Comment author: RandomEA 23 April 2018 02:19:34PM 6 points [-]

What percent of those who drifted from the 50% category ended up in the 10% category instead of out of the movement entirely?

And would the graph of the number of people remaining in the 50% category over time look roughly linear or was drifting concentrated at the beginning or near the end? What about for the 10% category?

Comment author: Joey 26 April 2018 05:08:25PM 3 points [-]

I did not break down the data that way when I made it, but a quick look would suggest ~75% moved from 50% to 10% and drifting was mildly concentrated at the beginning.

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 24 April 2018 05:20:55PM *  14 points [-]

Thanks for collecting the data Joey! Really useful.

i) I'm not sure whether 'value drift' is a good term to describe loss of motivation for altruistic actions. I'm also not sure whether the data you collected is a good proxy for loss of motivation for altruistic actions.

To me the term value drift implies that the values of the value drifting person are less important to them than they used to be, as opposed to finding them harder to implement. Your data is consistent with both interpretations. I also wouldn't call someone who still cares as much about their values but finds it harder to be motivated having 'value drifted'.

If we observe someone moving to a different location and then contributing less EA wise, then this can have multiple causes. Maybe their values actually changed, maybe they lost motivation or EA contributions have just become harder to do because there's less EA information and fewer people to do projects with around.

As the EA community we should treat people sharing goals and values of EA but finding it hard to act towards implementing them very differently to people simply not sharing our goals and values anymore. Those groups require different responses.

ii) This is somewhat tangential to the post, but since having kids came up as a potential reason for value drifting, I'd like to mention how unfortunate it can be for people who have had kids if other EAs assume they have value drifted as a result.

I've had a lot of trouble within the last year in EA spaces after having a baby. EAs around me constantly assume that I suddenly don't care anymore about having a high impact and might just want to be a stay at home parent. This is incredibly insulting and hurtful to me. Especially if it comes from people whom I have known for a long time and who should know this would completely go against my (EA & feminist) values. Particularly bitter is how gendered this assumption is. My kids' dad (also an EA) never gets asked whether he wants to be a stay at home parent now.

I really had expected the EA community to be better at this. It also makes me wonder on how many opportunities to contribute I might have missed out on. The EA community often relays information about opportunities only informally, if someone is assumed to not be interested in contributing the information about opportunities is much less likely to reach them. Thus the belief that EAs will contribute much less once they have kids might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Comment author: Joey 24 April 2018 09:59:41PM 5 points [-]

I agree regarding implementation difficulties, particularly long term ones (e.g. losing a visa for a place you were living in with a big EA community) can muddy the waters a lot. It's hard to get into the details, but I would generally consider someone not drifted if it was a clearly capacity affecting thing (e.g. they got carpal tunnel) but outside of that they are working on the same projects they would have wanted to in all cases.

A more nuanced view might be break it down into: “Value change away from EA” - defined as changing fundamental ethical views, maybe changing to valuing people within your country more than outside of it.. “Action change away from EA” - defined as changing one of the fundamental applications of your still similarly held values. Maybe you think being veg is good, but you are no longer veg due to moving to a different, less conducive living situation.

With short and long term versions of both and with it being pretty likely that “value change” would lead to “action change” over time, I used value drift as a catch-all for both the above. It’s also how I have heard it commonly used as, but I am open to changing the term to be more descriptive.

“As the EA community we should treat people sharing goals and values of EA but finding it hard to act towards implementing them very differently to people simply not sharing our goals and values anymore. Those groups require different responses.”

I strongly agree. These seem to be very different groups. I also think you could even break it down further into “EAs who rationalize doing a bad thing as the most ethical thing” and “EAs who accept as humans that they have multiple drives they need to trade off between”. Most of my suggestions in the post are aimed at actions one could take now that reduce both “action change” and “value change”. Once someone has changed I am less sure about what the way forward is, but I think that could warrant more EA thought (e.g. how to re-engage someone who was disconnected for logistical reasons).

On ii)

Sorry to hear you have had trouble with the EA community and children. I think it's one of the life changes that is generally updated too strongly on by EAs and assuming that a person (of any gender) will definitely value drift upon having children is clearly incorrect. Personally I have found the EAs who I have spoken to who have kids to be unusually reflective about its effects on them compared to other similar life changes, perhaps because it has been more talked about in EA than say partner choice or moving cities. When a couple who plans to have kids has kids and changes their life around that in standard/expected ways, I do not see that as a value drift from their previous state (of planning to have kids and planning to have life changes around that).

I also think people will run into problems pretty quickly if they assume that every time someone goes through a life change that the person will change radically and become less EA. I think I see it intuitively as more of a bayesian prior. If someone has been involved in EA for a week and then they are not involved for 2 weeks, it might be sane to consider the possibilities of them not coming back. On the flip side, if an EA has been involved for years and was not involved for 2 weeks, people would think nothing of it. The same holds true for large life changes. It’s more about the person's pattern of long term of behavior and a combined “overall” perspective.

My list of concerns about a new trend of EA’s “relaying information about opportunities only informally” is so long it will have to be reserved for a whole other blog post.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 23 April 2018 11:01:37PM 5 points [-]

Do you have any opinion on the role of community or social ties in preventing value drift in addition to individualized commitment mechanisms, like the GWWC Pledge.

Comment author: Joey 24 April 2018 04:53:53PM 3 points [-]

Social ties seem quite important, particularly close ones (best friends, partners, close co-workers).

Comment author: MichaelPlant 23 April 2018 10:30:57PM *  16 points [-]

Thanks very much for doing this.

Could you possibly say more (i.e. as much as you can) about why people left? Moving city, leaving university or starting a family don't have to stop someone being an EA. More explanation seems needed. For instance, "X moved city" by itself doesn't really explain what happened, whereas "X moved city, didn't know any EAs and lost motivation without group support" or "Y started a family and realised they wanted a higher quality of life than they could find working for an EA org" do. Putting this in dating terms, one reason people sometimes give when they break up with someone is "I'm moving to city Z and it would never work" but that's not quite a sufficient/honest reason, which would be "I'm moving to Z and this will make things sufficiently hard I want to stop. If I liked you a lot more I'd suggest we do long distance; but I don't like you that much, so we're breaking up". I'd want to know if people stop 'believing' in EA, kept thinking it was important but lost motivation or something else.

Equally, I'd be interested if you did a survey of the people who stayed and ask why they stayed to see what the differences were. If the explanations for the remainer and the leavers are consistent with each other than they don't provide any explanatory power.

I'd add the (usual) proviso that people don't really know why they do what they do and self-reports are to be treated with some suspicion. It's generally more useful to see what people do rather than listen to what they say.

Finally, it would be interesting to compare these retention ratios to other things - religion, using a given tech product, dieting, etc. - it strikes me that, if some sense, 50% retention after 5 years might be pretty good in some sense, though I agree it's also worrying put another way.

Comment author: Joey 24 April 2018 04:41:24PM 23 points [-]

So I want to be pretty careful about going into details, but I can mix some stories together to make a plausible sounding story based on what I have heard. Please keep in mind this story is a fiction based off a composite of case studies I’ve witnessed, not a real example of any particular person.

Say Alice is an EA. She learns about it in his first year of college. She starts by attending an EA event or two and eventually ends up being a member of his university chapter and pretty heavily reading the EA forum. She takes the GWWC pledge and a year later she takes a summer internship at an EA organization. During this time she identifies strongly with the EA movement and considers it one of her top priorities. Sadly, as Alice is away at her internship her chapter suffers and when she gets back she hits a particularly rough year of school and due to long term concerns, she prioritizes school over setting the chapter back up, mainly thinking about her impact. The silver lining is at the end of this rough year she starts a relationship. The person is smart and well suited, but does not share her charitable interest. Over time she stops reading the EA content she used to and the chapter never gets started again. After her degree ends she takes a job in consulting that she says will give her career capital, but she has a sense her heart is not as into EA as she once was. She knows a big factor is her boyfriend’s family would approve of a more normal job than a charity focused one, plus she is confident she can donate and have some impact that way. Her first few paychecks she rationalizes as needing to move out and get established. The next few to build up a safe 6 month runway. The donations never happen. There's always some reason or another to put it off, and EA seems so low on the priorities list now, just a thing she did in college, like playing a sport. Alice ends up donating a fairly small amount to effective charities (a little over 1%). Her involvement was at its peak when she was in college and she knows her college self would be disappointed. Each choice made sense at the time. Many of them even follow traditional EA advice, but the endline result is Alice does not really feel she is an EA anymore. She has many other stronger identities. In this story, with different recommendations from the EA movement and different choices from Alice, she could have ended up doing earning to give and donating a large percentage long term or working with an EA org long term, but instead she “value drifted”.

Comment author: DavidMoss  (EA Profile) 23 April 2018 03:06:39AM *  13 points [-]

This also fits my experience.

A few other implications if value drift is more of a concern:

  • Movement growth looks a lot less impactful in absolute terms
  • It's an open question whether this means we should therefore focus our movement-building efforts on a minority of particularly likely to be engaged people or expand our numbers more to offset attrition (depending on details of your model)
  • Selecting primarily for high skill/potential-impact levels may be a mistake, as a person who among the very highest skill level, but who decides to do something else, may likely produce zero impact. There are, no doubt, more implications.
Comment author: Joey 23 April 2018 07:59:15PM 3 points [-]

Indeed. I think there are a whole set of implications of value drift when it comes to movement building, particularity recruiting younger people who will not create huge amounts of good for a while.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 23 April 2018 09:16:00AM 6 points [-]

If your primary path to impact is donations and you want to keep value drift in mind, but you don’t know where you want to give yet, don’t save those donations. Put them into a donor-advised fund. That way even if you become less altruistic in the future, you can’t back out on the pledged donations and spend it on a fancier wedding or a bigger house. You can also set up monthly donations, or ask your employer to automatically donate a pre-set portion of your income to charity before you even see it in your bank account.

Does a donor-advised fund let you deduct money you put into the fund from your taxes? If so, that is a huge reason to use them.

Comment author: Joey 23 April 2018 07:56:47PM 3 points [-]

Yes it does, and indeed that is another huge pro of them when compared to a normal savings fund. There are some cons of them often they are cumbersome to first set up and require a fairly large minimum deposit. But overall something I wish more EAs considered.

Comment author: AdamGleave 23 April 2018 01:25:13AM 10 points [-]

Upvoted because this is an important topic I've seen little discussion of. Although you take pains to draw attention to the limitations of this data set, these caveats aren't included in the conclusion, so I'd be wary of anyone acting on this verbatim. I'd be interested in seeing drop out rates in other social movements to give a better idea of the base rate.

Comment author: Joey 23 April 2018 07:54:47PM 3 points [-]

I agree. Other movement data would be interesting. The most relevant data I have seen is various veg rate studies (which generally shows like 80% dropout overall or the average person staying veg ~4 years). e.g.


Empirical data on value drift

Why It’s Important to Know the Risk of Value Drift   The concept of value drift is that over time people will become less motivated to do altruistic things. This is not to be confused with changing cause areas or methods of doing good. Value drift has a strong precedent... Read More
Comment author: brianwang712 24 March 2018 10:24:57PM 1 point [-]

I wonder how much the "spend 1 year choosing and 4 years relentless pursuing a project" rule of thumb applies to having a high-impact career. Certain career paths might rely on building a lot of career capital before you can have high-impact, and career capital may not be easily transferable between domains. For example, if you first decide to relentlessly pursue a career in advancing clean meat technology for four years, and then re-evaluate and decide that influencing policymakers with regards to AI safety is the highest-value thing for you to do, it's probably going to be difficult to pivot. There's a sense in which you might be "locked in" to a career after you spend enough time in it. My sense is that, for career-building in the face of uncertainty, it might be best to prioritize keeping options open (e.g., by building transferable career capital) and/or spending more time on the choosing phase.

Comment author: Joey 25 March 2018 08:35:00PM 5 points [-]

I am more skeptical about transferable career capital. I tend to see people doing impressive things even in unrelated fields as providing a lot of career capital. E.g. A lot of EAs would hire someone who had done a successful project in another EA cause vs just doing something less related but more transferable. E.g. going into consulting.

Also generally in line with the argument above, I tend to see that doing great focused work leads to better outcomes than “building generalized career capital” with the idea of eventually using it in a high impact direction. The most common outcome I see with EAs doing that is them spending a bunch of time saving/building career capital and then them leaving the EA movement, having caused pretty minimal good in the world. Additionally, doing impressive things in the EA movement is a way to both build career capital and do good at the same time.

That being said, I think it’s somewhat a different question of what to factor in. You might decide after one year that the best thing to do is X (e.g. get a degree) which sets you up better for your next plan revaluation point 4 years later with minimal re-evaluation until you have gotten your degree.

Comment author: Michael_Wulfsohn 25 March 2018 12:52:05AM 4 points [-]

I have another possible reason why focusing on one project might be better than dividing one's time between many projects. There may be returns to density of time spent. That is, an hour you spend on a project is more productive if you've just spent many hours on that project. For example, when I come back to a task after a few days, the details of it aren't as fresh in my mind. I have to spend time getting back up to speed, and I miss insights that I wouldn't have missed.

I haven't seen much evidence about this, just my own experience. There might also be countervailing effects, like time required for concepts to "sink in", and synergies, or insights for one project gleaned from involvement in another. It probably varies by task. My impression is that research projects feature very high returns to density of time spent.

Comment author: Joey 25 March 2018 08:32:43PM 0 points [-]

Returns on density of time seems pretty plausible to me and particularly for cognitively intensive projects. Regarding sink in effects, I suspect many of these benefits can be accomplished by working on different aspects within the same overall project. E.g. working on hiring to take a break from cost-effectiveness analysis work when founding a charity.

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