Saturday, 30 August 2014

Microvolunteering Resources

My first experience with microvolunteering was with .impact. .impact is a decentralized network of volunteers working together to work on effective altruist projects. From what I understand, the original idea was that many low hanging fruit in philanthropy could be picked off by motivated volunteers. .impact is a place where individuals with free time can coordinate with each other to get small projects done. At worst, people get the experience of trying new things and discovering what works.

There are also a lot of favours being exchanged between EAs on I once used this platform to receive exercise advice from a stranger in Switzerland.

As far as I knew, these resources were unique. But comparable resources exist for the non-EA world.

Help From Home is a microvolunteering website that allows individuals to contribute small bits of work to pre-existing causes. If you're young, these projects can be an easy way to pad your resume while learning new skills and getting stuff done. The range of projects and jobs one can contribute to is pretty staggering. A quick browse through the site brings me to:

  • A posting to help the FBI catch a murderer by helping decipher a code in 30-minute sessions
  • A call for someone to proofread Slovakian literature in order to preserve it for future generations to enjoy
  • An ad for a 10-minute game you can play online that will help train a robot to move coloured blocks
  • A call to spend 20 minutes emailing members of US congress to ban land mines
  • A million requests to sign a million petitions about a million different causes ranging from animal rights to global warming to war and peace

Although the projects aren't geared toward EA, there is likely a lot of good stuff on there, and there's no reason for SkillShare ads not to be cross-posted on larger websites like this that will receive more views. This is a strange but realistic way to attract volunteer hours from non-EAs toward EA projects.

Koodonation is another service offering the same possibility. Not only can EA volunteers find projects to work on but EA organizations can actually recruit strangers to do unpaid work for them. It's pretty common for EA organizations to receive cheap help from members of the EA community. But websites like these can (1) introduce strangers to EA and (2) get work done while leaving EAs with free time to work on other projects that only they can do.

Other online volunteering resources are SkillsForChange, VolunteerMatch, and BeExtraFor Canadians like myself, there's, which offers more of the same thing but on a smaller scale.

Those in the UK have an interesting resource available to them. vInspired is a website that helps young people contribute to and create social action projects. The "Cashpoint" program allows anyone in the UK between ages 14-25 to pitch a small project with a clear community benefit. If vInspired likes your project, they'll issue a grant of up to £500 to help get it done. Although there are tricky restrictions on what sort of project they're willing to fund, this program seems like it could be really useful to the Oxford contingent of EAs. Importantly, Cashpoint grants can be used to start websites. Brits might also be interested in Do-it, a comprehensive database of volunteering opportunities in the UK. Alternatively, there is the UK-based microvolunteering website Spots of Time.

horsesmouth is like a non-EA Skillshare. It's a place to give and receive informal mentoring on various topics. There's a pretty wide range of things you can receive mentoring for. There are people across the world offering to help you with your depression, eating disorder, alcoholism, nutritional deficiencies, unemployment, budgeting, student housing, etc. The idea is that almost no matter what experience you're going through, whether it's playing football or raising a baby, there are plenty of people out there that have already been through that experience. horsesmouth connects you with those people that have gone through what you're going through and can give you advice.

Microvolunteering seems like a promising area that EA is giving little attention. Although the EA platforms are great, they leave out the possibility of recruiting non-EAs.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Empathy Starter Kit

This is the first post in a new series of "starter kits" that compile a lot of useful resources on a particular concept. In this post, the topic is "Empathy." The goal is that if you're looking to begin learning about the science of empathy that this post would be the most useful resource around. In the future, I may post starter kits for "Persuasion," "Motivation," "Happiness," "Morality," and/or "Cooperation." I'm open to suggestions.

General Info on Empathy:

Also see: writing on “theory-of-mind (TOM),” “the intentional stance,” “perspective-taking,” “mentalizing,” and, in the context of video games, “Yomi.”

Empathy in Non-Human Animals:

The Neuroscience of Empathy:

Empathy, Altruism, and Morality:

Empathy and Exposure to Fiction:

Also see the first half of Section 2 of my thesis paper, Fiction, Fast and Slow: Narrative Media As A Tool For Social Change.


The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education:



Createquity is a blog about the economics and philosophy of arts funding.

It has referred to GiveWell and to effective altruism in several posts.

I wished I'd discovered Createquity earlier in the year because it's a really great resource for a level of technical analysis into the economics of arts funding that you won't get on my blog.


Sunday, 24 August 2014

My Thesis Paper: Fiction, Fast and Slow

I first started this blog as a way to express some of the ideas I was covering in my MA thesis paper. Well, now that thesis paper is done! Attached is what I've been working on all year:

I think Section 3 is the most interesting. It works pretty well as a stand alone essay on the application of effective altruist ideas to art. It's the stuff that I really wanted to write from the beginning. If you don't feel like reading through 60+ pages, I'd recommend skipping to Section 3.

The thesis of the paper is that discussions on media effects are corrupted by people taking certain common sense ideas for granted even in situations where common sense is known to be unreliable. If we apply insights from cognitive science and moral philosophy, it no longer appears as if the most relevant effects of narrative media are things like violence and empathy boosts.


Narrative media possess the power to influence audience attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. This influence can and does manifest itself in both positive and negative ways. Identifying reliable pathways to influence and exploiting these for altruistic ends is a potentially high impact health intervention. This paper surveys the theoretical and empirical literature on models of mass communication, considers the role of narrative media in movements of positive social change, and applies ethical considerations to the production and value of narrative media. It argues that while most concerns with the impacts of narrative media are sensationalized, of much greater concern should be the possibility that this content possesses the potential to do more good than many of us imagine. This oversight is largely due to the fallibility of common sense paradigms of moral and artistic value not rooted in cognitive science or moral philosophy.

Let me know what you think.

PS - The paper is now available on and Research Gate.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Is the Effective Altruist Lifestyle Unhappy?

Effective altruists try to make philanthropy an important part of their lives. This can mean making lifestyle changes such as switching careers, diets, hobbies, and even personalities. The idea is to optimize - if not literally, then generally - the amount of good one can do in his or her lifetime. EAs share a fundamental goal with many non-altruistic individuals: the determined pursuit of money.

For an EA, pursuing money is a noble goal because it allows one to save lives. The more money you have, the more good you can do. But there is a lot of research on the downsides of extrinsic goals on one's happiness. This research should be notable to EAs because they tend to satiate some of their intrinsic goals by pursuing extrinsic goals. Is focusing on extrinsic goals such as the pursuit of money likely to cause EAs to be unhappy?

Ingrid, Majda, and Dubravka write that"...extrinsically oriented people suffer from anxiety, depression, and substance problems, they are more competitive and have less satisfactory relationships." This is consistent with research from many different schools of thought.

Self-determination theory suggests that psychological health requires the meeting of three needs:
  • Autonomy: The sense that you are in control
  • Competence: Learning and developing skills
  • Relatedness: Building strong relationships with others
Achieving extrinsic goals does not usually help us meet these needs, thus chasing these goals over intrinsic ones can wreck your happiness.

Fortunately, there is some hope for those wanting to earn to give. Ingrid, Majda, and Dubravka go on to write that, "It is often more important why a goal is being pursued than the content of the goal." Having the right reasons for pursuing a goal can trump whether or not the goal is intrinsic or extrinsic.

They explain, "It's not the money, it's the motives... If the motives are social comparison, seeking power, showing off, and overcoming self-doubt, then attaching importance to money is detrimental for well-being. On the other hand, spending money on others promote well-being, because we invest in our social relationships and thus fulfilled the need for relatedness."

It seems that the earning to give lifestyle is not fundamentally connected to the pursuit of goals that produce unhappiness. By focusing on the good that earning to give can cause, one can pursue extrinsic goals even while fulfilling intrinsic goals. However, even if the ideal effective altruist does not fall into the trap of chasing unfulfilling goals, this may still be a concern for effective altruism as a whole. Particularly when one is young and still trying to earn enough to make their first major donation, it can be difficult to avoid feeling the pressure to maximize dollars and utilons.

How to Enhance and Sustain Individual Wellbeing?

Individuals have different baselines for happiness. Say my baseline is at 0. A happy event might lift me up to +30 and a sad event might lower me to -30 but it won't take long for me to revert back to 0. The thing is that not everybody starts at 0. For some people, happiness comes easily because they have high set points. For others, staying happy is hard work.

This set point is determined by the genetic lottery. About 50% of our happiness is accounted for by genetic variance. An additional 10% is accounted for by external factors such as health and income. The good news is that the remaining 40% lies within our control. Even those with low genetic set points can structure their thinking patterns and lifestyles so as to become sustainably happier.

In their primer on positive psychology, Bertram and Boniwell list a number of somewhat concrete changes people can make to boost their levels of wellbeing.
  • Develop and maintain close personal relationships
  • Look after your physical health and get enough sleep
  • Keep a sense of perspective - does it really matter?
  • Engage yourself regularly, preferably daily, in activities that create "flow"
  • Reflect upon, savour, and be grateful for the good things in your life
  • Do not expect money to bring you happiness
  • Engage in activities that are meaningful to you
  • Develop a sense of control
  • Learn to be optimistic
  • Give yourself regular treats
  • Simplify
  • Be content with who you are and be yourself
  • Only take time to choose carefully when the decision is important
  • Be good to others
This list is a good place to start but there's an obvious criticism: What if I don't know how to do these things? The most important point on the list is the first one about keeping close relationships. But what if you don't have a support network of close friends? How do you build one? 

How does a depressed person look after his or her physical health and get enough sleep when common symptoms of depression are (1) difficulty sleeping, (2) loss of appetite, and (3) lethargy?

How do you experience flow regularly when you don't know which activities do it for you, or if those activities aren't things you could do regularly?

How do you be content with yourself when you just aren't content with yourself?

And so on.

Although the field of positive psychology is a good roadmap at pointing us toward habits that are correlated with wellbeing, it is easy to forget that forming these habits is a lot easier said than done. Knowing that "keeping a sense of perspective" is important is a good first step. But unless I follow up by practicing methods of cultivating this habit in myself, it isn't a step to greater happiness.

In the past I read about positive psychology and noticed that this reading was having no apparent effect on my wellbeing. This is because I wasn't applying anything. A real effort to producing a healthier mindset will likely include exercises borrowed from psychotherapy. I recommend using MoodGYM, a training program which teaches skills from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to combat depression. You don't need to be depressed in order for the exercises to be useful.

Bertram and Boniwell write that, "Wellbeing is determined more by our state of mind than by our external conditions, circumstances, or events once our basic survival needs are met. It can be achieved through the systematic training of our mind, through reshaping attitudes and outlook." Don't make my mistake and take lists like the above too seriously. Notice that "learning about aspects correlated with subjective wellbeing" didn't make the list.