Comment author: Ajeya 17 July 2017 04:11:39AM 8 points [-]

Views my own, not my employers.

Thanks for writing this up! I agree that it could be a big win if general EA ideas besides cause prioritization (or the idea of scope-limited cause prioritization) spread to the point of being as widely accepted as environmentalism. Some alternatives to this proposal though:

  1. It might be better to spread rationality and numeracy concepts like expected value, opportunity costs, comparative advantage, cognitive biases, etc completely unconnected to altruism than to try to explicitly spread narrow or cause-specific EA. People on average care much more about being productive, making money, having good relationships, finding meaning, etc than about their preferred altruistic causes. And it really would be a big win if they succeeded -- less ambiguously so than with narrow EA I think (see Carl's comment below). The biggest objection to this is probably crowdedness/lack of obvious low-hanging fruit.
  2. Another alternative might be to focus on spreading the prerequisites/correlates of cause-neutral, intense EA: e.g. math education, high levels of caring/empathy, cosmopolitanism, motivation to think systematically about ethics, etc. I'm unsure how difficult this would be.

Both of these alternatives seem to have what is (to me) an advantage: they don't involve the brand and terminology of EA. I think it would be easier to push on the frontiers of cause-neutral/broad EA if the label were a good signal of a large set of pretty unusual beliefs and attitudes, so that people can have high trust collaboration relatively quickly.

FWIW, I think I would be much more excited to evangelize broad low-level EA memes if there were some strong alternative channel to distinguish cause-neutral, super intense/obsessive EAs. Science has a very explicit distinction between science fans and scientists, and a very explicit funnel from one to the other (several years of formal education). EA doesn't have that yet, and may never. My instinct is that we should work on building a really really great "product", then build high and publicly-recognized walls around "practitioners" and "consumers" (a practical division of labor rather than a moral high ground thing), and then market the product hard to consumers.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 21 December 2016 05:51:36PM *  2 points [-]

These are all reasonable concerns. I can't speak for the details of the two estimates you mention, though my impression is that the points listed have probably already been considered by the people making the estimates. Though you could easily differ from them in your judgement calls.


With LEAN not including the costs of the chapter heads, they might have just decided that the costs of this time are low. Typically, in these estimates, people are trying to work out something like GiveWell dollars in vs. GiveWell dollars out. If a chapter head wouldn't have worked on an EA project or earned to give to GiveWell charities otherwise, then the opportunity cost of their time could be small when measured in GiveWell dollars. In practice, it seems like much chapter time comes out of other leisure activities.


With 80k, we ask people taking the pledge whether they would have taken it if 80k never existed, and only count people who say "probably not". These people might still be biased in our favor, but on the other hand, there's people we've influenced but were pushed over the edge by another org. We don't count these people towards our impact, even though we made it easier for the other org.

(We also don't count people who were influenced by us indirectly, so don't know they were influenced)


Zooming out a bit, ultimately what we do is make people more likely to pledge.

Here's a toy model.

  • At time 0, you have 3 people.
  • Amy has a 10% chance of taking the pledge
  • Bob has a 80% chance
  • Carla has a 90% chance

80k shows them a workshop, which makes the 10% more likely to take it, so at time 1, the probabilities are:

  • Amy: 20%
  • Bob: 90%
  • Carla: 100% -> she actually takes it

Then GWWC shows them a talk, which has the same effect. So at time 2:

  • Amy: 30%
  • Bob: 100% -> actually takes it
  • Carla: 100% (overdetermined)

Given current methods, 80k gets zero impact. Although they got Carla to pledge, Carla tells them she would have taken it otherwise due to GWWC, which is true.

GWWC counts both Carla and Bob as new pledgers in their total, but when they ask them how much they would have donated otherwise, Carla says zero (80k had already persuaded her) and Bob probably gives a high number too (~90%), because he was already close to doing it. So this reduces GWWC's estimate of the counterfactual value per pledge. In total, GWWC adds 10% of the value of Bob's donations to their estimates of counterfactual money moved.

This is pessimistic for 80k, because without 80k, GWWC wouldn't have persuaded Bob, but this isn't added to our impact.

It's also a bit pessimistic for GWWC, because none of their effect on Amy is measured, even though they've made it easier for other organisations to persuade her.

In either case, what's actually happening is that 80k is adding 30% of probability points and GWWC 20% of probability points. The current method of asking people what they would have done otherwise is a rough approximation for this, but it can both overcounts and undercounts what's really going on.

Comment author: Ajeya 21 December 2016 08:24:24PM *  2 points [-]

Re: Leisure time. I think I would have probably either taken another class, gotten a part-time paying job as a TA, or done technical research with a professor if I weren't leading EAB (which took ~10 hours of my time each week). I'm not positive how representative this is across the board, but I think this is likely true of at least some other chapter leaders, and more likely to be true of the most dedicated (who probably produce a disproportionate amount of the value of student groups).

Comment author: Ajeya 13 December 2016 11:25:09PM *  13 points [-]

Hi Michael! Thanks for engaging with GiveWell research, we appreciate it. As others in the comments have pointed out, many of the critiques in your post would have applied to our earlier November 2015 cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA). Our 2016 CEA has changed a lot, in part because more staff engaged deeply with the kind of population ethics considerations you point out. Because of this, I think most people will not have to make substantial discounts to our 2016 cost-effectiveness estimate of the Against Malaria Foundation to account for their values. I wrote a longer response on the GiveWell blog here: http://blog.givewell.org/2016/12/12/amf-population-ethics/

Comment author: Dan_Keys 05 December 2016 01:14:55AM 7 points [-]

It appears that this analysis did not account for when people became EAs. It looked at donations in 2014, among people who in November 2015 were nonstudent EAs on an earning to give path. But less than half of those people were nonstudent EAs on an earning to give path at the start of 2014.

In fact, less than half of the people who took the Nov 2015 survey were EAs at the start of 2014. I've taken a look at the dataset, and among the 1171 EAs who answered the question about 2014 donations:
40% first got involved in EA in 2013 or earlier
21% first got involved in EA in 2014
28% first got involved in EA in 2015
11% did not answer the question about when they got involved in EA

This makes all of the analyses of median 2014 donation extremely misleading, unless they're limited to pre-2014 EAs (which they generally have not been).

I'm hoping that the next EA survey will do better with this issue. I believe the plan is to wait until January in order to ask about 2016 donations, which is a good start. Hopefully they will also focus on pre-2016 EAs when looking at typical donation size, since the survey will include a bunch of new EAs who we wouldn't necessarily expect to see donating within their first few months as an EA.

(Also speaking for myself only, not my employer.)

Comment author: Ajeya 05 December 2016 07:16:03PM 0 points [-]

Thanks Dan! I didn't know this, I'll look more closely at the data when I get the chance.

Comment author: AlyssaVance 04 December 2016 09:34:01PM 0 points [-]

I don't think it's at all clear that the people Michael highlighted are a small minority as a percentage of deeply committed EAs. A small minority among all Westerners, sure, but that's not the relevant reference class.

(Thanks for the link BTW, have added to the post)

Comment author: Ajeya 04 December 2016 10:47:23PM *  2 points [-]

It seems like "deeply committed" is doing a lot of work there. In the last EA survey, it seemed like the median donation from a person who identified as "EA", listed "earning to give" as their career, was not a student, and believed they should give now rather than give later was $1933. At typical starting software engineer salaries (which I would guess is a typical career for a median "earning to give" EA), this represents a 1-5% donation. This suggests the pledge would increase the donations of over 50% of EAs who list their primary career path as earning to give (so the argument that the mental effort needed to keep the pledge would distract from their careers doesn't apply). Link to analysis here: https://www.facebook.com/bshlgrs/posts/10208520740630756?match=YnVjayBzaGxlZ2VyaXMsc2hsZWdlcmlzLHN1cnZleSxidWNr

Edit: Speaking for myself only, not my employer.

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 17 August 2016 04:55:58PM 3 points [-]

Out of curiosity, what would people accept as evidence for or against the "EA is unwelcoming" hypothesis?

Comment author: Ajeya 18 August 2016 12:17:55AM 4 points [-]

Some kind of anonymous survey mechanism that managed to capture people who had interacted with EA in a low-to-medium-intensity way (eg, through the Facebook group or one of the websites, through playing a giving game at a campus group, attending one meet up of a campus group, etc) and tracked a) whether they interacted at higher-intensity (eg, applying to EAG) later, and b) whether they internally felt it was welcoming.