Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Animal Cruelty in Films

Here is a pretty extensive list of films featuring animal cruelty. Each entry features a brief explanation of the cruelty that took place.

I write this immediately after watching #57 on the list, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, which I enjoyed, by Werner Herzog, whose movies I always like. The explanation of the animal cruelty in Nosferatu is taken from Wikipedia:
Dutch behavioural biologist Maarten 't Hart, hired by Herzog for his expertise of laboratory rats, revealed that, after witnessing the inhumane way in which the rats were treated, he no longer wished to cooperate. Apart from travelling conditions that were so poor that the rats, imported from Hungary, had started to eat each other upon arrival in the Netherlands, Herzog insisted the plain white rats be dyed gray. In order to do so, according to 't Hart, the cages containing the rats needed to be submerged in boiling water for several seconds, causing another half of them to die. The surviving rats proceeded to lick themselves clean of the dye immediately, as Hart had predicted they would. Hart also implies sheep and horses that appear in the movie were treated very poorly, but does not specify this any further.
In 2010, 't Hart talked in the TV program Zomergasten about his involvement as expert for rats in Nosferatu. According to 't Hart, Herzog ordered 12,000 white rats from Hungary to the Netherlands, where they were to be used for a pest scene. The transport lasted three days, during which the rats were not fed nor soaked; therefore, they began to devour each other. After their arrival, Herzog decided to color them black. For this process, the animals were put into boiling water, whereby half of them died. 't Hart then withdrew from the project. In the TV program, he called the process "immoral".
According to my perspective on art, we should care primarily about the work's consequences on the world. This perspective does not discriminate between the work itself and the process of its creation. Therefore, animal cruelty during the production phase should be subtracted from the actual value produced by the finished project. In the case of mistreating 12,000 rats (plus some horses and sheep), the suffering caused might be enough to outweigh the positive effects of the film.

Based on my anecdotal experiences and my old beliefs, most people would argue that, although animal cruelty is regrettable, that it should not factor into our judgments of an artwork's value. This is true for several theories of artistic value, none of which make sense to me. It is true, however, that there are many elements in the film from which the animal cruelty cannot take away from. For instance, if you want to praise the film for its innovation, technique, ideas, or entertainment value - which is what most people care about - you could still do so regardless of animal cruelty. But if you want to argue that the film deserved to be made - that is, that it helped the world more than it harmed the world, then you cannot leave out the fact that thousands of rats were abused. However, in most cases, the film itself can be made without that cruelty, so the cruelty itself isn't a reason to hate the movie's ideas, but rather a red flag about the artist's priorities. We could also consider positive consequences of the creation process such as the fact that the film gave all the crew members jobs, work experience, and (maybe) fun times and new friends.

Nevertheless, we shouldn't forget that the animal cruelty is in the past. No matter how many times the film is rewatched, distributed, or praised, only 12,000 rats were harmed. In contrast, the positive value of the work likely increases over time as it accumulates views.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Tailored Health Communication

Mass communication is a process where generic messages are transmitted to broad audiences. Targeted communication instead customizes its message for a specific demographic. The thinking is that people in that demographic are more likely to appreciate your service than others because it in some way targets needs and desires specific to them. Tailored communication is even more specific - it individualizes messages for specific receivers. In the age of social media and Big Data, it is increasingly possible to profile people in this way.

Marketers are heavily reliant on data to individualize their promotions and advertisements to specific audience members. Take the story of Target discovering a girl's pregnancy before her father did. The store is so effective at understanding customers based on their past purchasing habits that it can identify pregnant women and send them promotions booklets full of items they're statistically more likely to buy. This approach has obvious advantages and disadvantages for the public interest. On one hand, it benefits people to receive advertisements for things they might actually want, rather than for items with mass appeal that they have no interest in. This turns ads from spam to potentially helpful. On the other hand, there are privacy issues here, as most people are uncomfortable with the idea of retailers having access to their personal information.

Tailoring makes other kinds of communication more effective, as well. Tailored health communication has had modest success influencing cancer screening, smoking, dieting habits, and others. Some of these attempts have integrated ideas from the literature on narrative persuasion.

Rimer and Kreuter suggest that tailored health communication can increase motivation to process health information in four ways: (1) by matching content to the individual's needs and preferences, (2) by framing message content in a context desirable to the individual, (3) by designing messages in such a way that catches the individual's attention, and (4) by customizing outbound promotions strategies according to the individual's desired channels, type, and frequency of messages. To make this more intuitive, think of the process of sending job applications. If you send a generic email to 30 companies, you're far less likely to hear back than if you tailor each email to the individual company. Each company is looking for something different, so you benefit yourself by catering to their individual needs.

Consider the extended elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. People scrutinize messages harder when those messages are considered personally relevant to them. One study showed significantly greater cognitive activity in individuals receiving tailored brochures rather than a standard brochure or even a standard brochure designed to look like the tailored brochure. Greater processing was associated with increased intentions to change behaviours. Many other studies have confirmed the effectiveness of tailored health communication, but there also exist situations in which good-fitting, non-tailored communications are at least as successful as tailored communications.

Several theoretical models of behaviour change have been applied to tailored health communication. Most notably, the transtheoretical model of behaviour change holds that people exist in one of six stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination. Behaviour change communicators are considered to be more effective if they tailor their communications according to each individual's stage of change.

Behaviour change models may guide health communication but they do not dictate how to optimize specific messages in such a way that their impact is maximal. For that, you still need to know the psychology of persuasion and to read research done on marketing, advertising, and communications.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Gender Disparity in Hollywood

It's pretty common for women (and men) to complain about the lack of women represented on and off screen in Hollywood and the mainstream media more broadly. Most famously, the Bechdel test challenges films to feature (1) two or more female characters that (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than a man. Only ~56.7% of films pass all 3 conditions of the test. (More data can be found here.) 

The Geena Davis Institute has found that for every one female speaking role in cinema there are three male speaking roles, crowd and group scenes contain only 17% female characters, and that the female characters that do exist are hypersexualized and heavily reliant on men. A study by Stacy L. Smith of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism further confirmed the gender disparity in Hollywood. Smith found that females comprised 29.2% of speaking characters in family films. Further, these characters were often serving as "eye candy."

This disparity is often represented among writers, directors, and producers.

But what causes this disparity and how can it be reversed?

Aaron Sorkin was recently asked about this phenomenon.
"...I've been reading a lot recently about how a female-driven movie like, say, Bridesmaids is looked at as a fluke. The success of that movie is looked at as a fluke and therefore Hollywood doesn't do it. That's a premise that suggests that studio executives have piles of scripts as good as Bridesmaids on their desks. They don't. Bridesmaids got made because it was really good. I promise you nothing but capitalism drives decision-making in Hollywood. If there's a sense that this will make money, it'll get made."
"And I think that studio executives understand that it's more than just 52% of the audience that is female. Generally, if there's a couple, a man-woman couple, it's the woman who's deciding what were seeing tonight. I think that they understand that. And the trick is there just need to be more good scripts that have the kind of characters you're looking for."
I bolded the sentence that I think is the heart of the issue here. Over the past few months, I have gained a tremendous respect for the decision-making of major corporations. This respect isn't for their impact on humanity or on the environment or for the quality of their work. It's a respect for their knowledge of what makes them money. I tend not to get involved in complaints like "Why doesn't McDonald's get a veggie burger?" or "Why aren't there more female-driven films?" because I have done enough research and seen enough of the media industry to know that it is exactly how Sorkin says: nothing but commerce. If studios get the sense that female-driven films will increase their profit, then they'll produce them. If they don't, then they won't. That's all it comes down to for them. Earlier in the year I held the belief that studios also had the desire to promote certain values over others but Brian Tomasik, along with my experiences this year, convinced me that this likely isn't the case. A studio would probably produce a film about how shady and greedy studios are if they thought that would make them money.

I begin with that premise. Hollywood has no opinion on gender disparity and simply operates as a business. But that doesn't quite answer the question. If 52% of the audience is female, why don't female-driven films sell as well? Well, for one thing both men and women prefer films with male protagonists

Sorkin also offers another possible solution. Maybe the female-driven scripts just don't exist - or the ones that do, just aren't as "good" as the male-driven scripts producers receive. ("Good" in terms of how much money they make.) I can't say whether this is true or not. But I wonder whether this disparity is rooted in the lack of working female screenwriters. A priori, we would expect men to be biased toward/more comfortable writing about men and for women to be biased toward/more comfortable writing about women. So if 87% of writers are men, we should expect to see far more male-driven scripts. Additionally, a fraction of the disparity can be accounted for by scripts trying to emulate real life situations that are dominated by men - e.g. war films, gangster movies, cop dramas. These are entire genres that make sense to be male-dominated - but that can't account for the huge difference in gender representation.

Why are 87% of screenwriters male in the first place? Here are some possible answers:

  1. Producers (mainly men) are biased toward scripts written by, for, and about males.
  2. Men are more likely to have the qualities necessary to pitch a screenplay successfully.
  3. Men are generally better at writing screenplays than women are.
  4. Women are less likely to pursue screenwriting because of existing gender disparity and a perceived inability to overcome industry bias.
  5. The types of screenplays men tend to write are generally more commercial than the types of screenplays women tend to write.
  6. Nepotism is huge in Hollywood, men are more likely to have male friends, and thus existing gender disparity is self-reinforcing.
#2 and #3 are pretty implausible but I think the other 4 factors could plausibly play into the existing disparity.

How could gender disparity be fixed?

One way would be to have more female writers. This would increase the number of scripts written about women. According to Sorkin, these scripts just don't exist but it's impossible to say whether this is true or not. We're still left with the question of how to get more female writers. Sorkin claimed there are just as many women in Hollywood as their are men capable of greenlighting a script. I have no idea whether this is true. One thing I'm confident of is that whether man or woman, no producer would willingly make less money due to their gender bias. If female scripts are not being produced, they either don't exist in huge numbers or there is a sense that audiences prefer watching male-driven films.

A second possibility is to demand that men write more scripts about women. This is slightly controversial because of the sacred views many people hold about art. To those that hold art sacred, telling writers what to write about is blasphemous. Since I think social value is more important than artistic value, I think writers should take existing gender, race, and other disparity into account when writing their scripts. Representing invisible groups could potentially be a film's main source of social value. Nevertheless, asking or expecting men to write more about women is pretty hopeless without some kind of systemic mechanism in place to facilitate this change. Changing this would have to be a very gradual process. In fact, there has been no progress in this direction during the past 20 years.

There's really nothing to say about these sorts of issues except that these major corporations know exactly what they're doing and that they aren't there to serve public interests. In a sense, it's almost ridiculous to expect Hollywood to make ethics- or art-based decisions in the first place. Hollywood studios are money-making ventures dutifully following their game plans from day one: money-making.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Coercive Atmospherics

I'm currently making my way through Douglas Rushkoff's Coercion: Why We Listen To What "They" Say and just finished the chapter on atmospherics, which I found very interesting. In this post, I'll summarize my favourite parts from the chapter.

The basic idea behind coercive atmospherics is that the details of a location's architecture, design, mood, and general environment play a part in how people act in that location. Just as restaurant owners use psychological research to design their menus and set prices, retailers are likewise highly motivated to ensure the many elements of their stores are designed so as to create an environment maximizing consumption.

A retail location's atmosphere can be altered in many ways. One very important element is music. Grocery stores play music at a slow tempo that makes customers shop more slowly and buy more food. Fast food restaurants play fast tempo music that makes people chew and leave faster. Cheap accessories such as jewelry sell better in environments with loud music because customers spend less time investigating the quality of the product. Department stores get customers to make 17% more purchases by playing Muzak. This music is often produced to be background noise, influencing the customer below the level of his or her awareness. 

Scent is used far less commonly but can lead to similar effects. A department store in Japan intentionally emits an unpleasant smell in its complaints department to drive customers away. Victoria's Secret uses potpourri scents to enhance feelings of femininity in their customers. Studies have also shown that when casinos are scented with specific chemicals, their slot machines get used 45% more.

Far more important than the smell and perhaps even the sound of a store, is how it's visually designed. Casinos, grocery markets, and malls noticeably contain no windows and don't use clocks. They want customers to lose track of time and lengthen their stay.

Proximity to other locations is also a significant determinant of where people go to shop. This is one of the main functions of malls: they bring many stores into one building. These buildings are deliberately designed to be as confusing as possible so that people get lost in them. This maximizes the amount of time in which the consumer stays through the mall, leads to consumers wandering by more stores than they expected to, and produces a child-like confusion in the customer that has been shown to increase their obedience to authority and likeliness to consume. Major "anchors" such as JC Penney and Macy's are typically positioned no more than 600 feet away from each other because that is considered the maximum distance the average American wants to walk. These anchor stores are also never within sight of one another. The mall designers want customers to have to pass through the entire mall to get from one anchor to the other.

Mannequins are used because the human eye is attracted to the human form. Escalators and revolving doors create movement, which contributes to an atmosphere conducive to consumption. Aisles are made wide, especially around expensive items, because this has been showed to slow human traffic. Doorsteps are not used in front of the entrance because "No hindrance should be offered to people who may drift into a store."

Although most small stores probably pay absolutely no attention to the psychological literature, global brands like Nike, Disney, Macy's, Wal-Mart, Target, McDonald's, and the like absolutely do. The smaller stores then copy what they see, out of habit, without knowing the science behind these decisions. Off the top of your head, it's very easy to notice conventions of various kinds of stores. For example, almost all fast food restaurants have a similar design, layout, and process. Why should they all happen to have exactly the same seats?

These chairs are deliberately designed to be uncomfortable so that people don't loiter for too long at their tables. Fast food restaurants are constructed to get customers in and then get them out quickly. 

Why are so many antique shops so messy and cluttered?

Again, it isn't a coincidence. Atmospherics experts coach antique dealers to keep their stores unorganized and chaotic in order to produce the feeling in customers that they have stumbled upon buried treasure. The dealer is instructed to come off as unable to keep track of his or her stock's worth to allow room for customers to discover underpriced gems for themselves. Do most antique dealers know this? I doubt it. And yet the cluttered antique store is a recognizable trope, probably because new antique dealers unknowingly copy the conventions of their predecessors.

Using architecture as a tool for influence is an old technique. It used to be that no building in a village was ever made taller than the local church. This was to signify the church's importance and dominance. Cathedrals are well-known for their splendour and how they inspire awe even in the non-religious. The buildings were tailor-made to evoke these feelings. Many architectural techniques that went into them were kept secret. Inside cathedrals are architectural structures called "triforiums" - arches and pillars in the air that seem like doorways to nowhere - whose purpose is to evoke fear and remind church-goers of the mysterious knowledge possessed by secret cabals.

The next time you walk into a store, notice the various elements that you normally take for granted. Why does this corner store look like all other corner stores, whereas all pharmacies look like other pharmacies? Why are the signs up high and not at eye level? Why is there little to no merchandise around the immediate entrance of the store? Why is the cash in the centre of the store compared to at the front or the back? These decisions are very likely guided by commerce.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The World's Worst Meme

A small office where two men in suits sit across from each other at opposite ends of a wooden desk. The Employer is mid-interview, explaining the details of his organization to a potential Marketer, who is completely unfamiliar. Both men are in high spirits. The Employer in particular is beaming with self-confidence.

MARKETER: So what'll I be selling?

The Employer winks.

EMPLOYER: Self-sacrifice.

MARKETER: I'm sorry?

EMPLOYER: Self-sacrifice.

MARKETER: I'm not sure I understand.

EMPLOYER: You'll be convincing people that they have far more money than they need and that they should be giving it away to people around the world that desperately need it.

MARKETER: Okay. So it's a non-profit. I've worked with non-profits before. It's simple. You pull on the heart strings a little. Show a picture of a sad African child. Single out one poor person from the millions and tell their story. Make people feel good about themselves and like they can change the world with their $1 a day. Compare that dollar to something that sounds insignificant by contrast - like their morning cup of coffee. Play some sappy music and end it with that same kid smiling. Boom! You got them.

EMPLOYER: Well... not exactly.

MARKETER: Not exactly?

EMPLOYER: Not exactly. You see, we're not quite asking for a dollar a day to save some poor kid from starving. And we're not targeting a specific group of people or even a specific issue. We just want people to donate as much as possible in the most strategic way possible.

The Marketer is a bit taken aback.

MARKETER: As much... as possible.

EMPLOYER: Your ad says people should give a dollar away because it can do a lot more good for the starving kid than it'll do for you with that coffee. Our organization thinks you should apply that principle to every dollar you have until it stops being true.

MARKETER: So you want me to tell them not to buy their kids an X-Box? Or an iPhone? Or art? Or toys? Or to go on vacation? Or to buy nice cars or houses or clothes?

EMPLOYER: Well, nobody's perfect. But yes. People shouldn't live too luxuriously while others live in abject poverty.

MARKETER: Okay. So... no fancy houses, cars, or fancy things in general. Give all your money away to poor people. Then feel good about yourself when you see the poor people get happy.


MARKETER: Didn't I just repeat what you said?

EMPLOYER: Not exactly.

MARKETER: Not exactly?

EMPLOYER: Not exactly. We don't actually really recommend giving to local people because they aren't those in the most need. Instead, donors should give to the world's poorest and most desperate - and those people are unlikely to live in the same country as you. So it isn't quite true to say you'll watch the money you donate fix things and make things better. You just have to know it in your heart that you did the right thing and that somewhere out there, people are better off because of you.

MARKETER: So scratch the watching people get happy part. You give away your money and get on with your life as a perpetual middle class person. I suppose that might be a bitter pill to swallow but I bet you feel good about yourself after. Kind of like how I feel good when I work for non-profits. Plus there's the personal connection to the charities that makes it all the more satisfying. "Your grandmother died of cancer? Well donate to cancer research and it'll be like you personally avenged her!"

There is a pause in which the Employer frowns and appears to be searching for the right words.

MARKETER: Not exactly?

The Employer shakes his head.

EMPLOYER: Not exactly. You see we don't just want people to donate anywhere. We want them to be strategic. We want them to donate to the charity where their money goes the farthest, so that they can maximize their impact.

MARKETER: Where can they do that?

EMPLOYER: Well, we aren't really sure. Us and our associates are constantly debating this. But we think the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative might be a good bet.

MARKETER: Schistoso-- what?

EMPLOYER: Schistosomiasis. It isn't very well known to the American public but it's a major threat and very cheaply treated. If only they hear about how much more good they can do here than with cancer research, then they might donate to SCI instead of trying to avenge their grandmothers or purchasing warm fuzzies or whatever.

The Marketer is starting to sweat. He wipes his brow with the back of his hand.

MARKETER: Let's try to recap this here. You want me... to convince...

EMPLOYER: As many people as possible.

MARKETER: You want me to convince as many people as possible... to give away as much of their money as possible so that... instead of buying extra fancy things for themselves and their families, they give it away to people in far off poor countries that are way more desperate for the money and... and - they suffer from that disease, the sistosomosis, or well, anything else, it could be any disease really, or not even a disease at all, and then they know in their hearts that they did the right thing and that somewhere out there, people are happier because of their donations.

EMPLOYER: I'd say you nailed it. 

The Marketer loosens his tie.

MARKETER: Do we have any celebrity endorsements?

EMPLOYER: Couple of philosophers.

MARKETER: Are you associated with any... popular brands?

EMPLOYER: No. You can say that we're all about substance over style.

The Marketer frowns and nods.

EMPLOYER: Oh, and tell the people not to worry about the fact that there's a whole community and social movement built around these ideas that has online discussions about things that are a little bit "out there," you know, like the moral relevance of video game characters and insects, the economics of futuristic whole brain emulated societies, the oncoming AI apocalypse, the ethics of terraforming other planets, why people shouldn't have kids, signing up for cryonics, transhumanism, etcetera, etcetera. You don't have to take interest in any of those things in order to give more and give it more strategically. Also, I know it's 90% white guys and many of us are in our 20s, but our arguments are blind to demographics. We care about maximizing expected utility, not who you are or where you're from. I mean, most of us have above average but unspectacular achievements so far but it's our arguments that make us impressive.

MARKETER: I guess I'll add those to the list: (1) don't be intimidated by the "out there" community, (2) find a way to work with the fact that you only have representatives of a very narrow demographic despite our goal of convincing as many people as possible, and (3) keep the focus on arguments and away from the fact that most of you guys don't have that many degrees, publications, awards, fame, or high status jobs.

EMPLOYER: I think we're on the same page.

MARKETER: How much am I being paid for this again?

EMPLOYER: We currently have an unpaid intern calculating the lowest possible salary we could give you for the highest possible rate of productivity. Now if you'll excuse me, the Pomodoro technique only allows me to allocate 20 minutes toward this interview, so you're going to have to leave.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Importance of Narrative

When I compiled my five art posts into a single sequence, I said that I wouldn't post too much about art anymore. But lately I've been thinking about stuff that I didn't include or explicitly say in those five posts. In times where I'm not posting much because I don't have much to say, I may throw in a post like this that covers a random art-related idea. I have a lot of little thoughts like this one and very few of them are widely accepted among art-type people. Perhaps delusionally, I believe my ideas are unpopular because the people that usually think about these issues don't have a clue what they're talking about.

This post is about "narrative art." In case that term isn't clear, I'm referring to works that have some kind of temporal element, even if they are experimental, non-linear, or lacking a plot. Since I'm a movie person, I'm thinking specifically about movies - and by "non-narrative art," I'm referring to things like paintings, sculptures, vases, and found object art. The distinction can also be described as the difference between things that just sit there and things that unfold over time.

As explained previously, I believe that the most sensible way to "objectively" evaluate art is to check what it contributes to the world. Now I'd guess that just about all art contributes to world in various ways (entertaining people, getting them to question their beliefs, fostering creativity, the therapeutic quality of creating or experiencing art, decorating and branding buildings and people, etc.). It would be difficult to find an example of a work of art for which no argument could be made for its existence. But are some kinds of art more impactful than others?

It's very clear to me that an artist seeking to have the largest possible positive impact on the world would create narrative art. Narrative fiction undeniably possesses the ability to influence the attitudes, beliefs, and values of audiences. The artist's expressed views can change audience minds about moral, political, philosophical, and more casual issues. They can plant new beliefs, whether true or false, in their heads. With this kind of art, the ideas expressed by the artist matter because they say things and imply things that significant numbers of people will actually be able to decode and possibly be persuaded by. Films can reinforce political and gender norms. Novels can change your attitudes toward other sorts of cultures and people. For this reason, we need to care about what ideas the work expresses.

For non-narrative art, these questions barely matter. It doesn't even make sense to have discussions about the philosophy the work expresses or whether it has any substance or not. Whether the vase in my house is embedded with Marxist or capitalist values will have little to no effect on the world. What matters more to me are common sense considerations such as what the piece looks like, how it will match the other things in my house, and what other people will think of me when they see it in my living room. The unpopular but (in my opinion) undeniable explanation for this is that those works that just sit there don't really matter like narrative works matter. They have little to no consequences on the world that couldn't also be ascribed to the chair you're currently sitting on. Their qualities and meanings simply don't affect or influence people that view them - and if your impact is extremely low, it hardly matters how positive or negative that effect is.

Obvious exceptions to this are commercial photography and graphic design and viral online content like memes and graphics. This work is specifically geared for changing widespread attitudes toward a brand, product, or social issue. It's that attempt and ability to affect the world that is really essential here, not the narrative aspect. Unfortunately, the dominant paradigm in the fine arts does not revolve around making the world better. A strange consequence of this view is that commercial photography is in a way more noble than art photography (if we judge by outcomes and not intentions).

The main lesson to learn from this is that we should be having different conversations about different kinds of art. For works whose greatest potential to affect the world comes from their embedded meanings, we should be talking about their embedded meanings. For works whose greatest potential to affect the world comes from aesthetic responses, we should be talking about their aesthetics. Therefore you cannot make a claim like, "Postmodernist art is all style over substance therefore it's all worthless" because "style over substance" is a legitimate criticism of movies and literature, yet pretty irrelevant when it comes to paintings and jewelry.

Part of the reason for the higher importance of narrative art is the fact that narrative art dominates our culture. Movies, books, and music reach much wider audiences, receive higher funding, and get covered more in popular culture than do fine arts like sculpture and painting. Even if there's nothing inherently better about cinema than sculpture, our culture definitely offers more opportunities for filmmakers to make a difference. And if you aren't trying to make a difference, then what are you doing?

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Hang the Social Movement

I am going to make some very clear predictions right here so that I can refer back to them later.

Effective altruism will never succeed as a social movement. By "social movement," I mean as something that applies to all or many aspects of life and not just charity. I think GiveWell and other charity evaluators have found the area with the most potential and they will succeed in this area. 

Those trying to apply EA to other areas will struggle to convince others to follow suit. Only a few more people will completely change careers based on EA considerations. Very few will ever optimize their free time so as to maximize their positive impact on the world. Very few artists, for instance, will ever compromise their artistic vision for the greater good. Pushing in this direction is more or less hopeless.

Moreover, I think applying EA to complicated issues can easily do more harm than good. As a general rule of thumb, the more simple something is, the better we should be at optimizing in that area. Donating to charity is one such area: saving more lives is better than saving less lives, preventing more suffering is better than preventing less suffering, and more money can go further than less money can. Attempts to optimize highly complicated areas like life trajectory, culture, and art have to be very cautious.

Obviously, if we could actually optimize those areas, that would be great. But most likely, there are only little pieces or broad trends in these areas that we understand well enough to mess with. My impression is that most people in the "EA community" are trying to optimize things that are too complicated to optimize.

I'd like to point out that I distinguish between "EA: The Community, Culture, and Movement" and specific beliefs that EAs believe and promote. I think the former is somewhat limited in its potential growth, while some specific EA beliefs may spread far and wide. I also think the existence of a social movement surrounding EA can actually limit the persuasiveness of specific EA beliefs because people don't want to feel like they're joining a club or changing ideologies by accepting 1 or 2 EA beliefs.

I predict that in a few years the term "effective altruist" will be publicly damaged by attempts to apply it to areas where it just isn't useful. At that point, people will have to toss the word out and find a new label because the current one will be considered a pejorative.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Identity-Protective Cognition

In a recent LessWrong post, I wrote about the psychological and social forces that prevent people from changing their minds. Ezra Klein's How politics makes us stupid is a really good summary of how difficult it is to influence people when they are motivated not to be influenced.

The basic idea behind Identity-Protective Cognition is that people are motivated to believe things that protect their identities because changing identities can be a gruelling process. Holding beliefs unpopular in one's social circles can be costly. Even when a given belief isn't unpopular, the very act of changing one's mind can be shameful and perceived negatively.

But what's in the best interest of the individual is not necessarily in the best interest of the group. The difficulty then is how to educate people when they are individually interested in not believing you. Supplying people with more information is unlikely to be enough. Often, more information makes people even more set in their ways.

The article focuses on the work of Yale Law School's Dan Kahan. It specifically addresses how to prevent so many people from taking indefensible stances on politically-fuelled issues like climate change.
'There is a process in the Office of Management and Budget where every decision has to pass a cost-benefit test,' he says. 'Why isn't there a process in the FDA evaluating every decision for science-communication impact?'
 Agnotologists have focused a lot on climate change because it's such a clear case of the public coming en masse to the wrong conclusion. But while agnotologists think mainly about flows of information, Kahan's research suggests that political disputes don't usually revolve around misunderstandings or lack of information.

As always, the key to making more people believe in climate change is to make it socially valuable for them to believe it. This is what I've repeatedly written about effective altruist ideas on this blog. Sacrifice is the world's worst meme. If you want people to donate more money and more effectively then show them what's in it for them.