We could all be more altruistic and effective in our service of others, but what exactly is it that’s stopping us? What are the biases and cognitive failures that prevent us from properly acting in service of existential risks, statistically large numbers of people, and long-term future considerations? How can we become more effective altruists? Stefan Schubert, a researcher at University of Oxford’s Social Behaviour and Ethics Lab, explores questions like these at the intersection of moral psychology and philosophy. This conversation explores the steps that researchers like Stefan are taking to better understand psychology in service of doing the most good we can.
Topics discussed include:
- The psychology of existential risk, longtermism, effective altruism, and speciesism
- Stefan’s study “The Psychology of Existential Risks: Moral Judgements about Human Extinction”
- Various works and studies Stefan Schubert has co-authored in these spaces
- How this enables us to be more altruistic
2:31 Stefan’s academic and intellectual journey
5:20 How large is this field?
7:49 Why study the psychology of X-risk and EA?
16:54 What does a better understanding of psychology here enable?
21:10 What are the cognitive limitations psychology helps to elucidate?
23:12 Stefan’s study “The Psychology of Existential Risks: Moral Judgements about Human Extinction”
34:45 Messaging on existential risk
37:30 Further areas of study
49:18 Further studies and work by Stefan
The Puzzle of Ineffective Giving (Under Review)
The Many Obstacles to Effective Giving (Under Review)
Lucas Perry: Hello everyone and welcome to the Future of Life Institute Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry. Today, we’re speaking with Stefan Schubert about the psychology of existential risk, longtermism, and effective altruism more broadly. This episode focuses on Stefan’s reasons for exploring psychology in this space, how large this space of study currently is, the usefulness of studying psychology as it pertains to these areas, the central questions which motivate his research, a recent publication that he co-authored which motivated this interview called The Psychology of Existential Risks: Moral Judgements about Human Extinction, as well as other related work of his.
This podcast often ranks in the top 100 of technology podcasts on Apple Music. This is a big help for increasing our audience and informing the public about existential and technological risks, as well as what we can do about them. So, if this podcast is valuable to you, consider sharing it with friends and leaving us a good review. It really helps.
Stefan Schubert is a researcher at the the Social Behaviour and Ethics Lab at the University of Oxford, working in the intersection of moral psychology and philosophy. He focuses on psychological questions of relevance to effective altruism, such as why our altruistic actions are often ineffective, and why we don’t invest more in safe-guarding our common future. He was previously a researcher at Centre for Effective Altruism and a postdoc in philosophy at the London School of Economics.
We can all be more altruistic and effective in our service of others. Expanding our moral circles of compassion farther into space and deeper into time, as well as across species, and possibly even eventually to machines, while mitigating our own tendencies towards selfishness and myopia is no easy task and requires deep self-knowledge and far more advanced psychology than I believe we have today.
This conversation explores the first steps that researchers like Stefan are taking to better understand this space in service of doing the most good we can.
So, here is my conversation with Stefan Schubert
Can you take us through your intellectual and academic journey in the space of EA and longtermism and in general, and how that brought you to what you’re working on now?
Stefan Schubert: I started range of different subjects. I guess I had a little bit of hard time deciding what I wanted to do. So I got a masters in political science. But then in the end, I ended up doing a PhD in philosophy at Lund University in Sweden, specifically in epistemology, the theory of knowledge. And then I went to London School of Economics to do a post doc. And during that time, I discovered effective altruism and I got more and more involved with that.
So then I applied to Centre for Effective Altruism, here in Oxford, to work as a researcher. And I worked there as a researcher for two years. At first, I did policy work, including reports on catastrophic risk and x-risk for a foundation and for a government. But then I also did some work, which was general and foundational or theoretical nature, including work on the notion of cause neutrality, how we should understand that. And also on how EAs should think about everyday norms like norms of friendliness and honesty.
And I guess that even though I, at the time I didn’t do sort of psychological empirical research, that sort of relates to my current work on psychology because for the last two years, I’ve worked on the psychology of effective altruism at the Social Behavior and Ethics Lab here at Oxford. This lab is headed by Nadira Farber and I also work closely with Lucius Caviola, who did his PhD here at Oxford and recently moved to Harvard to do a postdoc.
So we have three strands of research. The first one is sort of the psychology of effective altruism in general. So why is it that people aren’t effectively altruistic? This is a bit of a puzzle because generally people, they are at least somewhat effective when they working for their own interest. To be sure they are not maximally effective, but when they try to buy a home or save for retirement, they do some research and sort of try to find good value for money.
But they don’t seem to do the same when they donate to charity. They aren’t as concerned with effectiveness. So this is a bit of a puzzle. And then there are two strands of research, which have to do with specific EA causes. So one is the psychology of longtermism and existential risk, and the other is the psychology of speciesism, human-animal relations. So out of these three strands of research, I focused the most on the psychology of effective altruism in general and the psychology of longtermism and existential risk.
Lucas Perry: How large is the body of work regarding the psychology of existential risk and effective altruism in general? How many people are working on this? If you give us more insight into the state of the field and the amount of interest there.
Stefan Schubert: It’s somewhat difficult to answer because it sort of depends on how do you define these domains. There’s research, which is of some relevance to ineffective altruism, but it’s not exactly on that. But I will say that there may be around 10 researchers or so who are sort of EAs and work on these topics for EA reasons. So you definitely want to count them. And then when we thinking about non EA researchers, like other academics, there hasn’t been that much research I would say on the psychology of X-risk and longtermism
There’s research on the psychology of climate change, that’s a fairly large topic. But more specifically on X-risk and longtermism, there’s less. Effective altruism in general. That’s a fairly large topic. There’s lots of research on biases like the identifiable victim effect: people’s tendency to donate to identifiable victims over larger number of known unidentifiable statistical victims. Maybe the order of a few hundred papers.
And then the last topic, speciesism; human-animals relations: that’s fairly large. I know less of that literature, but my impression is that it’s fairly large.
Lucas Perry: Going back into the 20th century, much of what philosophers have done, like Peter Singer is constructing thought experiments, which isolate the morally relevant aspects of a situation, which is intended in the end to subvert psychological issues and biases in people.
So I guess I’m just reflecting here on how philosophical thought experiments are sort of the beginnings of elucidating a project of the psychology of EA or existential risk or whatever else.
Stefan Schubert: The vast majority of these papers are not directly inspired by philosophical thought experiments. It’s more like psychologists who run some experiments because there’s some theory that some other psychologist has devised. Most don’t look that much at philosophy I would say. But I think effective altruism and the fact that people are ineffectively altruistic, that’s fairly theoretically interesting for psychologists, and also for economists.
Lucas Perry: So why study psychological questions as they relate to effective altruism, and as they pertain to longtermism and longterm future considerations?
Stefan Schubert: It’s maybe easiest to answer that question in the context of effective altruism in general. I should also mention that when we studied this topic of sort of effectively altruistic actions in general, what we concretely study is effective and ineffective giving. And that is because firstly, that’s what other people have studied, so it’s easier to put our research into context.
The other thing is that it’s quite easy to study in a lab setting, right? So you might ask people, where would you donate to the effective or the ineffective charity? You might think that career choice is actually more important than giving, or some people would argue that, but that seems more difficult to study in a lab setting. So with regards to what motivates our research on effective altruism in general and effective giving, what ultimately motivates our research is that we want to make people improve their decisions. We want to make them donate more effectively, be more effectively altruistic in general.
So how can you then do that? Well, I want to make one distinction here, which I think might be important to think about. And that is the distinction between what I call a behavioral strategy and an intellectual strategy. And the behavioral strategy is that you come up with certain framings or setups to decision problems, such that people behave in a more desirable way. So there’s literature on nudging for instance, where you sort of want to nudge people into desirable options.
So for instance, in a cafeteria where you have healthier foods at eye level and the unhealthy food is harder to reach people will eat healthier than if it’s the other way round. You could come up with interventions that similarly make people donate more effectively. So for instance, the default option could be an effective charity. We know that in general, people tend often to go with the default option because of some kind of cognitive inertia. So that might lead to more effective donations.
I think it has some limitations. For instance, nudging might be interesting for the government because the government has a lot of power, right? It might frame the decision on whether you want to donate your organs after you’re dead. The other thing is that just creating an implementing these kinds of behavior interventions can often be very time consuming and costly.
So one might think that this sort of intellectual strategy should be emphasized and it shouldn’t be forgotten. So with respect to the intellectual strategy, you’re not trying to change people’s behavior solely, you are trying to do that as well, but you’re also trying to change their underlying way of thinking. So in a sense it has a lot in common with philosophical argumentation. But the difference is that you start with descriptions of people’s default way of thinking.
You describe that your default way of thinking, that leads you to prioritize an identifiable victim over larger numbers of statistical victims. And then you sort of provide an argument that that’s wrong. Statistical victims, they are just as real individuals as the identifiable victims. So you get people to accept that their own default way of thinking about identifiable versus statistical victims is wrong, and that they shouldn’t trust the default way of thinking but instead think in a different way.
I think that this strategy is actually often used, but we don’t often think about it as a strategy. So for instance, Nate Soares has this blog post “On Caring” where he argues that we shouldn’t trust our internal care-o-meter. And this is because we can’t increase how much we feel about more people dying with the number of people that die or with the badness of those increasing numbers. So it’s sort of an intellectual argument that takes psychological insight as a starting point and other people have done as well.
So the psychologist Paul Bloom has this book Against Empathy where he argues for similar conclusions. And I think Eliezer Yudkowsky uses his strategy a lot in his sequences. I think it’s often an effective strategy that should be used more.
Lucas Perry: So there’s the extent to which we can know about underlying, problematic cognition in persons and we can then change the world in ways. As you said, this is framed as nudging, where you sort of manipulate the environment in such a way without explicitly changing their cognition, in order to produce desired behaviors. Now, my initial reaction to this is, how are you going to deal with the problem when they find out that you’re doing this to them?
Now the second one here is the extent to which we can use our insights from psychological and analysis and studies to change implicit and explicit models and cognition in order to effectively be better decision makers. If a million deaths is a statistic and a dozen deaths is a tragedy, then there is some kind of failure of empathy and compassion in the human mind. We’re not evolved or set up to deal with these kinds of moral calculations.
So maybe you could do nudging by setting up the world in such a way that people are more likely to donate to charities that are likely to help out statistically large, difficult to empathize with numbers of people, or you can teach them how to think better and better act on statistically large numbers of people.
Stefan Schubert: That’s a good analysis actually. On the second approach: what I call the intellectual strategy, you are sort of teaching them to think differently. Whereas on this behavioral or nudging approach, you’re changing the world. I also think that this comment about “they might not like the way you nudged them” is a good comment. Yes, that has been discussed. I guess in some cases of nudging, it might be sort of cases of weakness of will. People might not actually want the chocolate but they fall prey to their impulses. And the same might be true with saving for retirement.
So whereas with ineffective giving, yeah there it’s much less clear. Is it really the case that people really want to donate effectively and therefore sort of are happy to be nudged in this way, that doesn’t seem to clear at all? So that’s absolutely a reason against that approach.
And then with respect to arguing for certain conclusions, in the sense that it is argument or argumentation, it’s more akin to philosophical argumentation. But it’s different from standard analytic philosophical argumentation in that it discusses human psychology. You discuss how our psychological dispositions mislead us at length and that’s not how analytic philosophers normally do it. And of course you can argue for instance, effective giving in the standard philosophical vein.
And some people have done that, like this EA philosopher Theron Pummer, he has an interesting paper called Whether and Where to Give on this question of whether it is an obligation to donate effectively. So I think that’s interesting, but one worries that there might not be that much to say about these issues because everything else equal is maybe sort of trivial that the more effectiveness the better. Of course everything isn’t always equal. But in general, it might not be too much interesting stuff you can say about that from a normative or philosophical point of view.
But there are tons of interesting psychological things you can say because there are tons of ways in which people aren’t effective. The other related issue is that this form of psychology might have a substantial readership. So it seems to me based on the success of Kahneman and Haidt and others, that people love to read about how their own and others’ thoughts by default go wrong. Whereas in contrast, standard analytic philosophy, it’s not as widely read, even among the educated public.
So for those reasons, I think that the sort of more psychology based augmentation may in some respects be more promising than purely abstract philosophical arguments for why we should be effectively altruistic.
Lucas Perry: My view or insight here is that the analytic philosopher is more so trying on the many different perspectives in his or her own head, whereas the psychologist is empirically studying what is happening in the heads of many different people. So clarifying what a perfected science of psychology in this field is useful for illustrating the end goals and what we’re attempting to do here. This isn’t to say that this will necessarily happen in our lifetimes or anything like that, but what does a full understanding of psychology as it relates to existential risk and longtermism and effective altruism enable for human beings?
Stefan Schubert: One thing I might want to say is that psychological insights might help us to formulate a vision of how we ought to behave or what mindset we ought to have and what we ought to be like as people, which is not the only normatively valid, which is what philosophers talk about, but also sort of persuasive. So one idea there that Lucius and I have discussed quite extensively recently is that some moral psychologists suggest that when we think about morality, we think to a large degree, not in terms of whether a particular act was good or bad, but rather about whether the person who performed that act is good or bad or whether they are virtuous or vicious.
So this is called the person centered approach to moral judgment. Based on that idea, we’ve been thinking about what lists of virtues people would need, in order to make the world better, more effectively. And ideally these should be virtues that both are appealing to common sense, or which can at least be made appealing to common sense, and which also make the world better when applied.
So we’ve been thinking about which such virtues one would want to have on such a list. We’re not sure exactly what we’ll include, but some examples might be prioritization, that you need to make sure that you prioritize the best ways of helping. And then we have another which we call Science: That you do proper research and how to help effectively or that you rely on others who do. And then collaboration, that you’re willing to collaborate on moral issues, potentially even with your moral opponents.
So the details of this virtues aren’t too important, but the idea is that it hopefully should seem like a moral ideal to some people, to be a person who lives these virtues. I think that to many people philosophical arguments about the importance of being more effective and putting more emphasis on consequences, if you read them in a book of analytic philosophy, that might seem pretty uninspiring. So people don’t read that and think “that’s what I would want to be like.”
But hopefully, they could read about these kinds of virtues and think, “that’s what I would want to be like.” So to return to your question, ideally we could use psychology to sort of create such visions of some kind of moral ideal that would not just be normatively correct, but also sort of appealing and persuasive.
Lucas Perry: It’s like a science, which is attempting to contribute to the project of human and personal growth and evolution and enlightenment in so far as that as possible.
Stefan Schubert: We see this as part of the larger EA project of using evidence and reason and research to make the world a better place. EA has this prioritization research where you try to find the best ways of doing good. I gave this talk at EAGx Nordics earlier this year on “Moral Aspirations and Psychological Limitations.” And in that talk I said, well what EAs normally do when they prioritize ways of doing good, is as it were, they look into the world and they think: what ways of doing good are there? What different courses are there? What sort of levers can we pull to make the world better?
So should we reduce existential risk from specific sources like advanced AI or bio risk, or is rather global poverty or animal welfare the best thing to work on? But then the other approach is to rather sort of look inside yourself and think, well I am not perfectly effectively altruistic, and that is because of my psychological limitations. So then we want to find out which of those psychological limitations are most impactful to work on because, for instance, they are more tractable or because it makes a bigger difference if we remove them. That’s one way of thinking about this research, that we sort of take this prioritization research and turn it inwards.
Lucas Perry: Can you clarify the kinds of things that psychology is really pointing out about the human mind? Part of this is clearly about biases and poor aspects of human thinking, but what does it mean for human beings to have these bugs and human cognition? What are the kinds of things that we’re discovering about the person and how he or she thinks that fail to be in alignment with the truth.
Stefan Schubert: I mean, there are many different sources of error, one might say. One thing that some people have discussed is that people are not that interested in being effectively altruistic. Why is that? Some people say that’s just because they get more warm glow out of giving someone who’s suffering more saliently and then the question arises, why do they get more warm glow out of that? Maybe that’s because they just want to signal their empathy. That’s sort of one perspective, which is maybe a bit cynical, then ,that the ultimate source of lots of ineffectiveness is just this preference for signaling and maybe a lack of genuine altruism.
Another approach would be to just say, the world is very complex and it’s very difficult to understand it and we’re just computationally constrained, so we’re not good enough at understanding it. Another approach would be to say that because the world is so complex, we evolved various broad-brushed heuristics, which generally work not too badly, but then, when we are put in some evolutionarily novel context and so on, they don’t guide us too well. That might be another source of error. In general, what I would want to emphasize is that there are likely many different sources of human errors.
Lucas Perry: You’ve discussed here how you focus and work on these problems. You mentioned that you are primarily interested in the psychology of effective altruism in so far as we can become better effective givers and understand why people are not effective givers. And then, there is the psychology of longtermism. Can you enumerate some central questions that are motivating you and your research?
Stefan Schubert: To some extent, we need more research just in order to figure out what further research we and others should do so I would say that we’re in a pre-paradigmatic stage with respect to that. There are numerous questions one can discuss with respect to psychology of longtermism and existential risks. One is just people’s empirical beliefs on how good the future will be if we don’t go extinct, what the risk of extinction is and so on. This could potentially be useful when presenting arguments for the importance of work on existential risks. Maybe it turns out that people underestimate the risk of extinction and the potential quality of the future and so on. Another issue which is interesting is moral judgments, people’s moral judgements about how bad extinction would be, and the value of a good future, and so on.
Moral judgements about human extinction, that’s exactly what we studied in a recent paper that we published, which is called “The Psychology of Existential Risks: Moral Judgements about Human Extinction.” In that paper, we test this thought experiment by philosopher Derek Parfit. He has this thought experiment where he discusses three different outcomes. First, peace, the second, a nuclear war that kills 99% of the world’s existing population and three, a nuclear war that kills everyone. Parfit says, then, that a war that kills everyone, that’s the worst outcome. Near-extinction is the next worst and peace is the best. Maybe no surprises there, but the more interesting part of the discussion, that concerns the relative differences between these outcomes in terms of badness. Parfit effectively made an empirical prediction, saying that most people would find a difference in terms of badness between peace and near-extinction to be greater, but he himself thought that the difference between near-extinction and extinction, that’s the greater difference. That’s because only extinction would lead to the future forever being lost and Parfit thought that if humanity didn’t go extinct, the future could be very long and good and therefore, it would be a unique disaster if the future was lost.
On this view, extinction is uniquely bad, as we put it. It’s not just bad because it would mean that many people would die, but also because it would mean that we would lose a potentially long and grand future. We tested this hypothesis in the paper, then. First, we had a preliminary study, which didn’t actually pertain directly to Parfit’s hypothesis. We just studied whether people would find extinction a very bad event in the first place and we found that, yes, they do and they that the government should invest substantially to prevent it.
Then, we moved on to the main topic, which was Parfit’s hypothesis. We made some slight changes. In the middle outcome, Parfit had 99% dying. We reduced that number to 80%. We also talked about catastrophes in general rather than nuclear wars and we didn’t want to talk about peace because we thought that you might have an emotional association with the word “peace;” we just talked about no catastrophe instead. Using this paradigm, we found that Parfit was right. First, most people, just like him, thought that extinction was the worst outcome, near extinction the next, and no catastrophe was the best. But second, we find, then, that most people find the difference in terms of badness, between no one dying and 80% dying, that’s greater than the difference between 80% dying and 100% dying.
Our interpretation, then, is that this is presumably because they focus most on the immediate harm that the catastrophes cause and in terms of the immediate harm, the difference between no one dying and 80% dying, it’s obviously greater than that between 80% dying and 100% dying. That was a control condition in some of our experiments, but we also had other conditions where we would slightly tweak the question. We had one condition which we call the salience condition, where we made the longterm consequences of the three outcomes salient. We told participants to remember the longterm consequences of the outcomes. Here, we didn’t actually add any information that they don’t have access to, but we just made some information more salient and that made significantly more participants find the difference between 80% dying and 100% dying the greater one.
Then, we had yet another condition which we call the utopia condition, where we told participants that if humanity doesn’t go extinct, then the future will be extremely long and extremely good and it was said that if 80% die, then, obviously, at first, things are not so good, but after a recovery period, we would go on to this rosy future. We included this condition partly because such scenarios have been discussed to some extent by futurists, but partly also because we wanted to know, if we ramp up this goodness of the future to the maximum and maximize the opportunity costs of extinction, how many people would then find the difference between near extinction and extinction the greater one. Indeed, we found, then, that given such a scenario, a large majority found the difference between 80% dying and 100% dying the larger one so then, they did find extinction uniquely bad given this enormous opportunity cost of a utopian future.
Lucas Perry: What’s going on in my head right now is we were discussing earlier the role or not of these philosophical thought experiments in psychological analysis. You’ve done a great study here that helps to empirically concretize the biases and remedies for the issues that Derek Parfit had exposed and pointed to in his initial thought experiment. That was popularized by Nick Bostrom and it’s one of the key thought experiments for much of the existential risk community and people committed to longtermism because it helps to elucidate this deep and rich amount of value in the deep future and how we don’t normally consider that. Your discussion here just seems to be opening up for me tons of possibilities in terms of how far and deep this can go in general. The point of Peter Singer’s child drowning in a shallow pond was to isolate the bias of proximity and Derek Parfit’s thought experiment isolates the bias of familiarity, temporal bias and continuing into the future, it’s making me think, we also have biases about identity.
Derek Parfit also has thought experiments about identity, like with his teleportation machine where, say, you stepped into a teleportation machine and it annihilated all of your atoms but before it did so, it scanned all of your information and once it scanned you, it destroyed you and then re-assembled you on the other side of the room, or you can change the thought experiment and say on the other side of the universe. Is that really you? What does it mean to die? Those are the kinds of questions that are elicited. Listening to what you’ve developed and learned and reflecting on the possibilities here, it seems like you’re at the beginning of a potentially extremely important and meaningful field that helps to inform decision-making on these morally crucial and philosophically interesting questions and points of view. How do you feel about that or what I’m saying?
Stefan Schubert: Okay, thank you very much and thank you also for putting this Parfit thought experiment a bit in context. What you’re saying is absolutely right, that this has been used a lot, including by Nick Bostrom and others in the longtermist community and that was indeed one reason why we wanted to test it. I also agree that there are tons of interesting philosophical thought experiments there and they should be tested more. There’s also this other field of experimental philosophy where philosophers test philosophical thought experiments themselves, but in general, I think there’s absolutely more room for empirical testing of them.
With respect to temporal bias, I guess it depends a bit what one means by that, because we actually did get an effect from just mentioning that they should consider the longterm consequences, so I might think that to some extent it’s not only that people are biased in favor of the present, but it’s also that they don’t really consider the longterm future. They sort of neglect it and it’s not something that’s generally discussed among most people. I think this is also something that Parfit’s thought experiment highlights. You have to think about the really longterm consequences here and if you do think about them, then, your intuitions about these thought experiment should reverse.
Lucas Perry: People’s cognitive time horizons are really short.
Stefan Schubert: Yes.
Lucas Perry: People probably have the opposite discounting of future persons that I do. Just because I think that the kinds of experiences that Earth-originating intelligent life forms will be having in the near to 100 to 200 years will be much more deep and profound than what humans are capable of, that I would value them more than I value persons today. Most people don’t think about that. They probably just think there’ll be more humans and short of their bias towards present day humans, they don’t even consider a time horizon long enough to really have the bias kick in, is what you’re saying?
Stefan Schubert: Yeah, exactly. Thanks for that, also, for mentioning that. First of all, my view is that people don’t even think so much about the longterm future unless prompted to do so. Second, in this first study I mentioned, which was sort of a pre-study, we asked, “How good do you think that the future’s going to be?” On the average, I think they said, “It’s going to be slightly better than the present” and that would be very different from your view, then, that the future’s going to be much better. You could argue that this view that the future is going to be about as good as present is somewhat unlikely. I think it’s going to be much better or maybe it’s going to be much worse. There’s several different biases or errors that are present here.
Merely making the longterm consequences of the three outcomes salient, that already makes people more inclined to find a difference between 80% dying and 100% dying the greater one, so then you don’t add any information. Also ,specifying that the longterm outcomes are going to be extremely good, that makes a further difference that make most people find the difference between 80% dying and 100% dying the greater one.
Lucas Perry: I’m sure you and I, and listeners as well, have the hilarious problem of trying to explain this stuff to friends or family members or people that you meet that are curious about it and the difficulty of communicating it and imparting the moral saliency. I’m just curious to know if you have explicit messaging recommendations that you have extracted or learned from the study that you’ve done.
Stefan Schubert: You want to make the future more salient if you want people to care more about existential risk. With respect to explicit messaging more generally, like I said, there haven’t been that many studies on this topic, so I can’t refer to any specific study that says that this is how you should work with the messaging on this topic but just thinking more generally, one thing I’ve been thinking about is that maybe, with many of these issues, it’s just that it takes a while for people to get habituated with them. At first, if someone hears a very surprising statement that has very far reaching conclusions, they might be intuitively a bit skeptical about it, independently of how reasonable that argument would be for someone who would be completely unbiased. Their prior is that, probably, this is not right and to some extent, this might even be reasonable. Maybe people should be a bit skeptical of people who say such things.
But then, what happens is that most such people who make such claims that seem to people very weird and very far-reaching, they get discarded after some time because people poke holes in their arguments and so on. But then, a small subset of all such people, they actually stick around and they get more and more recognition and you could argue that that’s what’s now happening with people who work on longtermism and X-risk. And then, people slowly get habituated to this and they say, “Well, maybe there is something to it.” It’s not a fully rational process. I think this doesn’t just relate to longtermism an X-risk but maybe also specifically to AI risk, where it takes time for people to accept that message.
I’m sure there are some things that you can do to speed up that process and some of them would be fairly obvious like have smart, prestigious, reasonable people talk about this stuff and not people who don’t seem as credible.
Lucas Perry: What are further areas of the psychology of longtermism or existential risk that you think would be valuable to study? And let’s also touched upon other interesting areas for effective altruism as well.
Stefan Schubert: I mentioned previously people’s empirical beliefs, that could be valuable. One thing I should mention there is that I think that people’s empirical beliefs about the distant future are massively affected by framing effects, so depending on how you ask these questions, you are going to get very different answers so that’s important to remember that it’s not like people have these stable beliefs and they will always say that. The other thing I mentioned is moral judgments, and I said we stated moral judgements about human extinction, but there’s a lot of other stuff to do, like people’s views on population ethics could obviously be useful. Views on whether creating happy people is morally valuable. Whether it’s more valuable to bring large number of people whose life is barely worth living into existence than to bring in a small number of very happy people into existence and so on.
Those questions obviously have relevance for the moral value of the future. One thing I would want to say is that if you’re rational, then, obviously, your view on what and how much we should do to affect the distant future, that should arguably be a function of your moral views, including on population ethics, on the one hand, and also your empirical views of how the future’s likely to pan out. But then, I also think that people obviously aren’t completely rational and I think, in practice, their views on the longterm future will also be influenced by other factors. I think that their view on whether helping the longterm future seems like an inspiring project, that might depend massively on how the issue is framed. I think these aspects could be worth studying because if we find these kinds of aspects, then we might want to emphasize the positive aspects and we might want to adjust our behavior to avoid the negative. The goal should be to formulate a vision of longtermism that feels inspiring to people, including to people who haven’t put a lot of thought into, for instance, population ethics and related matters.
There are also some other specific issues which I think could be useful to study. One is the psychology of predictions about the distant future and the implications of the so-called construal level theory for the psychology or the longterm future. Many effective altruists would know construal level theory under another name: near mode and far mode. This is Robin Hanson’s terminology. Construal level theory is a theory about psychological distance and how it relates to how abstractly we construe things. It says that we conceive of different forms of distance – spatial, temporal, social – similarly. The second claim is that we conceive of items and events at greater psychological distance. More abstractly, we focus more on big picture features and less on details. So, Robin Hanson, he’s discussed this theory very extensively including with respect to the long term future. And he argues that the great psychological distance to the distant future causes us to reason in overly abstract ways, to be overconfident to have poor epistemics in general about the distant future.
I find this very interesting, and these kinds of ideas are mentioned a lot in EA and the X-risk community. But, to my knowledge there hasn’t been that much research which applies construal level theory specifically to the psychology of the distant future.
It’s more like people look at these general studies of construal level theory, and then they noticed that, well, the temporal distance to the distant future is obviously extremely great. Hence, these general findings should apply to a very great extent. But, to my knowledge, this hasn’t been studied so much. And given how much people discuss near or far mode in this case, it seems that there should be some empirical research.
I should also mention that I find that construal level theory a very interesting and rich psychological theory in general. I could see that it could illuminate the psychology of the distant future in numerous ways. Maybe it could be some kind of a theoretical framework that I could use for many studies about the distant future. So, I recommend that key paper from 2010 by Trope and Liberman on construal level theory.
Lucas Perry: I think that just hearing you say this right now, it’s sort of opening my mind up to the wide spectrum of possible applications of psychology in this area.
You mentioned population ethics. That makes me just think of in the context of EA and longtermism and life in general, the extent to which psychological study and analysis can find ethical biases and root them out and correct for them, either by nudging or by changing the explicit methods by which humans cognize about such ethics. There’s the extent to which psychology can better inform our epistemics, so this is the extent to which we can be more rational.
And I’m reflecting now how quantum physics subverts many of our Newtonian mechanics and classical mechanics, intuitions about the world. And there’s the extent to which psychology can also inform the way in which our social and experiential lives also condition the way that we think about the world and the extent to which that sets us astray in trying to understand the fundamental nature of reality or thinking about the longterm future or thinking about ethics or anything else. It seems like you’re at the beginning stages of debugging humans on some of the most important problems that exist.
Stefan Schubert: Okay. That’s a nice way of putting it. I certainly think that there is room for way more research on the psychology of longtermism and X-risk.
Lucas Perry: Can you speak a little bit now here about speciesism? This is both an epistemic thing and an ethical thing in the sense that we’ve invented these categories of species to describe the way that evolutionary histories of beings bifurcate. And then, there’s the psychological side of the ethics of it where we unnecessarily devalue the life of other species given that they fit that other category.
Stefan Schubert: So, we have one paper on the review, which is called “Why People Prioritize Humans Over Animals: A Framework for Moral Anthropocentrism.
To give you a bit of context, there’s been a lot of research on speciesism and on humans prioritizing humans over animals. So, in this paper we sort of try to take a bit more systematic approach and pick these different hypotheses for why humans prioritize humans over animals against each other, and look at their relative strengths as well.
And what we find is that there is truth to several of these hypotheses of why humans prioritize humans over animals. One contributing factor is just that they value individuals with greater mental capacities, and most humans have great mental capacities than most animals.
However, that explains the only part of the effect we find. We also find that people think that humans should be prioritized over animals even if they have the same mental capacity. And here, we find that this is for two different reasons.
First, according to our findings, people are what we call species relativists. And by that, we mean that they think that members of the species, including different non-human species, should prioritize other members of that species.
So, for instance, humans should prioritize other humans, and an elephant should prioritize other elephants. And that means that because humans are the ones calling the shots in the world, we have a right then, according to this species relativist view, to prioritize our own species. But other species would, if they were in power. At least that’s the implication of what the participants say, if you take them at face value. That’s species relativism.
But then, there is also the fact that they exhibit an absolute preference for humans over animals, meaning that even if we control for the mental capacities of humans and animals, and even if we control for the species relativist factors that we control for who the individual who could help them is, there remains a difference which can’t be explained by those other factors.
So, there’s an absolute speciesist preference for humans which can’t be explained by any further factor. So, that’s an absolute speciesist preference as opposed to this species relativist view.
In total, there’s a bunch of factors that together explain why humans prioritize animals, and these factors may also influence each other. So, we present some evidence that if people have a speciesist preference for humans over animals, that might, in turn, lead them to believe that animals have less advanced mental capacities than they actually have. And because they have this view that individuals with lower mental capacity, they are less morally valuable, that leads them to further deprioritize animals.
So, these three different factors, they sort of interact with each other in intricate ways. Our paper gives this overview over these different factors which contribute to humans prioritizing humans over animals.
Lucas Perry: This helps to make clear to me that a successful psychological study with regards to at least ethical biases will isolate the salient variables which are knobs that are tweaking the moral saliency of one thing over another.
Now, you said mental capacities there. You guys aren’t bringing consciousness or sentience into this?
Stefan Schubert: We discuss different formulations at length, and we went for the somewhat generic formulation.
Lucas Perry: I think people have beliefs about the ability to rationalize and understand the world, and then how that may or may not be correlated with consciousness that most people don’t make explicit. It seems like there are some variables to unpack underneath cognitive capacity.
Stefan Schubert: I agree. This is still like fairly broad brushed. The other thing to say is that sometimes we say that this human has as advanced mental capacities as these animals. Then, they have no reason to believe that the human has a more sophisticated sentience or is more conscious or something like that.
Lucas Perry: Our species membership tells me that we probably have more consciousness. My bedrock thing is I care about how much the thing can suffer or not, not how well it can model the world. Though those things are maybe probably highly correlated with one another. I think I wouldn’t be a speciesist if I thought human beings were currently the most important thing on the planet.
Stefan Schubert: You’re a speciesist if you prioritize humans over animals purely because of species membership. But, if you prioritize one species over another for some other reasons which are morally relevant, then you would not be seen as a speciesist.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, I’m excited to see what comes of that. I think that working on overcoming racism and misogyny and other things, and I think that overcoming speciesism and temporal biases and physical space, proximity biases are some of the next stages in human moral evolution that have to come. So, I think it’s honestly terrific that you’re working on these issues.
Is there anything you would like to say or that you feel that we haven’t covered?
Stefan Schubert: We have one paper which is called “The Puzzle of Ineffective Giving,” where we study this misconception that people have, which is that they think the difference in effectiveness between charities is much smaller than it actually is. So, experts think that the most effective charities are vastly much more effective than the average charity, and people don’t know that.
That seems to suggest that beliefs play a role in ineffective giving. But, there was one interesting paper called “Impediments to Effective Altruism” where they show that even if you tell people that cancer charity is less effective than an arthritis charity, they still donate.
So, then we have this other paper called “The Many Obstacles to Effective Giving.” It’s a bit similar to this speciesist paper, I guess, that we sort of pit different competing hypotheses that people have studied against each other. We give people different tasks, for instance, tasks which involve identifiable victims and tasks which involve ineffective but low overhead charities.
And then, we sort of started, well, what if we tell them how to be effective? Does that change how they behave? What’s the role of that pure belief factor? What’s the role of preferences? The result is a bit of a mix. Both beliefs and preferences contribute to ineffective giving.
In the real world, it’s likely that are several beliefs and preferences that obstruct effective giving present simultaneously. For instance, people might fail to donate to the most effective charity because first, it’s not a disaster charity, and they might have a preference for a disaster charity. And it might have a high overhead, and they might falsely believe then that high overhead entails low effectiveness. And it might not highlight identifiable victims, and they have a preference for donating to identifiable victims.
Several of these obstacles are present at the same time, and in that sense, ineffective giving is overdetermined. So, fixing one specific obstacle may not make as much of the difference as one would have wanted. That might support the view that what we need is not primarily behavioral interventions that address individual obstacles, but rather a more broad mindset change that can motivate people to proactively seek out the most effective ways of doing good.
Lucas Perry: One other thing that’s coming to my mind is the proximity of a cause to someone’s attention and the degree to which it allows them to be celebrated in their community for the good that they have done.
Are you suggesting that the way for remedying this is to help instill a curiosity and something resembling the EA mindset that would allow people to do the cognitive exploration and work necessary to transcend these limitations that bind them to their ineffective giving or is that unrealistic?
Stefan Schubert: First of all, let me just say that with respect to this proximity issue, that was actually another task that we had. I didn’t mention all the tasks. So, we told people that you can either help a local charity or a charity, I think it was in India. And then, we told them that the Indian charity is more effective and asked “where would you want to donate?”
So, you’re absolutely right. That’s another obstacle to effective giving, that people sometimes have preferences or beliefs that local charities are more effective even when that’s not the case. Some donor I talked to, he said, “Learning how to donate effectively, it’s actually fairly complicated, and there are lots of different things to think about.”
So, just fixing the overhead myth or something like that, that may not take you very far, especially if you think that the very best charities that are sort of extremely much more effective than the average charity. So, what’s important is not going from an average charity to a somewhat more effective charity, but to actually find the very best charities.
And to do that, we may need to address many psychological obstacles because the most effective charities, they might be very weird and sort of concerned with longterm future or what-not. So, I do think that a mindset where people seek out effective charities, or defer to others who do, that might be necessary. It’s not super easy to make people adopt that mindset, definitely not.
Lucas Perry: We have charity evaluators, right? These institutions which are intended to be reputable enough that they can tell you which are the most effective charities to donate to. It wouldn’t even be enough to just market those really hard. They’d be like, “Okay, that’s cool. But, I’m still going to donate my money to seeing eye dogs because blindness is something that runs in my family and is experientially and morally salient for me.”
Is the way that we fix the world really about just getting people to give more, and what is the extent to which the institutions which exist, which require people to give, need to be corrected and fixed? There’s that tension there between just the mission of getting people to give more, and then the question of, well, why do we need to get everyone to give so much in the first place?
Stefan Schubert: This insight that ineffective giving is overdetermined and there are lots of things that stand in a way of effective giving, one thing I like about it is that it seems to sort of go well with this observation that it is actually, in the real world, very difficult to make people donate effectively.
I might relate there a bit to what you mentioned about the importance of giving more, and so we could sort of distinguish between the different kinds of psychological limitations. First, that limitations that relate to how much we give. We’re selfish, so therefore we don’t necessarily give as much of our monetary rather resources as we should. There are sort of limits to altruism.
But then, there are also limits to effectiveness. We are ineffective for various reasons that we’ve discussed. And then, there’s also fact that we can have the wrong moral goals. Maybe we work towards short term goals, but then we would realize on the careful reflection that we should work towards long term goals.
And then, I was thinking like, “Well, which of these obstacles should you then prioritize if you turn this sort of prioritization framework inwards?” And then, you might think that, well, at least with respect to giving, it might be difficult for you to increase the amount that you give by more than 10 times. Americans, for instance, they already donate several percent of their income. We know from historical experience that it might be hard for people to sustain very high levels of altruism, so maybe it’s difficult for them to sort of ramp up this altruist factor to the extreme amount.
But then, with effectiveness, if this story about heavy-tailed distributions of effectiveness is right, then you could increase the effectiveness of your donations a lot. And arguably, the sort of psychological price for that is lower. It’s very demanding to give up a huge proportion of your income for others, but I would say that it’s less demanding to redirect your donations to a more effective cause, even if you feel more strongly for the ineffective cause.
I think it’s difficult to really internalize how enormously important it is to go for the most effective option. And also, of course, then the third factor to sort of change your moral goals if necessary. If people would reduce their donations by 99%, they would reduce the impact by 99%. Many people would feel guilty about it.
But then, if they reduce their impact 99% via reducing their effectiveness 99% through choosing an ineffective charity, then people don’t feel similarly guilty, so similar to Nate Soares’ idea of a care-o-meter: our feelings aren’t adjusted for these things, so we don’t feel as much about the ineffectiveness as we do about altruistic sacrifice. And that might lead us to not focus enough on effectiveness, and we should really think carefully about going that extra mile for the sake of effectiveness.
Lucas Perry: Wonderful. I feel like you’ve given me a lot of concepts and tools that are just very helpful for reinvigorating a introspective mindfulness about altruism in my own life and how that can be nurtured and developed.
So, thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation for the reasons I just said. I think this is a very important new research stream in this space, and it seems small now, but I really hope that it grows. And thank you for you and your colleagues work here on seeding and doing the initial work in this field.
Stefan Schubert: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.