by Brian Tomasik
First written: 17 April 2010; last update: 23 Jan. 2014


What we find important can be fickle and more dependent on environmental cues than we might think. As a result, we may want to embed ourselves in physical and social environments that can best foster our altrustic work. While productivity is important, we also need to keep our lives balanced, both for our long-term sustainability and because of the benefits of learning about many fields. Sometimes we do selfish things, and it's better to admit this and move on than distort our beliefs to try to justify it.

Small influences can shape priorities

There are a few basic life activities (eating, sleeping, etc.) that cannot be ignored and have to be maintained to some degree in order to function. Beyond these, however, it's remarkable how much variation is possible in what people care about and spend their time thinking about. Merely reflecting upon my own life, I can see how vastly the kinds of things I find interesting and important have changed. Some topics that used to matter so much to me are now essentially irrelevant except as whimsical amusements, while others that I had never even considered are now my top priorities.

The scary thing is just how easily and imperceptibly these sorts of shifts can happen. I've been amazed to observe how much small, seemingly trivial cues build up to have an enormous impact on the direction of one's concerns. The types of conversations I overhear, blog entries and papers and emails I read, people I interact with, and visual cues I see in my environment can determine what I think about during the day and, over the long run, what I spend my time and efforts doing. One can maintain a stated claim that "X is what I find overridingly important," but as a practical matter, it's nearly impossible to avoid the subtle influences of minor day-to-day cues that can distract from such ideals.

Needless to say, subtle cues are the reason advertising works so well. They're also why people are correct to warn against corrupting influences -- e.g., when fundamentalists discourage their children from attending liberal colleges. To an individual person, it feels so impossible that her concerns, attitudes, and emotional states could possibly change -- they just feel so right and necessary and inevitable -- but taking the outside view, even with respect to one's own life, clearly proves otherwise.

I have been fortunate that, for the past ten years or so, I've never lost an idealized commitment to the overriding goal of reducing suffering (though I have grown much wiser about how exactly that task is best attempted). Still, on a day-to-day basis, what I accomplish toward that goal has varied quite a bit; there have been days or even weeks when I've found myself completely distracted by other concerns. To some extent, this is necessary and important. For instance, those who take the approach of making money to prevent suffering need to find their alternate occupations intrinsically interesting or else will give up rather quickly. Creating subgoals with their own instrumental payoffs is essential for accomplishing any sort of long-term project. But from the standpoint of goal stability, it's also crucial not to let these subgoals take over and become ends-in-themselves. (For there's no intrinsic reason they couldn't be ends in themselves -- as I suggested at the beginning, pretty much anything apart from basic self-maintenance can become a person's chief concern.)

Consider shaping your environment

In view of the impact of subtle, everyday influences on one's unconscious mind, I recommend the following (to myself as much as to others): Don't just claim to care about reducing suffering in the abstract. Also manipulate your environmental influences toward the same end. Surround yourself with people who share that purpose. Read about altruism when you first wake up and are getting started with the day; Facebook makes this really easy these days.

Cancel email subscriptions to irrelevant newsletters and add subscriptions on topics of which you want to be reminded regularly. Same for the blogs you read with RSS. Make regular time to remember why suffering matters -- for instance, by watching videos that depict the seriousness of suffering. Get a picture of a snake eating a live mouse for your office wall. (These are just examples; your mileage may vary.)

Even if you think these things are unnecessary ("Of course I care overridingly about suffering -- how could I feel otherwise?"), consider doing it anyway. Emotions can change like the wind, and one day's overriding concern is tomorrow's irrelevant cause.

Because these cues are so fickle and arbitrary, they rarely square with quantitative assessments of situations -- as evinced by, say, the tendency of many in rich countries to help moderately low-income people in their own neighborhoods over those completely destitute in the Third world, or the tendency of people to focus on human suffering even when that of other species preponderates by orders of magnitude. So it's important also to design one's environmental influences in a way that correctly represents the quantitative facts about a situation. Examples of this idea include hunger banquets or depictions like "If the world were a village of 100 people," in which quantitative data is translated into emotionally digestible form without losing its accuracy. It's for this reason that I hesitated to suggest the snake-eating-rat picture above, because in quantitative terms, the potential suffering of insects outweighs that of other animals in expected value. Similarly, it may be that recondite details of physics and anthropics imply vastly non-intuitive conclusions about the distribution of suffering in the multiverse and how best we can ameliorate it.

So, first do the math, and then come up with the "marketing" (feel-good images and unconscious persuasions) to back it up. But don't neglect the marketing: Math alone can't sustain motivation on a day-to-day basis. We also need the help of appropriately designed social and environmental surroundings to keep our emotions in line with our fundamental values.

Novelty and fun matter too

I want to qualify the tone of this piece. It may have come across as suggesting that some activities are vastly important, while others are completely useless. However, in fact, the distribution of importance of different activities isn't as extreme as it may seem. Everything you do teaches you something, and sometimes it's the seemingly useless activities that lead you to try something new, as a result of which you "learn things you never knew you never knew." Like in a simulated annealing or multi-armed bandit algorithm, it's sometimes important to take random steps to avoid getting stuck in local maxima.

Also don't neglect the need to be generous to your own selfishness to avoid burnout or negative reinforcement with regard to altruistic activities. Fortunately, my experience is that altruism comes naturally as one of the most fun things I could do, in part because it feels so interesting and valuable, and in part because my friends are doing it too. Friends help you keep the seriousness of these issues alive.

If you find yourself routinely stressed out by how overwhelming altruism is, then you're probably taking things too far. A voluntary activity is usually sustainable only if you mostly enjoy it. Look for ways to incorporate altruism into your life that are fun, effortless, and aligned with what you like to do.

Admitting selfishness

Cognitive dissonance is a powerful force in shaping our outlook. Many of us want to believe that we're doing the right things. As a result, when we act selfishly, we're sometimes tempted to find justifications to explain why what we did was actually morally justified. Perhaps this is an evolved tendency that enables us to be sincerely deceptive about our character, or perhaps it's just a quirk of other cognitive baggage.

When I encounter situations of conflict between selfishness and altruism, if I can't do the altruistic option, I choose the selfish option and admit that I'm being selfish in the process. If I'm going to be selfish anyway, I may as well do it without messing up the accuracy of my beliefs at the same time. Minimizing epistemological mutilation while being selfish is known as Occam's imaginary razor.

The main counterargument I can see against this practice is if admitting your selfishness can make it easier to be selfish in general, whereas if you have to pay the cost of elaborate justifications, you may be more likely to bite altruistic bullets. I'm doubtful that this is a significant concern, though. Indeed, sometimes listening to your selfishness helps avoid burnout.

Trapped by relationships and institutions

I've observed a trend with my own altruism that I'm sure applies to others. As I begin working on a given topic longer and longer, I develop more and more friends also working on that topic. I follow and become involved with organizations working on that topic. I subscribe to blogs and email newsletters around that topic. My social and informational worlds become more focused on that topic, and it becomes a warm cocoon where I go every day to find the latest news. It's fun and enjoyable in part because it's familiar.

While it's certainly important to have communities where you're at home, this tendency to stay absorbed in familiar territory also limits your horizons. It may very well be that another cause becomes more urgent, but you're reluctant to switch because your friends aren't there. Even if you try to switch, you end up being drawn back to the old, familiar topics because that's where you have ties and obligations and sentimental attachment.

This problem is not easy to deal with, because you don't want to totally abandon your old relationships. You also don't want to stay aloof from a new cause forever and not get deeply embedded in it, just because you might need to switch later. At the same time, this kind of inertia can make us slower to update our beliefs, and even if we do update, our actions may not follow accordingly. It's something to be cognizant of so that we can take steps to counteract it when it happens. The same kinds of ties that can bind us to altruism and keep us from straying to selfishness can also bind us to a suboptimal cause.