in The Life You Can Save:

The question really amounts to asking: Is the fact that other people are not doing their fair share a sufficient reason for allowing a child to die when you could easily rescue that child? I think the answer is clear: No. The others have, by refusing to help with the rescue, made themselves irrelevant. They might as well be so many rocks.

If I imagine them as talking rocks, I can cope.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 24 February 2015 03:37:54PM *  7 points [-]

I also find this irritating but just think about it as playing a long game. Badgering them or demand a high standard of behaviour isn't going to be persuasive, but subtly setting a good example, seeming like a desirable person to emulate, and allowing them to come around in their own time might just work.

Keep in mind that there are lots of people out there to persuade. If someone has a below average receptiveness to our ideas then you are not using your time well continuing to persuade them - you would do better to find a new random person.

Also appreciate that humans are just monkeys that evolved a bit differently. You wouldn't be shocked if a chimpanzee didn't care about monkeys in another continent, so it's not so shocking humans find it hard to generalise their empathy either.

Comment author: tomstocker 24 February 2015 10:04:28PM 0 points [-]

Get em young, seriously, only several decades to refresh a generation.

Comment author: Telofy  (EA Profile) 24 February 2015 04:17:26PM 0 points [-]

Yes, thank you! I’ve mostly concentrated on the second aspect since it’s directly related to cost-effectiveness and very persuasive for me, but the first and third also complement it well.

I should print and hang an EA or AMF poster in the office; I just haven’t found any good ones yet. Or I can print Charity Science’s recent info graphic.