Tag Archives: rationality

Why it should be easy to dominate GiveWell’s recommendations

GiveWell’s charity recommendations – currently Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative – are generally regarded as the most reliable in their field. I imagine many readers here donate to these charities. This makes it all the more surprising that it should be pretty easy to start a charity more effective than any of them.

All you would need to do is found an organisation that fundraises for whoever GiveWell recommends, and raises more than a dollar with each dollar it receives. Is this hard? Probably not. As a general rule, a dollar spent on fundraising seems to raise at least several dollars. It’s a pretty simple and fast multiplier that obviously beats putting your money in the stock market. An independent organisation raising money for GiveWell’s top charities should do even better than a typical fundraiser, thanks to:

  • the strength of evidence, which is especially compelling to big donors
  • the independent recommendation, which looks particularly credible and removes the perception of any ulterior motive
  • a willingness to maximise (for example by targeting the wealthy, and focussing on regular or legacy donors)
  • an intrinsic motivation to do good
  • the freedom to choose which of the three organisations they promote, depending on who they are talking to.

Putting your money into fundraising, rather than just giving it directly, does impose additional costs on the donors you inspire, and may ‘crowd out’ gifts to other charities. However, the logic of giving to GiveWell’s top rated charities is that they make (much) better use of money than most other individuals or organisations. So if you have a fundraising ratio significantly above 1:1, these downsides shouldn’t much matter.

You might ask: if fundraising is the best thing to do, why wouldn’t AMF, SCI or GiveDirectly just spend the money you give them on fundraising? My guess is that it’s simply a bad look. If they spend too much on fundraising, it will irrationally scare off their existing and potential donors. Even if a charity should ideally spend most of its receipts on further fundraising in order to grow more quickly, the option simply isn’t available. The social norm against ‘optimising fundraising‘ is generally helpful, because intense competition between charities for donations would cause ‘rent dissipation’, and less total money would flow to charity recipients. But if your charity actually is much better than other charities, and so it’s good when you ‘take’ their money, this social norm does harm by preventing you from doing so.

So, if you are unlike most donors and are willing to have your money spent on effective fundraising, you can easily increase your impact several times over. Just help GiveWell’s top charities take their fundraising efforts ‘off the books’ by founding or giving to a separate organisation that does it for them.

This isn’t actually an impractical plan. Starting up a lean and effective fundraising organisation is difficult, but much easier than building a global team to distribute insecticide-treated bed nets. Any bright and energetic person in a rich country who went and received the necessary training would have a decent shot at getting such an organisation off the ground. If you would like to discuss the first steps required to make this happen, drop me an email (robertwiblin [at] gmail [dot] com) and I can put you in touch with a team already working on this approach, who could direct you towards legal and financial support.

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Who is setting global priorities?

In a situation where different activities have very different benefit to cost ratios, it is important to set priorities, and finish those with the highest values first.  Any individual who didn’t set priorities would achieve much less than they could; they might end up malnourished because they are busy reading their junk mail. While it is relatively easy to set priorities for a single human’s personal life – not that we always follow them - setting priorities for humanity as a whole is very difficult and requires in-depth study.

The central limit theorem suggests that the cost effectiveness of different projects ought to have a ‘log normal’ distribution, if not an even fatter-tailed one. Furthermore, there is no reason to think that (e.g.) political reform, different environmental causes, R&D for various technologies, conflict resolution, poverty reduction and so on are ee in the same ball-park of cost effectiveness, so we should anticipate a large variance in the distribution. This would leave some causes orders of magnitude more important than others. What research on this topic has been done, by groups like J-PAL, GiveWell, the WHO, and so on, indeed finds that the value of different methods of improving the world varies dramatically, with some doing enormous amounts of good and others achieving next to nothing. Unfortunately, as far as I am aware – and I would love to be informed otherwise – there is no one who has taken on the role of picking out and promoting the most important tasks we face.

The Copenhagen Consensus set out to fill this gap in 2003, and produced reports that were of mixed quality, though excellent value for money and a substantial improvement on what existed before. Sadly, it is not currently planning another round of research because it is out of funding (though still taking donations). In the absence of a comprehensive and broad comparison of different causes, resources naturally flow to the most powerful or vocal interest groups, or the approaches that people intuitively guess are best. Given our terrible instincts for risks and magnitudes we don’t have regular direct experience with, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if these actually were the most valuable projects to be embarking on.

The natural home for a properly-funded and ongoing global prioritisation research project would be the World Bank or alternatively, the OECD, or a university. If anyone is reading this and has some influence: global prioritisation looks like a cost effective cause to hop on. Though given the lack of research on the topic, I’ll admit it is hard to be sure!

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Which biases matter most? Let’s prioritise the worst!

As part of our self-improvement program at the Centre for Effective Altruism I decided to present a lecture on cognitive biases and how to overcome them. Trying to put this together reminded me of a problem I have long had with the self-improvement literature on biases, along with those for health, safety and nutrition: they don’t prioritise. Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow represents an excellent summary of the literature on biases and heuristics, but risks overwhelming or demoralising the reader with the number of errors they need to avoid. Other sources are even less helpful at highlighting which biases are most destructive.

You might say ‘avoid them all’, but it turns out that clever and effort-consuming strategies are required to overcome most biases; mere awareness is rarely enough. As a result, it may not be worth the effort in many cases. Even if it were usually worth it, most folks will only ever put a limited effort into reducing their cognitive biases, so we should guide their attention towards the strategies which offer the biggest ‘benefit to cost ratio’ first.

There is a bias underlying this scattershot approach to overcoming bias: we are inclined to allocate equal time or value to each category or instance of something we are presented with, even if they are arbitrary, or at least not a good signal of their importance. Expressions of this bias include:

  • Allocating equal or similar migrant places or development aid funding to different countries out of ‘fairness’, even if they vary in size, need, etc.
  • Making a decision by weighing the number, or length, of ‘pro’ and ‘con’ arguments on each side.
  • Offering similar attention or research funding to different categories of cancer (breast, pancreas, lung), even though some kill ten times as many people as others.
  • Providing equal funding for a given project to every geographic district, even if the boundaries of those districts were not drawn with reference to need for the project.

Fortunately, I don’t think we need tackle most of the scores of cognitive biases out there to significantly improve our rationality. My guess is that some kind of Pareto or ’80-20′ principle applies, in which case a minority of our biases are doing most of the damage. We just have to work out which ones! Unfortunately, as far as I can tell this hasn’t yet been attempted by anyone, even the Centre for Applied Rationality, and there are a lot to sift through. So, I’d appreciate your help to produce a shortlist. You can have input through the comments below, or by voting on this Google form. I’ll gradually cut out options which don’t attract any votes.

Ultimately, we are seeking biases that have a large and harmful impact on our decisions. Some correlated characteristics I would suggest are that it:

  • potentially influences your thinking on many things
  • is likely to change your beliefs a great deal
  • doesn’t have many redeeming ‘heuristic’ features
  • disproportionately influences major choices
  • has a large effect substantiated by many studies, and so is less likely the result of publication bias.

We face the problem that more expansive categories can make a bias look like it has a larger impact (e.g. ‘cancer’ would look really bad but none of ‘pancreatic cancer’, ‘breast cancer’, etc would stand out individually). For our purposes it would be ideal to group and rate categories of biases after breaking them down by ‘which intervention would neutralise this.’ I don’t know of such a categorisation and don’t have time to make one now. I don’t expect that this problem will be too severe for a first cut.

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Why don’t futurists try harder to stay alive?

A significant share of the broader ‘singularitarian’ community believes that they have a chance to live for hundreds of years, if they can survive until the arrival of an AI singularity, whole brain emulation, or just the point at which medical technology is advancing fast enough to keep extending our health-span by at least a year each year (meaning we hit ‘escape velocity‘ and can live indefinitely). Some are sufficiently hopeful about this to have invested in cryonics plans, hoping to be revived in the future, including Robin Hanson. Many others plan to do this, or think they should. (For what it’s worth, I am not yet convinced cryonics is worth the money – for reasons I am writing up – but I do think it warrants serious consideration.)

But there are much more mundane ways of increasing the chance of making it to this glorious future: exercise regularly, eat a nutritious diet low in refined carbohydrates, don’t smoke or hang around those who do, drink in moderation, avoid some illegal drugs, develop strong social supports to lower suicide and other mental health threats, have a secure high-status job, don’t live in an urban area, don’t ride a motorbike, get married (probably), and so on. While the futurist community isn’t full of seriously unhealthy or reckless people, nor does it seem much better in these regards than non-futurists with the same education and social class. A minority enjoy nutritional number crunching, but I haven’t observed diets being much better overall. None of the other behaviours are noticeably better.

I am fairly confident that the lowest hanging fruit would be raising fitness levels, which may even be lower among us than the general population. In addition to the immediate benefits regular and strenuous exercise has on confidence, happiness and productivity, it makes you live quite a bit longer. One study suggests that just 15 minutes of moderate exercise per day adds three years to your life expectancy (HT XKCD).

Now, maybe you are skeptical that those few years will allow you to live long enough to reach the end of involuntary death. Probably they won’t, but the whole life extension approach is to bank on a low chance of a giant payoff (living for hundreds or thousands of years). Furthermore, as the Singularity Institute has compellingly argued, we should not think we can confidently predict when AGI will be invented, if at all. The same is true to a lesser extent of progress towards whole brain emulation, or ending ageing. Furthermore, cryonics preservation procedures, and the selection of organisations that offer cryonics are gradually improving. Extending your life by five to ten years by doing all the ordinary things right could really make the difference; at least anyone considering gambling on cryonics should surely also find regular jogging worth their time.

I have even heard smart people claim that there is no need to worry about staying healthy because new technology will cure any diseases you get by the time you get them. But uncertainty about how soon such technologies will appear, combined with the high potential reward of living a little longer, would suggest exactly the opposite.

If I had to provide a cynical explanation for this apparently conflicting behaviour, I would suggest people are signing up for cryonics, or engaging in nutritional geekery, to signal their rationality and membership of a particular social clique. Going to the gym, even if it is a better bet for extending your life, doesn’t currently have the same effect. If you fear you’re stuck in that or some similar trap, consider using Stickk or Beeminder to make sure you do the rational thing.

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