Value Drift in the Effective Altruism Movement: a Qualitative Analysis

Marisa Jurczyk

Marisa graduated Summa Cum Laude from Loyola University New Orleans with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. Marisa now works in operations at Rethink Charity.

Author’s note:

This paper explores perceptions of “value drift” – changes in people’s values, particularly away from altruistic values – within the effective altruism (EA) community. After interviewing seventeen people involved in the effective altruism movement, I identified six factors that might prevent value drift:

  1. Social connections to people who share one’s values;
  2. Lack of significant conflicting values (such as family or competing social movements);
  3. Continuously acting on one’s values;
  4. Being open to new ways to fulfill one’s values;
  5. Maintaining a physically and mentally sustainable lifestyle; and
  6. Certain personality traits – in particular, a history of value stability and intuitive alignment with EA values.

I also found that participants seemed to be more concerned about value drift in the world’s population as a whole, less concerned about value drift in the EA community, and even less concerned about value drift in themselves, suggesting that people may be subject to a superiority bias in evaluating their risk of value drift. Throughout my research, I found myself being asked about one question over and over again:

“Is value drift actually a bad thing?” My answer to this question has changed frequently and often drastically since I first began this research. Sometimes, I worried that encouraging people to lock into their values might be harmful more often than not, while other times, I doubted whether we ought to trust our future selves. Ultimately, I’ve come to believe that I think we can be reasonably confident in our most abstract values (e.g. that I should care about the world), but less confident in our more concrete values (e.g. that intervention X is the most worthy of my time and attention).

While this research provides some evidence of what might anchor us onto the values we currently hold, it still has some limitations. First, the sample was small and subject to a strong selection bias; those who volunteered and followed through with the interview were generally more involved in the effective altruism movement than the average EA, and hence were probably less likely to experience value drift in general. In addition, existing literature on the topic could have been explored more deeply, particularly in the context of other social movements. Further, since this research project was my first time conducting academic interviews, I expect the data might be of lower quality than it might otherwise have been if an experienced researcher had conducted the interviews. There are a few ways I think others could develop more impactful research in this area:

– Spend additional time exploring literature on value drift in other social movements and moral motivation more broadly.

– Define, collect, and analyze metrics that could quantitatively measure value drift.

– For those interviewing EAs, collect potential participants from a wider audience (for example, Facebook groups, Reddit, university groups, and e-newsletters) and, from a list of interested potential participants, select a sample that’s more representative of EA demographics.

– Interview or survey people who have left the EA movement.

In spite of the limitations, I think this research offers actionable takeaways that can be applied to EA movement-building and our understanding of moral psychology more broadly. Qualitative research on effective altruism as a social movement is currently relatively neglected, so research in this area might have a high marginal impact. The inductive approach used also offers unique insights that can be further tested through projects like the EA survey and other social science research. Understanding value drift has many practical applications, both for EAs and other individuals who care about making a difference in the world. Decisions about our giving, career path, and lifestyle could all perhaps be improved by a more accurate understanding of value drift and its causes. More broadly, our motivation to care for others drives a lot of good in the world. Knowing how to protect that motivation, then, might be enormously helpful in empowering people to fulfill as much of their potential impact as possible, creating a better world for all living and future beings.