Ever wondered what common traits effective altruists share? A while ago Xio, Lucas, and I wanted to answer this question. We had asked quite a few people we knew in the community but got pretty different answers from each one. So we decided to run an interview project to try to get a sense, and map out some commonalities and correlations between individuals involved in effective altruism. It was a fun project that allowed us to meet tons of great people and very dedicated effective altruists (EA’s).
We interviewed 42 people and got a large amount of data about the effective altruist community. This was not a random or representative sample but a convenience sample often starting with very active people in the community who said they were open to being contacted, and then being linked to other EA’s they thought would be good to interview. While we didn’t get to interview everyone recommended, we did get a response rate well over of those who we contacted 90%.
Although we can not publish the raw data due to confidentiality reasons, we can publish some of the most interesting general trends. Keep in mind all this data is based on self reports and many of the answers were subjective and approximate. Because of this there could be a large difference between the number reported here and the real life numbers.
The average EA that we interviewed
- Was 25 years old (ranging between 17 and 46)
- Male (3/4 people we interviewed were male)
- In or graduated post secondary
- Had left wing or left leaning parents
- Spent between 5-50 hours (averaging at 20 hours) a week working or volunteering on things they consider effectively altruistic. Many were working full time on EA activities.
- They donated 10% (median) although the average was higher because of a few people
- 17.5% of their friends were also EA’s (this had a very large range from 0%-100%)
Some interesting trends we found
Altruism to Effectiveness
A large majority of the people we interviewed were altruist long before they were effective. There were quite a few people who became both altruistic and effective at the same time, but on average according to self reported data, people described themselves as altruistic for 4 times longer than they described themselves as effectively altruistic.
People who spent more time doing EA activities tended to donated more
The correlation between donation percentage and hours spent on effective altruism was quite high (0.4). While this is a strong correlation in the social sciences it is actually lower than I expected. My initial theory was that these two traits would be very correlated as the more involved people would be more interested in spending both their time and money. This was the case for a few individuals, and there was a correlation between the two, but there were quite a lot of people who spent time but not money on EA causes and vice versa.
Parents volunteering correlates to time spent doing EA activities (0.3)
Time parents spent volunteering was correlated (0.3) with interviewee time spent doing EA activities. This was expected but interesting given that there was no correlation between parents donating and the percentage that the interviewee donated.
Friend EA to volunteering correlation
Friend % of EAs was correlated (0.3) with time spent doing EA activities. This was expected but somewhat surprising given correlation findings between friend EA % and money donated.
Some noteworthy things we did not find a trend on.
Utopia or DALY
One question we asked was how people thought about the good they were doing, was it more of doing small incremental good like a DALY, or more in views of changing the whole world or trying to create a utopia. The answers were split fairly evenly, and how people answered this question did not correlate very highly to anything else (such as their donation rate or how many hours they spent on EA activities). Many people also reported changing between this two views at different points in their life, with slightly more people moving from Utopia → DALY than the opposite.
One hypothesis tested was if the ability to imagine suffering very clearly (for example imagining poverty on the other side of the world) would correlate with people donating more or volunteering more. Interestingly it did not correlate with anything significant, even though there was a lot of variation in visualization ability.
Parents donating trends
We asked if peoples parents had donated in the past to see if parent donation rates were correlated with the the EA’s current donation %’s. It turns out there is no significant correlation between these two, which is interesting given there is a correlation between parent volunteering and hours spent on EA activities.
Friends donation and friend % of EA’s
Both how much the interviewees friends donated and what % of their friends were EA’s did not significantly affect how much they donated (compared to other EAs). This is interesting given it did affect their hours spent on EA activities.
Did you become altruistic suddenly or more gradually?
Around half of people became altruistic in a jump, while for half it was a slow process. This did not affect donation amounts at all or hours spent on EA activities.
Other Questions asked
We also asked some questions on the occupation of parents, hobbies outside of EA, what got them into EA. To see if we could notice any connecting trends or strong collations (e.g. did people who got involved through Peter Singer donate more?). There was such a wide variety of sources that it made it nearly impossible to find statistically significant information given our sample size. There were also no obvious trends in the answers that looked far different from a random population with the exception of the average parents occupation was largely above average salary (for their country) and largely had a higher education than the average.
This survey is far from conclusive on any issue and more data would be needed to make any strong claim, but being one of the first of its kind, it gives us some initial insight into where EA’s come from. I hope this both stimulates conversation about what may have caused results and that it helps the community grow and improve. Thanks again to all those who participated and helped run the study.