“One of the best ways to double our impact is actually to get another person involved. When you go into those conversations with the plan to change someone's mind, it rarely ever does actually result in the other person changing their minds. People are more likely to do things and do them more often if they choose to do it. That role of autonomy is one of the major points that we make in this guide.”
In this episode of the Giving What We Can podcast we are joined by Geetanjali Basarkod, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education in Sydney. Her research explores behavioural psychology and societal determinants of wellbeing and functioning. Geet also volunteers with Giving What We can. Recently, Geet helped update our guide to talking about effective altruism, effective giving, and Giving What We Can.
Luke Freeman: Geet, welcome. Before we get started on the guide, I'd love to know how you came across Effective Altruism and Giving What We Can.
Geetanjali Basarkod: I first came across EA in the early stages of my PhD through one of my peers, Mike Notel. We did our PhDs together, and he suggested that the PhD students all get together once a month to have a discussion group over some pizza. Students will always do things for pizza. We got together to discuss things like articles or podcasts, anything that one of us had found interesting. I think he'd started getting into EA around that time.
One of our first PhD pizza discussion groups was about EA. Mike said that EA is about answering the question of how you can do the most amount of good and basing that decision on evidence. He talked about GiveWell as well. From that point, I pretty immediately started donating to the GiveWell recommended charities, but I hadn't really thought about EA too much more in-depth after that discussion group. It was only sort of in the last year that I took a step back and really thought about how I wanted to have more of an impact through my work and donations. It was then that I seriously looked into giving what we can and took the Try Giving pledge at that point. While I was introduced to EA four or five years ago, it's only been about a year since I've delved deeper into Effective Altruism and Giving What We Can.
Luke Freeman: That example of Michael with the pizza discussion groups touches on some of what we get to later as a good example of being a great advocate. Excellent.
Luke Freeman: What motivated you to help with this guide?
Geetanjali Basarkod: Last year, I participated in the Oxford Effective Altruism Fellowship. As it was held online, it had people from all over the world. We were broken down into these groups to meet and discuss a particular topic in EA each week.
And what struck me during those readings is that in most of the articles in books or the recommended readings, there was a sort of dominant narrative or the way that EA was spoken about. Most of what we read was written for the demographic of rich people in rich countries. It was totally understandable given that historically it is the person that the EA community was targeted at. Since the last few years, the community has started expanding to different countries, and people from different backgrounds and a few of us at that fellowship weren't from rich countries. I thought it made us feel alienated, like we weren't meant to be part of the community. It was then that I first thought about writing something for the EA forum in terms of having a more inclusive narrative.
Fast track to last year, we were at the EA Asia Pacific Conference. I was introduced to Matti Wilks there by Hayden Wilkinson, and we hit it off immediately and had a lot of things in common. We're both postdocs in psychology, for instance, and we also shared some of the same concerns about the dominant way in which people communicated about EA. She's been around the EA community for a lot longer than I have and really knows about this area. We talked about writing something like this together. Then fast forward again a couple of months, and I saw your post, Luke, on the Giving What We Can volunteer page and thought that that would be the perfect opportunity to do that.
Luke Freeman: Can you tell me about your research and how you feel that that relates to this guide?
Geetanjali Basarkod: My research relates to the guide in a few different ways, I think. While the article is about how and what to say to people when having the conversation about EA and effective giving, some of what my research does is focusing on the importance of how we phrase things and the importance of motivation for behaviour.
A lot of the research I do uses surveys. I developed a couple of questionnaires myself, and basically, all of the studies that I use have data that has required people to answer surveys. In general, surveys are all about trying to get at an underlying truth that is unobservable by asking questions. We need those questions to be the best at getting to the truth.
Actually, in one of my recent papers, I explored how even small differences in the way that you would, things can elicit completely different responses from the same person. For instance, if you asked a child, "Are you good at reading?" their response could be different from if you ask them ", Do you find reading difficult?" With that part of my research, I have realized the importance of how things are phrased.
And then, in relation to the motivation and behaviour side of things with my PhD research, I developed this questionnaire for assessing everyday behaviours that people could engage in that positively impact their wellbeing. It's called 'The Six Ways to Wellbeing'. One of those ways is actually giving to other people. I studied the ways in which people commonly engaged in giving behaviours and the impact that their motivation for giving to others had on their wellbeing but also on the likelihood of them actually continuing to engage in those giving behaviours. The crux of it is that people are more likely to do things and do them more often if they choose to do it. That role of autonomy is one of the major points that we make in this guide.
Matti's research was also super relevant here. Really our two research areas came together quite nicely to write this article. Her research is concerned with understanding people's motivations and barriers to ethical and prosocial behaviour, answering questions such as "How far do people's moral circles extend?", "How do we get people to expand the breadth of the organisms that deserve our moral concern?" and "Why are some people motivated to behave in prosocial and ethical ways, and how do we get people to actually engage in such behaviours?"
Luke Freeman: Why do you think that people find it difficult to talk about these ideas?
Geetanjali Basarkod: I think there are a few different reasons that people might find it difficult to talk about this. Firstly, I think the major difficulty in talking about EA and giving is that it can sort of come across as prescriptive. People, in general, don't like being told what to do. It can be quite hard to find that balance between sharing the ideas that you care about and also wanting the other person to immediately see your side of the story and change their behaviour in an instant.
And that sort of issue transcends topics. Regardless of what you talk about, there will be someone that disagrees, and it becomes really difficult to talk about things, especially things that are value-aligned and close to someone's values. If we think about politics, for instance, the left and right seem to be becoming increasingly distinct year on year. Both sides seem to think that their side is the right side. When you go into those conversations with the plan to change someone's mind, which, especially in terms of politics, that's always at the back of my mind, it rarely ever does actually result in the other person changing their minds. I think one of the reasons people may find it difficult to talk about EA is that it can be difficult to step away from wanting to change someone's mind and being prescriptive in the way that we talk about EA.
Another reason that has been true for me personally is that I didn't really speak about EA for a while or my donating habits either because I thought it wasn't right to talk about these things because they may come across as a brag. It may seem that when people talk about their donating habits or the good things that they do, people may think that you're trying to show up. I think if you phrase the conversation right, you think about not just what you're trying to say but also how you say it. You can sort of mitigate some of that concern.
I also think that the more we talk about the good things people do, the less stigma there may be around talking about that. I came across this while trying to write this guide as well. There is actually a lot of information about EA and effective giving out there. When you're introduced to EA, and you start reading, and you start learning about it, you may get lost in all of the things that it includes. It can be hard to take a step back and really know which bits to focus on when you do talk to people.
Luke Freeman: Can you tell me a little bit about the process of writing this guide? What were the steps that you took to pull it together?
Geetanjali Basarkod: While I said that there was a lot of material on EA already out there, I think that was a good thing for this guide. The way that we came up with the tips for these guides was largely based on reading what's already out there. I read through a lot of the previous blog posts that were there, the EA forum posts, some research articles and also a fair few YouTube videos and then sort of compiled what others in the community were saying in this massive list of tips and then went through them and sorted them according to similarities and so on and picked out the most important ones. I mean, there's still a lot in this guide. It's about 12 pages long. Once it was all there, Matti and I, based on what we knew from our research and also our experiences with talking about EA and with you, Luke, and others in the community, added some of our own tips and edited it to hopefully be easy to read and follow.
Luke Freeman: What are your hopes with the guide?
Geetanjali Basarkod: I think that talking about EA is really important and is actually one of the major ways in which people come into contact with EA for the first time. As we in this community want to have an impact, one of the best ways to double our impact is actually to get another person involved. I hope that with this guide, people that are interested in EA and want to talk to their friends or anyone else about this have a bit of structure to follow, especially if it's their first time or one of their first times talking about it or if they find that they've mentioned it to a few people but maybe have come away from that conversation thinking "Oh, that could have gone better. Maybe I should have said this" and so on. The hope is that with this guide, people will feel more prepared going into those conversations.
It's also a place where a lot of the information about EA is just in one place. Regardless of which bits of the conversation you might need a little bit of help for, you can just go in and then look at it and hopefully come away with a bit more information about how you should go about that conversation.
Luke Freeman: I find this structure really helpful as well. Without further ado, we might get into it. We're going to go through the tips one at a time. Can you start off by telling me about tip number one, which is "Having The Right Mindset"?
Geetanjali Basarkod: Tip number one, as you said, is about having the right mindset. There are two key points here. Even though our eventual motivation may be to attract more people to the ideas of effective altruism and to have more and more people engage in effective giving behaviours, as I mentioned before, people can tell when you want them to do something and, in general, don't like being told what to do. Going in with that intention of sharing your interests and hearing about the other persons as well and wanting to talk to them about something that excites you rather than wanting to change their mind or telling them about what they should be doing or how they should be living their lives is probably going to be better and more engaging for both.
And people may not react the way that you want them to. Again, that's totally fine, go in open-minded and rather than following the idea of "This is EA. This is how you should do it," perhaps it should more follow the structure of "Hey, this is something that I find really cool, and it's really important to me. I'm keen to know what you think about this." That structure might be a better place to start. Having the right mindset and sharing your perspectives, and respecting their autonomy are the two key points.
Luke Freeman: That's also something that I find to be one of the most important things to start off with is to remember that this isn't an exercise in preaching, particularly in interpersonal conversations. It's an exercise in sharing something in the world that you're excited about and that you care about and volunteering that information to other people in a way that resonates with what they might be interested in the world.
Luke Freeman: We're going to move on to tip number two, which is to be mindful of behaviour and language.
Geetanjali Basarkod: With this tip, I think keeping what you're saying simple and personal is very important. Actually, research shows that we are much more inclined to respond to stories than we are to facts. Spitting out too many facts may not be helpful for people who are new to the concept especially and also to avoid things like jargon and acronyms.
And another point is, again, to not be prescriptive in the way that you talk about EA. New opinions and perspectives are so crucial, and if we bring in people into the community by making it seem that EA is this rigid and inflexible thing, that there is only one right way to practice EA, then I think we're doing a disservice to the movement by drowning out those other opinions.
Another point here is to talk up the action rather than belittle the actor or the doer of that action. For instance, focusing on the issue that you're talking about, whether it be poverty or mediating, rather than the people who are doing harm or causing the issues, so millionaires who don't donate, similarly, also talking about how much good a certain charity does rather than saying that the charity the other person donates to is ineffective is probably a good call.
Luke Freeman: One thing that I often say to people is that there are many things that are well, we're spending money on, well, we're supporting, that there are just some things that have a surprising opportunity just to have even more impact. If you're driven by one, you might be even more driven by the other. Definitely frame it as an opportunity. It's not a competition. It's not about a put-down.
Luke Freeman: That brings us to tip number three, which is to know your audience.
Geetanjali Basarkod: With knowing your audience, I think, firstly, these conversations are potentially going to be easier if you talk to someone who is already more or less EA aligned, so someone who already is donating and is keen to help others or someone who thinks that it's important to help people regardless of who they are or where they live. Even if they don't do anything like that, someone who is open-minded and is likely to engage in an open and nonjudgmental discussion, it'll just make that conversation easier, I think. Never have that conversation with people you think may have different views, but perhaps it's best to not have those as the first few conversations you have about EA.
Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, being flexible about how you communicate about EA depending on who you're talking to is so important. The narrative of helping people further away in less developed countries might be useful for someone living in a Western country. If you were talking to someone from a less developed country or someone who's migrated from one of those countries, like me, using the narrative of a dollar goes much further in India or people far away from you who are struggling with these issues you don't see anymore such as malaria, might not really be suitable in that instance. I think in those cases, you could totally donate to near causes. Focusing instead on differences in the effectiveness of charities that may be addressing the same cause would potentially be a better option. For instance, if you care about education, you could mention that deworming initiatives can be much more effective in keeping kids in schools than the very seemingly logical providing school uniforms or donating books, for instance.
Luke Freeman: That's a great example, which brings us to tip number four, knowing when to have the conversation.
Geetanjali Basarkod: There are a few different ways you could bring up this conversation, and you could take a page out of Mike's book and say, "Hey, let's go grab lunch and talk about this new thing I came across", or if you're part of a book club or a journal club, you could select a text for your next meeting.
Also, another way is if someone is already talking about donating or how they want to help people, you could bring it up then. I will say, however, that if it is your first time talking about EA to others, it's potentially easier to bring it up in a one-on-one scenario because it would be less daunting, firstly, and then also it would be easier to respond to objections if they do arise.
Luke Freeman: Another one that's worked well for some members is they've outsourced the first conversation. I've been invited to speak at someone's workplace, and they see it is just putting something on the calendar that people can dial into to learn about charity. Then them having organized that will often prompt people to come to them and be like, "Hey, thanks for organizing. I have all these ideas and questions." Then people start bringing up the conversation with them.
Geetanjali Basarkod: Absolutely. I think that's a great idea, not something that I'd previously considered. Thanks for bringing that up.
Luke Freeman: I've even just seen that with people sharing an article or a video on their social media, and then people come to them later, and that's how people discover these ideas. Those personal conversations are really interesting and valuable, but sometimes you don't even need to be the one who initiates.
Luke Freeman: That brings us to tip number five, which is to know what to say.
Geetanjali Basarkod: With knowing what to say, there is a fair bit out there about what EA is and what it includes. It can be quite daunting to know what to say. I think the most important point here is to talk about your own story with EA. I know you're a big believer in this, Luke. People, in general, like to hear about what excites other people. If you meet someone who's really passionate about something, you're firstly interested in learning more about that thing, but then that passion may also catch on. Talking about how you came across EA, what motivated you to help others and so on would be a good shout.
The guide also includes all these questions that you can use to reflect on when you're thinking about how to share your story, things like how you came across effective giving or effective altruism and what motivated you to start or to continue helping people effectively.
Luke Freeman: I often like to think about it as if you've just read a great book or watched a great TV show. How are you going to tell someone about that? It's quite similar. It's thinking about what was it that struck you, what stood out to you, what inspired you. These are the types of things that people like to hear. Put yourself as a protagonist for a bit, and people are used to that format.
Geetanjali Basarkod: That is actually a really good metaphor. I'm going to use that myself.
The second thing is to mention a few statements that people are very likely to agree with. Again, Luke, this is something that you use quite often, saying things like "It's important to help others" and "Helping more is better than helping less." And then you can see where that person stands on these issues. If they don't seem to agree, it's probably a good opportunity to find out more about that and, obviously, being courteous and nonjudgmental while doing so. If they do agree with those statements, then perhaps say something like, "For me, my agreement with those statements has implications for how I act. What do you think about that?"
Luke Freeman: I think it's often something that a lot of disagreements or unfortunate tempers rise or something like that from people just starting with different starting points and they haven't even established a shared common understanding of what is true about the world or what is valuable in their minds. People can just speak past each other without realizing that the object level discussions they're having are just so heavily influenced by the underlying assumptions going into it. Yet, when you actually start to interrogate some of these assumptions, you do find that much of this is shared but maybe not necessarily in the way that people would have first assumed. Once you establish that shared starting point, you can then move forward a lot more effectively.
Geetanjali Basarkod: I agree with that completely. I think it's quite often that you go into a conversation just assuming that the other person is on the same page as you. Like you mentioned, the further you go on, then you're like, "Oh wait, we weren't on the same page." Establishing that right at the beginning is excellent.
Thirdly, in terms of the actual EA movement, I think sticking to it being a movement of figuring out the answer to the question "How to do the most amount of good?" and that the way in which we can try to answer that big picture question is figuring out the answers to a few smaller questions so "If we did X, how many people would it help and by how much? Is there much room for work on this issue? Are there other people already doing this? And also, if we did act on it, would this issue actually be solved?" And I also think in mentioning that the answers to these questions keep changing and our understanding of what is the best way to help people keeps evolving.
Even with the pandemic, the health guidance seems to change. That's not necessarily that we were wrong about these things before but because we learn more information. With that new information, we develop our understanding of the best ways to combat the issues and the context changes as well.
Similarly, the focus of EA in terms of the issues we try to solve or the interventions that we're focusing on also do tend to change over time.
Luke Freeman: It's a moving target. The world is complex and changing at all points in time. It isn't a static set of answers, which is also a really exciting thing as well as it might be a bit disorientating.
Geetanjali Basarkod: The last thing I'd like to say about this is that if you do find that the person you're talking to has been interested and keen during the conversation and is eager to put what you've spoken about into action, you can then talk about the donation side of things. Donations are likely the easiest way to make a difference and do that quickly. Leaning on the best advice of where to donate based on GiveWell advice or EA Funds, Animal Charity Evaluators and so on would be good---also, mentioning how charities can vary wildly in terms of the impact that they have. Some charities are about a thousand times more effective than others. If you've taken the Giving What We Can pledge or Try Giving pledge, you can mention that as well.
Luke Freeman: You can often know what to say, but then you're going to be struck very often with objections because these ideas are complicated, and they're sometimes going against people's intuitions.
Luke Freeman: With tip number six, can you share how you go about dealing with these objections?
Geetanjali Basarkod: I think one of the reasons people might shy away from these conversations and certainly why I have tended to do that as well in the past is because we may think that the other person might have arguments that you don't know or you wouldn't know what to say to in response. I'm just going to avoid the conversation altogether.
In this guide, we include a sort of clear framework for what to do if something like that does happen. One of the most common objections is wanting to donate to a cause that has personal significance to us. In our writing, actually, this was really influenced by how you go about these conversations, Luke.
Firstly, it's important to start with empathy and a shared understanding, empathizing that it can be really hard to think about charities from a very neutral perspective and that we all have charities and causes that are really close to us and that we really care about.
Secondly, we then need to recognize the grain of truth in what the other person has said or about where they donate to. It's very likely that this is something that is very important to them, so saying something like most people have firsthand experience of loss. Because we're empathetic creatures, it's likely that we want to donate to the organizations that are related to that loss. From then to share where your viewpoint comes from, knowing people's reasons for what they do can actually be really helpful in communicating and sharing ideas, saying something like, "When I thought really deeply about my experience of loss, I realize that what mattered to me was that someone that I love was suffering rather than the why they were suffering. I realized I care about preventing such suffering in general and preventing it for as many people as I could."
Again, in the end, to check for a shared sense of understanding. Sometimes the things that we can say to us might seem like we've said it in the best way possible, but the meaning of it may get lost in translation, or the other person might have interpreted it in a different way, especially when it is concerned with something that is as emotionally laden as donating to personal causes. I think it's also crucial to check that your viewpoint has come across in the way that you intended it to.
This is also a good opportunity at the end of this conversation to see what they think about your logic. This can not only help produce any sense or any feelings of discontent, but it can also help bring about any other objections or thoughts they might have. Very simply, this can be done by just asking the question, "What are your thoughts about this logic?"
Luke Freeman: Something else that you find good to remember is that an objection is a chance for you both to learn more, and you don't have to have all the answers. In fact, that relates very well to tip number seven, which is following up with them. Sometimes, a great opportunity to follow up with someone is if they've given you a question that you go, "Huh. I don't know. I have not considered that. I'm going to think about that and get back to you." That's often a great opportunity to follow up.
Luke Freeman: On that note, did you want to talk about tip number seven?
Geetanjali Basarkod: As I mentioned with my own story, this wasn't a one and done sort of conversation, Mike had to talk to us about this sort of thing at the beginning of our PhDs, but it wasn't only until last year that I really delved into it deeper. Mike had to wait like five years before he could really say that "Oh, I told Geet about EA, and now she's in the community and donating and things."
Like you said, once you've had that conversation, maybe about after a week or two or whatever timeline is suitable, maybe going back to them and asking them if they've thought about that conversation further or like you mentioned, Luke, if you've gone and thought about something else yourself, then maybe bringing that up again.
You could say something like, "I've come across this blog post that was related to what we were speaking about the other day" and send them a link or "Here's the book I mentioned." And maybe they thought about it a bit more, and they had a few more thoughts and questions. It would be a good opportunity to follow up with them and to see what they are at with the processing of what EA is and so on.
I think there are also so many good resources. Maybe you can share your own copy of your favourite EA book. I know that The Life You Can Save is available for free both as an audiobook and as PDF versions. Maybe send them the link too.
Luke Freeman: We'll soon be, hopefully, adding a link to nominate people to receive a free copy of a book. One that I often like to give people is Doing Good Better by one of our founders, Will MacAskill. I've given it to someone after having a conversation, and they've come back several years later, they'd be like, "You know, that book you gave me, finally got around to reading it. I have all these thoughts."
Geetanjali Basarkod: That book especially, I really enjoyed it. Even within the first few pages, the number of times my mind was blown was unreal.
Luke Freeman: Luke Freeman: Excellent. Shall we move on to tip number eight, preparing for the conversation?
Geetanjali Basarkod: With preparing for the conversation, I think if you're anything like me, you want to go in prepared for the conversation. This could be things like practising telling your story or reading other people's stories if you're not 100% keen to share your own. You could ask other people what motivated them. Actually, if you want to share your story with others, you could also write a member story for Giving What We Can.
Luke Freeman: We ran a workshop last weekend on story writing thanks to one of our members, Chris O'Connor, who is a playwright. We've shared some of those resources in the Giving What We Can Facebook group, and we'll be updating our Member Story Guide soon as well. But if you go to the Get Involved page, we've got a link to some tips and examples for sharing stories. This is actually something, I think, is back to one of the earlier tips. One of the most key things in human interaction is that we're storytelling animals and stories are what connect us and what conveys a lot of information. Especially the deeper level of information, the things like the motivation, the commitment, those types of things are often embodied in the way that we tell stories. The information is scattered throughout a story, what people really connect with, hearing your story.
Luke Freeman: Well, what are the most important lessons you'd like people to come away with?
Geetanjali Basarkod: I think there's a few, and I know that the guide is fairly long, but maybe there are four or five things that I'd like people to come away with, with this.
The first is, again, to use these conversations as a tool to talk about something you're interested in and are excited to share rather than going in with the agenda of changing someone else's mind.
Secondly, respect people's autonomy. People, again, do not like being told what to do or even made to feel that they are doing something wrong or immoral, not being prescriptive and rigid in the narrative of EA and also avoiding "should" language.
Thirdly, using empathy as your friend, being open-minded and nonjudgmental in these conversations is really important. Then be flexible about what you say and how you say it, depending on who you're saying it to. The same narrative around EA and donating effectively may not work for everyone. Keep that in mind.
Lastly, just keep it simple and straightforward, making the ideas as accessible as possible. Use examples that people are likely going to agree with and don't involve too much thought challenging or shattering of values and worldviews. Share your own personal stories as well rather than bombarding them with facts is a great way to do that.
Luke Freeman: And I think it's really important not to sell people short as well. A lot of people are really curious about the world and curious about you and what you're interested in. When you're sharing from a place of excitement and passion or intrigue, people can genuinely be quite capable and interested in engaging so long as they're not being talked down to or preached to. A lot of the time, if it's dialogue, that's something that we just do really well as humans once we get into that mindset.
Luke Freeman: Is there anything else to add, any final notes?
Geetanjali Basarkod: While this guide is fairly comprehensive and a lot of the tips, especially around the context of the conversation, are useful, I think, in terms of the actual content of the conversation, it's not the only way to go about it. The guide is just that; it's a guide. While we hope that the tips in it will be useful to people when they go out there and have those conversations about EA, there may be other things that people find useful to mention.
Our aim, again, isn't to be prescriptive or rigid with how people have these conversations but just offer a bit of support to those who may need it or perhaps offer a different perspective to those who have already been having these conversations.
Lastly, but very importantly, we had a few wonderful people give us lovely feedback. Of course, there was you, Luke. Thank you so much for all of the great feedback, as well as the others from Giving What We Can, such as Toni and Heather, but also others in the EA community such as Mike Notel, Ari Kagan and Emily Grundy. A big thank you to those and others and, of course, to Matti for writing this.
Luke Freeman: Thank you so much. I've certainly found it to be a valuable resource that I've already referred a lot of people to and look forward to doing so more. Thank you so much for your time for joining me today, and take care.
Geetanjali Basarkod: Thanks, Luke. Thanks for having me.
Luke Freeman: Thanks to Geet for joining me today, and thanks to our listeners for lending me your ears for the duration of this episode. I hope you found it to be insightful.
Now, don't forget to check out GivingWhatWeCan.org, where you can learn more about giving effectively and join our community of compassionate people.
Until next time, keep on doing good.