The current message of effective altruism heavily discourages creativity.

by Alexei Andreev Dec 19 2016 updated Dec 19 2016

Alyssa Vance expands on this point in her FB post:

I think the current message of effective altruism heavily discourages creativity, that is, having new ideas rather than evaluating existing ones. This theory is hard to quantify, but e.g., a few months back, I did an informal survey of the EA Facebook group. By my count, there were 163 total posts over three months. Of those, 99 posts (61%) were meta-discussion about marketing EA, organizing EA events, doing outreach to donors about EA, the media image of EA, etc. Only 15 posts (9%) were about object-level causes, and of those, 12 were very unoriginal - they discussed causes that already received massive ongoing media coverage, like water desalination, promoting vegetarianism, blood donation, disaster relief, and the like. And of the remaining three, two got zero comments.


Timothy Chu

Yes. As far as I can tell, the current message of effective altruism sort of focuses in too strongly on "being effective" at its core. This is an anchoring bias that can prevent people from exploring high-leverage opportunities.

Some of the greatest things in the world come from random exploration of opportunities that may or may not have had anything to do with an end goal. For example, Kurt Godel came up with his vaunted Incompleteness Theorems by attempting to prove the existence of the Christian God. This was totally batshit, and I would not expect the current EA framework to reliably produce people like Godel (brilliant people off on a crazy personal side quest they S1 feel strongly about), and in fact would expect the current EA framework to condition people away from Godel ("this is nuts and we can't evaluate it and it doesn't even seem conjecturally plausible") or something like that.

It is possible I am straw-manning the current EA message, but that is my bad mental simulation of the EA message as I understand it (through various chance exposures to fringe elements of the community, who may not be representative of the whole).

Nonetheless, the core point is that until I can reliably see the EA movement reliably generating the "crazy but awesome" things that humans are known to be able to create, or at least not conditioning people away from them (if the core thought process is "EA-focused", this will naturally constrain your thought-space to hew closely to the EA concept), then I would suggest that the EA community message is potentially discouraging natural human creativity (among many other things).

Ryan Carey

To clarify my view, I think EA moderately discourages creativity but this is a big mistake: it should moderately encourage it.

Also: the ratio would be significantly better if you surveyed the EA Forum rather than the facebook group.

John Maxwell

EA discourages creativity, but that's true for most movements and institutions. A more interesting question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Glenn Davis

Alyssa defines Creativity as "having new ideas rather than evaluating existing ones," but I would argue this definition still contains too much ambiguity. Would it be more meaningful to measure "having new ideas rather than evaluating existing ones" by the number of new ideas? Or should we put more weight on the newness—by which I mean "farthest away in idea-space from conventional ideas"—of ideas considered part of the EA movement?

If it's the latter, there seems to me a great deal of evidence that EA anchors for more creativity, not less. At the EA Summit I attended, advocates of the following ideas were heavily represented:

And so on. These ideas are seriously new, and far away in idea-space from the mainstream. (A couple are just barely beginning to become respectable.)

EA attracts eccentric intellectuals, who tend toward wild ideas like we should get off the planet, live forever, upload our brains into computers, experiment with alternate political systems on artificial islands, etc. Is it plausible these people are less creative than the general population? It doesn't seem so to me.

Robert Cordwell

EA discourages creativity, and I think that's valuable for the movement at this stage. The most visible aspect of EA is charity recommendation, which shares the downside risk of all of its recommended charities.

The other reason is opposition. It's likely that any story of the sort "EAs funded a project and bad things happened" would almost certainly be used against the movement as a whole. To that end I'd recommend that the large charity recommenders (Givewell) distance themselves symbolically from any sort of speculative charity efforts.

Kyle Bogosian

I think it's good to have our high standards of evidence, but once in a while I see someone with a good idea that just gets shrugged off. For instance it seemed like Denkenberger's paper on alternative foods was mostly ignored, even though it gave a pretty good conclusion that his idea was better in expectation than poverty relief.

There just needs to be more updating. When people see that, they will be encouraged to be creative because they'll have more confidence that if they get a good idea then it will attract attention.

Konrad Seifert

FWIW, I think that EA's limits are useful. A lot of people seem to get "too creative" with trying to find new ways to do things, yet lack required tools and then get stuck in/on their idea - which wouldn't happen with the right mind-ware. EA also only initially stifles creativity because it's hard to get through all of the content and learn all the tools - once one is starting to master the art though, it looks like creativity is not discouraged. People who are truly skilled seem to feel like they can speak out and up. So in a way, yes, the movement does put a dent into the creative development of development but I believe that those effects are temporary and worth it because they will eventually enable us to better aim for the tail of the distribution and exploit power laws to make it heavy.