Effective selfishness

Effective selfishness

Nov 2021

Here are some things I’d like to know about how to live my life:

  1. If I eat Brussels sprouts for dinner tonight instead of pizza, how much longer do I live (in expectation, in minutes)?
  2. What should I eat to avoid getting tired after lunch?
  3. If I have a glass of wine with dinner every day, how much longer/shorter do I live? What if I drink seven glasses on Saturday instead?
  4. What’s the impact of a 30-minute run tonight, in terms of longevity and my energy over the next month?
  5. If I drink coffee every day, do I reach homeostasis and the same steady-state as if I drank none?
  6. Should I even bother with this health stuff? Is it dumb to spend younger-me time now to get older-me time later?
  7. How much do I reduce my life expectancy by driving 20% faster?
  8. Is the link between relationships and happiness causal? What’s the best way for me to build more relationships? (Is it spending all my free time writing a pseudonymous blog?)
  9. Or should I focus on making my existing relationships better?
  10. Say my personality is extraverted, agreeable, and open to experience. Should I seek a romantic partner with the same traits or complementary ones? Is there any predictive power at all once you condition on how well we get along?
  11. Will I be happier if I take a media diet?
  12. Is the link between religion and happiness causal? Will it still work if I’m a nonbeliever?

You get the point: We have lots of choices in modern life. They collectively have a big impact on how happy/healthy/productive we are but they are hard and evolution hasn’t given us good instincts for making them.

It seems likely that there’s low-hanging fruit, but what is it?

The problems that effective altruism solves

Take Alex, who wants to make a donation and make the world better. She faces four questions:

  1. Which organizations are competent, and which are more the collect $500 million in donations, build six homes, refuse to elaborate type?
  2. What will happen to her money? Will a huge fraction of it go as a commission for the person who convinced her to donate?
  3. What’s a good strategy? If Alex is worried about breast cancer, should she help with prevention or early diagnostics or basic research?
  4. Which problem should she focus on? How much will an extra dollar move the needle for breast cancer vs. early warning of asteroid collisions?

These questions are also hard, basically too hard for a single person to answer. So, when you look at which philanthropic organizations thrive, these questions traditionally haven’t mattered very much. The organizations that endure tend to be the ones that make their supporters feel good.

This isn’t anyone’s fault! It’s not Alex’s fault for not doing this basically-impossible research, and it’s not an organization’s fault for being good at the one thing they must be good at to not be outcompeted by an organization that is good at it. It’s just another case where nature imposes a fitness function that isn’t aligned with our interests.

How effective altruism solves them

Broadly speaking, effective altruism tries to tie impact with how good things feel. The basic strategy is to (1) get people excited about impact in general, (2) figure out what has impact, and (3) promote high-impact stuff to impact enthusiasts.

Research shows that different strategies can be much more cost-effective than others for the same problem. Jamison et al. (2006) estimated that how much it could cost to save a disability-adjusted life year (DALY) for someone at risk of HIV/AIDS. Surgical treatment of Kaposi’s sarcoma cost $30k, antiretroviral therapy cost $1k, condom distribution cost $100, and peer education cost only $20.

Calculations like these allow you to compare not just strategies, but also problems. If you care equally about polar bears and girls’ education in Eastern Europe but one dollar can do much more for the girls, that’s probably where you’ll want to concentrate.

The effective altruism community also considers personal actions. For example, if you care about orangutans, you could fly to Sumatra and go to the rainforest and then, like… help? But it’s probably more effective to get a job and donate some money to an orangutan sanctuary. It also suggests that some things might be counterintuitively ineffective—e.g. if you can land a competitive job at a famous nonprofit, maybe you’ll just displace someone else who would have done a great job anyway.

Most importantly (I claim) effective altruism tries to make all this analysis legible across different domains. This is critical if you want to compare different problems because no one can simultaneously be an expert on the existential risks of nuclear weapons and pandemics and micronutrients and AI safety.

This legibility also helps spread insights between different problems. For example, some have criticized effective altruism for neglecting “moonshot” economic or political goals and for having a bias towards things that can be measured. The community seems to be chewing on these concerns in a productive way, which is probably more efficient than having the same discussion separately in each sub-community.

Self-help has a lot of problems, too

At first glance, self-help seems very different from altruism. Most obviously, people are much more interested in helping themselves. (Go to a bookstore and look at the number of books on dieting vs. extreme poverty.)

And in theory, there’s an even deeper difference—for self-help, you have feedback. With charity, it’s easy to send money off into the void and forget about it. But if you waste a lot of money failing to fix your back, you’ll notice your back still hurts.

That’s the theory. In reality, can we just agree that self-help advice on average is not great? There’s a bunch of reasons for this.

For one thing, feedback loops are too long. If I buy a diet book and I don’t lose weight, well, I already paid for it.

For another, feedback loops are usually confounded. Say I want to be more popular, so I follow the advice of a TED talk on how to communicate, but three months later everyone still hates me. Was the advice bad, or is it that I was grumpy because I have new loud neighbors and I couldn’t sleep?

A third problem is that science is hard, statistics is hard, and people get them wrong. For example, diet advice is often obsessed with p-values, but ignores effect sizes. If eating cranberries has a 20% chance of giving me an extra 10 years, I’m going to eat cranberries. If it’s certain to give me an extra week, maybe not. You can’t make these judgments without effect sizes.

Fourth, good advice is often siloed and illegible. If you want to know how to best exercise/make friends/invest/sleep/etc., then for each goal you face anew the problem of figuring out who you can trust and what their jargon means.

Fifth, there’s the “bare minimum quality” problem. Say I want to sleep better. If I go to a forum on beds they’ll tell me that if I’m low on cash, I can get an OK mattress for “only” $2k or so, but honestly, I should take a look at my life and reconsider what I’m worth as a human being. Or say I want to be stronger. If I go to r/fitness, I’ll learn that I should get a power-cage and do 15 sets each week of barbell back squats, deadlifts, shoulder press, and bench press, along with assistance work, and if I’m not up for that, I deserve to be weak.

What’s happening here is that the people who know a lot about a given topic are really into that topic. Their advice might be good if you had their values, but you don’t, and anyway it would be impossible to give that level of attention to every part of your life.

Sixth, and most importantly, what should you prioritize? We all face a very large action space. A diet book isn’t going to tell you that, “actually your diet is fine, but you seem kinda lonely—you should get a better haircut and take a dance class.”

Some examples

Here are some examples of what I think are effective advice for different domains. I’ll start with standard normie advice:

  • Investing. Pick a low-cost lifecycle fund, put the same amount of money into it every month.

  • Diet. Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

  • Sleep. Use sleep hygiene and maybe low-dose (300 μg) melatonin.

  • Skincare. The most important thing is sunscreen. Also, use moisturizer if you like, and possibly a retinol cream.

  • Smoking. Nah.

  • Smoke alarms. Use them and keep fresh batteries in them. (Almost 3000 people die in home fires in the US every year, and having smoke alarms reduces risk by more than half. This is a modest effect, but it’s a huge win since smoke detectors are so cheap.)

  • Depression. You might feel better just through mean reversion. In terms of treatments, weirdly, different types of therapy and different anti-depressants are all about equally effective on average. (Which is: moderately) But different things work for different people.

  • Cancer. We live in the future! If you get breast cancer, colorectal cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, melanoma, cervical cancer, or Hodgkin’s lymphoma, then modern treatments give you a >90% chance of making a full recovery, provided it is caught early. You have a reasonable chance of getting one of these at some point in your life (maybe 20%?), so catching these early is plausibly worth a DALY or so in expectation.

  • Drinking. Any drinking increases cancer, but 1-2 drinks per day might help with heart disease/diabetes and might be enough to make moderate drinking neutral or even a net win, but no one knows. Going beyond 1-2 drinks per day is clearly harmful, especially if you have genes for the Asian flush. It also screws up your sleep.

  • Mortality. Tell your loved ones how you want the end of your life to go. No wrong answers, but consider that 89% of doctors refuse high-intensity interventions.

And here are some examples of more unusual life advice that I first saw in the rationalist or effective altruism diaspora:

  • Air quality. Stop using aerosols and candles and ultrasonic humidifiers, be careful about smoke while cooking, install an air purifier, and you can plausibly buy yourself ½ to 2 DALY, depending on where you live.

  • Seasonal depression. Your phone can measure lux. On a sunny day in summer, you’d get 30k-100k lux. Keep adding lights inside until you get that many. (Maybe this works as well as a lightbox?)

  • Aging. If you are >75 years old you should try to get a bit fat, so that if you’re injured you don’t get trapped in a cycle of not being able to swallow and weakness from lack of food.

  • Parenting. There’s a whole lot of things like toxins, fluoride, pesticides, and flame retardants that probably don’t much harm adults, but could have a serious impact on the neurological development of kids.

These all seem reasonable, but they aren’t sorted, some of them are probably wrong, and lots of things are surely missing. We can do better.

A flourishing leaderboard

So here’s the dream: Let’s invent “flourishing adjusted life minutes” (FALM) a sort of better quality-adjusted life year. Then, you should be able to go to a website, answer some questions, then get a leaderboard that might look like this:

Intervention money cost time cost benefit (FALM) FALM / yearly cost
Call mom $0 20 min 30 min 3.0
Invite Alex to lunch $30 1 hr 150 min 2.5
Get smoke detectors $15 30 min 60 min 2.0
Eat broccoli $5 10 min 10 min 0.5

(All the numbers are totally made up, and assume you value your time at $0.50 per minute.)

There are lots of challenges with this. For altruism, the world is the world, but this needs to be individualized. (I feel that effective altruism should also make more effort to address differing values, but never mind.) Another challenge is that 10 minutes spent cooking broccoli isn’t the same as 10 minutes running—you need to adjust for the cost of the experience itself. These are major challenges, but I see no reason they can’t be solved.

Why effective altruists should do this

Now you might agree that this seems like a good idea, but why should effective altruists do it, rather than someone else?

(To be clear, many are already doing this!)

Here’s a few examples that come to mind:

First, someone needs to do it, and effective altruists are well-positioned to do it and build their community. Pretty much everyone wants to make their life better. If you attract a lot of people and show them the power of the dark side utility functions and cost-benefit analysis, then they are one step away from joining effective altruism itself. And the effective altruism community has a comparative advantage—they’ve already built a culture and set of tools that are applicable.

Second, most care in the world is self-care. I’m not making some Howard Roark-type argument that altruism is bad, I’m just observing that if you collect all the selfish actions that an average person takes, they’ll weigh 100× as much as their altruistic actions. If you make people even slightly better at helping themselves, that’s a huge impact.

Third, the act of facilitating effective selfishness is itself effective altruism. I’m going to use an example of my own here (even though it’s indecorous) because it’s the only thing I have numbers for. As I write this, something like 40,000 people have viewed my essay on air quality, which took me around 100 hours to write. Let’s make some assumptions:

  • 10% of visitors read a serious chunk of the essay.
  • 5% of those people took enough actions to cut their exposure to particulates in half.
  • All those people live somewhere with relatively clean air, meaning that fixing it saves only around ½ a disability-adjusted life year (DALY) in expectation.
  • I value my time at $100 per hour.

If we add all this up, the essay should save around 40,000 × 0.1 × 0.05 × .5 = 100 DALY at an effective cost to me of 100 × $100 = $10,000. That is $100 per DALY saved, similar to Givewell’s most effective charities.

If you don’t write so woefully slowly and you have more influence, I’m sure much higher efficiencies are possible.

Best of all, with this change, the “Effective Altruism” community could rebrand itself as simply “Effective”, a confusing but incontestably cool-sounding mononym.

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