Related to: Fight zero-sum bias

According to the U.S. Department of State:

In 2006, Americans donated 2.2 percent of their average disposable, or after-tax income.

The Department of State report commends the charitable giving practices of Americans as follows:

“The total amount of money that was given to nonprofit institutions is remarkable,” [Richard Jolly, chairman of Giving US] said. “What we see is when people feel engaged, when they feel a need is legitimate, when they are asked to support it, they do.”

Americans have a long tradition of charitable giving and volunteerism -- the donation of time and labor on behalf of a cause. When disasters happen or a social need arises, government clearly has a responsibility, Jolly said. “But it’s also obvious Americans believe they, too, can make a difference, and they reflect that in terms of giving away a lot of money.”

The United States is “a land of charity,” says Arthur Brooks, an expert on philanthropy and a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, who sees charitable giving and volunteerism as the signal characteristic of Americans.

For my own part, I think that what Jolly, what Brooks, and what the Department of State report have to say about American charitable giving is absurd. I think that the vast amount of American "charitable giving" should not be conceptualized as philanthropy because the donors do not aspire to maximize their positive social impact. Even aside from that, from a utilitarian point of view, in view of world economic inequality and existential risk, a donation rate of 2.2% looks paltry.  As the title of Peter Unger's book Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence suggests, there's a sense in which despite appearances, many Americans are guilty of a moral atrocity.

In light of my last few sentences, you may be surprised to know that I don't think that Americans should sacrifice their well-being for the sake of others. Even from a utilitarian point of view, I think that there are good reasons for thinking that it would be a bad idea to do this. The reason that I say that many Americans are guilty of a moral atrocity is because I think that many Americans could be giving away a lot more of their money with a view toward maximizing their positive social impact and lead more fulfilling lives as a result. I say more about this below.

In Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save Singer writes

On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?

I teach a course called Practical Ethics. When we start talking about global poverty, I ask my students what they think you should do in this situation. Predictably, they respond that you should save the child. “What about your shoes? And being late for work?” I ask them. They brush that aside. How could anyone consider a pair of shoes, or missing an hour or two at work, a good reason for not saving a child’s life?


Now think about your own situation. By donating a relatively small amount of money, you could save a child’s life. Maybe it takes more than the amount needed to buy a pair of shoes—but we all spend money on things we don’t really need, whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovation.

Most people value the well-being of human strangers. This is at least in part a terminal value, not an instrumental value. So why don't people give more money away with a view toward maximizing positive social impact? Well, as Eliezer says, people have many values, they don't just value helping others in need, they also value status, comfort, sex, love, security, music, art, friends, family, intellectual understanding and many other things. Each person makes an implicit judgment that a life involving donating substantially more would be a life less satisfying than the life that he or she is presently living. Is such a judgment sound? Surely it is for some people, but is it sound on average?

A fundamental and counterintuitive principle of human psychology is the hedonic treadmill. The existence of a hedonic treadmill in some domains does not imply that it's impossible for current humans to take actions to become happier. What it does imply is the initial intuitions that humans have about what will make them happier are probably substantially misguided. So it's important for people to critically examine the question: does having more money make people happier? Wikipedia has an informative page titled Happiness Economics with some information about this question. For people who are so poor that their basic needs are not met, it's plausible that people's income plays an important role in determining their level of life satisfaction. For people who have more than enough money to accommodate their basic needs, some studies find a correlation between income and self reported life satisfaction and others do not. If there is a correlation, it's small, and may be borne of a third variable such as intelligence or status.

The question then arises: is the amount of focus that Americans place on acquiring material resources (instrumentally) irrational? Three possibilities occur to me:

(A) The very activity of acquiring material resources is a terminal value for most people. People would be less happy if they focused less on acquiring material resources, not because they find having the material resources fulfilling but because they find the practice of acquiring the material resources fulfilling.

(B) Self reported life satisfaction is such a bad measure of subjectively perceived life satisfaction that the low correlation between income and self reported life satisfaction is grossly misleading.

(C) People's focus on acquiring material resources is in fact irrational, borne of a now-maladaptive hoarding heuristic inherited from our ancestors. People falsely believe that acquiring resources is instrumentally valuable to them to a greater extent than it actually is. Americans would be better off placing less emphasis on acquiring resources and more emphasis on other things.

I don't know which of (A), (B) and (C) is holds. Maybe each possibility has some truth to it. I lean toward believing that the situation is mostly the one described in (C), but I'm a very unusual person and may be generalizing from one example. What I would say is that individuals should seriously consider the possibility that their situation is at least in some measure accurately characterized by (C). To the extent that this is the case, such individuals can give away a greater percentage of their income, cutting their "effective income" without experiencing a drop in life satisfaction. In fact, I find it likely that many individuals would become more satisfied with their lives if they substantially increased the percentage of their income that they donated. In the last few pages of "The Life You Can Save" Singer writes:

A survey of 30,000 American households found that those who gave to charity were 43 percent more likely to say that they were "very happy" about their lives than those who did not give, and the figure was very similar for those who did voluntary work for charities as compared with those who did not. A separate study showed that those who give are 68 percent less likely to have felt "hopeless" and 34 percent less likely to say that they felt "so sad that nothing could cheer them up." [21]


The link between giving and happiness is clear, but surveys cannot show the direction of causation. Researchers have, however, looked at what happens in people's brains when they do good things. In one experiment, economists William Harbaugh and Daniel Burghart and psychologist Ulrich Mayr gave $100 to each of nineteen female students. While undergoing magnetic resonance imaging, which shows activity in various parts of the brain, the students were given the option of donating some of their money to a local food bank to the poor. To ensure that any effects observed came entirely from making the donation, and not, for instance, from having the belief that they were generous people, the students were informed that no one, not even the experimenters, would know which students made a donation. The research found that when students donated, the brain's "reward centers" - the caudate nucleus, nucleus accumbens, and insulae - became active. These are the parts of the brain that respond when you eat something sweet or receive money. Altruists often talk of the "warm glow" they get from helping others. Now we have seen it happening in the brain. [23]

[21] Arthur Books, "Why Giving Makes You Happy," New York Sun, December 28, 2007. The first study is from the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey while the second is from the University of Michigan's Panel Study of Income Dynamics.


[23] William T. Harbaugh, Ulrich Mayer, and Daniel Burghat, "Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations," Science, vol. 316, no. 5831 (June 15, 2007), pp. 1622-25

I'll corroborate Singer's suggestion that donating makes one happy with my own experience. Many of the first 24 years of my life were marred by chronic mild depression. The reasons for this are various, but one factor is that I always felt vaguely guilty for not doing more to help others. At the same time, I felt immobilized. My thought process was of the following type:

I know that the world has a lot of problems and that I could be doing much more to help. There are billions of poor people around the world who need my money a lot more than I do. Every day my life habits use natural resources and destroy the environment.  If I only bought what I strictly needed I would use fewer natural resources and I could donate the rest of my money to help poor people far away. If I spent all of my spare time doing community service I could help the poor people nearby.

The problem is that I don’t have enough willpower to do it. I like thinking about math, I like reading for pleasure, I  like playing video games, I like buying sandwiches rather than making them myself even though it would be cheaper if I made them myself. Though I hate myself for it, apparently I care a lot more about myself than I care about other people. I’m just not a good enough person to do what I should do. I’m happier when I don’t think about it than when I do, and I do the wrong thing regardless, so I try not to think about it too much. But I know in my heart-of-hearts that the way I’m leading my life is very wrong.

I had never donated anything substantial to charity before last October. Things changed for me when an old friend encouraged me to give something to the charities recommended by GiveWell. Before I looked at GiveWell,  I had drearily come to the conclusion that one cannot hope to give in a cost-effective fashion because there's so much fraud and inefficiency in the philanthropic sector. I was greatly encouraged to see that there's an organization making a solid effort at evaluating charities for cost-effectiveness.  At the same time, I had some hesitation to donate much because

(1) I'm a graduate student making only $20,000/year. I had thoughts of the type "Does it really make sense for somebody making as little as me to be donating? Maybe I should wait until I'm making more money. Maybe donating now will interfere with my ability to function which will impede my ability to donate later on."

(2) The causes that GiveWell has researched are not the causes that I'm most interested in.

But in the end, with some further nudging from my friend, I ended up donating $1000 to VillageReach. Once I gave, I felt like giving more and in December gave $500 more to VillageReach without nudging from anyone. Retrospectively, I view my initial objections (1) and (2) as rationalization arising from the maladaptive hoarding instinct that I hypothesize in (C) above.

  • In regards to (1), the truth is that I was spending a lot of money on things that were systematically failing to improve my functionality or make me happier. Also, I recently learned that people with annual household income under $20,000 give 4.3% of their money to charity. (Oddly enough that's a substantially greater percentage than the percentage that the average American gives!). This suggests that donations on the order of $1000/year are well within the means of somebody of my income level.
  • In regards to (2), the fact that there are not presently good opportunities to donate in the areas that I'm most interested in has no bearing on whether or not I should be donating. It's easy to say "I'll save the money and donate later" and end up spending the money instead.

What effect did donating have on me? Well, since correlation is not causation, one can't be totally sure. But my subjective impression is that it substantially increased my confidence in my ability to act in accordance with my values, which had a runaway effect resulting in me behaving in progressively greater accord with my values; raising my life satisfaction considerably. The vague sense of guilt that I once felt has vanished. The chronic mild depression that I'd experienced for most of my life is gone. I feel like a complete and well integrated human being. I'm happier than I've been in eight years. I could not have done better for myself by spending the $1500 in any other way.

The next $1500 that I donate won't have a comparable effect on my quality of life. I already feel as though I should donate more the next time around. I'm on a new hedonic treadmill. But this treadmill is a more fulfilling treadmill. Rather than spending my money on random things that don't make me happier, I'm spending my money on making the world a better place, just as I always wanted.

The question now arises: if you, the reader, donated substantially more than you usually do with a view toward maximizing your positive social impact, would you become happier? Maybe, maybe not. What I would say is that it's worth the experiment. An expenditure on the order of 5% or 10% of one's annual income is small relative to one's lifetime earnings. And the potential upside for you is high. I'll leave the last word of this post to Singer:

Most of us prefer harmony to discord, whether between ourselves and others or within our own minds. That harmony is threatened by any glaring discrepancy between the way you live and the way you think you ought to live. Your reasoning may tell you you ought to be doing something substantial to help the world's poorest people, but your emotion may not move you to act in accordance with this view. If you are persuaded by the moral argument, but are not sufficiently motivated to act accordingly, I recommend that instead of worrying about how much you would have to do to live a fully ethical life, you do something that is significantly more than you have been doing so far. Then see how that feels. You may find it more rewarding than you imagined possible.


Added 07/21/10 at 11:35 CST: In the comments below, Roko makes a good case that the best way to donate is not the best for the average donor's happiness. See my response to his comment. 

Added 07/25/10 at 6:21 CST: In the comments below, Unnamed refers to some very relevant recent research by Elizabeth Dunn and coauthors.


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[Following Singer's kid-in-a-pond parable: ] Most people value the well-being of human strangers. This is at least in part a terminal value, not an instrumental value. So why don't people give more money away with a view toward maximizing positive social impact?

That's not a precise way of putting it. There is a huge difference in how people view strangers that happen to be physically close at the moment, especially if they are perceived to belong to the same community in some sense, versus distant strangers that are out of sight.

You a... (read more)

Perhaps that is a little harsh. The advantage of efficiently caring about other people in your community is that it is efficient. Our countries would be better if people were at least efficient in the way they cared for each other. For example, I'd trade people not calling 911 if I were hurt for those same people spending an hour a week reading about cognitive biases or each donating $30 to SENS. The same holds for the world at large, though the inefficiencies introduced by different races and cultures trying to cooperate makes me distrustful of international aid.
Roko: To be precise, I said that specifically about Singer's philosophy, of which I really don't think anything good (I'm generally allergic to utilitarianism, and I find Singer's variant especially noxious). I'm not saying all his conclusions are as outlandish as the philosophy he uses to derive them; some things he says can still be reasonable in a stopped-clock sort of way. I'd say that the problems of unintended consequences go far beyond inefficiency losses, and even beyond the complaints voiced by Shikwati in that article I linked. But that's a complex topic in its own right.
So if I ever need to defeat you, forget the Kryptonite, just brandish a copy of "the life you can save"?
Nah, that wouldn't deter me. In the interest of my own intellectual improvement, I have developed the ability to read through arbitrarily obnoxious stuff, much like medical students develop the ability to overcome the normal disgust of dissection and handling corpses.
(a) I agree that Singer sometimes exhibits spherical-cow utilitarianism that has nothing to do with real human moral instincts. I also agree that his views are in some ways naive. (b) The issue of negative unintended consequences connected with developing aid world is a serious one. (c) If you have a good argument that "it's illusory to believe that it can be avoided by some simple precautions such as those advocated by GiveWell" then I'm interested in hearing it. But at the moment your implicit criticism of the efficacy of donating to GiveWell's top recommended international aid charities appears to be totally ungrounded. (d) Whether or not international aid is a good cause has little bearing on whether or not people should be giving more of their money away. The "saving a life" imagery is best understood metaphorically. There may be causes that are much more cost-effective from the point of view of maximizing positive social impact than giving to improve international health. People who believe that developing world aid is not cost-effective should consider donating a sizable fraction of their income to an organization that supports a cause that they prefer, or placing a sizable fraction of their income in a donor advised fund for future charitable use.
multifoliaterose: Maybe I should state my claim more clearly. What I mean is that while criteria such as those used by GiveWell can eliminate certain modes of failure in aid projects, they are by no means sufficient to eliminate the possibility of numerous other non-obvious failure modes -- and given the actual historical record of various humanitarian aid programs, it seems pretty obvious to me that such failures are a rule rather than exceptions. I would say that this constitutes enough evidence to shift the burden of proof on those who argue in favor of supporting such projects. Note that even if it's proven beyond reasonable doubt that a certain program has saved so many lives, it is by no means a guarantee that its overall long-term consequences are positive by any standard. For example, reducing mortality among people who are stuck in a Malthusian equilibrium in a way that doesn't force them out of this equilibrium will only increase the amount of suffering in the medium-to-long run, which can be alleviated only by ever increasing amounts of aid, creating a diabolical positive feedback process that results in an ever greater dependence -- possibly making it even more difficult for them to escape the Malthusian condition. Or, to take another example, aiding the subjects of a disastrously bad government will increase its stability and grip on power in a way that may easily allow it to make an even worse subsequent mess. Such scenarious, and various other equally depressing ones, have happened on innumerably many occasions in modern history, and keep on happening. On the whole, when someone claims that some project will improve the lot of distant strangers that are outside of your regular sphere of attention and comprehension, you need an awful lot of evidence to be reasonably sure that these claims are true -- certainly way more evidence than even GiveWell is capable of providing, even if they really are the best source of information on these matters. I hav
The odd thing is that the way out of the Malthusian trap turned out to be education for women and availability of birth control. The Victorians believed that education for women made them less likely to have children. Were the Victorians must making things up, or did they observe a real pattern? In any case, they thought something was bad which, so far, has turned out to look like a good thing. So far as I know, the thing that controls bad governments is a middle class-- they're people with something to lose and at least a few resources for protecting it. The thing is, these are weirdly idealistic and indirect solutions. They aren't reaching down and rearranging things to aim directly at a goal. If I'm on to a real pattern, this doesn't mean that charities to save lives are a bad idea, but it would imply that increasing large numbers of people's access to choice is where the big but hard to anticipate victories are.
•I don't think that it's clear that you need more evidence than GiveWell is capable of providing to believe that GiveWell's top rated charities have an expected impact comparable to what they ostensibly do. As far as I know, there's no evidence that health interventions of the type that VillageReach and StopTB have any systemic negative side effects. I don't see anything in the interview with Shikwati that points to the idea that such interventions can be expected to have negative side effects. Do you? •See this GiveWell research message board post for GiveWell founder Holden's current position on Malthusian problems. In regard to the possibility of aid giving rise to disastrously bad government, I see no reason to expect that the sort of work that VillageReach and StopTB do is more likely to give rise to disastrously bad government than it is to prevent disastrously bad government. If you have reasons for believing that VillageReach and StopTB systematically promote Malthusian problems or disastrously bad governments I would be interested hearing them. •I agree that Peter Singer and his colleagues are often absurd. His analysis often fails to take into account features of human psychology. I find him unpleasantly arrogant. That being said, I give him major credit for making some effort to improve society by writing "The Life You Can Save," even though his effort is suboptimal on account of being off-putting to people like you. •Again, the main point of my post is to encourage people to experiment with donating a sizable fraction of their income with a view toward maximizing their positive social impact, not to encourage people to donate to charities working on improving health in the developing world.
multifoliaterose: It seems like the main point of our disagreement is that you believe that the effects of interventions in remote parts of the world can be assessed in a straightforward way using some basic common-sense criteria, while I am much more skeptical and wary of the real-world complexity and the law of unintended consequences. As a general principle, absent some extremely strong evidence to the contrary, I don't believe that even the most resourceful and well-intentioned people really know what they're doing when they try to influence things in extremely distant and alien parts of the world, even if their intervention seems so purely benevolent that you can't even think of what might possibly go wrong. So, to answer your question, yes, I do see a multitude of possibilities for how even the most benevolent-seeming interventions can go wrong, including these ones, and I distrust any simple analysis that purports to account for their effects fully. To answer whether these possibilities correspond exactly to the specific things mentioned by Shikwati, I would need to know much more about the specific details of how these organizations work than it's possible to find out from the public information about them. In particular, when it comes to the issues of Malthusian problems and abetting bad government, I don't find your replies satisfactory. The mechanisms of these problems are clear and straightforward, and they've been observed many times historically up to the present day. To be convinced that some intervention is worth supporting, I need to see strong evidence to the contrary, for these issues as well as numerous others. They are the ones asking for my money, after all. If someone claims to have an airtight case that a certain intervention in a distant part of the world really is worth supporting, the burden of proof is on them. And yes, they have an awfully high bar to clear, but given the sordid history of well-intentioned interventions among distant
multifoliaterose, thanks for the link to GiveWell - I find it much more useful than Charity Navigator. Unintended consequences need not be bad consequences. Given the relationship between health and birth rates, I'm aware of much more evidence pointing to the decrease than the increase of Malthusian problems by improving health. But then, given this data presented by Hans Rosling, Malthusian problems may not be relevant in much of the world.
I like the ideas about donor-advised funds. Actually bringing incentives to bear on charities seems like a good idea in the abstract. Though from my point of view, it's a moot point: the only charity that matters at all is FAI research and other critical existential risk reduction, and the problem in this area is not inefficiency, it's lack of total capitol and/or more organizations. Unless you can increase the efficiency of SIAI/FHI more cheaply than you can attract more capitol, that is. We're talking about ~$300k annual budgets here.

You mentioned the possibility that it is status that makes people happy, but let me expand on this point.

This article reports on a large study by Boyce and Moore:

Boyce and Moore found that an individual's rank, viewed this way, was a stronger predictor of happiness than absolute wealth. The higher a person ranked within his age group or neighborhood, the more status he had and the happier he was regardless of how much he made in dollars (or, in the study's case, pounds).

Now here's the key result: Relative income rank explained 30% of the variation in happ... (read more)

Thanks for bringing this issue up. I had thought of addressing it in the body of my main post but decided against it because it was already getting kind of long.

•It's best for people who value improving the world and their relative status within their communities to spend their time in communities where improving the world is correlated with increased status. For example, people in this situation who live in a materialistic suburb like Orange County, CA might do well to move to a university town (like Santa Cruz, CA) where excessive materialism is frowned upon and where a greater than usual percentage of the population thinks that making charitable donations is cool.

•Now, things being as they are, I agree that despite my above point, it's still not the case that "the best way to donate also just happens to be best for the average donor's happiness." This is because at present most people don't care about effective charity. In this connection, I think that what GiveWell is doing is important for two reasons:

(1) It's offering a community for people who do care about about effective charity. Members of this community can compete for relative status within the community by d... (read more)

Yes, this is important. Michael Vassar is saying something like this in his post on far-mode; that far-mode types don't have immediate success, but they tend to (very) slowly change the norm in a positive direction. You could even summarize by saying that there's no point in being rational about social problems, because no-one will listen to you now, and in 100 years' time the overall social convention will have shifted, like a giant glacier of stupid slowly falling into the sea of sanity.
How is that the implication? If the ranking was based on income, rather than on how the income was spent, what would your giving (or lack thereof) have to do with it?
I want to say this in a separate comment because I know it's going to get downvoted (but I am a sucker for telling the truth), and it is orthogonal to my other response (signalling value of conspicuous purchases overall): For a male, being a poor bleeding-hearted liberal donor is not high-status behavior, with obvious penalties in terms of attracting the opposite gender (and I know I'll get comments from women on LW saying that they find charitability attractive, and that other women do too, so let me head off such platitudes by asking for evidence, reminding people that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data", and it would make sense for a woman to claim, in far mode, to like altruistic men, for the signalling value this provides her with, and then in near mode to subconsciously and effortlessly select a mate for herself based on how rich and high-status he is) There may be further penalties in terms of not motivating yourself to make more money and status. It's empirically the case that moderately rich people tend to be lovers of money, and go into the competition to make wealth using the dreams of higher status to motivate themselves. (some, on the other hand, come out the other end as altruists, e.g. Gates/Buffett) Society is not kind to men who are perceived as weak. For women, the opposite applies: it has been shown that romantic priming increases charitable behavior in women. (and in men it increases conspicuous consumption) Maybe multifoliaterose should add a gender comment to his article? Especially good for a woman, not so much for the male half of the species? In fact I'm going to stick my neck out and say that if you did a gender breakdown of the original study, income would correlate with happiness via status much more for men.

I think you're wrong here. Being poor is bad for men, of course. Being weak is also bad for men.

But charitable giving actually can signal wealth (you have enough to give away), social class (depends on the charity, but for example think how frequently you hear about microfinance at an Ivy League school), and a kind of strength (you have your life together enough to think of others -- true incompetents are too busy with their own crises).

charitable giving actually can signal wealth

Charitable giving allows you to signal very high levels of wealth effectively, because you get newspaper coverage praising you for being able to donate millions (billions) of dollars. You don't get that kind of recognition for donating, say, ten thousand dollars, so if you aren't actually rich you get way more wealth signaling per dollar by buying clothes or club membership or a new car.

I think Roko's view is up in the air. The evidence that "romantic priming increases charitable behavior in women (and in men it increases conspicuous consumption)" would be more probable if his hypothesis was true. If consumptive behavior rather than altruistic behavior is produced by romantic priming, that would be consistent with the former being more useful than the latter for romantic efforts. While this evidence is sufficient for me to locate Roko's hypothesis, I don't yet feel compelled. There are tribes where men gain status by giving food away, so humans seem to have the potential to accord status to men for certain altruistic behavior in certain contexts. The U.S. is a different culture. Even here, I agree with you that there are ways that giving away things can signal wealth. I'm willing to grant Roko the plausibility of certain forms of charitable giving reducing male status and attractiveness, though I also think there are ways it could have the opposite effect, depending on context, and the other characteristics of the man involved and the subculture he is in.
Let me use an example to throw some light on the issue. Suppose that you are a woman's genes. You have a choice between two men. One is just an ordinary, eligible guy. The other has made a solemn lifelong commitment to give 50% of his wealth away to random strangers. Which sperm would you like to fertilize your egg with? Think about the kind of sons and grandsons that would be the result. Now for the "provider", beta-male role. Which man would you prefer as the guy who you get to use to support yourself and your (maybe his) children? It seems clear in this spherical-cow model that donating a lot to charity is a good way to steer yourself towards the beta-male stereotype. Admittedly, reality is more complex, but I think that this should be the "zeroth order" approximation to which corrections are made. Furthermore, if you start conversations about the minutiae of efficient charity, and how you donate 40% of your income to Singinst/Givewell/VillageReachwhatever, and how you have put a financial value on a human life, then I am struggling to find a context in which this would make you either popular or attractive.
Mmmm. Rationalism.
Such a commitment is a form of signalling, like a peacock's tail. Someone who manages to keep that commitment can afford to do so, signaling wealth.
Sure, but you can also achieve the same signalling-of-wealth value by using 50% of your wealth to buy Ferraris, Gold watches and designer suits. Is there any relevant difference between signalling wealth by charitable donation versus conspicuous consumption? I think so: from the female genes' point of view, conspicuous consumption signals selfishness, the desire to look after your own, whereas the charity signals sucker-ness -- the desire to help others who are not reciprocating. This is the altruist's burden: if you help society at large, you create the counterpoint public choice problem to the special interests problem in politics. You harm a concentrated interest (friends, partner, children) in order to reward a diffuse interest (helping each of billions of people infinitesimally). The concentrated interest then retaliates, because by standard public choice theory it has an incentive to do so, but the diffuse interest just ignores you.
Roko: It's much more complicated than that. By improper conspicuous consumption, you can easily end up signaling that you're a sucker. Even worse, you'll signal that you're the sort of sucker who's easy to separate from his money. You can probably imagine the possible consequences of that botched signal. Generally speaking, effective conspicuous consumption is very difficult to pull off. This of course doesn't apply to the level of conspicuous consumption that you're expected to undertake to avoid coming off as a weirdo given your position in society, but anything beyond that is dangerously apt to backfire in a multitude of ways.
This seems like a nitpick: it is orthogonal to the point at issue.
I was't attacking the point at issue. It just seemed worth pointing out as a digression.
Sure. Actually, I'd be interested if you had any academic references on the details of signalling theory, especially issues like counter-signalling
Regarding counter-signaling, I remember the "Too Cool for School" paper that was linked from Marginal Revolution a few years ago, along with the subsequent "False Modesty" paper that shares a co-author. These seem to be the standard references about the topic. But more importantly, I don't think academic insight in this area gathered so far is particularly worthwhile. Before getting into complex mathematical models can be really fruitful, we first need an informal common-sense overview of the situation, in order to know where to look for situations that provide suitable material for more solid theories. Unfortunately, in this regard, even the most insightful people have made only baby steps so far.
Evidence? Sure, these effects could be significant, but really, how significant? How significant are the countervailing effects?
I actually think that the worst thing it does for a male is signal and create selflessness rather than selfishness/arrogance. You can't be a "bad boy" if you're giving money to VillageReach, and it's hard to pull of alpha unless you're also very rich.
I can see that. But is anyone wholly a bad boy? Without a single altruistic moment? I've never met such a person. Not even the ones who look like "bad boys" at the outset. And are you really going to put in the effort to become such a person, one hundred per cent arrogant, just to pick up women? That's your sole terminal value? If so, enjoy... but I think it's a rare man who remains so singularly obsessed even after he's proven to himself that he can succeed with women. Maybe I'm wrong.
How many comments with this sort of disclaimer end up downvoted on net? It seems like they're usually >0. Is this a problem in peoples mental models of LessWrong, or does it cause people to think differently? If the latter, is that an improvement?
Whatever is going on, I don't think it's unique to LW-- on usenet, I noticed that whenever a post started with "I know I'm going to get flamed for this", it wouldn't get flamed and it wouldn't have anything in it which struck me as likely to get flamed. I don't know if there's something disarming about posts which start with that sort of nervousness, or (more likely) that people who are that sort of cautious overestimate how provocative they're being.
Perhaps we should recruit some local firebrands to keep 2d6 with their computer and roll on every opinion they express in a comment, adding the disclaimer every time they get 12. The fact that we know that they're doing this would probably invalidate the experiment, however.
So have them do it on Reddit.
This comment of mine is going to get downvoted because it will have contributed nothing to the discussion.
Upvoted for contributing to the discussion.
Upvoted for inviting recursion.
What Roko keeps on saying -- that women prefer high-status men -- has a lot of truth to it, but there are countervailing considerations: (1) [deleted for being an unimportant distraction] (2) Men under 23 or so are given a pass: current income and current social status are not major considerations of most women contemplating a romance with a man under that age. Of course, it helps to seem to have prospects of high income or high social status, but most women are not particularly good judges of male prospects (and know that about themselves) and most men will be able to clear the prospects hurdle just by being a full-time college student or having a degree -- and if that is not enough in the way of prospects for a particular woman, then having a father or even an uncle with high income or high social status will probably be. (3) Since women who will go for a man under 23 or so typically place a lot of premium on high intelligence, if you are reading this web site, then unless you have some severe romantic handicap, if you make the usual level of effort to initiate romances when you are under 23 or so, there is a good chance that you find yourself in a romance with at least one woman who will want to stay with you for the rest or your life. (Roko is probably not interested in that: he probably wants to have romances with many, many women who scores as high as possible on the criterion most popular with men who want to have romances with many, many women. Hence his strong emphasis on social status.) (4) Some women do not care much about income or social status. I have had two long-term relationships during a period in which I was chronically ill and my extremely-low income came entirely from Social Security disability payments plus in the case of relationship #2 federal housing subsidies. I was 27 when I started the first of these two relationships and 44 when I started the second. (Both of these women were very attracted to the fact that I was good at science, BTW
Roko is using "status" in a much broader sense than income or job status. I think he is mainly addressing status in interpersonal interactions within the particular social milieu a man is in, e.g. who asserts themselves over who, who defers to who, etc... These sorts of status hierarchies start in childhood. If someone believes that their social circles don't have hierarchies, then think again. Even nice, egalitarian social circles have hierarchies; they are just subtle. For an example, if you and your friends are going out to dinner, who decides where? If there is a disagreement about what restaurant, who decides? Which lone group members are able to sway the entire group towards their preferences, and which can't? When the bill comes, someone suggests dividing it equally even though some people ordered less expensive dishes. Can those group members assert that the bill should be divided differently? None of the answers to these questions necessarily "prove" a particular ranking among every group of friends (for instance, some people just don't like making decisions regardless of status; in some groups, the high status people might make these decisions, while in others, the high status people might push the decision work onto the lower status people.) Yet these are the kind of situations that can reveal subtle dominance battles.

if you and your friends are going out to dinner, who decides where? If there is a disagreement about what restaurant, who decides? Which lone group members are able to sway the entire group towards their preferences, and which can't? When the bill comes, someone suggests dividing it equally even though some people ordered less expensive dishes. Can those group members assert that the bill should be divided differently?

When I am out with a single friend, or sometimes two, I tend to pick where we go unless I don't want to (due to not knowing what's available), break ties, successfully arrange to split appetizers I don't want to eat by myself, and either pay for my own often-cheaper food or not pay at all.

This is because under these circumstances, I typically have Schellingesque limits on myself. I'm a vegetarian with certain strong food preferences beyond that which limit where I can and will eat, and will tend to stay home rather than go somewhere I can't eat. I'm very frugal with my money, and will tend to stay home rather than enter a situation where I have to pay for dinner out (or any more than what I deliberately choose to pay for after looking at the prices). To get me t... (read more)

The problem with these conversations is that everyone is permanently stuck in signalling mode, so the conversation inevitably becomes about the fairy-tale land of human self-propaganda. In far mode, most men will say they want a woman who will "stay with them forever", committed relationship, etc etc etc. For the reality, see this comic, especially the last panel.
The comic is drawn from the same fairyland, and citing fictional evidence is just more propaganda. Speaking of being stuck in signalling mode, what else is this: "I know it's going to get downvoted (but I am a sucker for telling the truth)"?
Perhaps drawn from a different fairy-land, namely that of a sort of cynical sarcasm. To see the reality of things, you have to actually go out into the world and meet real people, and see the things that they actually do, the lives that they actually live.
I prefer to describe it as "loser shit".
I was going to critique this, but this is a rationality site, so the critique would be too far off-topic.
And yet, for some reason, you seem determined to signal that you're weak, by caring about this. ;-)
People only know your real income from your profession and the toys you buy. The expensive clubs, the expensive cars, clothes and products. The neighborhood your house is in. The former (your profession) will give you something, but the latter is important.
And yet, the study didn't ask people how they perceived their rank, it simply ranked them by actual income. So again, I don't see how you can create this implication out of thin air from the study. Heck, the study doesn't even prove that high income rank creates happiness - it could just as easily be that the happiest people within a peer group will also tend towards the highest income.
But that combined with the empirical fact that rich people do buy things that make it obvious how rich they are does create the implication, at least probabilistically, though I agree that it would be much better to perform a more precise study. (For example, you could give people a $1,000,000 income but stipulate that they had to give it all away to charities of their choice, and make it near-impossible for them to reliably tell anyone that they had done this)
Wrong. People who want other people to think they're rich engage in conspicuous consumption. Actual rich people (at least first-generation rich), not so much. That would be quite useless, if you haven't first determined whether it's relative happiness increasing relative income, or vice versa.
It seems very plausible to me that the belief that giving to inefficient charities doesn't count as altruism would prevent one from gaining the more efficient fuzzies offered by inefficient charities and cause giving to efficient charities to count as altruism.
So not only should you not give to efficient charities, you should also strive to not even believe that there is such a thing as charitable efficiency. Gosh, we seem to be predicting the behavior of ordinary people quite well!
I don't think studies (which may well combine results for people with very different temperaments) should completely override individual experience. Also, it's stated in the article that most people spend their money very inefficiently. It should be possible to give a good bit to charity without impacting one's status unless you assume that spending according to one's station is completely defined by the spending habits of everyone else in a similar situation.
Well not if it reduces your ability to buy showy luxury items that signal your income rank!
My assumption is that people generally don't think clearly about how they spend their money, including whether they're pursuing status efficiently.
You seem to be presenting a false choice. The efficiency with which you pursue status is not positively impacted by giving your money away.
I think we're considering two different standards for pursuing status. I'm suggesting that people could give a good bit to charity while pursuing status as effectively as others who have the same income. Additionally, they might be able to pursue status more effectively if they get the sort of psychological boost that multifoliaterose does. It's conceivable that someone who put a comparable amount of thought into pursuing status could do better than others with the same income if they didn't give to charity, which I think is what you mean. Just for the record, I think pursuing status is a major human motivation, but hardly the only one.
I just mean that, all other things equal, giving money away detracts from your ability to signal status. Sure, you can give away only a tiny amount, like 0.5%, which is what I suggested as the optimal amount for pursuing happiness in the original comment. But if you give a significant amount, like 40%, then you will noticeably fall in the status ranking.

I suggest that you got such good psychological effects because you addressed the specific thing you were beating yourself up about, and that you were beating yourself up about something that was actually a reasonable standard.

I begin to worry that there is a certain sort of rationalist who is driven insane by the thought of other people doing better than them, and who, perhaps, is having romantic problems that are not best addressed by the same sort of thinking that created them.

There is some empirical evidence that giving to others improves a person's happiness:

Dunn, E.W., Aknin, L.B., & Norton, M.I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687-1688. pdf

There is more information about this research on Elizabeth Dunn's web page, including what looks to be another article.

Thanks for pointing this person out! I really appreciate it.

I like, in particular, your explanation for why charity makes you feel good. Reinforcing the sense that you are capable of acting in accordance with your values is very important for well-being.

Just so you can generalize from two examples: I do the same thing in regards to charity. I first started giving in response to a feeling of helplessness and inadequacy. It made me feel much better. It wasn't, really, about public approval or status -- most people don't know I give, and some of those who do know, make fun of me for it. What's valuable to me is... (read more)

Thanks for your feedback! Is your quibble with my post or with one of the links in it? I largely agree with your last paragraph.

This post goes wrong in assuming maximizing utility means maximizing happiness. A terminal value isn't something that causes you happiness directly; it's something you value whether or not it causes you happiness.

The post suggests that utility-maximizing giving also brings happiness, not that it's the best way to obtain happiness. And indeed it could be a good way of obtaining happiness, like holding true beliefs is a good way of acting efficiently, even though there could be incorrect beliefs that result in even more optimal actions.
I don't think it's ambiguous: the post suggests rationality means maximizing utility, utility is happiness, therefore rationality means maximizing happiness.
Yes. Happiness is an instrumental value, though a very useful one.

By donating a relatively small amount of money, you could save a child’s life.

Meh. I was unpleasantly surprised by how un-cost-effective GiveWell's programs are. According to their cost-effectiveness page:

We consider anything under $1,000 per "significant life change" to be excellent cost-effectiveness.

I find that a dishearteningly large number. At this point in my life, giving $1,000 would require a significant life change.

Also, I think the Peter Singer v. Tyler Cowen video should be mentioned. Their interesting discussion mentions this b... (read more)

GiveWell is being honest in a way that other organizations aren't. At least in the abstract, doesn't it seem like a great use of money (relative to the things that people usually spend money on) to spend several thousand dollars to save the life of a full grown adult with years of productivity ahead of him or her and with family who depend on him or her? You may be anchoring based on the total amount of money needed to save everybody who needs to be saved in the developing world or something like that, and consequently forgetting that there are real people who are affected by donations. See Paul Slovic's article "If I look at the mass, I will never act" See also the "aid is a drop in the bucket" stuff here Are you sure? You may be right, but you may also be falling into a trap of the type that I described in bullet point (1) of my post. Remember, you wouldn't be sacrificing a random $1,000 worth of your stuff, you would be giving up the $1,000 of stuff that you deem to be least important to you.
You seem mighty quick to accuse me of bias. A thousand dollars is a lot higher than I imagined the number to be. Surely, you can be charitable enough for me to express that simple fact without declaring me an anchor-er.
I feel obliged to point out that you are an anchor-er, insomuch as that you are human. You may not be falling prey to that particular bias in this particular instance, but the bias is still present in the topology of your brain.
Point well taken.
I guess I was reacting to your comparison of the "significant life change" experienced by the recipient and family/friends of a StopTB treatment and the "significant life change" that you would experience in losing $1000. The two are not comparable and the fact that you used the same phrase to describe them suggested to me that you were irrationally heavily minimizing the impact of a donation to StopTB on the recipients of the treatment. I'm not saying that the fact that the two things are incomparable means that you ought to give. Again, see my post on altruism and sacrifice. I only ask that you make an honest assessment of what's being lost when you decline to donate.

To those who are interested in improving the world, I recommend donating personal effort as well as (or instead of) money. From a selfish point of view, it provides a more diverse and potentially productive set of warm-fuzzy sources. And from an effectiveness angle it also allows you to make future donation decisions (whether they are in the form of effort or money) in a more informed fashion. For example, my experiences as a volunteer have taught me:

  1. International programs which claim to implement self-sustaining improvements should be considered with sk

... (read more)

My mom is trying to discourage me from giving money away, because "you're going to need it."

If you'd like to say more about your situation (financial/what your values are/possibly what your relationship with your mother is like), I may have some useful suggestions.

Each person makes an implicit judgment that a life involving donating substantially more would be a life less satisfying than the life that he or she is presently living. Is such a judgment sound? Surely it is for some people, but is it sound on average?

Why allow this distinction? How do you tell, in principle, a person who is actually selfish, from a person who merely incorrectly believes in being selfish, but isn't? Maybe in the "truly selfish" person, the error runs deeper, but is still an error? I'm not so sure that there are any people who lack a whole aspect of value.

If you are out for the warm fuzzies: According to my experience fuzzies / $ is optimized via giving a little often.

Microfinancing might be an option, as the same capital can be lend multiple times, generating some fuzzies each time.

Then again, GiveWell seems not too decided on the concept:


I don't think that anyone who works should feel guilted into giving money to charity. Unless what you do is somehow completely selfish (substinence farming would be an example) you are creating a lot of value for other people via your work. If I try to estimate the value that I create for the world vs. what I actually get paid, I get somewhere between 5:1 and 20:1. So, no matter how selfishly I spend my money, most of my product is being enjoyed by others, and that means I am doing good. Giving away 5% of the meager fraction of my product that I actually get to keep will hurt me while barely increasing the amount of good I do.

Also, you're anchoring :-). When you say "barely increasing the amount of good that you do" you mean "barely increasing the percentage of good that you do." But a small increase in the percentage of good that you do probably amounts to a lot in absolute terms: it could make a very meaningful difference in the lives of one or more people.
I agree that you're doing good as a productive member of society. I don't think that anybody who works should feel guilted into giving money to charity either. If giving to charity makes your life worse then you should not give to charity. The point in my post is that people (including myself) may be systematically deluded into believing that they'd experience a drop in life satisfaction if they gave more of their income to charity when they would really experience a gain in life satisfaction. As I indicated, I think that it's worth it to try out giving for a year. If it makes you less happy then you can simply resolve never to do it again. If it makes you more happy then you can do it over and over again for the rest of your life. If 5% of your income seems like a lot and you're presently not donating at all, you could experiment with donating 1% of your income.

Monetary donations are not the only means of contributing. Happiness and status are two completely different regimes. Philanthropy is not an end unto itself.

The sited data sources clearly indicate that money does not "buy happiness." What money can buy is subsistence. I have found the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism to be a succinct answer to the interelation between material acquisition and happiness. The expectations of the individual lead to feelings of wealth or deprivation.

I believe it was Wikinomics that stated that charities, when they want ... (read more)

"One might argue that charities have more need of money than any particular individual's skills, but in most cases I doubt that to be true." If you mean what I think you mean by "particular individual", I strongly disagree. You seem to be saying: "For any given person X and charity Y, it's more probable that Y would benefit from X's skillset and time than from an equivalent amount of their money." However, most people do not have skills which are especially useful to charities, particularly international development-related charities. Furthermore, merely having strong and applicable technical skills is not enough; charities often operate in environments where cultural infrastructure is very weak, so an effective volunteer also needs to have strong people skills, and an ability to adapt and work effectively despite culture shock.
Actually I meant that most skills would be of use to some charity, not a particular charity. Certainly there are some skills that are not of value to any charity I would support. To further clarify, I am considering charity to mean non-profit enterprises whose purpose is to benefit more than their own contributors. Too many courses on population models have led me to believe that resource availability has to climb a steeper curve than population growth for sustainability. I am not certain that short term support for individuals living in inadequate conditions is a net positive. Cultural standards particularly regarding family size are difficult to alter. I choose to apply my efforts to a different set of problems.

People's focus on acquiring material resources is in fact irrational, borne of a now-maladaptive hoarding heuristic inherited from our ancestors.

If this were true, we'd expect to find out ancestors either as or more selfish than us.

In reality, we find our ancestors were more egalitarian with both wealth and status.