Dissociation for Altruists

Some people do not lack in altruism and are well aware of effectiveness considerations too, but the sheer magnitude of suffering that effective interventions would force them to face is too unbearable for them to acknowledge. I give tips on how they can use dissociation to put altruism on a more scalable basis.

Books like Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save mostly aim to break through people’s compartmentalization to allow them a glimpse of the real importance of problems like poverty. This is one of the most common outreach strategies and it may also be the most widely applicable one. Some of you, however, may be well aware of the importance of the enterprise but are too sensitive to face the suffering that the most effective interventions necessarily bring to mind.

Repeatedly I’ve heard that people think effective altruism is great, but that they would become emotional wrecks if they allowed themselves to care about more than the well-being of their closest friends, Wikipedia, and SETI@home.

I’ve been there. The suffering in the world is enormous, and all the while even the suffering of a single chicken in industrial agriculture is unfathomable to me. I watched a video of seals being flayed alive once. For weeks I slipped through the world in a haze.

However, when we want to donate time and money to alleviate this suffering effectively, then we have to acknowledge it. My solution to overcome this “squeamishness” has been to not “feel about” the things I think about, a form of dissociation. It was more a decision for me than something I had to train, but if it doesn’t come easy to you, then I’ve collected some tips for you as well. (Peter Singer touches on this in chapter 7, “Is Love all We Need?,” of The Most Good You Can Do.)

Permitting Yourself to Dissociate

When I still thought that it was virtuous to empathize emotionally, I did a version of Nate Soares’s experiment where, time and time again, I invented an individual family to represent the statistical victims of poverty and disease that I knew about. Thus I tried to prove to myself that my brain was not a cold dead place. I was overwhelmed and paralyzed with their suffering. I hadn’t even started to imagine the ten-fold suffering of ten families or the ten million–fold suffering of ten million families, yet my “care-o-meter,” as Nate calls it, was maxed out already. As these emotions preoccupied me and weighed me down, my productivity suffered and it threatened to impact, among other things, my fundraising.

Consequentialism saved me. Empathy doesn’t have to take the form that lets you break down sobbing and clawing the floor, or whatever it looks like for you. In fact our recent advances in transport and communication mean that we need a more advanced form of empathy too. As Nate puts it:

Prominent altruists aren’t the people who have a larger care-o-meter, they’re the people who have learned not to trust their care-o-meters. Our care-o-meters are broken. They don’t work on large numbers. Nobody has one capable of faithfully representing the scope of the world’s problems. But the fact that you can’t feel the caring doesn’t mean that you can’t do the caring. … You can still act like the world’s problems are as big as they are. You can stop trusting the internal feelings to guide your actions and switch over to manual control.

The realization that there’s nothing virtuous about having these emotions, that all I was doing was trying to electrocute myself with a broken voltmeter, freed me and allowed me to get stuff done again.

Medical students have to learn that too. One of them told themselves “if I don’t dissociate myself from this patient’s pain, then I will not be able to take care of them the way I need to.” Intellectualizing this decision repeatedly in a small pep talk before each surgery helped them shut it off, and only that way they were able to perform as highly as possible. As Nate puts it again:

It’s a common trope that courage isn’t about being fearless, it’s about being afraid but doing the right thing anyway. In the same sense, caring about the world isn’t about having a gut feeling that corresponds to the amount of suffering in the world, it’s about doing the right thing anyway. Even without the feeling. [Especially without the feeling.]

There may be other hurdles for you, as there were for me:

  1. If you’re worried that your altruism may be selfishly motivated, then that’s just fine so long as it helps the beneficiaries as much as differently motivated forms of altruism would.
  2. If you’re worried that this supposed nonaltruistic motivation may be less lasting than extreme poverty, then put some effort into getting all your finances organized and then file a pledge. A “further” pledge may even be less risky if you anticipate periods of low income.
  3. Finally, sabotage your supposed motivation. Today the selfish motivation I used to suspect seems absurd to me. It ceased to apply at some point, and my enthusiasm for EA was as great as ever. Q.e.d., fscker!

And in case you’re worried, I don’t think that practicing dissociation has impacted my social abilities in any way. On the contrary, I’ve become able to talk about things that used to be so emotional I hardly dared to think about them before.

Dissociation Tips

For me, not feeling was mostly a choice, but there are some precautions I make anyway and some more tips I’ve gleaned from MDs.

  1. Get the tools from the abstraction toolbox. It helps to think in terms of DALYs and funding gaps when you read a statistic. That way you can think about it without automatically imagining what it means for the beings it describes.
  2. If it makes you feel safer, imagine, just once, a unit of suffering that you can envision without going to pieces, like a nonfatal episode of malaria, to understand what a sixth of a DALY means. Once you’ve thus anchored the unit, you can stop thinking about the thing itself altogether and only operate with the abstraction.
  3. Avoid images and videos unless you’re sure you can dissociate sufficiently. Academic prose is safer.
  4. Don’t visit the countries where you’re helping. There is great value in understanding the local conditions better to run better interventions, but the top charities and GiveWell are doing that already so you don’t have to.
  5. Related to that, try not to get to know anyone you might be helping. The decision to donate someplace and not someplace else may consign some to death so others (and hopefully more) can live. It helps to not know either to make better decisions.
  6. A common technique is to create a clear donation budget so that you only have to think about these issues in depth once or a couple times per year.
  7. Donating to a trust like GiveWell’s or Giving What We Can’s might also help increase the abstraction.
  8. Sara Cohen, MD, recommends distraction in addition to dissociation: “When I started feeling queasy, I did a simple trick: I counted to 10. Deep breath, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10.”
  9. Another one of her strategies is to desensitize herself, which she did in a controlled, low-risk fashion with videos. When you feel up for it, you can try that too, carefully.

Sara Cohen concludes somewhat self-contradictorily that “like my own advisors, I can now assert that it’s true that everyone eventually gets over it. And if not, there’s always radiology.” There may be some selection bias involved here (due to medical students who can’t dissociate sufficiently changing degrees), and many surgeons also indicate that there are still certain procedures that they can’t perform. But even these surgeons have surely made great progress since their first semesters of medical school, and the combination of dissociation and avoidance that they practice works well for them and can surely also work well for you.

If you have any more of such tips to share, please do so in the comments. I can’t give comprehensive answers that’ll work for everyone, but I hope I can start a discussion that will generate more of them for more of you.

Once you’ve taken this hurdle, articles like Ben Kuhn’s “To Stressed-Out Altruists” and Lukas Gloor’s “Room for Other Things” may become helpful to make your impact even more sustainable.