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As Peter Singer writes in his book The Life You Can Save: "[t]he world would be a much simpler place if one could bring about social change merely by making a logically consistent moral argument". Many people one encounters might agree that a social change movement is noble yet not want to do anything to promote it, or want to give more money to a charity yet refrain from doing so. Additional moralizing doesn't seem to do the trick. ...So what does?
Motivating people to altruism is relevant for the optimal philanthropy movement. For a start on the answer, like many things, I turn to psychology. Specifically, the psychology Peter Singer catalogues in his book.
A Single, Identifiable Victim
One of the most well-known motivations behind helping others is a personal connection, which triggers empathy. When psychologists researching generosity paid participants to join a psychological experiment and then later gave these participants the opportunity to donate to a global poverty fighting organization Save the Children, two different kinds of information were given.
One random group of participants were told "Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children" and some additional information about how the need for donations was very strong, and these donations could help stop the food shortages.
Another random group of participants were instead shown the photo of Rokia, a seven-year-old Malawian girl who is desperately poor. The participants were told that "her life will be changed for the better by your gift".
Furthermore, a third random group of participants were shown the photo of Rokia, told about who she is and that "her life will be changed for the better", but ALSO told about the general information about the famine and told the same "food shortages [...] are affecting more than three million" -- a combination of both the previous groups.
Lastly, a fourth random group was shown the photo of Rokia, informed about her the same as the other groups, and then given information about another child, identified by name, and told that their donation would also affect this child too for the better.
It's All About the Person
Interestingly, the group who was told ONLY about Rokia gave the most money. The group who was told about both children reported feeling less overal emotion than those who only saw Rokia, and gave less money. The group who was told about both Rokia and the general famine information gave even less than that, followed by the group that only got the general famine information.1,2 It turns out that information about a single person was the most salient for creating an empathetic response to trigger a willingness to donate.1,2
This continues through additional studies. In another generosity experiment, one group of people was told that a single child needed a lifesaving medical treatment that costs $300K, and was given the opportunity to contribute towards this fund. A second random group of people was told that eight children needed a lifesaving treatment, and all of them would die unless $300K could be provided, and was given an opportunity to contribute. More people opted to donate toward the single child.3,4
This is the basis for why we're so willing to chase after lost miners or Baby Jessica no matter the monetary cost, but turn a blind eye to the mass unknown starving in the developing world. Indeed, the person doesn't even need to be particularly identified, though it does help. In another experiment, people asked by researchers to make a donation to Habitat for Humanity were more likely to do so if they were told that the family "has been selected" rather than that they "will be selected" -- even though all other parts of the pitch were the same, and the participants got no information about who the families actually were5.
The Deliberative and The Affective
Why is this the case? Researcher Paul Slovic thinks that humans have two different processes for deciding what to do. The first is an affective system that responds to emotion, rapidly processing images and stories and generating an intuitive feeling that leads to immediate action. The second is a deliberative system that draws on reasoning, and operates on words, numbers, and abstractions, which is much slower to generate action.6
To follow up, the Rokia experiment was done again, except yet another twist was added -- there were two groups, one told only about Rokia exactly as before, and one told only the generic famine information exactly as before. Within each group, half the group took a survey designed to arouse their emotions by asking them things like "When you hear the word 'baby' how do you feel?" The other half of both groups was given emotionally neutral questions, like math puzzles.
This time, the Rokia group gave far more, but those in the group who randomly had their emotions aroused gave even more than those who heard about Rokia but had finished math problems. On the other side, those who heard the generic famine information showed no increase in donation regardless of how heightened their emotions were.1
Futility and Making a Difference
Imagine you're told that there are 3000 refugees at risk in a camp in Rwanda, and you could donate towards aid that would save 1500 of them. Would you do it? And how much would you donate?
Now this time imagine that you can still save 1500 refugees with the same amount of money, but the camp has 10000 refugees. In an experiment where these two scenarios were presented not as a thought experiment but as realities to two separate random groups, the group that heard of only 3000 refugees were more likely to donate, and donated larger amounts.7,8
Enter another quirk of our giving psychology, right or wrong: futility thinking. We think that if we're not making a sizable difference, it's not worth making the difference at all -- it will only be a drop in the ocean and the problem will keep raging on.
Am I Responsible?
People are also far less likely to help if they're with other people. In this experiment, students were invited to participate in a market research survey. However, when the researcher gave the students their questionnaire to fill out, she went into a back room separated from the office only by a curtain. A few minutes later, noises strongly suggested that she had got on a chair to get something from a high shelf, and then fell off it, loudly complaining that she couldn't feel or move her foot.
With only one student taking the survey, 70% of them stopped what they were doing and offered assistance. However, when there were two students taking the survey, this number dropped down dramatically. Most noticeably, when the group was two students -- but one of the students was a stooge who was in on it and would always not respond, the response rate of the non-stooge participant was only 7%.9
This one is known as diffusion of responsibility, better known as the bystander effect -- we help more often when we think it is our responsibility to do so, and -- again for right or for wrong -- we naturally look to others to see if they're helping before doing so ourselves.
What's Fair In Help?
It's clear that people value fairness, even to their own detriment. In a game called "the Ultimatum Game", one participant is given a sum of money by the researcher, say $10, and told they can split this money with an anonymous second player in any proportion they choose -- give them $10, give them $7, give them $5, give them nothing, everything is fair game. The catch is, however, the second player, after hearing of the split anonymously, gets to vote to accept it or reject it. Should the split be accepted, both players walk away with the agreed amount. But should the split be rejected, both players walk away with nothing.
A Fair Split
The economist, expecting ideally rational and perfectly self-interested players, predicts that the second player would accept any split that gets them money, since anything is better than nothing. And the first player, understanding this, would naturally offer $1 and keep $9 for himself. At no point are identities revealed, so reputation and retribution are no issue.
But the results turn out to be quite different -- the vast majority offer an equal split. Yet, when an offer comes around that offers $2 or less, it is almost always rejected, even though $2 is better than nothing.10 And this effect persists even when played for thousands of dollars and persists across nearly all cultures.
Splitting and Anchoring in Charity
This sense of fairness persists into helping as well -- people generally have a strong tendency not to want to help more than the other people around them, and if they find themselves the only ones helping on a frequent basis, they start to feel a "sucker". On the flipside, if others are doing more, they will follow suit.11,12,13
Those told the average donation to a charity nearly always tend to give that amount, even if the average told to them is a lie, having secretly been increased or decreased. And it can be replicated even without lying -- those told about an above average gift were far more likely to donate more, even attempting to match that gift.14,15 Overall, we tend to match the behavior of our reference class -- those people we identify with -- and this includes how much we help. We donate more when we believe others are donating more, and donate less when we believe others are doing so.
Challenging the Self-Interest Norm
But there's a way to break this cycle of futility, responsibility, and fairness -- challenge the norm by openly communicating about helping others. While many religious and secular values insist that the best giving is anonymous giving, this turns out to not always be the case. While there may be other reasons to give anonymously, don't forget the benefits of giving openly -- being open about helping inspires others to help, and can help challenge the norms of the culture.
Indeed, many organizations now exist to help challenge the norms of donations and try to create a culture where they give more. GivingWhatWeCan is a community of 230 people (including me!) who have all pledged to donate at least 10% of their income to organizations working on ending extreme poverty, and submit statements proving so. BolderGiving has a bunch of inspiring stories of over 100 people who all give at least 20% of their income, with a dozen giving over 90%! And these aren't all rich people, some of them are even ordinary students.
Who's Willing to Be Altruistic?
While people are not saints, experiments have shown that people tend to grossly overestimate how self-interested other people are -- for one example, people estimated that males would overwhelmingly favor a piece of legislation to "slash research funding to a disease that affects only women", even while -- being male -- they themselves do not support such legislation.16
This also manifests itself in an expectation that people be "self-interested" in their philanthropic cause -- suggesting much stronger support for volunteers in Students Against Drunk Driving who themselves knew people killed in drunk driving accidents versus those people who had no such personal experiences but just thought it to be "a very important cause".17
Alex de Tocqueville, echoing the early economists who expected $9/$1 splits in the Ultimatum Game, wrote in 1835 that "Americans enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest".18 But this isn't always the case, and in challenging the norm, people make it more acceptable to be altruistic. It's not just "goody two-shoes", and it's praiseworthy to be "too charitable".
A Bit of a Nudge
A somewhat pressing problem in getting people to help was in organ donation -- surely no one was inconvenienced by having their organs donated after they had died. Yet, why would people not sign up? And how could we get more people to sign up?
In Germany, only 12% of the population are registered organ donors. In nearby Austria, that number is 99.98%. Are people in Austria just less worried about what will happen to them after they die, or just that more altruistic? It turns out the answer is far more simple -- in Germany you must put yourself on the register to become a potential donor (opt-in), whereas in Austria you are a potential donor unless you object (opt-out). While people may be, for right or for wrong, worried about the fate of their body after it is dead, they appear less likely to express these reservations in opt-out systems.19
While Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein argue in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wellness, and Happiness that we sometimes suck at making decisions in our own interest and all could do better with more favorable "defaults", such defaults are also pressing in helping people.
While opt-out organ donation is a huge deal, there's another similar idea -- opt-out philanthropy. Back before 2008 when the investment bank Bear Stearns still existed, Bear Stearns listed their guiding principle as philanthropy as fostering good citizenship and well-rounded individuals. To this effect, they required the top 1000 most highest paid employees to donate 4% of their salary and bonuses to non-profits, and prove it with their tax returns. This resulted in more than $45 million in donations during 2006. Many employees described the requirement as "getting themselves to do what they wanted to do anyway".
So, according to this bit of psychology, what could we do to get other people to help more, besides moralize? Well, we have five key take-aways:
(1) present these people with a single and highly identifiable victim that they can help
(2) nudge them with a default of opt-out philanthropy
(3) be more open about our willingness to be altruistic and encourage other people to help
(4) make sure people understand the average level of helping around them, and
(5) instill a responsibility to help and an understanding that doing so is not futile.
Hopefully, with these tips and more, helping people more can be come just one of those things we do.
(Note: Links are to PDF files.)
1: D. A. Small, G. Loewenstein, and P. Slovic. 2007. "Sympathy and Callousness: The Impact of Deliberative Thought on Donations to Identifiable and Statistical Victims". Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 102: p143-53
2: Paul Slovic. 2007. "If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act: Psychic Numbing and Genocide". Judgment and Decision Making 2(2): p79-95.
3: T. Kogut and I. Ritov. 2005. "The 'Identified Victim' Effect: An Identified Group, or Just a Single Individual?". Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 18: p157-67.
4: T. Kogut and I. Ritov. 2005. "The Singularity of Identified Victims in Separate and Joint Evaluations". Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 97: p106-116.
5: D. A. Small and G. Lowenstein. 2003. "Helping the Victim or Helping a Victim: Altruism and Identifiability". Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 26(1): p5-16.
6: Singer cites this from Paul Slovic, who in turn cites it from: Seymour Epstein. 1994. "Integration of the Cognitive and the Psychodynamic Unconscious". American Psychologist 49: p709-24. Slovic refers to the affective system as "experiential" and the deliberative system as "analytic". This is also related to Daniel Kahneman's popular book Thinking Fast and Slow.
7: D. Fetherstonhaugh, P. Slovic, S. M. Johnson, and J. Friedrich. 1997. "Insensitivity to the Value of Human Life: A Study of Psychophysical Numbing". Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 14: p283-300.
8: Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. 1979. "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk." Econometrica 47: p263-91.
9: Bib Lantané and John Darley. 1970. The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn't He Help?. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, p58.
10: Martin Nowak, Karen Page, and Karl Sigmund. 2000. "Fairness Versus Reason in the Ultimatum Game". Science 289: p1183-75.
11: Lee Ross and Richard E. Nisbett. 1991. The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p27-46.
12: Robert Cialdini. 2001. Influence: Science and Practice, 4th Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
13: Judith Lichtenberg. 2004. "Absence and the Unfond Heart: Why People Are Less Giving Than They Might Be". in Deen Chatterjee, ed. The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
14: Jen Shang and Rachel Croson. Forthcoming. "Field Experiments in Charitable Contribution: The Impact of Social Influence on the Voluntary Provision of Public Goods". The Economic Journal.
15: Rachel Croson and Jen Shang. 2008. "The Impact of Downward Social Information on Contribution Decision". Experimental Economics 11: p221-33.
16: Dale Miller. 199. "The Norm of Self-Interest". American Psychologist 54: 1053-60.
17: Rebecca Ratner and Jennifer Clarke. Unpublished. "Negativity Conveyed to Social Actors Who Lack a Personal Connection to the Cause".
18: Alexis de Tocqueville in J.P. Mayer ed., G. Lawrence, trans. 1969. Democracy in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, p546.
19: Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein. 2003. "Do Defaults Save Lives?". Science 302: p1338-39.
(This is an updated version of an earlier draft from my blog.)
This is the final post in my Ritual Mini-Sequence. Previous posts include the Introduction, a discussion on the Value (and Danger) of Ritual, and How to Design Ritual Ceremonies that reflect your values.
I wrote this as a concluding essay in the Solstice ritual book. It was intended to be at least comprehensible to people who weren’t already familiar with our memes, and to communicate why I thought this was important. It builds upon themes from the ritual book, and in particular, the readings of Beyond the Reach of God and The Gift We Give to Tomorrow. Working on this essay was transformative to me - it allowed me to finally bypass my scope insensitivity and other biases, so that I could evaluate organizations like the Singularity Institute with fairness. I haven’t yet decided what to do with my charitable dollars - it’s a complex problem. But I’ve overcome my emotional restistance to the idea of fighting X-Risk.
I don’t know if that was due to the words themselves, or to the process I had to go through to write them, but I hope others may benefit from this.
I thought ‘The Gift We Give to Tomorrow’ was incredibly beautiful when I first read it. I actually cried. I wanted to share it with friends and family, except that work ONLY has meaning in the context of the Sequences. Practically every line is a hyperlink to an important, earlier point, and without many hours of previous reading, it just won’t have the impact. But to me, it felt like the perfect endcap to everything the Sequences covered, taking all of the facts and ideas and weaving them into a coherent, poetic narrative that left me feeling satisfied with my place in the world.
Except that... I wasn’t sure that it actually said anything.
Singularity Institute desperately needs someone who is not me who can write cognitive-science-based material. Someone smart, energetic, able to speak to popular audiences, and with an excellent command of the science. If you’ve been reading Less Wrong for the last few months, you probably just thought the same thing I did: “SIAI should hire Lukeprog!” To support Luke Muelhauser becoming a full-time Singularity Institute employee, please donate and mention Luke (e.g. “Yay for Luke!”) in the check memo or the comment field of your donation - or if you donate by a method that doesn’t allow you to leave a comment, tell Louie Helm (email@example.com) your donation was to help fund Luke.
Note that the Summer Challenge that doubles all donations will run until August 31st. (We're currently at $31,000 of $125,000.)
Summary: The psychology of charitable giving offers three pieces of advice to those who want to give charity and those who want to receive it: Enjoy the happiness that giving brings, commit future income, and realize that requesting time increases the odds of getting money.
One Saturday morning in 2009, an unknown couple walked into a diner, ate their breakfast, and paid their tab. They also paid the tab for some strangers at another table.
And for the next five hours, dozens of customers got into the joy of giving and paid the favor forward.
Several studies suggest that giving does bring happiness. One study found that asking people to commit random acts of kindness can increase their happiness for weeks.1 And at the neurological level, giving money to charity activates the reward centers of the brain, the same ones activated by everything from cocaine to great art to an attractive face.2
Another study randomly assigned participants to spend money either on themselves or on others. As predicted, those who spent money helping others were happier at the end of the day.3
Other studies confirm that just as giving brings happiness, happiness brings giving. A 1972 study showed that people are more likely to help others if they have recently been put in a good mood by receiving a cookie or finding a dime left in a payphone.4 People are also more likely to help after they read something pleasant,5 or when they are made to feel competent at something.6
In fact, deriving happiness from giving may be a human universal.7 Data from 136 countries shows that spending money to help others is correlated with happiness.8
But correlation does not imply causation. To test for causation, researchers randomly assigned participants from two very different cultures (Canada and Uganda) to write about a time when they had spent money on themselves (personal spending) or others (prosocial spending). Participants were asked to report the happiness levels before and after the writing exercise. As predicted, those who wrote (and thought) about a time when they had engaged in prosocial spending saw greater increases in happiness than those who wrote about a time when they spent money on themselves.
So does happiness run in a circular motion?
This, too, has been tested. In one study,9 researchers asked each subject to describe the last time they spent either $20 or $100 on themselves or on someone else. Next, researchers had each participant report their level of happiness, and then predict which future spending behavior ($5 or $20, on themselves or others) would make them happiest.
Subjects assigned to recall prosocial spending reported being happier than those assigned to recall personal spending. Moreover, this reported happiness predicted the future spending choice, but neither the purchase amount nor the purchasing target (oneself or others) did. So happiness and giving do seem to reinforce each other.
So, should charities remind people that donating will make them happy?
This, alas, has not been tested. But for now we might guess that just as people generally do things they believe will make them happier, they will probably give more if persuaded by the (ample) evidence that generosity brings happiness.
Lessons for optimal philanthropists: Read the studies showing that giving brings happiness. (Check the footnotes below.) Pick out an optimal charity in advance, notice when you're happy, and decide to give them money right then.
Lessons for optimal charities: Teach your donors how to be happy. Remind them that generosity begets happiness.
We spent an evening at last week's Rationality Minicamp brainstorming strategies for reducing existential risk from Unfriendly AI, and for estimating their marginal benefit-per-dollar. To summarize the issue briefly, there is a lot of research into artificial general intelligence (AGI) going on, but very few AI researchers take safety seriously; if someone succeeds in making an AGI, but they don't take safety seriously or they aren't careful enough, then it might become very powerful very quickly and be a threat to humanity. The best way to prevent this from happening is to promote a safety culture - that is, to convince as many artificial intelligence researchers as possible to think about safety so that if they make a breakthrough, they won't do something stupid.
We came up with a concrete (albeit greatly oversimplified) model which suggests that the marginal reduction in existential risk per dollar, when pursuing this strategy, is extremely high. The model is this: assume that if an AI is created, it's because one researcher, chosen at random from the pool of all researchers, has the key insight; and humanity survives if and only if that researcher is careful and takes safety seriously. In this model, the goal is to convince as many researchers as possible to take safety seriously. So the question is: how many researchers can we convince, per dollar? Some people are very easy to convince - some blog posts are enough. Those people are convinced already. Some people are very hard to convince - they won't take safety seriously unless someone who really cares about it will be their friend for years. In between, there are a lot of people who are currently unconvinced, but would be convinced if there were lots of good research papers about safety in machine learning and computer science journals, by lots of different authors.
Right now, those articles don't exist; we need to write them. And it turns out that neither the Singularity Institute nor any other organization has the resources - staff, expertise, and money to hire grad students - to produce very much research or to substantially alter the research culture. We are very far from the realm of diminishing returns. Let's make this model quantitative.
Let A be the probability that an AI will be created; let R the fraction of researchers that would be convinced to take safety seriously if there were a 100 good papers in about it in the right journals; and let C be the cost of one really good research paper. Then the marginal reduction in existential risk per dollar is A*R/100*C. The total cost of a grad student-year (including recruiting, management and other expenses) is about $100k. Estimate a 10% current AI risk, and estimate that 30% of researchers currently don't take safety seriously but would be convinced. That gives is a marginal existential risk reduction per dollar of 0.1*0.3/100*100k = 3*10^-9. Counting only the ~7 billion people alive today, and not any of the people who will be born in the future, this comes to a little over two expected lives saved per dollar.
That's huge. Enormous. So enormous that I'm instantly suspicious of the model, actually, so let's take note of some of the things it leaves out. First, the "one researcher at random determines the fate of humanity" part glosses over the fact that research is done in groups; but it's not clear whether adding in this detail should make us adjust the estimate up or down. It ignores all the time we have between now and the creation of the first AI, during which a safety culture might arise without intervention; but it's also easier to influence the culture now, while the field is still young, rather than later. In order for promoting AI research safety to not be an extraordinarily good deal for philanthropists, there would have to be at least an additional 10^3 penalty somewhere, and I can't find one.
As a result of this calculation, I will be thinking and writing about AI safety, attempting to convince others of its importance, and, in the moderately probable event that I become very rich, donating money to the SIAI so that they can pay others to do the same.
Singularity Institute is today's featured charity on Philanthroper.com
Philanthroper is a micro-giving site that profiles small charities hand-selected by their editors. Their site encourages donors to “give every day” by only requesting $1 contributions.
A group of Singularity Institute donors has stepped forward to match all donations given through Philanthroper today so I'd encourage each of you to give $1 now if you support Singularity Institute and have a US-based bank account (Philanthroper requirement). We'd like to have a healthy total raised by the end of the day. The fundraiser has already been featured on Gizmodo but please submit it to other news sites if you can.
I signed up and gave my $1.
If I gave you $50 you hadn't planned on receiving, would you consider giving it to charity?
Here's your chance to find out.
Just in time for the Tallin-Evans matching fundraiser, ING Direct has started offering a free $50 cash sign-up bonus. I've personally used ING for 10 years and referred over 20 people to similar promotions of theirs in the past so I can confirm that this is legit.1
It's a simple, effective way to get started as an optimal philanthropist for free:
Full disclosure: I was an SIAI Visiting Fellow in 2010. I've also used ING Direct as a customer the past 10 years, but otherwise have no financial interest in them.
Most of us want to make the world a better place. But what should we do if we want to generate the most positive impact possible? It’s definitely not an easy problem. Lots of smart, talented people with the best of intentions have tried to end war, eliminate poverty, cure disease, stop hunger, prevent animal suffering, and save the environment. As you may have noticed, we’re still working on all of those. So the track record of people trying to permanently solve the world's biggest problems isn’t that spectacular. This isn’t just a “look to your left, look to your right, one of you won’t be here next year”-kind of thing, this is more like “behold the trail of dead and dying who line the path before you, and despair”. So how can you make your attempt to save the world turn out significantly better than the generations of others who've tried this already?
It turns out there actually are a number of things we can do to substantially increase our odds of doing the most good. Here's a brief summary of some on the most crucial considerations that one needs to take into account when soberly approaching the task of doing the most good possible (aka "saving the world").
1. Patch your moral intuition (with math!) - Human moral intuition is really useful. But it tends to fail us at precisely the wrong times -- like when a problem gets too big [“millions of people dying? *yawn*”] or when it involves uncertainty [“you can only save 60% of them? call me when you can save everyone!”]. Unfortunately, these happen to be the defining characteristics of the world’s most difficult problems. Think about it. If your standard moral intuition were enough to confront the world’s biggest challenges, they wouldn’t be the world’s biggest challenges anymore... they’d be “those problems we solved already cause they were natural for us to understand”. If you’re trying to do things that have never been done before, use all the tools available to you. That means setting aside your emotional numbness by using math to feel what your moral intuition can’t. You can also do better by acquainting yourself with some of the more common human biases. It turns out your brain isn't always right. Yes, even your brain. So knowing the ways in which it systematically gets things wrong is a good way to avoid making the most obvious errors when setting out to help save the world.
2. Identify a cause with lots of leverage - It’s noble to try and save the world, but it’s ineffective and unrealistic to try and do it all on your own. So let’s start out by joining forces with an established organization who’s already working on what you care about. Seriously, unless you’re already ridiculously rich + brilliant or ludicrously influential, going solo or further fragmenting the philanthropic world by creating US-Charity#1,238,202 is almost certainly a mistake. Now that we’re all working together here, let's keep in mind that only a few charitable organizations are truly great investments -- and the vast majority just aren’t. So maximize your leverage by investing your time and money into supporting the best non-profits with the largest expected pay-offs.
Follow-up to: Politics as Charity
Can we think well about courses of action with low probabilities of high payoffs?
Such changes could have enormous effects, but the cost-effectiveness of supporting them is very difficult to quantify as one needs to determine both the value of the effects and the degree to which your donation increases the probability of the change occurring. Each of these is very difficult to estimate and since the first is potentially very large and the second very small , it is very challenging to work out which scale will dominate.
This sequence attempts to actually work out a first approximation of an answer to this question, piece by piece. Last time, I discussed the evidence, especially from randomized experiments, that money spent on campaigning can elicit marginal votes quite cheaply. Today, I'll present the state-of-the-art in estimating the chance that those votes will directly swing an election outcome.
Politics is a mind-killer: tribal feelings readily degrade the analytical skill and impartiality of otherwise very sophisticated thinkers, and so discussion of politics (even in a descriptive empirical way, or in meta-level fashion) signals an increased probability of poor analysis. I am not a political partisan and am raising the subject primarily for its illustrative value in thinking about small probabilities of large payoffs.
Jane is a connoisseur of imported cheeses and Homo Economicus in good standing, using a causal decision theory that two-boxes on Newcomb's problem. Unfortunately for her, the politically well-organized dairy farmers in her country have managed to get an initiative for increased dairy tariffs on the ballot, which will cost her $20,000. Should she take an hour to vote against the initiative on election day?
She estimates that she has a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of casting the deciding vote, for an expected value of $0.02 from improved policy. However, while Jane may be willing to give her two cents on the subject, the opportunity cost of her time far exceeds the policy benefit, and so it seems she has no reason to vote.
Jane's dilemma is just the standard Paradox of Voting in political science and public choice theory. Voters may still engage in expressive voting to affiliate with certain groups or to signal traits insofar as politics is not about policy, but the instrumental rationality of voting to bring about selfishly preferred policy outcomes starts to look dubious. Thus many of those who say that we rationally ought to vote in hopes of affecting policy focus on altruistic preferences: faced with a tiny probability of casting a decisive vote, but large impacts on enormous numbers of people in the event that we are decisive, we should shut up and multiply, voting if the expected value of benefit to others sufficiently exceeds the cost to ourselves.
Meanwhile, at the Experimental Philosophy blog, Eric Schwitzgebel reports that philosophers overwhelmingly rate voting as very morally good (on a scale of 1 to 9), with voting placing right around donating 10% of one's income to charity. He offers the following explanation:
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