Why You Should Be Public About Your Good Deeds

by Gleb_Tsipursky3 min read30th Dec 201532 comments


Personal Blog

(This will be mainly of interest to Effective Altruists, and is cross-posted on the Giving What We Can blog, the Intentional Insights blog, and the EA Forum)


When I first started donating, I did so anonymously. My default is to be humble and avoid showing off. I didn’t want others around me to think that I have a stuffed head and hold too high an opinion of myself. I also didn’t want them to judge my giving decisions, as some may have judged them negatively. I also had cached patterns of associating sharing about my good deeds publicly with feelings that I get from commercials, of self-promotion and sleaziness.

I wish I had known back then that I could have done much more good by publicizing my donations and other goods deeds, such as signing the Giving What We Can Pledge to donate 10% of my income to effective charities, or being public about my donations to CFAR on this LW forum post.

Why did I change my mind about being public? Let me share a bit of my background to give you the appropriate context.

As long as I can remember, I have been interested in analyzing how and why individuals and groups evaluated their environment and made their decisions to reach their goals – rational thinking. This topic became the focus of my research as a professor at Ohio State in the history of science, studying the intersection of psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, and other fields.

While most of my colleagues focused on research, I grew more passionate about sharing my knowledge with others, focusing my efforts on high-quality, innovative teaching. I perceived my work as cognitive altruism, sharing my knowledge about rational thinking, and students expressed much appreciation for my focus on helping them make better decisions in their lives. Separately, I engaged in anonymous donations to causes such as poverty alleviation.

Yet over time, I realized that by teaching only in the classroom, I would have a very limited impact, since my students were only a small minority of the population I could potentially reach. I began to consult academic literature on how to spread my knowledge broadly. Through reading classics in the field of social influence such as Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Made To Stick, I learned a great many strategies to multiply the impact of my cognitive altruism work, as well as my charitable giving.

One of the most important lessons was the value of being public about my activities. Both Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and subsequent research showed that our peers deeply impact our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We tend to evaluate ourselves based on what our peers think of us, and try to model behaviors that will cause others to have positive opinions about us. This applies not only to in-person meetings, but also online communities.

A related phenomenon, social proof, illustrates how we evaluate appropriate behavior based on how we see others behaving. However, research also shows that people who exhibit more beneficial behaviors tend to avoid expressing themselves to those with less beneficial behaviors, resulting in overall social harm.

Learning about the importance of being public, including in online communities that reach far more people than in-person communities, especially by people engaging in socially beneficial habits, led to a deep transformation in my civic engagement. While it was not easy to overcome my shyness, I realized I had to do it if I wanted to optimize my positive impact on the world – both in cognitive altruism and in effective giving.

I shared this journey of learning and transformation with my wife, Agnes Vishnevkin, an MBA and non-profit professional. Together, we decided to co-found a nonprofit dedicated to spreading rational thinking and effective giving to a broad audience using research-based strategies for maximizing social impact, Intentional Insights. Uniting with others committed to this mission, we write articles, blogs, make videos, author books, program apps, and collaborate with other organizations to share these ideas widely.

I also rely on research to make other decisions, such as my decision to take the Giving What We Can pledge. The strategy of precommitment is key here – we make a decision in a state where we have the time to consider their consequences in the long term, and specifically wish to constrain the options of our future selves. That way, we can plan within a narrowed range of options and make the best possible use of the resources available to us.

Thus, I can plan to live on 90% of my income over my lifetime, and plan to decrease some of my spending in the long term so that I can give to charities that I believe are most effective for making the kind of impact I want to see in the world.

Knowing about the importance of publicizing my good deeds and commitments, I recognize that I can do much more good by sharing my decision to take the pledge with others. All of us have friends, and the large majority of us have social media channels and we all have the power to be public about our good deeds. You can also consider fundraising for effective charities, and being an advocate for effective altruism in your community. 

According to the scholarly literature, by being public about our good deeds we can bring about much good in the world. Even though it may not feel as tangible as direct donations, sharing with others about our good deeds and supporting others doing so may in the end allow us to do even more good.

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32 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:18 AM
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I suspect that the usual taboo about good deeds is connected to the status-regulation emotion. Essentially, doing good deeds puts you in a positive light. But you have some status in your group, and if you try to take more positive light than appropriate for your status, someone is going to slap you in the face.

High-status people, such as kings or presidents, are allowed to do as much good as they want. For the average Joe, little good makes him admirable, but too much good makes everyone around him feel uncomfortable. The usual reaction is to devalue the good deed, however irrationally, because other people who also feel uncomfortable will not object against the irrationality.

Being public about your good deeds means claiming high status, whether you intended it this way or not.

Viliam, nice insight on the status-regulation emotion. I think being public about one's good deeds does face that challenge, as well as the weirdness challenge. However, it's a question of how we want to spend our weirdness points. If we're spending them to cultivate the social norm of being public about our good deeds, and therefore advance that social norm, the outcome seems quite worthwhile to me.

An unintended consequence is that you are effectively creating an extra income tax. If it becomes a social norm to donate 10% of your income, then the status distribution will incorporate this social norm, so status-aware people will feel compelled to donate just to have the same social status.

But this makes it harder to achieve the same level of spending and status with the same productivity, resulting in a reduced incentive for productivity.

This can lead to compensating behavior, just like a increased income tax. Maybe people disvalue the relative status because it becomes too expensive, or they disvalue the remaining spending power and therefore the productivity. Combined with the norm that omissions are morally neutral and you don't have an obligation to be the most productive you could be, this could have negative consequences.

I, for one, have no intention of doing anything for anyone unless it's worth it for me.

I'm not sure that "effectively creating an extra income tax" is an unintended consequence. The whole point of being public about one's donations is to make it easier for others to do likewise and harder for them not to.

Of course it will never go so far as actually "effectively creating an extra income tax" unless (1) it's easy to determine all of a person's donations and (2) whatever social sanctions attend failure to give the expected amount are as severe as the sanctions governments can impose on people who don't pay their taxes.

It isn't clear to me why an extra effective income tax would actually reduce incentives for productivity. Not even assuming -- as you are doing, without making it explicit -- that no one really values the good done by their charitable donations very much. E.g., suppose your utility looks something like A + B log(consumption) - C hours_worked, and suppose consumption = k hours_worked on the grounds that income is proportional to work and consumption is proportional to income. Lots of crude approximations here, but they'll do. Then u = A + B log(kw) - Cw = A + B log k + B log w - Cw, and the only effect of varying k is to shift the utility curve up and down. It makes no difference, in particular, to the utility-maximizing choice of w.

If there were really a norm that "omissions are morally neutral" then it would be difficult for failing to donate enough to have very bad social consequences, since failing to donate enough is an omission rather than an act.

I, for one, have no intention of doing anything for anyone unless it's worth it for me.

In which case, presumably your comments about alleged unintended consequences of a social norm of charitable donation were made because you hope making those comments will benefit you personally -- e.g., by reducing the danger that you will find yourself socially obligated to give any of your hard-earned money to benefit anyone other than yourself. That might help to explain why those comments are so full of errors -- one is seldom as careful when rationalizing as when actually reasoning.

"One is seldom as careful when rationalizing as when actually reasoning." This is equally true whether you wish to avoid charitable donations or to encourage them.

Absolutely true. It just so happens that the comment I was referring to was on one side rather than the other, but I'm sure the same thing happens on the other side too.

I, for one, have no intention of doing anything for anyone unless it's worth it for me.

There's a reason there's a disclaimer at the top of the post saying it will mainly be of interest to those interested in Effective Altruism :-)

[-][anonymous]5y 2

Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing.

-As quoted in The Forbes Book of Business Quotations (2007) edited by Ted Goodman, p. 175

[-][anonymous]5y 2

I want to raise two points here:


One of the most stressful situations a lab rat or human can be in is a position of responsibility with no power. Adopting an EA identity confers a sense of responsibility for oneself - a tremendous, sickening amount in my personal experience. I hope publicising one's new-found status as an EA helps confer a moral superiority among one's associates that leads to a fitting amount of influence!


Many of the comments here raise concerns about the method and consequences of being public about your goods deeds.

This is a message to Effective Altruists here, for whom doing good deeds has become a noun - part of their identity.

Some Pick Up Artists use the term 'grounding' to convey their identity through a well constructed routine. Some commonalities Lin identifies in these routines are:

  1. A short, memorable brand for what you routinely do: “Rockstar, Entrepreneur, Magician, Speaker, Writer, Hacker”

That is:

  • Effective Altruist (preferred, but only for well-informed circles)
  • philanthropists (if you are high enough status but in uninformed circles)
  • Socially conscious (else)
  1. How you got from being a normal kid to your dream role
  • for me it's that I visited poorer countries as a kid, and was physically and verbally abused regularly by a parent and developed a highly polarised attitude to harm suffering and self-reliance. The former 2 made me altruistic, the latter 1 developed my effectivenes.
  1. What you are doing now in relation to show you are/identity

  2. Your future plans for continuing this journey

  3. Telling all this with genuine passion, intrigue and enthusiasm.

Hey Gleb, I probably would have written something along the lines of, "My default is to try to be humble", instead of "My default is to be humble", because the first expression sounds more humble.

Nice catch, thanks for that editing suggestion, will keep it in mind for the future!

[-][anonymous]5y 2

Valuable work Gleb. Thanks for your exceptional insights, analysis, writing and sharing! You've triggered many an actionable thought in me from this :)

Clarity, thanks a lot for that feedback, rare to get such positive responses on LW :-) Let me know if you take any action steps based on this, I'd love to know.

[-][anonymous]5y 2

The compliments are well deserved.

I'm gonna take this opportunity to say I for one love receiving compliments for the record, so if anyone's been saving them up, sling them at me!

People here, myself included can be overly critical and basically mean. We need to remember our inner child, the little guy or girl that can be happy even with an avocado for Christmas

For a compliment, I appreciated the earlier question you had for me regarding whether anything would change my mind about whether Intentional Insights is a worthwhile project. I did not face that question in that concrete way previously, so it was good to think about it. I hope my answer was appropriate to the question (don't need to discuss it here, you can respond to my question there if you had anything to add). Thanks again for that question!

[-][anonymous]5y 2

I'm satisfied with your answer :)

Who in their right mind downvoted the above comment?

I thought that bullshit ended with TheVoiceofRa...anyone, I've neutralised it to zero.

I didn't even realize it was downvoted... Thanks for neutralizing it.

Unfortunately, it's easy enough for the person behind VoiceofRa to create new sock puppet accounts and go on doing it. You might not have noticed the whole sordid story of this persona, here's the gist.

Does anyone know why Jesus commanded his followers to give in secret?

For reference:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

The explanation I heard at church was that the "hypocrites in the synagogues" would act charitable just to get the social status associated with it, but a really chariable person would want to be charitable even if they had to hide it.

I'm not completely clear on who was supposed to benefit from hiding charity. The giver, because they'd be sure they were doing good for the right reason? Or the community in general, because tolerating people who give for signalling purposes would have caused some kind of harm?

I think it's most likely that this is either virtue ethics (so the giver can be sure they're a good person), or an argument from asthetics - getting social status makes charity less asthetic.

Not sure about Jesus, maybe he just made a status move against his competitors, but in general...

Goodhart's Law applies to bragging about donations too -- if you make it a norm, people will optimize for visibility instead of doing good; there will be charities helping them to optimize for this goal... and soon you may get a culture where people donate a lot to charities that actually don't do much good, because most of their spending goes on increasing the visibility somehow.

Taking a wider view, maybe we would agree that maximizing donations to EA is still a positive goal, even if it brings some negative side-effects. But remember that most people don't care about effective altruism, and would consider other charities more worthy. So you might be effectively creating a culture where people get points for publicly donating to organizations that you might find useless or even harmful. (Imagine organizations for effectively spreading a religion, or effectively spreading a totally mindkilled version of a political movement you disagree with.) Now you would be stuck in a situation where you either have to "voluntary donate" money to a cause you hate, or become a visible defector because everyone else around you already made their donations public.

Goodhart's Law applies to bragging about donations too -- if you make it a norm, people will optimize for visibility instead of doing good; there will be charities helping them to optimize for this goal... and soon you may get a culture where people donate a lot to charities that actually don't do much good, because most of their spending goes on increasing the visibility somehow.

That is pretty much what Jesus said in the cited passage:

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others.

And similarly, further on:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.


When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting

It helps prevent holiness spirals.

In most branches of Christianism, status-seeking is frowned upon as part of the sin of pride. By removing braggarts from the equation, only sincere altruists are supposed to be left.

Did this rule—give in secret—aid in the spread of Xtianity? If so, how?

[-][anonymous]5y 0

It helps prevent holiness spirals.

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Probably because rich people have most to lose if they're expected to be charitable, and rich people controlled what got published in the Bible. If giving is supposed to be secret then who can prove they're giving nothing?

Being public about one's good deeds has some notable failure modes which you might wish to consider.

Agreed, and the other commenters made good points about it, too. Something to definitely keep in mind regarding caveats to the broader message.