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Week 1: The Effectiveness Mindset

 “We are always in triage. I fervently hope that one day we will be able to save everyone. In the meantime, it is irresponsible to pretend that we aren’t making life and death decisions with the allocation of our resources. Pretending there is no choice only makes our decisions worse."

- Holly Elmore

If you want to use your time or money to help others, you probably want to help as many people as you can. But you only have so much time to help, so you can have a much bigger impact if you focus on the interventions that help more people rather than fewer. 


But finding such interventions is incredibly difficult: it requires a "scout mindset" - seeking the truth, rather than to defend our current ideas.


Key concepts from this session include:

  • Scope sensitivity: saving ten lives is more important than saving one, and saving a billion lives is a lot more important than saving ten.

  • Tradeoffs: Because we have limited time and money, we need to prioritize between different ways to improve the world.

  • Scout mindset: We’ll be better able to help others if we’re working together to think clearly and orient towards finding the truth, rather than trying to defend our own ideas. Humans naturally aren’t great at this (aside from wanting to defend our own ideas, we have a host of other biases), but if we want to really understand the world, it’s worth seeking the truth and trying to become clearer thinkers.

Required Materials

About the program

What the program is about

Effective altruism (EA) is an ongoing project to find the best ways to do good, and put them into practice. 


Our core goal with this program is to introduce you to some of the principles and thinking tools behind effective altruism. We hope that these tools can help you as you think through how you can best help the world.


We also want to share some of the arguments for working on specific problems, like global health or biosecurity. People involved in effective altruism tend to agree that, partly due to uncertainty about which cause is best, we should split our resources between problems. But they don’t agree on what that split should be. People in the effective altruism community actively discuss and disagree about which causes to prioritise and how, even though we’ve learned a lot over the last decade. We hope that you will take these ideas seriously and think for yourself about which ways to help are most effective.


Finally, we give you some time at the end of the program to begin to reflect on how you personally can help to solve these problems. We don’t expect you’ll have an answer by the end of the eight sessions, but we hope you’re better prepared to explore this further.

What the program involves

Each session of the program has a section of Required Materials and sometimes an exercise, which you are expected to complete in advance of the weekly meeting to help you get the most out of the program and give a better experience to your peers.


We think that the Required Materials take most people about 1-2 hours to get through, and the exercise another 30-60 minutes. We have matched the readings and exercises so that, in total, we think it will take around 2-2.5 hours per session to prepare for the session.


The exercises help you put the concepts from the reading into practice.


Beyond the required reading, there are more materials each session in ‘More to Explore’ — these are all optional and explore the themes of the session in more depth and breadth. 


Approximate reading times are given for each of the Required Materials. Generally, we’d prefer you to take your time and think through the readings instead of rushing.

How we hope you’ll approach the program

Taking ideas seriously.

Often, conversations about ideas are recreational: we enjoy batting around interesting thoughts and saying smart things, and then go back to doing whatever we were already doing in our lives. This is a fine thing to do — but at least sometimes, we think we should be asking ourselves questions like: 

  • “How could I tell if this idea was true?”

  • “What evidence would it take to convince me that I was wrong about an idea?”

  • “If it is true, what does that imply I should be doing differently in my life? What else does it imply I’m wrong about?”

  • “How might this impact my plans for my career/life?”

And, zooming out: 

  • “Where are my blind spots?”

  • “Which important questions should I be thinking about that I’m not?”

  • “Do I really know if this idea/plan will help make things better or not?”


Answering these questions can help make our worldviews as accurate and full as possible and, by extension, help us make better decisions about things that we care about.


Disagreements are useful. When thoughtful people with access to the same information reach very different conclusions from each other, we should be curious about why and we should actively encourage people to voice and investigate where those disagreements are coming from. If, for example, a medical community is divided on whether Treatment A or B does a better job of curing some disease, they should want to get to the bottom of that disagreement, because the right answer matters — lives are at stake. If you start off disagreeing with someone then change your mind, that can be hard to admit, but we think that should be celebrated. Helping conversations become clearer by changing your mind in response to arguments you find compelling will help the community act to save lives more effectively  Even if you don’t expect to end up agreeing with the other person, you’ll learn more if you acknowledge that you disagree and try to understand exactly how and why their views disagree with yours.


Be aware of our privilege and the seriousness of these issues. We shouldn’t lose sight of our privilege in being able to discuss these ideas, or that we are talking about real lives. We’re lucky to be in a position where we can have such a large impact, and this opportunity for impact is the consequence of a profoundly unequal world. Also, be conscious of the fact that people in this program come to these discussions with different ideas, backgrounds, and knowledge. Some of these topics can be uncomfortable to talk about — which is one of the reasons they’re so neglected, and so important to talk about — especially when we may have personal ties to some of these areas.


Explore further. This fellowship aims to introduce people to effective altruism in a structured manner. There are far too many relevant topics, ideas, and research for all but a small fraction of them to fit into this very short program. If you are interested in these topics, you may find it very useful to dive into the linked websites, and the websites those sites link to, and so on.

More to explore

Other introductions:

Essays on caring:


  • Tradeoffs - How can we balance our own needs with the needs of others? (5 mins.)

  • Famine, affluence, and morality (15 mins.) Note that many people in effective altruism disagree about exactly how demanding these ideas are.

  • Sustainable motivation - How can we stay motivated when facing massive problems? (24 min talk)

Thinking carefully:

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