Being useless to show effectiveness

From an email discussion (lightly edited):

I actually think an important related dynamic, in the world at large more than EA, is people favoring actions that are verifiably useless to themselves over ones that are probably useful to others but also maybe useful to themselves. I blogged about this here a while ago. In short, I see this as a signaling problem. The undesirable action (destroying resources in an evidently useless way) is intended to signal that you are not bad. Bad people (greedy exploiters trying to steal everyone else’s stuff) can make themselves look just like effective good people (both do things that look high leverage and where it is not totally clear what the levers are ultimately pushing). So the bad people do that, because it beats looking bad. Then there is no signal that the effective good people can send to distinguish themselves from the bad people. So people who want to not look bad have to look ineffective instead.

A way something like this might happen in our vicinity e.g. if I genuinely guess that the most effective thing to do might be for me to buy a delicious drink and then sit still in a comfy place for the day and think about human coordination in the abstract. However this is much like what a selfish version of me might do. So if I want to not humiliate myself by seeming like a cheating free-rider liar motivated reasoner in front of the other EAs, or perhaps if I just experience too much doubt about my own motives or even if I just want to make it straightforward for others around to know they can trust me, perhaps I should instead work for a reputable EA org or earn money in an annoying way and give it to someone far away from me.

On this model, the situation would be improved by a way to demonstrate that one is effective-good rather than effective-evil. (As in, a second sense in which it is a signaling problem is that adding a good way to signal would make it better).

One response to “Being useless to show effectiveness

  1. It would also be improved by a change in narratives which rejected the ‘evil exists’ or ‘selfishness exists’ hypothesis. Not a perfect solution, but what most of business and politics has done.


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