A Neglected Cause: Altruism Cultivation Practices

post by willfranks · 2018-10-03T14:52:45.736Z · score: -6 (5 votes) · LW · GW · 4 comments

How are we to address the problem that not enough people are working to solve the many great challenges of the modern world?

It is obvious from the outset that this is a question of human motivations: in my daily life, do I work only to benefit myself (and perhaps my family), or do I purposefully strive to have a positive impact on others and the world? How can we move towards a world where more people act in the latter way?

This post aims to draw attention to a powerful yet largely overlooked tool for solving this motivation problem at the level of the individual, with the potential to impact the social and global. This tool is a set of mental training practices which increase the occurrence of motivations and behaviours of an altruistic and compassionate nature. They were originally developed in the context of the Buddhist religion but have recently been secularised and subjected to scientific scrutiny, giving us a set of extremely simple and increasingly accessible techniques for growing people's concern and care for others.

I strongly believe in the importance of these practices for the simple reason that before addressing the world's problems, we should address the fact that not enough people are motivated to solve them. At present, the great challenges of the world are being actively addressed by only a small minority, begging the question: how might we turn entire populations onto combatting them? Our current methods to achieve this rely mainly on guilt-tripping and fear tactics. But what if everyone wanted to help - because they actually cared?

Spreading the motivations of altruism through these mental training practices, and the subsequent actions they engender, would benefit all other causes backed by Effective Altruism, myriad other charities, and the vast network of interpersonal relations constitutes our entire society. Should this not be a priority of modern philanthropy?

These practices can do a remarkable thing: extend the circle of human altruism and compassion to embrace all beings on planet Earth. Everybody is capable of genuine altruism. We all embody it on a daily basis towards our friends and families; such loving care is the glue of human society. But we face grave problems when our altruism has only a limited circle, and does not extend to those of different nations, ethnicities, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, species - or to those separate from us in time, like those beings who will inhabit the Earth in the future. To change one's actions in regard for those who are not yet born, who we will never interact with, is manifestly altruistic behaviour.

Once altruism has been thus extended, and people begin taking action towards the welfare of these beings, modern philanthropy will find itself strengthened by an influx of compassionate, motivated individuals.

A specific example of an altruism-development practice is "metta meditation", the core practice of which has inspired "compassion cultivation training" (CCT). The efficacy of such practices has been convincingly evidenced by numerous scientific studies pioneered by the Stanford Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). The results of undertaking such practices can be summarised thus:

1) At the individual level, CCT practice contributes to personal wellbeing, mindfulness, health, life and job satisfaction, decreased worry, and decreases self-interested behaviour (hypoegoisis) [1][2].

2) At the social level, CCT practitioners have more compassion; they care more about those around them, and as a result take actions to help them [3][4].

3) At the global level, widespread CCT practice could instigate a shift from a highly individualised, selfish-behaviour-centric economy to a "giving economy", stemming from a basic concern for others and a recognition of fundamental interdependence. This is admittedly speculative, but it only stands to reason that

However, at present, these techniques for developing altruism are practiced by only a very small minority. There are very few public bodies which teach them, and most of them are rooted in a Buddhist context, which I believe restricts their accessibility to the public: practicing them is often conflated with adopting the Buddhist religion.

To recap the "big global problem": too many people around the world act in predominantly self-interested ways, and do not engage in solving global challenges. We could argue all day about why this is the case, but that doesn't get us any closer to solving the problem. What we can do is address this problem using the Effective Altruism framework and identify it as being:

a) Important. The world's great challenges are undoubtedly severe; this is exacerbated by the fact that not nearly enough people are involved in solving them. It is obvious that global problems will require global cooperation and contribution.

b) Highly neglected. Where are the institutions or organisations attempting to spread the ethics of altruism and compassion?

c) Highly solvable - in light of altruism cultivation practices and the scientific results showing how they lead to increased altruistic action. They are simple, accessible, and free to teach.

So: how are are we to spread the adoption of altruism cultivation practices by the public? How can we introduce these secularised practices into the education system? Into universities? Or spread them to the public - through evening classes, day courses and workshops? How can we fund and organise such teaching? Who is going to train the teachers?

If you are at all convinced by this post, I kindly invite you to consider how we might address these questions.

One of the tragedies of our time seems to be considerably underestimating the ability for transformations of the human mind, particularly in the direction of benevolent and generous action. These are tools to awaken such a transformation at a moment in history where selfish human behaviour is damaging - even destroying - billions of people, animals and plants. We overlook them at our peril.

A couple of relevant online resources:

Berkeley Greater Good in Action (loads of free practical exercises): https://ggia.berkeley.edu/

A free metta (loving kindness) meditation by teacher Tara Brach: https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditation-loving-kindness/

Online 8-week CCT courses are offered by CCARE: https://www.compassioninstitute.com/cct-online.


[1] http://ccare.stanford.edu/article/compassion-well-being-and-the-hypoegoic-self-in-press/ http://ccare.stanford.edu/article/the-effects-of-compassion-cultivation-training-cct-on-health-care-workers/

[2] http://ccare.stanford.edu/article/jazaieri-h-mcgonigal-k-jinpa-t-doty-j-r-gross-j-j-golden-p-r-2013-a-randomized-controlled-trial-of-compassion-cultivation-training-effects-on-mindfulness-affect-and-emotion/

[3] http://ccare.stanford.edu/article/a-wandering-mind-is-a-less-caring-mind-daily-experience-sampling-during-compassion-meditation-training/

[4] http://ccare.stanford.edu/article/enhancing-compassion-a-randomized-controlled-trial-of-a-compassion-cultivation-training/


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2018-10-03T18:25:58.138Z · score: 13 (4 votes) · LW · GW
a) Important. The world's great challenges are undoubtedly severe; this is exacerbated by the fact that not nearly enough people are involved in solving them. It is obvious that global problems will require global cooperation and contribution.

The actual intervention you seem to be arguing for is "spreading mindfulness practice and compassion exercises". I do not know of any evidence that suggests that those practices actually cause people to do more good with their lives, and the fact that they do not seems supported by the large national differences in practicing various forms of compassion meditation (e.g. India, Tibet, etc.), but a corresponding lack in correlation between those practices and people working on key global problems.

b) Highly neglected. Where are the institutions or organisations attempting to spread the ethics of altruism and compassion?

As you mentioned, spreading mindfulness practices is attempted by large parts of the buddhist religion, hundreds of not thousands of monasteries around the world, as well as a good number of institutions in the U.S. Spreading altruism has also been a major goal of most organized religions including Christianity.

Spreading altruism broadly seems to me like one of the least neglected cause areas in the charitable sector.

c) Highly solvable - in light of altruism cultivation practices and the scientific results showing how they lead to increased altruistic action. They are simple, accessible, and free to teach.

Free to teach does not mean easy to teach. I do not know of any intervention that actually successfully teaches those principles in a scalable way, and individual instruction is going to be very slow and costly. You also do not actually propose any concrete interventions besides teaching CCT, which I do not expect will cause major shifts in the behavior of people who do so (you might be able to squeeze a p<0.05 study out of it, but I would be surprised by much more).

Overall I find the arguments in this post relatively weak. I think interventions in this space could be promising, but I don't think this post gave much evidence either way. I would however be interested for other people, or the author of this post, to look into this topic with more rigorous standards of evidence, more rough quantitative estimates, and generally a more neutral perspective.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-03-14T20:41:29.081Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I was at a talk at the EA hotel that claimed there's evidence that a specific type of compassion meditation for 30 minutes a day for a few weeks has large effects sizes on compassion. I would be surprised however if this caused people to work on large global problems. I woudn't be surprised if the combination of interventions that improve compassion and interventions that improve rationality caused more people to work on large global problems.

comment by willfranks · 2018-10-10T08:42:24.973Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Hi habryka,

Thanks very much for reading and taking the time to give this feedback. It's much appreciated. I'm taking it all into account and plan to do a more rigorous investigation with a deeper, more neutral look into the evidence (one problem is that when it comes to CCT, metta meditation etc., there aren't too many studies assessing their direct impact on altruistic action). But it seems obvious to me that they can do this, after I have experienced it very strongly in my own life, and have seen it happen in others, too - but all this has definitely given me some personal bias/motivation to argue for their dissemination!

This post was, I guess, a pretty rough initial outline of how these practices might help a lot of different causes.

You've certainly helped me be aware that my enthusiasm for these practices has overshadowed my commitment to solid evidence, and for that I'm grateful.



comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-10-03T18:35:19.657Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Note that the author’s previous post (and only other contribution—post or comment—to Less Wrong, to date) is this post from several months ago [LW · GW], which is also an attempt to persuade readers to spread the word of meditation, “enlightenment”, etc. (and also by couching it in EA terms).