How valuable is volunteering?

This essay was written for high school and college students who are considering volunteering. I’m interested in finding high social value activities for high school and college students to engage in, and would be grateful for any suggestions.

High school and college students are often just starting to think about how to make a difference and improve the world. One salient option available to them is volunteering. How valuable is volunteering?

One way in which volunteering can be valuable is that it can be enjoyable. This is the primary motivation of some volunteers. Another way in which volunteering can be valuable is that it can build skills. Building skills is valuable to the extent that you need them later on. As an example, working on an open source software project is often cited as a good way of developing programming skills.

What of the direct social value of volunteering to others? There are many factors that cut against volunteering having social value to others in general:


Factors that cut against volunteering having social value

Volunteering to help people who can afford to pay generally doesn’t help them much, or simply saves them money

In general, people are willing to pay for work that they find useful. If you’re doing volunteer work to help people who have the capacity to pay, you’re often either:

  • Doing work that doesn’t help them enough for them to be willing to pay for it.
  • Saving them some money.

Saving people money when they can afford to pay is not an effective way of helping people.

Volunteering to help people who would be willing to pay can reduce the job prospects of those who would be paid

The article before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do reports on Americans doing volunteer projects in Cambodia. The projects are ones that locals would have otherwise been willing to pay poor Cambodians to do. Because the Americans were willing to do them for free, the poor Cambodians weren’t hired.

Volunteer activities targeted at those in need are often less helpful than giving cash

People generally know what they need best better than outsiders do, and this points in the direction of giving them money to purchase the services and goods that they need most rather than providing services that they may or may not benefit from.

There are exceptions to this – for example, it may be more efficient to have a soup kitchen for homeless people than to give them money to buy food, because one can serve many homeless people simultaneously, cutting down on the costs of facilities and preparation. But unless you have reason to believe that

  • The services would be the best for the beneficiaries, but they would be irrational and not purchase it
  • Providing the services to many people has substantial efficiency benefits

you should adopt the presumption that giving cash is better than engaging in volunteer activities to help the beneficiaries.

Relatedly, GiveWell ranks GiveDirectly (which transfers cash to poor Kenyan families) as one of its three top charities, above a multitude of organizations that implement other activities in the developing world.

Even when volunteer activities help the beneficiaries, they can hurt others

Consider the case of fundraising for a nonprofit. The activity helps the nonprofit. But what effect does the activity have on other nonprofits? Fundraising might make donors give more in general. But after a certain point, people aren’t willing to give more money to charity. By getting people to give to one nonprofit, you can make them reluctant to give to other nonprofits, reducing their funding.

Consider the case of volunteer tutoring. A lot of what people learn in school is material that they don’t need to know later on in life, so that the primary way in which learning helps is to get them better grades, which helps them get into more prestigious colleges. But there are only a limited number of slots at a prestigious college. So tutoring can have the effect of knocking people out of the running when they don’t have access to quality educational resources.

Volunteering can be costly to nonprofits

According to the report the cost of a volunteer, training and supervising volunteers often costs a nonprofit a lot of money, reducing the resources that it has to use for its activities.

Volunteering is often worse than donating

In Donate Money, Not Time or Stuff Jeff Kaufman points out that to the extent that nonprofits need people to do the work that volunteers do, in cases where the nonprofit could hire someone just as good (or better) than you are for the work for a wage below your earning power, it’s generally better to donate $X than it is to volunteer $X worth of your time.

What to do? 

Learn about economics and effective philanthropy 

In view of the above considerations, finding volunteer activities with high social value can be very tricky. To figure out which ones they are, it helps to

If you do these things sooner rather than later, you’ll be much better positioned to make the most out of your volunteer time. I’d be happy to correspond with high school or college students who are interested in the subjects above.

Consider creating online content that many people can benefit from

One promising area for contributing social value through volunteer work is creating online content. This is because (i) the number of people who can benefit is large (ii) people are seldom willing to pay for online content even when they benefit from it.

By engaging in activities like writing Wikipedia articles on important subjects, you can hope to have a large social impact relative to the impact that a high school student would usually have.

This is only one promising activity, and it won’t be right for everyone: we’re in the process of searching for other promising candidates, and welcome any suggestions.

Build skills to help people later

Learning skills like programming, and writing can situate you better to help people in the future. This is true of high school students in particular, who have the potential to become much more knowledgeable and skilled. The resulting humanitarian benefits can be much larger than the benefits of volunteering now.

Increasing the pool of people with outstanding accomplishments

Cross-posted from Less Wrong

In How can Cognito Mentoring do the most good? I included a section on our potential social value. I want to flesh out what we hope to achieve.

Consider the following people:

  • Scott Alexander. One of Less Wrong’s major contributors, and writes Slate Star Codex. His articles regularly get hundreds of Facebook shares.
  • Bryan Caplan. GMU economist, blogger at EconLog, inspired the creation of Open Borders.
  • Alex K Chen. Quora celebrity who has asked 20k+ questions and ~2k answers. One of our adviseesreported to changing his major based on some of Alex’s Quora answers.
  • Paul Christiano. Shifted away from doing pure math and theoretical computer science exclusively, and has played a major role in the effective altruist community, doing research for GiveWell, MIRI and 80,000 Hours, and is involved in a miscellany of other related projects.
  • Anton Geraschenko, Scott Morrison and David Zureick-Brown. They started MathOverflow, one of the first and largest online communities for academic researchers to discuss research-level questions.
  • Elie Hassenfeld and Holden Karnofsky. Started GiveWell, which moved ~$17 million to its recommended charities last year, with the money moved growing exponentially over time.
  • David Jay. Founded the Asexual Visibility and Education Network which has 70k registered members.
  • Paul Niehaus. An UCSD economist who foundedGiveDirectly. GiveDirectly appears to be much more cost-effective than most charities that work in the developing world. It’s one of GiveWell’s top recommended charities, and is perhaps the first organization of its kind.
  • Richard Rusczyk. Founded Art of Problem Solving, which offers ~50 classes at a given time for high potential math students, and which hosts forums that have 144k registered users.
  • Peter Singer. A philosopher who may be the most pivotal figure behind the animal welfare movement and theeffective altruism movement.
  • Ted Suzman. Cofounded Graffiti Labs while in college, the first product of which of has over 1.5 million monthly users, and is earning to give.
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky. He started MIRI, which could appreciably reduce the risk of extinction from artificial intelligence. He started Less Wrong, which has 8+ million page views per year, has given rise to communities around the world, and which people have described as substantially improving their rationality. He’s writing Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (which has high consumptive value and which has raised awareness of MIRI and principles of rationality).

Some of these accomplishments are more impressive than others, but all of them are impressive, and most of the people listed are quite young, and will plausible do more impressive things along similar lines as they get older.
Some common threads that I see in these people are:

  • They’ve all taken an unconventional path, doing something that they would not have done if they were making their decisions by mirroring the behavior of the people around them.
  • They’ve contributed much more than have people of their ability level who take more conventional paths. In some cases, the factor by which the value of their activities has increased is perhaps ~2x, in others it may be more like ~100x.

Unconventionality isn’t necessarily a path to success, and there are plenty of people who adopt unconventional paths and don’t get much done at all, but when executed well, it’s possible to pursue an unconventional path with relatively little risk and high potential upside.

We think that we can enable more people to engage in activities like the ones above. Many of those who are well-suited to them are already engaged in them. But there are others who have most of the relevant traits for whom there are only one or two limiting factors. Some ways in which we think that we can remove the limiting factors are as follows

  • By connecting people with better learning resources and raising awareness of the benefits of learning particular subjects, we can help them pick up relevant subject matter knowledge.
  • By encouraging meta-cognition, we can help people become more goal-oriented, recognizing when their life aspirations may be better served by departing from conventional routes.
  • By raising awareness of the sorts of impactful side projects and entrepreneurial efforts that others can engaged in, we can help them get into the mindset of seeing opportunities, and judging when they’re promising.
  • Through networking, we can help our advisees find collaborators.

According to student feedback we’ve had some success on the first two fronts. We’re continuing such efforts, and are in the process of working on the latter two.

By moving people in the directions suggested above, we hope to tip more people into the high achieving pool that has the above as representative members. We expect that we can enable an average of one additional person per year to get into this achievement range, with the benefits accruing throughout their lives.

Concerning the feasibility of this: The number of people with the requisite traits is not very small. As above, the people on the list have in some cases achieved far out of proportion with their ability, so there are a fair number of people of the same ability level who don’t. So far we’ve had a number of advisees who probably have similar characteristics to people on the list above at the same age. So it’s not necessary to influence a huge number of people to succeed (though we’re casting as wide a net as possible.)

Assuming the estimate here is correct, we get a lower bound on the social value generated by Cognito Mentoring. We have other sources of social value, which we touched on in our earlier post and might elaborate in later posts.

What colleges look for in extracurricular activities

By Jonah Sinick

From High school extracurricular activities: factors to consider

We spoke with admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Williams, Johns Hopkins, Swarthmore, Brown, Northwestern and Caltech, about how they evaluate student participation in extracurricular activities, for 15 colleges total. We also consulted books and articles, such as Cal Newport’s How to be a High School Superstar.

  • Colleges generally don’t prefer some extracurricular activities over others: Seven of the colleges indicated that the nature of the extracurriculars doesn’t matter, as long as the student shows passion. Two of the colleges indicated that they have a preference for students who are involved in at least some activities with other people. Beyond this, no colleges indicated a preference for some extracurricular activities over others. In general, the colleges indicated that they define “extracurricular activities” very broadly, as anything outside of coursework, which could include work, sports, participation in online communities, etc.
  • Colleges generally prefer depth of involvement over breadth: Six of the colleges indicated that they have no preference for whether students engage in lots of activities or a few activities, as long as they show serious involvement in their activities. Seven of the colleges said that depth matters more than breadth. None expressed a preference for many activities.
  • Commitment can be important: Six of the colleges indicated that continuity of involvement and commitment matters. None said that these things don’t matter.
  • Achievement level can make a difference, but appears to be less important: Five of the colleges indicated that achievement level doesn’t matter as much as depth of involvement. Two of the colleges indicated that higher achievement helps.

How can Cognito Mentoring do the most good?

By Jonah Sinick

Cross-posted from Less Wrong

In late December 2013, I announced that Vipul Naik and I had launched Cognito Mentoring, an advising service for intellectually curious young people.

Vipul Naik and I are aspiring effective altruists, and we started Cognito with a view toward doing the most good. We’ve learned a lot over the past 3 months, and are working on planning what to do next. We’d be very grateful for any feedback on current thinking, which I’ve described below.

Our Mission

Human capital is one of society’s most valuable resources, and school years (ages 5 through 22) are a crucial time period for building human capital. Education is a ~$1 trillion dollar sector, but schools are often dysfunctional institutions, and very little effort goes into helping young people develop as much as possible and to allocate their human capital as well as possible. We want to help optimize young people’s life trajectories. For the time being, we’ve chosen to focus on helping highly intellectually capable young people. Some reasons for this are:

  • Intellectually capable people contribute disproportionate social value (e.g. Bill Gates solved an unsolved mathematics research problem as a sophomore in college; the Google co-founders were computer science graduate students at Stanford), and helping them develop is correspondingly more leveraged.
  • We have deep knowledge of the population.
  • The educational infrastructure is designed for the average student, and the gap between how things are and what would be optimal is greatest for the outliers.
  • By focusing on a subpopulation, we can offer more targeted recommendations.

Some ways in which we aim to help them improve their life trajectories are:

  • Encouraging reflective decision making and meta-cognition: we get them thinking about what they want out of life, and how best to attain it. In this respect, we overlap with CFAR.
  • Highlighting the advantages of learning different subjects to help them decide which ones are most important to learn.
  • Pointing them to the best learning resources available.
  • Helping them find high value extracurricular activities to engage in.
  • Informing them of the advantages and disadvantages of different career choice. In this respect, we overlap with 80,000 Hours (while differing in that our focus is on people who won’t be entering the job market for several years).
  • Connecting them with people who have subject matter knowledge in their academic or professional areas of interest.


We’re primarily targeting high school and college students within the range of intellectual ability of Less Wrongers.

About 75% of respondents to the 2013 Less Wrong Survey who reported SAT scores out of 2400 gave a score of 2130+: this is at the 98th percentile of SAT takers. There are ~40,000 people per grade in that score range in the United States nationwide, so ~320,000 Americans. When one accounts for people at lower percentiles who would benefit, as well as students from other countries, the relevant population is ~1 million.

We’re also well equipped to serve people of younger ages who are highly gifted, and are at a developmental stage where they’re capable of engaging in metacognition and learning high school and college level material. There are perhaps ~200,000 such people worldwide.

Our activities

At the time when we posted in December 2013, we were thinking of focusing on personalized advising, perhaps with a view toward becoming a franchise. Since then, we’ve shifted in the direction of focusing on producing written content. There are two reasons for this:

  • Our advisees have derived most of the value from our generic written content.
  • While  of our advisees have benefited very substantially, the average benefits per person don’t seem to be outsized.

Based on the first point and the size of the target population, if we can produce high quality written content and disseminate it widely, in principle 100k+ people could get a large fraction of the benefit of personalized advising for free.

So far ~70 people have contacted us, including ~40 from Less Wrong (c.f. What we learned about Less Wrong from Cognito Mentoring advising). We corresponded at length with a substantial fraction of them. We’ve taken the advice that we’ve generated and converted it into dozens of articles on our advice wiki, at our Quora blogon Less Wrong and at the Davidson Institute Gifted Issues Discussion Forum. (We’ll be consolidating everything into the wiki eventually: the reason that we’re posting to multiple forums is for outreach purposes and to get feedback.)



Our front page has been getting ~400 page views per week, and our wiki has been getting ~400 page views a week. Our Quora blog has 27 followers. We would like our visibility to increase by 1000x.

We’ve struggled to find avenues by which to disseminate our advice. There seem to be few forums where smart high school students congregate. Those forums and mailing lists that do exist often have strict guidelines against posters promoting their own blogs. We’re grateful that Less Wrong has been welcoming.

We’d appreciate any suggestions for how we might be able to reach more people.

Where will the social value come from?

The main avenues through which people generate social value and disvalue are

  1. Career
  2. Side projects / volunteering
  3. Donating to charity
  4. Enjoying recreational activity, health and wealth
  5. Relations with family and friends
  6. Having children

We have to offer our advisees advice that improves their lives for them to find it worthwhile, but we think that our social impact will be mediated primarily through the impacts of #1 and #2 on others.

It may be surprising that we highlight #2. One reason that we highlight it is that high school and college students tend to have free time outside of school, that they can spend more productively on side projects than on the relatively low-skilled part time jobs that are available to them without the credential of a college degree. Another is that it can be hard to find funding to work on something of high social value full time. Some examples of successful side projects created by members of the effective altruist / Less Wrong communities are:

Why don’t we expect our impact to be through #3 (donating to charity)?

  • A lot of the people well-suited to making money already do it by default: while there are individuals who would do more good taking a higher paying job and earning to give, we wouldn’t expect to be able to boost people’s salaries a lot on average, given the constraints that they operate under, both with respect to skills and with respect to the sorts of work they’d be willing to do.
  • Our advisees won’t be making a lot of money for a long time — by the time they do, they may have had a lot of exposure to the ideas of effective altruism through other channels (whether through existing organizations such as GiveWell and 80,000 Hours, or through future organizations).
  • For effective altruist types, 80,000 Hours Executive Director Benjamin Todd has said that he doesn’t think that it’s plausible that earning to give is likely to be the path toward doing the most good. I gave more points against earning to give as optimal effective altruism in Earning to Give vs. Altruistic Career Choice Revisited.
  • We’re in a different cultural sphere from people in finance and business / consulting, and better suited to help people who are engaged in more intellectual endeavors.

Concerning #4, the benefits would not be leveraged; concerning #5, one would expect the benefits would be ~1x the benefits to the individual, which isn’t a large multiplier; concerning #6, we wouldn’t expect to have much impact on people’s decision to have children, the sign of the effect would be ambiguous, and our advisees are far from the point of actually raising children.

Here are some examples of channels through which we expect to have a positive impact on #1 and #2:

  • There’s a widespread misconception amongst high school students that they have to engage in particular extracurricular activities (or many extracurricular activities) to get into good colleges. By raising awareness that this is not the case, we can free students up to engage in substantive side projects such as contributing to open source software projects and writing Wikipedia articles on important topics — things that both have direct social benefit and that build skills that are useful for future activities.
  • We’re disseminating information about the benefits of computer programming, pointing people to programming learning resources, and pointing people to information about how to learn programming. By reaching high school students, we can help people get a head start, preparing them for the option of becoming software engineers, which will (in expectation) move people into the tech sector, which has unusually great positive externalities.
  • A moderately large fraction of intellectually capable people go to graduate school and end up not using their degrees (e.g. because they’re unable to get jobs in the academic market), or end up doing research of little practical relevance. By disseminating information on academia as a career option and promoting an unbiased view of the value of theoretical research, we can divert people into careers where they can make a difference.
  • By educating people about the unconventional path of entrepreneurship as a career option (for example, by pointing them to entrepreneurship learning resources and connecting them with entrepreneurs who we know) we can enable more people to innovate more than they otherwise would.
We’re very interested in further ideas along these lines, as well as suggestions for how we can realize them.


We originally thought in terms of supporting the operation by charging for personalized advising. This could still be an option, but:

  • High school and college students generally don’t have much money.
  • Most of the students who we advised said that knowing what they know now, they would have sought advising from us only if it were free. This is true even of those who reported to benefiting substantially, suggesting that we can’t resolve the issue by improving the quality of our advice.
  • Students only need ~5 hours of advising from us at a given time, so even to the extent that people are willing to pay, there’s substantial overhead involved per paid hour.
  • While personalized advising does feed into our public content at the current margin, if we had to focus on it heavily, it would distract from producing the more valuable public content.

At this point, we’re seeking philanthropic funding, and would appreciate any ideas as to how to secure it.

Entrepreneurship and college attendance

By Jonah Sinick

Cross-posted from Less Wrong

Some remarks relevant to young aspiring entrepreneurs:

Entrepreneurship and age

• In Why to not not start a startup, venture capitalist Paul Graham says he thinks that the chances of creating a successful startup increase with age up to 23 (at least), but that the best way to gain experience relevant to creating a successful startup is to try creating a startup. He suggests that in unusual cases, 16 year olds may be equipped to create a startup.

Whether or not to go to college

• Going to college (especially an elite college) gives one the opportunity to find cofounders and early employees. Mark Zuckerberg met the early employees of Facebook while at Harvard. Drew Houston met a number of the early Dropbox employees while at MIT.

• It’s rare for highly successful entrepreneurs to not have started college. Sean Parker (Napster founder & venture capitalist) skipped college but was already earning $80k+/year by his senior year of high school, which is very unusual. See also stay mainstream until you have demonstrated success doing unusual stuff.

• The general consensus in the comments on the Hacker News question To go or not to go college? seems to be that even a highly skilled high school programmer should go to college. However, the remarks therein are not directed at entrepreneurs specifically.

Creating a company while in college

• Entrepreneur Nate Berkopec wrote that an aspiring entrepreneur can learn more through starting a business than through coursework, which is very plausible.

• Entrepreneur Jason Baptiste suggests that rather than creating a company while in college, one should instead work on a less time-consuming side project, and see where it leads.

• If one does find a cofounder and has a promising project, there seems to be little harm in taking time off from college to work on a startup. However, unless one is exceptionally talented, the project probably won’t be sufficiently successful so as to furnish a decisive case for not completing a degree.

• In Why to not not start a startup, Paul Graham says that he wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending that somebody with a family do a startup. So all else being equal, one should try earlier in life rather than later in life, and this is an argument in favor of working on something entrepreneurial while in college.

Perfectionism and readjustment of expectations

By Jonah Sinick

Cross-posted from the Davidson Institute Gifted Issues Discussion Forum and Quora

Something that many gifted children struggle with is perfectionism, especially in relation to academics. See for example Perfectionism and the Gifted Child at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page. There are a number of possible reasons for this, but one can be that their sense of identity becomes heavily dependent intertwined very well (achieving near perfect performance), and this can lead them to feel that if they don’t do very well, then they’re worthless.

Sometimes the standard that they judge themselves against is a relative one: e.g. being ranked #1 in a high school graduating class. Sometimes the standard that they judge themselves against is an absolute one: e.g. getting a perfect score on a math test.

It seems to me that it helps to realize that in the long run, one’s performance will almost certainly fall far short of perfection, regardless of who one is.

The academic environment that a child is exposed to is usually artificial in a sense. For example, exams are designed so that all of the questions are doable with a reasonable amount of study, such that it can be possible for gifted children to get perfect sores. One could construct much harder exams, such that even a highly gifted child would score only 50% or lower.
Even if being the best student in a K-12 class is within the realm of the possible, one will almost inevitably end up in a context in which one isn’t exceptional. It’s common for valedictorians to go on to Ivy League schools and to be shocked to find that they’re only average within that population. There are 4 million American high school students of a given age. Even if one is the best student in a class of 400, the a priori probability of being the best student in the country is 1 in 10,000.

Even if one is the best student of a given age in the country (for example, in mathematical research ability), if one is ambitious, one will still fail routinely. The Riemann Hypothesis in mathematics has been unsolved since it was first 1859. Five+ generations of mathematicians have grappled with it without success. Even if one is the among the best mathematicians in the world, and works on it full time, one probably has a < 10% chance of solving it.

Being exposed to this perspective can initially be jarring. As a matter of reality, one almost certainly isn’t going to be the best in the world at something hard, and one almost certainly isn’t going to do something regarded as amazing. Almost all of those very smart people who dream of proving the Riemann Hypothesis will be disappointed. But once one accepts this, one can learn that it’s possible to have a happy life anyway. The sooner one comes around to this view, the better. It can be very liberating.

Procrastinating because of uncertainty

By Jonah Sinick

Cross-posted from Less Wrong and Quora

Procrastination accompanied by guilt comes from an internal conflict about whether one should do the activity. Sometimes the conflict comes from partly wanting to cater to one’s present self (by engaging in more gratifying short-term activities) and partly wanting to cater to one’s future self, or to others (by doing something that’s less rewarding in the short term but that will pay for others, or pay off in the long run).

But this is often not the only element present when one procrastinates and is guilty. Often another element present is uncertainty as to whether the activity is what one should be doing, even when considering the indirect consequences. This can be subconscious: one might consciously think “I know I should be doing X, but I just can’t motivate myself to do it” while simultaneously believing on some level that one shouldn’t be doing X (even when considering indirect consequences). The conscious self isn’t always right in these situations – sometimes rather than trying to overcome procrastination, one should instead abandon the activity that one is procrastinating, for example, when the activity isneither interesting nor important. The subconscious self isn’t always right either: sometimes it’s operating based in false information or insufficient reflection.

If one can recognize and resolve the uncertainty, this can increase one’s motivation to do the work if it’s the right thing to be doing, and help one decide not to do the work if it’s not the right thing to be doing. So determining whether there’s uncertainty and trying to resolve it can have high value.

It’s not always possible to resolve the uncertainty. When this is the case, recognizing that there is uncertainty may not be helpful. Unfortunately, uncertainty can be demotivating even when completing the task is expected value maximizing. The question of how to stay motivated in the face of uncertainty is an important one that I don’t know the answer to in general.

Below, I give some examples of beliefs that can coexist with “I know that I should do the work” that give rise to uncertainty, together with commentary. Some of the beliefs described overlap in character, or can be present simultaneously.


A belief that it’s more effective to do the work later on

Sometimes there are higher priority things to do (even if one should do the work later on). Sometimes one is in an unusually poor state to do the work (for example, if one is sleep-deprived and this is not a regular condition). In such cases, procrastination can be rational.

Sometimes one rationalizes procrastination with the justification that there are higher priority things to do in the near term, even when it’s not true. Sometimes thinking that one will be in a better state to do the work later on is wishful thinking. So this belief may or may not be good reason to abandon the activity.

A belief that one can’t do the work

Sometimes the belief is well-grounded, for example, for most people who are working on solving a famous unsolved mathematical problem or working creating a tech startup. It tends not to be true for people who are trying to do things that many others have done successfully before. Sometimes the belief can arise from it not immediately being clear how to do the work, even though one could figure out how to do the work if one thought about it. For example, if one is having trouble learning to code, one can ask friends for help, or use Google to find answers to questions.

A belief that one is poorly suited to the work

Even if one can do the work, one might procrastinate it because one has the sense that even if one does it, it won’t move one forward.

I know a number of former engineering majors who found it very hard to motivate themselves to work on their first year math, science and engineering classes because they struggled to learn the material, decided that engineering wasn’t for them, and felt liberated upon coming to this conclusion, feeling much better doing work that they’re better at and enjoy more.

Their motivational problems may have been a valuable signal to their conscious selves that they should be doing something else, and their decision to drop engineering may be rational: they could have been picking up on not being good enough at engineering (or find it enjoyable enough) to be able to get good engineering jobs relative to the other jobs that they could get.

They may have underestimated their ability to improve (c.f. How my math skills improved dramatically). They may have been misinformed about the extent to which engineering jobs are similar to learning the material in the required courses. So their procrastination may not have been a reliable signal that they should abandon the path that they were on.

A belief that the work is inefficient or unimportant

All else being equal, we flinch away from work that’s inefficient or unimportant. So procrastination can be a signal of this belief.

Sometimes there’s a better way to accomplish the goal that a task is supposed to accomplish. For example, it might be possible to write a computer program that automatically carries out a tedious task, whether it be computational, information-gathering or sorting. Also, carrying out the task may not help achieve the goal at all.

On the flip side:

  • Even if it’s possible for a goal to be achieved more efficiently in the abstract, one may not have the resources to accomplish it more efficiently.
  • In the modern economy, many important jobs are several steps removed from the tangible results, so that one can get a subjective sense of not getting anything important done even when one is.
  • Even if work is of no intrinsic importance, it may still be important to do it so as to meet credentialing requirements (e.g. in the context of school).

So here too, it may or may not be rational to act on this belief.

The value for young people of intellectual interaction with older people

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Quora

In general, young people are pretty happy taking cues from others their own age. In her book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris argues that the main environmental influence on young people is their group of similarly aged peers, rather than their parents or other adults in their life. Youngsters do seem to be influenced by celebrities, but that influence may be mediated more by the fact that their peers find the celebrity cool.

At the same time, one thing Jonah and I repeatedly noticed in our research for Cognito Mentoring is that young people are often very pleased at having substantive interactions with older people. The “older people” here aren’t necessarily people of their parents’ generation. It often means a high school student being pleased at interacting with a college student or graduate student or somebody who’s just started working. Some possible explanations:

  • Young people do like attention from adults when that attention comes through spontaneous voluntary interaction rather than in a coercive, authoritative context. Such spontaneous interaction signals to the young person that he/she is being treated on (approximately) equal footing with the adult, rather than a child to be bossed around.
  • We’ve been concentrating on smart, curious people, who often don’t find good intellectual companionship in their same-age peers. These people in particular benefit from adult attention. In particular, a very smart young person may be intellectually equal to a not-so-smart older person, and can have a productive conversation that’s stimulating to both parties.

Whether one of the above reasons holds or something else is at play, I think it’s worth considering methods to encourage more interaction between young people and older people in context that aren’t authoritative. Since one-on-one discussion is often infeasible, the best approach might be to encourage young people to participate more in forums where many adults have high-quality discussion but where the barrier to entry isn’t high. Possible examples are QuoraLess WrongStack Exchange – Free, Community-Powered Q&A, perhaps even Reddit (albeit the quality at Reddit is quite uneven). Similarly, adults who participate on these forums may benefit from keeping an eye out for promising young people and offering special encouragement to them, perhaps offering to connect one-on-one with them (though they need to make sure not to creep out the young people, who may be unused to being contacted by strangers).

Related Cognito Mentoring content: Maintaining your online presence (intended as advice for people starting out with building their online presence).

High school students and epistemic rationality

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Less Wrong

In a recent post, I considered the feasibility and desirability of exposing high school students to the ideas of effective altruism. In this post, I consider the value of exposing them to the idea of epistemic rationality. Epistemic rationality refers to rationality in thinking about stuff. This is related to but distinct from instrumental rationality, which is rationality in one’s actual decisions and actions in the pursuit of life goals. For more on the distinction, see herehere, and here.

Epistemic rationality is championed at LessWrong and by the organizations affiliated with LessWrong (including CFAR and MIRI). It’s also potentially of broader interest than effective altruism, although in my mind, the two idea clusters are closely intertwined.

As with my effective altruism post, I consider two questions:

  1. Are people in high school ready to understand the ideas of epistemic rationality?
  2. Are there benefits from exposing people to epistemic rationality ideas when they are still in high school?

1. Are people in high school ready to understand the ideas of epistemic rationality?

The answer to this question largely depends on what people you’re referring to, and what ideas you are referring to. The ideas involved range from the sort that anybody who plans to go to college should be able to understand, to ones that require a good grounding in probability theory, economics, calculus, or other subjects. An abstract understanding of basic cognitive biases, such as correlation versus causationconfirmation bias, the fundamental attribution error, or theillusion of transparency, is at the easy end. Something like the litany of Tarski is probably somewhere in the middle. A proper understanding of conditional probabilities and Bayes’ theorem is at the hard end. It’s possible to convey such understanding without the technical mathematics, but that arguably requires even more skill on the part of both the teacher and the learner. There’s also a significant gap between just having an abstract understanding of a cognitive bias and actually applying it when thinking about specific problems. The factors that predict whether a person will actually apply their epistemic rationality to specific situations is unclear. In particular, it’s not necessarily true that more intelligent people will apply their abstractly acquired rationality to thinking about problems, at least once the basic intelligence threshold needed to understand the bias is crossed.

As I mentioned in my post What we learned about Less Wrong from Cognito Mentoring advising, there seem to be more quite a few high school students lurking around the site. Of the ones who corresponded with Cognito Mentoring, many wrote emails of fairly high quality, demonstrating fairly good epistemic rationality skills in their analysis of t heir own lives and the world at large. This is some evidence in favor of high school students being capable of mastering the basics of epistemic rationality.

High school students are also entering a phase of their lives where they have to start being instrumentally rational with respect to long-term goals. They may not yet have fully formed their habits of instrumental rationality. Thus, at least some of them may be attracted to epistemic rationality with the explicit goal of trying to become more instrumentally rational. My guess is that people in high school are somewhat more likely to view epistemic rationality as a tool to actually making better life decisions (instrumental rationality) than those first exposed to epistemic rationality ideas as adults. The latter are already somewhat locked in to choices that they may not wish to question, and may be more reluctant to start down a path that would make them question their past choices.

As with effective altruism, one challenge is to package epistemic rationality attractively to people. Including rationality in school curricula is one approach. Rationalist fiction such as Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is another approach.

2. Are there benefits from exposing people to epistemic rationality ideas when they are still in high school?

I’ll assume here (without justification) that some basic knowledge of epistemic rationality ideas is helpful in personal decision-making and academic study. There is debate about the level to which this is true, much of which can be found on LessWrong (for starters, see herehereherehere, and here).

As mentioned above, high school students are just starting to explore questions about making long-term choices. They don’t have ingrained habits on that front. Therefore, they may be more willing to shape their instrumental rationality using what they learn in epistemic rationality. To be concrete, they may be willing to apply the lessons they learn from epistemic rationality to choices related to college, careers, subjects to study and major in, extracurricular activities, etc.

On the other hand, it could be argued that high school students are too young and inexperienced to truly benefit from epistemic rationality. They haven’t been sobered by real-world experience enough to start taking their decision-making seriously. On this view, adults who have been burned by bad decisions in the past, or who have seen others being burned that way, are more likely to use all the tools at their disposal (including lessons from epistemic rationality) to make good decisions.

While there is some truth to both views, I’m personally inclined to give more weight to the former. Further, even to the extent that the latter is true, knowing the ideas in advance seems benign. Perhaps people start applying rationality only when they are older and more experienced. But knowing the ideas while still in high school might allow them to apply the ideas as soon as they become applicable (later in life) rather than having to hunt around for them at that later stage.

Biomedical research, superstars, and innovation

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Less Wrong. Related information wiki content: biomedical research as a career optionsocial value of biomedical research.

As part of my work for Cognito Mentoring reviewing biomedical research as a career option (not much at the link there right now), I came across an interview with biomedical researcher John Todd of Cambridge University published by 80,000 Hours.

The whole interview is interesting, but one part of it struck me as interesting and somewhat hard to believe:

John would prefer a good person in his lab to an extra £0.5mn in annual funding. Generally, there are enough grants, so finding good people is a bigger constraint than money.

Here’s the full context:

Our candidate does data analysis in finance, earning over $100,000 per year. They have an Economics degree for Chicago, and an Masters in Financial Engineering from University of California, LA, and reasonable programming skills. They’re planning to do an MD then PhD.

“This guy looks great. I’d love to hire him.” (when he has his MD, or even before).

“The MD and programming/statistics combo is lethal. Top of the world. There’s major demand.”

He probably wouldn’t need to do a PhD, because of the programming. After his MD, he could just apply to a lab. He should go into genomic medicine, which is what I do. Tailored therapeutics or stratified medicine will be played out for major health and economic benefits over the next 30 years. Check out Atul Butte at Stanford. He’s the perfect profile for this guy. He could be the new Butte” 

£0.5mn is about USD 830,000 according to current foreign exchange rates. In other words, John Todd, the interviewee, indicated that a sufficiently good researcher was worth that much. Now, the question was framed in terms of additionalfunding, rather than reallocation of existing funds. But assuming that the existing funding for the biomedical research lab is at least one order of magnitude greater than the amount (£0.5mn) under discussion, I don’t think it matters whether we’re talking of using additional funding or reallocating existing funds. Essentially, I read John Todd as saying that he’d be willing to pay £0.5mn to attract a “good person” to his lab (actually, as framed, it could be interpreted as even more: he’s willing to pay an ordinary salary for the person, plus forgo £0.5mn in additional funds, to hire the person). Note: I clarified with Ben Todd, the interviewer, that the additional grants were per-year rather than one-time grants, so the relevant comparison is indeed between the grant amount and annual income.

I haven’t surveyed the biomedical research community, so I’m not sure how representative John Todd’s opinion here is. Andrew McMichael offers a more guarded response, suggesting that 200,000 pounds are not as good as a great researcher, but he’s less sure at half a million pounds, and in any case, good researchers bring in their own grant money, so it’s a false dichotomy. But I’ve heard that there are other people at biomedical research labs who place even higher value on hiring good people than John Todd does. So in the absence of more detailed information, I’ll take John Todd’s view as a representative median view of a segment of biomedical research labs.

So, question: why don’t there exist high-paid positions of that sort in biomedical research for entry-level people? For comparison, one list of the top ten professors in the US lists the tenth highest paid professor as earning slightly under US$500,000. The list is probably far from complete (Douglas Knight points in the comments to Chicago having at least 5 salaries over $700K, one in the business school and four in the medical school). Glassdoor list salaries at the J. Craig Venter Institute, and the highest listed salary is for professors (about $200,000), with all other salaries near or below $100,000.

I asked a slightly more general version of the question in this blog post. I’ll briefly list below the general explanations provided there, with some comments on the applicability of those to the context of biomedical research as I understand it.

  1. Talent constraint because of cash constraint: I don’t think this applies to biomedical research. It’s not that I think they are adequately funded, but rather, they do have enough funds that there shouldn’t be a great different between how they would use additional funds and how they would reallocate existing funds.
  2. Genuine absence of talented people: I think that this does apply in the very short run — it’s hard for somebody to acquire a M.D. and experience with programming at short notice. But this raises a whole host of questions: why not advertise for such positions prominently, promising high pay, so that people can use the existence of such positions to make more long-term plans of what subjects to study while they’re still in college?
  3. Talented people would or should be willing to work for low pay: While this argument works well in the context of effective altruism (because of the altruistic orientation needed for top work), I’m not sure it works for biomedical research. I don’t see biomedical research as qualitatively different from computer programming or finance in terms of how altruistic people need to be to work productively.
  4. Workplace egalitarianism and morale: There may be friction in labs if some people get paid a lot more, particularly if other workers aren’t convinced that the people getting paid more are really working harder. This is a problem everywhere, including in the programming world. One solution that the programming world has come up with is to offer different levels of stock compensation. Another solution is acquihires: rather than paying huge salaries to star programmers, companies buy startups that have collected a large number of star programmers under their roof, and the programmers cash in on the huge amount of money reaped through the sale. Neither of these specific solutions works in the context of nonprofit, university, or government research.
  5. Irrationality of funders: Employers and their funders are reluctant to pay large amounts. Biomedical research labs are often affiliated with universities and need to use the payscales of the universities. Even those that rely on other donations may be afraid that their donors will balk if they pay huge salaries.

Of course, one possibility is that none of these explanations really matter and I’m overinterpreting offhand remarks that were not intended to be taken literally. But before jumping to that conclusion, I’d like to get a clearer sense of the dynamics at play.

The nature of the explanation could also affect the social value of going into biomedical research in the following sense: if (3), (4), or (5) are big issues, that could be an indicator that perhaps superstars aren’t valued much by their peers and funders (relative to the need to make people conform to norms of taking low pay). This suggests (though it doesn’t prove) that perhaps the workplace doesn’t offer enough flexibility for the sort of ambitious changes that superstars may bring about, so the marginal value of superstars in practice isn’t as high as it could be in principle. In other words, if your bosses don’t value your work enough in practice to pay you what they say you’re worth, maybe they won’t give you the autonomy to actually achieve that. On a related note, this GiveWell blog post hints that many experts think that bureaucracy, paperwork, and a bias in favor of older, established scientists, all get in the way of accomplishment for young, talented researchers:

  • The existing system favors researchers with strong track records, and is not good at supporting young investigators. This was the most commonly raised concern, and is mentioned in all three of our public interviews.
  • The existing system favors a particular brand of research – generally incremental testing of particular hypotheses – and is less suited to supporting research that doesn’t fit into this mold.Research that doesn’t fit into this mold may include:
    • Very high-risk research representing a small chance of a big breakthrough.
    • Research that focuses on developing improved tools and techniques (for example, better microscopy or better genome sequencing), rather than on directly investigating particular hypotheses.
    • “Translational research” aiming to improve the transition between basic scientific discoveries and clinical applications, and not focused on traditionally “academic” topics (for example, research focusing on predicting drug toxicity).
  • The existing system focuses on time-consuming, paperwork-heavy grant applications for individual investigators; more attention to differently structured grants and grant applications would be welcome. These could include mechanisms focused on providing small amounts of funding, along with feedback on ideas, quickly and with minimal paperwork, as well as mechanisms focused on supporting larger-scale projects that require collaboration between multiple investigators.