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What research has been done on the altruistic impact of the usual good actions?

by Alexei1 min read27th Jan 20206 comments



What I mean by the "usual good actions" is notable good deeds you do may be a few times every week. Some examples:

  • Help a friend end an abusive relationship.
  • Go out of your way to help a stranger.
  • Do something extra nice and thoughtful for your partner.
  • Show up in person to support your friend's endeavor.
  • Procure a Burning Man ticket for your friend.
  • Refrain from calling your co-founder's idea "the dumbest thing I've heard this year" and do your best to listen.

What I mean by "altruistic impact" is probably QALYs, but I guess it's harder to use that metric here because you're working with changes in a pretty high quality life already vs. the difference between alive and dead. So may be there's a better metric. I'm also interested in the indirect impact of these actions (see my comment).

I'm also open to better a rephrasing of this question.

Oh, and I'm happy to hear everyone's thoughts on this without research too.

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I suspect that you're well into the measurement-error range for the things you're talking about. It would be silly to expect a measurable change in QALY for something you spend a tiny fraction of your waking year on or a tiny fraction of your annual income on. Let alone the debate about how to adjust the quality measure based on such things.

Fortunately, at these scales, you can use anecdotal evidence of improvement in YOUR experience, for many things. Your friend's smile or your co-founder's continued stream of horrible ideas are plenty of reward for the low cost of the kindness you're considering.

These actions are mostly low-impact (in comparison with saving lives, preventing environmental catastrophe, etc.) but also low-effort and frequently-occurring. The right measure might be something like "impact per unit input" or "impact per person-year", and I suspect they then look less negligible by comparison with big-ticket effective altruism activity.

They also tend to affect people close to us about whom we care a lot. It's not at all clear what the best ways of balancing such "near" interests against those of distan... (read more)

or your co-founder's continued stream of horrible ideas are plenty of reward

This sounds weird.

("the dumbest thing I've heard this year". This sounds more like someone snapping at someone else than 'the ideas are part of a horrible stream'.

If the people in question are co-founders, then perhaps they think some of each other's ideas are good.)

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Part of my interest behind this question is that recently I've been noticing the subtle (but also not so subtle) ways our choices affect the people and the social fabric around us. Also, listening to Jordan Peterson highlight historical cases where the moral fabric of society fails (e.g. Nazi Germany and Soviet Union). It makes me think there's a lot of under-appreciated value in being a morally upright person. Some of the value is in directly impacting the people around you, but the majority is in signaling that "this is the kind of society we live in."

I expect there is also a nonlinear network effect going on here, where one person defecting isn't much of a problem but if 20% of the population isn't nice enough then it just erodes down to a worse equilibrium. Something like the social fabric is delivering a lot of value and it's hard to attribute that to any one individual, and if it breaks or changes in ways that lead to everyone's lives being worse it's hard to also account for who should be responsible for those loses and in what amounts.

What research has been done on the altruistic impact of the usual good actions?

There might be research on hedonic impact. (You can also see/test what makes you feel good.)