Interview with Aaron Dixon

So, could you describe for me the ideal qualities of a Black Panther recruit? Presumably, as a Black Panther captain you had to decide who was suitable for the movement and who wasn’t. So, in terms of personality traits, physical fitness [He laughs], philosophy…

You know we didn’t really look at that. Maybe we should have but we didn’t really look at that. We just looked at somebody… well, we had a five week training programme that we supposedly were supposed to put them through but we really didn’t. They had to be committed, they had to be willing to go out and sell papers, they had to be willing to participate in all party activities, and rallies. They had to be willing to use a weapon if they needed to, they had to have a weapon, they had to acquire a weapon and get ammunition. We had weapons classes to teach them how to use a weapon, how to break down and clean their weapons, and participate in military drills.

And what do you think attracted women, specifically women, to the movement? Do you think there was something in it for them in particular?

Well they were just like the men. You know, they wanted justice to be done. They wanted to see justice in their communities. They had seen the same thing  as the men had seen. That is, racism and injustice that had been perpetrated by the police departments. So you know, they wanted the same thing that we wanted.

Take a musician like Gil Scott-Heron, he can get away with saying quite inflammatory things about white feminism but still have women on side. What I’m asking is why some women felt attracted to the movement in spite of a very masculine rhetoric.

Well, you know, the same thing that attracted the men to the ‘masculine rhetoric’ [He looks a little unconvinced by my choice of words]. It was defiant, and for standing against the system, standing up against police. That was attractive to men and women. Uh, and you know, women were able to do a lot of the things that the men were able to do in the party, so uh, you know, women in the black panther party were not like regular women. They were very strong. Just like the woman who first joined, she came by that office and said ‘how come you ain’t got no women in here?’ She had the audacity to say that. And that’s the type of woman that we wanted, that’s the type of women you had to be. You had to have audacity. These were tough minded women.

Tell me about Kathleen Cleaver.

She was very smart, very dynamic, a great speaker. She was the epitome of what a black panther party woman was about in the early days. She was that first image of a woman that you saw in the black panther party. She had the leather coat on, the sunglasses and a shotgun! [Laughs]

And the uniform was more or less the same for both genders?


Right down to the tie?

Yes… no, they didn’t wear… Black dress, that’s what they wore.

What did people take away from the breakfast programmes? Did they enjoy it? Did they see it as something that they’d move away from eventually?

Well yeah people enjoyed it! I mean, it was hard work ‘cause you had to get up early and feed kids, but it was rewarding work because we fed so many kids and you know, what I forgot to mention is that we forced the government into forming a national breakfast programme which is still around today.

And that’s why it’s a revolutionary act?

Right, yeah.

You once marched with Martin Luther King but joined the black panther party after his death which could represent disillusionment with non-violence. But later on you engaged with the electoral system. I wonder what motivated you to run for office yourself?

Well when Bobby Seale ran for mayor that’s because that’s what the party ordered him to do. [Matter-of-fact] That was the next move. As I was saying, we were always changing. We saw this as an important tactic. As a matter of fact this tactic led us to take over the city of Oakland, we were going to take our campaign around the country and take over other cities!

So a combination of self-defense and political activism?

Yeah, yeah.

How can people be persuaded to give more, and more effectively?

Research and prose by Michael Davis, Angus Smith and Denise Melchin

Encouraging people to give to charity is often based on appeals to emotion. Encouraging people to give to the most effective charities, however, involves appealing to their reason. Do these facts necessarily clash? Does the effective altruism movement face an uphill struggle against people’s intuitions, gut feelings and personal experiences?

Our findings investigate the ways in which giving with your head can appeal to the heart. A number of simple, intuitive, persuasion techniques can dramatically alter an individual’s ability to understand, and really internalise, their potential to do good.

Crunching Numbers

‘Giving ten per cent of your income’ is a scary thought, until you actually think about it. So, when persuading someone to take the Giving What We Can pledge, giving someone the space to think it over can be a surprisingly useful tool. A 2011 paper by economist Anna Breman showed that when regular donors were encouraged to increase their donations, the mean increase in monthly donations was 32% higher among people asked to do so after two months, than those who were asked to do so immediately. In a second experiment this figure stood at 11% So, when inviting someone to take the pledge, consider asking for a commitment first, and allowing them space to adjust to the idea before actually starting payments.

Another way of framing the ten per cent donation in a more appealing way is through suggesting that the donations be made frequently, and in smaller amounts. A study by Strahilevitz in 2010 showed that ‘the relative appeal of giving to charity rather than having those resources for oneself is greater for small amounts than for large amounts.’ Have you ever been reminded of how much you could give to charity if you simply cut down on the lattés? This is the ‘little-but-often’ model at work: when people see a donation as a series of small sacrifices, they are much more likely to appreciate its overall good.

This brings us on to a fundamental problem with fundraising for effective altruism: people struggle with conceptualising large numbers. When Kurt Tucholsky (not Stalin, who was hardly an insightful man) said that one death is a tragedy, and thousands is a statistic, he was alluding to a truth that social psychologists have recently come to elucidate. Take a recent series of studies by Västfjäll et al. (2014) which found that as more children were introduced in different charity appeals, activity in the Zygomaticus Major muscles decreased. Activity in these muscles is typically associated with compassion and the anticipated ‘warm glow’ of giving. As more victims of poverty were introduced, then, people’s empathy towards them decreased. Västfjäll, understandably annoyed, organised a second study in which these children were grouped into ‘entities,’ such as families. He found that eight related children elicited more empathy, and donations, than eight unrelated children. So, when talking about the lives that one can save through effective giving, stress that these are not simply abstract third-worlders, who exist as nothing more than statistics, but real people who relate to one another.

‘It’s not that I dislike people but I’m a great animal lover…’

There are, however, some heavily ingrained biases in people’s altruistic behaviour which can take real effort to break. Today’s society is saturated with different charitable appeals, and interview data suggests that donors use a variety of heuristic, experience-based rules of thumb to cope with the complexity. A study in 2014 pulled up such responses as, ‘I very rarely look at a new charity,’ ‘I’m not adding to my list,’ or ‘I have a box…all the [charity leaflets] go in and every month I donate to two of them.’ In persuading someone to give effectively, we have a responsibility to help people see through the complexity of charity and explain clearly and concisely why organisations like the Against Malaria Foundation deserve our support.

Arguably more damaging is the idea that there is a limit to how much good one can really be expected to do. Having done one’s ‘good deed for the day,’ people can get defensive, even offended, about being asked to do more. It falls to us, then, to remind people of their potential to save lives, resisting the temptation to rest on one’s laurels and focus on future aims rather than past virtues. Indeed, one study has shown that people primed to think of themselves as virtuous behave less altruistically than those primed to think of themselves in a negative light. Without going so far as to advocate a wholesale campaign against people’s self-esteem, it can be useful to shift the emphasis of a discussion away from someone’s previous acts of generosity and towards what should be done in the future.

Persuasion Techniques

More generally, there are a number of things to keep in mind, whatever the nature of your appeal, for encouraging people to give more. We have already gone over a number of barriers towards attitude change that many perfectly well-intentioned people can experience. In persuasion, it is always better, and indeed, more sympathetic, to yield to some of these truisms rather than attack them outright. Cialdini, Green and Rusch found that students interviewed about exam reform at their university were more receptive, even to specious arguments, when the interviewer yielded to some of the subjects’ arguments rather than resisting them.

Suppose, however, that you are in a position of responsibility for delivering a presentation on altruism to a large group of people. A different, very easily applicable technique is not to immediately tell the prospective donors what your aim is. Begin with a brief discussion centring on the precise goals that Giving What We Can and other effective altruism movements seek to tackle. Go into some detail about the nature of different interventions and encourage people to think in a logical way by guiding them through how poverty alleviation works in practice. One study showed that people prepared to engage their minds by memorising long sequences of letters were much more likely to donate to a charitable appeal which focussed on the plight of multiple children as opposed to just one, than those asked to memorise just two letters.

We have outlined a number of problems, and, hopefully, a number of solutions, to the question of how to encourage people to break their implicit assumptions about charity, and to give with their heads as much as their hearts. The mental blocks that keep people from giving effectively are often long-ingrained beliefs that, while firm, can be brittle. If you can really get someone to engage their brains by discussing charity in an intelligent way, you may be surprised how quickly attitudes change.

It’s an unfortunate quirk of the human mind that it struggles to conceive of large numbers in a meaningful way, and this is an obstacle that Giving What We Can must overcome in order to press home points about effective giving. The scale of what we can accomplish can, both for better and for worse, be unimaginable.

Speech to Warwick University’s Effective Altruism Society

The effective altruism philosophy is, at its core, a basic concept: people should realise their full potential to do good. What should interest us is whether or not this principle is really intuitive. We know from the Drowning Child Analogy that most people, when guided through the logical steps, are altruistic. Almost no one you’ll ask would say that they would ignore the child under any circumstances, but when it comes to actually following through, and doing the logically consistent thing, which is donating as much as they can to life-saving causes, something weird happens.
For some reason, even though the analogy establishes that altruism is a morally intuitive concept for most people, we’re still a long way off from most people giving regularly, let alone to effective charities.
To solve this issue it’d be nice to establish a few basic premises: First – Effective altruism is a morally sound concept. Second – A morally sound concept should be intuitive to people. Therefore: Effective altruism should make intuitive sense.

But it doesn’t.


I’ve been researching a number of mental barriers to people really empathising with global poverty, and barriers to people coming to terms with their obligation, and potential, to tackle it.

The first barrier relates to ‘heuristic,’ or ‘experience-based’ thinking. These are thoughts like, ‘I can drive round the corner not wearing a seat-belt; there are hardly any cars on the road this time of night.’ They’re rules of thumb, learned rather than examined critically. In the context of charity, they look like this.

 ‘I’ve got a box…everything goes in and I give to two a month.’
 ‘[I support] basically anything that catches my eye.’
 ‘I often look at who the patrons are, if I like the patrons.’
 ‘It’s not that I dislike people but I’m a great animal lover’

It can make for quite distressing reading. For what it’s worth, virtually everyone in this series of interviews was over forty years old, and I’d argue that heuristic thinking of this type tends to get more ingrained with age. However, people wouldn’t need to use ‘mental shortcuts’ like this if the charity sector wasn’t so complex to begin with. We might mock, but the guy with a box full of charity leaflets has resorted to this method because the charity sector as a whole has let him down.

There’s been an abject failure of communcation. On the one hand, you have hundreds of charities making emotional appeals for a huge number of different causes, and on the other, you have organisations like ours acting surprised when people struggle to make the right decision about charity.

To return to the drowning child analogy, let’s add another condition: suppose the water has become so muddy that you can barely see the child anymore. Can we really be surprised that effective altruism hasn’t become the dominant philosophy in charity?

I think what this all comes down to is empathy. We looked at a number of studies which suggest that people really struggle to understand – or perhaps, we’ve failed to convey – the scale of global poverty in a way that people grasp.
Let’s take a look at a study by Kajonius et al. which looks at the impact of what he calls ‘moral exhaustion’ and its impact on charitable giving. A number of undergraduates were presented with charity letters describing the plight of Ethiopia. One letter came attached with a list of four charities that each specialised in a different area, and presented the opportunity to donate to one of them. Another letter was supplemented with a list of forty charities.

One group, then, came away with the impression that Ethiopia was struggling with a large number of issues, and another came away with the impression that there were only a few major needs.

Would anyone like to hazard a guess as to which group reported greater empathy and donated more money?
The ‘small number of needs’ group reported greater empathy and donation intention than did the ‘large number of needs group.

Another experiment by the same lab found that charities focussing on geographically narrow problems – a drought, a famine or something – elicited much more empathy and donation intention than charities that focused on a broad issue like, say, ‘extreme global poverty.’

Let me just reiterate the basic point: the greater the extent and number of perceived problems in Ethiopia, the lesser people’s willingness to donate.

So what are we supposed to do about this? By the way, it might be an idea to recall to you that quote by Peter Singer about how effective altruism combines the head and the heart. Did that statement seem a little strange to anyone when they first heard it? It should have – most of you guessed correctly how the different groups would respond to these stimuli. It makes sense. Human empathy didn’t evolve in a globalised context. The drowning child in a lake makes sense to us because we see the child. When the analogy asks us to imagine that the child is in Ethiopia, our ability to empathise drops right off.
It’s unfortunate but not exactly unsurprising. While going from a child drowning in a lake to a child starving in Ethiopia might be morally and logically consistent, it’s not emotionally consistent.

But we agreed at the beginning that any morally consistent principle should make intuitive sense, didn’t we? So it’s not enough to simply fold our arms and say ‘Well you said that you had an obligation to help so get on with it.’ There’s obviously some failure of communication on our part which stops effective altruism from taking off in the wider community.
This is partly where my training in history comes into practice. I know about attitude change, and I know that the great philosophical debates in history have never been won with statistics.

Martin Luther King had a dream, he did not have a PowerPoint presentation.

I think there’s quite a worrying tendency among the Effective Altruism movement as a whole to think that appealing to people’s emotions, passions and life experiences is in some way beneath us. It’s not. And it’s not patronising, either. I like to think that History is the study of gut responses to external stimuli. History shows us that emotions are all that really matter.
The statistical analysis comes later, once you’ve got people on side. So I’ve called this talk ‘Imagining the lives you can save’ because that’s ultimately what needs to happen.

My favourite study out of the ones I read over those two weeks with Giving What We Can relates to a concept called ‘Compassion Fade.’ The way it works is a number of undergraduates are presented with charity appeals that feature different numbers of ‘protagonists,’ if you like. ‘This is Ava, she’s four years old, she has schistosomiasis…’ and so on. As the number of these protagonists went up, compassion and donation size went down. The way Vastfjall ultimately reversed this effect was through something called entitativity. This is when you group previously unrelated people into sets, like schools, villages, families and so on.

Ultimately he found that eight children grouped as a family elicited more donations and empathy than an appeal featuring eight unrelated children.

And so now we come to the fundamental point: a very subtle change prompted a significant move towards rational, utilitarian thinking. Eight lives are worth more than one life. Any sensible person would agree. But it takes a certain kind of appeal to actually make people internalise that principle, and act on it.

I’ve brought up a couple of adverts that manage to put forward the idea of, at the very least, comparing one intervention with another for the purposes of measuring their effectiveness against each other. The first one, ‘would you like me more if I ate out of a dog bowl?’ actually manages to make a moral point against donating to a ‘less important’ charity: the advert is confrontational, and, amazingly, it’s confrontational towards people who already donate to charity!

While I’m obviously not going to advocate using techniques like this one, it does illustrate the point that you can articulate the idea that ‘x does more good than y’ in a way that’s punchy and attention grabbing. Here’s another. So – and I’m not a marketing guru by any means – what I see here is a nice juxtaposition that sticks in the head: dirty water is as bad as any gun. Neglected tropical diseases are as bad as any headline grabbing disease you care to name.

I really think Effective Altruists can play this game too: we know that worms are bad; we know they can deprive a child of their education, play, social life, and health. This is emotional stuff. But let’s take a look at what the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative’s website looks like – this is a real flagship of the EA movement.

And it’s a pie chart on a grey background.

I’ve checked – there’s no obvious mention of the fact that the schistosomiasis parasite burrows into human skin, lays eggs in your body, causes you to vomit blood, could cause you to be paralysed from the waist down. Check Google images: it’s nasty stuff. Why don’t we talk about schistosomiasis in these terms? Strip the statistics away for a minute – here is a disease which ruins lives. Talking in terms of emotional appeals works – the research backs me up on this. It’s a language we’re going to have to learn, and very quickly, if our ideals and our philosophy are going to stay relevant in the face of all the barriers I’ve outlined this evening.

This is what the EA movement should encourage. It is completely illogical to assume that you can get someone to think in an evidence-based way through evidence alone. If it were that easy, we’d have a packed auditorium; I’d probably be on TV.
The take-home point here is that we make a huge mistake by ignoring empathy in our thought. People are empathetic; the drowning-child you can see has much more of an impact on your mind than the drowning-child you can’t. We can either fold our arms and mock people for whom this is the case or we can make a concerted effort to appeal to that empathy in everything that we do. Or, we can take an active and interested role in how people think, why people think that way, and exploring people’s innate potential to be altruistic. I’m leaving this open-ended; it’s down to your creativity and ability to see the poetry behind the evidence we cite.