Social Impact, Effective Altruism, and Motivated Cognition

by JonahS2 min read8th Jun 201320 comments


MotivationsMotivated ReasoningWorld OptimizationRationality
Personal Blog

Money is one measure of social status. People compare themselves favorably or unfavorably to others in their social circles based on their wealth and their earning power, and signals thereof, and compare their social circles favorably or unfavorably with other social circles based on the average wealth of people in the social circles. Humans crave social status, and this is one of people’s motivations for making money. 

Effective altruists attempt to quantify “amount of good done” and maximize it. Once this framing is adopted, “amount of good done” becomes a measure of social status in the same way that money is. Most people who aspire to be effective altruists will be partially motivated by a desire to matter more than other people, in the sense of doing more good. People who join the effective altruism movement may do so partially out of a desire to matter more than people who are not in the movement. 

Harnessing status motivations for the sake of doing the most good can have profound positive impacts. But under this paradigm, effective altruists will generally be motivated to believe that they’re doing more good than other people are. This motivation is not necessarily dominant in any given case, but it’s sufficiently strong to be worth highlighting.

With this in mind, note that effective altruists will be motivated to believe that the activities that they themselves are capable of engaging in have higher value than they actually do, and that activities that others are engaged in have lower value than they actually do. Without effort to counterbalance this motivation, effective altruists’ views of the philanthropic landscape will be distorted, and they’ll be apt to bias others in favor of the areas that use their own core competencies.

I worry that the effective altruist community hasn’t taken sufficient measures to guard against this issue. In particular, I’m not aware of any overt public discussion of it. Independently of whether or not there are examples of public discussion that I’m unaware of, the fact that I’m not aware of any suggests that any discussion that has occurred hasn’t percolated enough.

I’ll refrain from giving specific examples that I see as causes for concern, on account of political sensitivity. The effective altruist community is divided into factions, and Politics is the Mind-Killer. I believe that there are examples of each faction irrationally overestimating the value of their activities, and/or irrationally undervaluing the value of other faction's activities, and I believe that in each case, motivated reasoning of the above type may play a role.

I request that commenters not discuss particular instances in which they believe that this has occurred, or is occurring, as I think that such discussion would reduce collaboration between different factions of the effective altruist community. 

The effective altruist movement is in early stages, and it’s important to arrive at accurate conclusions about effective philanthropy as fast as possible. At this stage in time, it may be that the biggest contribution that members of the community can make is to engender and engage in an honest and unbiased discussion of how best to make the world a better place.

I don't have a very definite proposal for how this can be accomplished. I welcome any suggestions. For now, I would encourage effective altruist types to take pride in being self-skeptical when it comes to favorable assessments of their potential impact relative to other effective altruist types, or relative to people outside of the effective altruist community.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Vipul Naik and Nick Beckstead for feedback on an earlier draft of this post.

Note: I formerly worked as a research analyst at GiveWell. All views here are my own.

I cross-posted this article to