Nov 27, 2014
I've heard of the concept of "weirdness points" many times before, but after a bit of searching I can't find a definitive post describing the concept, so I've decided to make one. As a disclaimer, I don't think the evidence backing this post is all that strong and I am skeptical, but I do think it's strong enough to be worth considering, and I'm probably going to make some minor life changes based on it.
Chances are that if you're reading this post, you're probably a bit weird in some way.
No offense, of course. In fact, I actually mean it as a compliment. Weirdness is incredibly important. If people weren't willing to deviate from society and hold weird beliefs, we wouldn't have had the important social movements that ended slavery and pushed back against racism, that created democracy, that expanded social roles for women, and that made the world a better place in numerous other ways.
Many things we take for granted now as why our current society as great were once... weird.
Joseph Overton theorized that policy develops through six stages: unthinkable, then radical, then acceptable, then sensible, then popular, then actual policy. We could see this happen with many policies -- currently same-sex marriage is making its way from popular to actual policy, but not to long ago it was merely acceptable, and not too long before that it was pretty radical.
Some good ideas are currently in the radical range. Effective altruism itself is such a collection of beliefs typical people would consider pretty radical. Many people think donating 3% of their income is a lot, let alone the 10% demand that Giving What We Can places, or the 50%+ that some people in the community do.
And that's not all. Others would suggest that everyone become vegetarian, advocating for open borders and/or universal basic income, theabolishment of gendered language, having more resources into mitigating existential risk, focusing on research into Friendly AI, cryonicsand curing death, etc.
While many of these ideas might make the world a better place if made into policy, all of these ideas are pretty weird.
Weirdness, of course, is a drawback. People take weird opinions less seriously.
The absurdity heuristic is a real bias that people -- even you -- have. If an idea sounds weird to you, you're less likely to try and believe it,even if there's overwhelming evidence. And social proof matters -- if less people believe something, people will be less likely to believe it. Lastly, don't forget the halo effect -- if one part of you seems weird, the rest of you will seem weird too!
...But we can use this knowledge to our advantage. The halo effect can work in reverse -- if we're normal in many ways, our weird beliefs will seem more normal too. If we have a notion of weirdness as a kind of currency that we have a limited supply of, we can spend it wisely, without looking like a crank.
All of this leads to the following actionable principles:
Recognize you only have a few "weirdness points" to spend. Trying to convince all your friends to donate 50% of their income to MIRI, become a vegan, get a cryonics plan, and demand open borders will be met with a lot of resistance. But -- I hypothesize -- that if you pick one of these ideas and push it, you'll have a lot more success.
Spend your weirdness points effectively. Perhaps it's really important that people advocate for open borders. But, perhaps, getting people to donate to developing world health would overall do more good. In that case, I'd focus on moving donations to the developing world and leave open borders alone, even though it is really important. You should triage your weirdness effectively the same way you would triage your donations.
Clean up and look good. Lookism is a problem in society, and I wish people could look "weird" and still be socially acceptable. But if you're a guy wearing a dress in public, or some punk rocker vegan advocate, recognize that you're spending your weirdness points fighting lookism, which means less weirdness points to spend promoting veganism or something else.
Advocate for more "normal" policies that are almost as good. Of course, allocating your "weirdness points" on a few issues doesn't mean you have to stop advocating for other important issues -- just consider being less weird about it. Perhaps universal basic income truly would be a very effective policy to help the poor in the United States. But reforming the earned income tax credit and relaxing zoning laws would also both do a lot to help the poor in the US, and such suggestions aren't weird.
Use the foot-in-door technique and the door-in-face technique. The foot-in-door technique involves starting with a small ask and gradually building up the ask, such as suggesting people donate a little bit effectively, and then gradually get them to take the Giving What We Can Pledge. The door-in-face technique involves making a big ask (e.g., join Giving What We Can) and then substituting it for a smaller ask, like the Life You Can Save pledge or Try Out Giving.
Reconsider effective altruism's clustering of beliefs. Right now, effective altruism is associated strongly with donating a lot of money and donating effectively, less strongly with impact in career choice, veganism, and existential risk. Of course, I'm not saying that we should drop some of these memes completely. But maybe EA should disconnect a bit more and compartmentalize -- for example, leaving AI risk to MIRI, for example, and not talk about it much, say, on 80,000 Hours. And maybe instead of asking people to both give more AND give more effectively, we could focus more exclusively on asking people to donate what they already do more effectively.
Evaluate the above with more research. While I think the evidence base behind this is decent, it's not great and I haven't spent that much time developing it. I think we should look into this more with a review of the relevant literature and some careful, targeted, market research on the individual beliefs within effective altruism (how weird are they?) and how they should be connected or left disconnected. Maybe this has already been done some?