Speech to Warwick University’s Effective Altruism Society (November 2014)

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.


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