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Summary

  • Impact obsession is a potentially unhelpful way of relating to doing good which we’ve observed among effective altruists, including ourselves. (More)
  • What do we mean by impact obsession?
    • One can distinguish unhealthy and healthy forms of impact obsession.(More)
    • Common characteristics include an overwhelming desire for doing the most good one can do, basing one’s self-worth on one’s own impact, judging it by increasingly demanding standards (“impact treadmill”), overexerting oneself, neglecting or subjugating non-altruistic interests, and anxiety about having no or negative impact. (More)
  • Is impact obsession good or bad?
    • Many aspects of impact obsession are reasonable and even desirable. (More)
    • Others can have detrimental consequences like depression, anxiety, guilt, exhaustion, burnout, and disillusionment. (More)
  • What to do about (unhealthy) impact obsession?
    • Besides useful standard (mental) health advice, potentially helpful strategies involve, for example: reflecting on our relationship with and motives for having impact, integrating conflicting desires, shifting from avoidance to approach motivation, cultivating additional sources of meaning and self-worth, reducing resistance and non-acceptance, leaning into absurdity when being overwhelmed, and learning skills (e.g., exposure therapy, positive reframing, self-compassion) for managing common negative thoughts & emotions accompanying impact obsession. (More)

Introduction

We’ve noticed that many EAs, including ourselves, sometimes relate to effective altruism and impact in an unhealthy way. In this post, we describe this phenomenon, which we call ‘impact obsession[1]. While its specifics vary from person to person, certain common patterns emerge (as others have also pointed out). Here’s a (first-person) description of how this can feel, based on our own experiences and that of others we’ve spoken to:

By far my most important goal in life is to do as much good as I can. I connect with the logic of EA on a visceral level: seeing a human or animal suffering inevitably reminds me of just how much awfulness exists in this world, how much brighter the future could be, and that what ultimately matters is helping as many sentient beings as best I can. I feel a lot of responsibility because I might be able to make a big difference to the lives of others. Heck, the stakes might literally be astronomical once you consider how your actions might affect the long-term trajectory of Earth-originating life. This is why maximizing positive impact is so important to me.

Exactly how to go about doing the most good is a very difficult question and requires lots of strategizing and experimentation. Picking the right project in the right career path in the right cause area could easily mean having orders of magnitude more impact than if I’d settle on the first decent option. So getting this type of prioritization right is extremely important to me. I therefore spend a lot of time and emotional energy on questions like “is this cause area really the most important one?”, “is this project really the best one I can do?”, “is there some creative out-of-the-box idea that I’m missing and which would allow me to have way more impact?”, or “am I falling prey to some cognitive bias or undue social influence which leads me down the wrong path?”

Unfortunately, the world is extremely complicated, cluelessness is often a huge problem, and many smart people—most of them way smarter than myself!—disagree about what to do. So trying to figure out what I should be doing can feel overwhelming and often fills me with despair.

My self-esteem and my happiness are greatly influenced by how much impact I think I’m having. If I feel my work is important and I’m making progress, I feel great. But sometimes I feel like my work doesn’t make sense, or that I’m stuck or that I’ve made a mistake. I often feel like I’m not having enough impact and could do better. At times, I even worry about having negative impact. All of this can leave me feeling pretty sad and anxious.

I often compare myself to others. When I see someone working long hours, I push myself to do the same. If I can't, I feel guilty. When I see someone making a huge difference, I question why I didn't do the same and feel disappointed with myself. Sometimes I feel downright worthless and incompetent, especially when I think about the most impactful EAs who may be having literally thousands of times more impact than me. Sometimes I feel that I’m not smart enough or lack the necessary skills to help with the most important causes or projects. This can make me feel like a failure, useless and unable to contribute. I may feel like I’m letting those down who need me most.

I push myself and often try to work long hours. There are times when I'm too exhausted to focus, yet I still want to work more. But when I try and can't, it leaves me feeling frustrated and powerless.

I've also found that I'm not as excited about my hobbies or other non-EA topics anymore. I might have thoughts like, "Should I really go dancing now? I have enough energy to work more on my project and I'm not as far along as I'd like. Also, dancing isn't exactly going to save the world, is it?"

Why we wrote this post

Ewelina is a therapist who works with EAs. She noticed that many of her clients were struggling with impact obsession in a similar way to us. Our sense is that this type of unhealthy impact obsession is sometimes misinterpreted and not as readily recognized as, say, depression. With this post, we wanted to carve out this way of relating to impact & EA and give the concept a handle.

To be honest, we also wrote this post to remind ourselves of some of our unhelpful tendencies and how to manage them. We don’t want to pathologize “being hardcore” and obsessing about doing the most good you can. In fact, if more people did this, the world would probably be a better place. Instead, we want to help people who struggle with specific harmful and counterproductive attitudes towards being hardcore.

What do we mean by impact obsession?

Healthy vs. unhealthy impact obsession

To be clear, we are not claiming that if you obsess about impact, then you are necessarily doing something wrong. This is why we first want to distinguish healthy from unhealthy impact obsession though this distinction itself is best viewed (like almost everything else) as a continuum.

It’s possible to display almost all of the characteristics described below but nevertheless be happy and productive. For example, there are people whose sense of self-worth is mostly dependent on their impact, but they are happy with how much impact they are having. They set reasonable standards for themselves and are willing to adjust their goals if they realize that they are unrealistic. They obsess about impact and challenge themselves but, knowing their limits, they don’t push themselves too hard.

One important difference between this sort of healthy impact obsession and unhealthy impact obsession is the motivation driving the obsessive striving for impact. Unhealthy impact obsession seems primarily motivated by fear, avoidance, and a sense of threat. You are desperate to have lots of positive impact otherwise you feel like a bad person, worthless, deficient, inadequate, indebted, guilty for not doing more, unacceptable, and unlovable.[2] (Much of this might be subconscious.) In contrast, healthy impact obsession seems to come more from a place of safety and already feeling good enough in some fundamental sense. For instance, you may take joy in becoming even better, helping even more beings, and treating every bit of additional impact as a nice bonus.

Another important difference is that unhealthy impact obsession is characterized by negative thinking and pessimism. People with unhealthy impact obsession tend to assess their impact unfavorably, focusing on what they haven’t achieved, their failures and mistakes, rather than what they have achieved. They are more likely to think about how useless they are and how little impact they have compared to the most impactful people, rather than how much impact they have compared to the average person.

Common characteristics

With this in mind, let’s discuss the most common characteristics of impact obsession in more detail, roughly ordered by their relevance. (This is basically a more structured and detailed version of the introduction; feel free to skip.)

Everyone is different and everything is on a spectrum; that is, people can vary on i) how many of these characteristics they exhibit, ii) the degree to which they display a given characteristic, and iii) how happy and productive they are overall.

Overwhelming desire for maximizing positive impact

If you’re an impact-obsessed EA, doing the most good is your most important life goal. In fact, you might view maximizing positive impact as your only purpose in life and see all other goals (such as, for example, pursuing hobbies) as primarily instrumental. You don’t just think this abstractly: you feel, as Nicole Ross writes, ‘a deep, powerful, clawing desire for impact’. This usually goes hand in hand with thinking that impact is, philosophically speaking, all that matters and that the stakes are extremely high.[3] (These tendencies may be further exacerbated if you believe that we’re plausibly living at the hinge of history, e.g., due to short AI timelines.)

Self-worth and identity are linked to impact

Your identity, self-worth, and self-esteem are centered around having impact: you only see yourself as worthy and valuable inasmuch as you (believe you) have positive impact. Your moods may be unstable since they depend heavily on how your EA-related projects are going: if you believe that you’re having a large impact, you might feel great, but if you believe that you’re having no impact, you might feel depressed and worthless.[4] 

Personally demanding (or unreasonable) standards

You assess your own impact by ambitious and unreasonably demanding standards. If you don’t meet these standards, you become intensely self-critical and feel like a failure. Even if you do on occasion meet the demanding standards you’ve set for yourself, you soon start craving even more impact, and set even more ambitious goals. (EAs are also encouraged to be more ambitious, which may reinforce this pattern for some.)

Excessive comparisons and the impact treadmill

Humans are social creatures and our standards, including our standards for impact, are heavily influenced by our peers. The EA community is full of extremely talented people, so it’s easy to compare yourself to the best of the best and feel bad when you can’t match their accomplishments.

Many people experience a kind of ‘impact treadmill’ or ‘comparison treadmill’ (cf. the hedonic treadmill): as soon as you’ve achieved one threshold, you immediately start comparing yourself to people at the next level up. You might feel bad because you can’t directly contribute to an important cause area. After years of skilling up and many applications later, you finally can do direct work in your favored cause area, but now you compare yourself to the top 10% in our field. After another few years of hard work, you might even reach the top 10% but now you set yourself even more unrealistic standards (and compare yourself to, say, Paul Christiano). Even though you’ve achieved many of your original goals and do more impactful work than most people, you still feel bad about your impact.

Because you desire to do the most good, you feel like you’re never doing enough good.

Pushing oneself too hard and neglecting non-altruistic interests

As a consequence of trying to meet your demanding (often unrealistic) standards, you often push yourself very hard, and pride yourself on being ‘hardcore’. Even if you’re already achieving a lot or working many hours, you push yourself to do more. Ideally, you’d like to be productive all the time and neglect non-altruistic interests such as hobbies or relationships in order to be able to work more.

You might feel guilty, dissatisfied or even empty when you can’t work as much as you’d like. You are often willing to make great sacrifices in order to have more impact. You might feel drained and exhausted from working too much but interpret this as being lazy.

Black-and-white thinking

You often fall into black-and-white thinking when you consider how much impact you’re having. If you have less impact than some EA superstars, you might feel like you’re basically useless and a failure.

This can be exacerbated by understanding how heavy-tailed impact is: The most impactful people may have several orders of magnitude more impact than the median person. If you’re not one of these few EA superstars, it’s easy to feel like your impact, and thus your life, is basically a rounding error in comparison.

Frequent worries about (prioritization) mistakes

Generally, you often worry about making suboptimal decisions or mistakes.[5] You might constantly wonder if your current projects are really the best you could do. Perhaps you are making a big prioritization mistake? This can reduce the motivation to finish projects because you doubt that this project is really optimal midway through. 

It’s also not uncommon to worry about having negative impact, for instance, by overlooking backfire risks or crucial considerations.

Obsessive thoughts about impact

You might evaluate nearly everything in terms of how much impact you have and how to have more. You might find it difficult to stop thinking about impact even in your free time, making it difficult to enjoy leisure activities.

Obsessive thoughts about impact may negatively affect your relationships—for example, when meeting new people, you may wonder if you should try to convince them to pursue a more impactful career. Such thoughts often make it harder to form genuine connections.

Impact obsession, clinical perfectionism, and scrupulosity

Impact obsession has a lot in common with clinical perfectionism. (In fact, when we started working on this post years ago we tentatively called it “EA and perfectionism”.)

Clinical perfectionists base their self-worth primarily on achieving personally demanding (and often unrealistic) standards in at least one domain despite negative consequences (Shafran et al., 2002). Clinical perfectionism often involves black-and-white thinking, overexerting oneself, excessive comparisons and other characteristics we discussed above (Egan et al., 2016). The negative consequences of impact obsession and clinical perfectionism are also similar (we discuss them below), and some of the strategies that help with perfectionism can also help with impact obsession (which we also discuss below).[6]

However, there are also important differences between impact obsession and clinical perfectionism. The most obvious difference is that clinical perfectionism doesn’t have to be about doing good and in fact rarely is. Another important difference is that standard clinical perfectionism is often characterized by cognitive and behavioral rigidity and inflexibility, task inefficiency and bad prioritization, i.e., spending too much time on perfecting unimportant tasks. In contrast, many impact-obsessed EAs are flexible, open to change, and good at prioritizing.[7]

See this comment for more details on how EA can reinforce impact obsession and perfectionism and further similarities and differences between impact obsession and other mental health conditions, including perfectionism and scrupulosity. See also this 80,000 hours interview with Tim Lebon on ‘altruistic perfectionism’.

Benefits and costs

Isn’t impact obsession reasonable?

Some people may recognize these patterns in themselves, but think: ‘ok, sure…but since the world really does have many terrible problems, and since I do believe that I’m basically obligated to do something about them, isn’t it reasonable to feel this way?’

If someone is, say, grief-stricken about a school shooting in their town, we don’t say that they have a mental health disorder; similarly, when effective altruists feel guilty, stressed or despairing, these emotions are often rooted in facts about the world and admirable moral convictions.

Yes, it’s basically good to put effort into being altruistic. There can be a weird societal double standard when it comes to altruism: society often admires and respects athletes or entrepreneurs who strive hard to succeed in sport or business, yet people are suspicious of altruists who strive hard to be more moral (see also do-gooder derogation). If a ballerina permanently injures her knees through too much training and then becomes depressed because she can no longer dance, people have sympathy; but if an EA burns out because she’s pushed herself too hard, and feels sad about the fact that this limits how altruistic she can be, this is sometimes taken as evidence that EA is a fundamentally mistaken philosophy.

There is arguably a continuum between ‘caring about impact constantly and obsessively’ and ‘never thinking about one’s impact’: people with extreme impact obsession are plausibly too far towards the one end, given that they aren’t utilitarian robots but humans who also need to take it easy from time to time given their psychological and physiological limitations. But most people are probably (way) too far towards the ‘children dying from malaria isn’t my problem, I’m not gonna worry about this, and focus on having fun’ end.

Benefits

If having a positive impact is your most important goal by far, you probably will have a greater impact than if you primarily cared about other things, ceteris paribus. Or in Ozy Brennan’s words, ‘EA dedicates’—people who strive to only care about impact—are usually “going to get more good done than comparable non-dedicates, assuming they don’t burn out”. (Though the “assuming they don’t burn out” clause is very important, as we’ll discuss below.)

In general, if you practice a skill a lot, you’ll get better at it. Athletes who are obsessed about their sport will usually improve more quickly than those who only sorta care. Similarly, if you think about impact all the time, you’ll be, for example, more likely to think of unusual ideas about how to have an impact, and less likely to settle for a career or donation opportunity that is ‘good enough’ as you’ll always be looking out for whether you can do something even more impactful. You’ll also be more willing to work on causes that are ‘weird’ and not socially respected (e.g., AI alignment before, say, 2015) because you care much more about impact than about status and social acceptability. There are many other benefits like these.

Potential negative consequences of unhealthy impact obsession

That being said, unhealthy impact obsession can often have negative long-term consequences. We list some common ones below, most of which we have experienced ourselves (in varying degrees).

Depression, feeling worthless or unable to contribute

What happens if your only goal and source of meaning in life is to have impact, but you think that you’re unable to? You feel pretty lousy, especially if you’re surrounded by other high-impact people. You might feel guilty and ashamed for not doing enough to help the world and worry that other EAs look down on you.

All of this can leave you feeling useless and worthless, especially if you believe you lack the necessary interests, talents or intelligence to contribute to the most important causes (e.g., AI). (Assessments of lacking ability may be wrong, as in the case of impostor syndrome, but they can be correct, too.)

If you’re unsuccessful in or unhappy with a certain way of life, you can usually move on to a different one. For example, a soccer player who continues to be unsuccessful or is getting bored of soccer will, sooner or later, move towards a career more suited to her talents. His identity and self-worth are not tied to soccer on some fundamental, philosophical level. But if you’re deeply convinced by the arguments behind EA, you cannot really escape their logic and might feel trapped in EA even though it’s starting to make you unhappy.

For all of these reasons, some impact-obsessed EAs are at substantial risk of developing depression. In extreme cases, they might have suicidal thoughts like "I basically have no impact, I’m such a failure, and there is no hope in getting better, from the point of view of the universe my life is basically meaningless, I should just kill myself."

Despair over the state of the world

Those with impact obsession need not doubt their own worth and may even feel pretty good about themselves. However, they can still feel saddened by how much suffering there is in the world or despair over potential dystopian futures. Feelings of hopelessness can be further exacerbated by the apparent apathy of others and a sense of one’s limited influence over the world’s trajectory.

Anxiety and guilt

As mentioned above, people with unhealthy impact obsession often seem motivated to have impact from a place of fear, threat, or deficiency. Their thoughts and emotions are primarily concerning negative events they want to avoid, rather than positive events they want to achieve.

This might give rise to thoughts like “what if my work has little or no impact—let alone negative impact!—while receiving money from an EA organization? My life would be much worse than merely being useless; I would have caused enormous counterfactual harm by reducing the funding of a highly effective organization.”

Such thoughts can easily become overwhelming and cause us to become paralyzed by fear and anxiety. It’s unfortunate that the more you care about impact, the more vulnerable you are to such fears.

In our experience, such ‘threat-based’ avoidance motivation is worse for our mental health, creativity[8], and productivity, especially in the long term, than ‘drive-based motivation’, characterized by feelings of enthusiasm and optimism. While writing this post, Richard Ngo published an excellent sequence with a very similar key message: to replace fear with excitement-based motivation. See the section Approach vs. Avoidance motivation below for further discussion.

This type of “impact anxiety” can also give rise to a particularly vicious cycle of “anxiety about having not enough or negative impact” → “being less productive and creative, having more (mental) health problems” → “ insomnia, and/or inability to rest, and recover ” → “reduced productivity and thus reduced impact” → “even more pronounced worries about having no impact”.

Burnout and (chronic) fatigue

In general, many of the above mentioned patterns of thought and emotion contribute to a decreased capacity for rest and recovery. In combination with chronic overexertion and stress, this often leads to increasingly severe problems over time, sometimes culminating in chronic fatigue[9] and burnout.

Sadly, such states are often interpreted as laziness, when in truth, they’re more accurately viewed as the opposite, that is, the result of excessive, demanding work and insufficient rest. (In this context, we also recommend Luise's post on how burnout and fatigue feel like and what can help.)

Another cause of burnout appears to be the excessive neglect of non-altruistic interests—a common occurrence among those with unhealthy impact obsession—as Carl Shulman observed many years ago[10]:

[...] sometimes people caught up in thoughts of the good they can do, or a self-image of making a big difference in the world, are motivated to think of themselves as really being motivated primarily by helping others as such. Sometimes they go on to an excessive smart sincere syndrome, and try (at the conscious/explicit level) to favor altruism at the severe expense of their other motivations: self-concern, relationships, warm fuzzy feelings.

Usually this doesn't work out well, as the explicit reasoning about principles and ideals is gradually overridden by other mental processes, leading to exhaustion, burnout, or disillusionment. The situation winds up worse according to all of the person's motivations, even altruism.[...]

Unfortunately, many people tend to brush off initially mild symptoms of burnout and don’t change their ways until serious psychological damage has been done. This seems more common among younger people and those who recently discovered EA. (We certainly did the same and believed that we were different and that burnout is something that only affects weak-minded, insufficiently dedicated people.)

Fears of motivated reasoning and self-deception

A further complication is that many impact-obsessed EAs are suspicious of arguments for prioritizing self-care and mental health, dismissing them as excuses for rationalizing personal desires. They thus aim for the minimum of self-care (or less). Unfortunately, such worries are indeed warranted since self-deception, hypocrisy, and motivated reasoning are hallmarks of human nature.

Reduced curiosity, excitement, and interests

People with impact obsession often start out with intrinsic enjoyment of and curiosity about many things, but over time, they begin to feel guilty about devoting time to these less-impactful pursuits.

Before we discovered EA, we were interested in a wide range of topics. But then we gradually learned to evaluate almost everything in terms of its potential impact. After a few years, it felt like our natural curiosity had diminished. Asking ourselves whether something was really the most impactful thing we could be reading or thinking about had become almost second nature.

What is more, over time we might become actively suspicious of our intrinsic interests and view passion and excitement as potential sources of bias and motivated reasoning. “Oh no, project A feels really exciting so my evaluation of its expected impact is probably inflated! In contrast, project B feels dull and overwhelming but my evaluation of its expected impact is comparable. After factoring in my biases, I bet it’s actually most altruistic to work on project B!”

This might seem great because you stop wasting your time on unimportant topics and won’t delude yourself into working on pet projects that aren’t actually impactful. Two potentially big advantages, for sure. However, in our experience, this type of thinking (if done excessively) often does more harm than good because it greatly decreases motivation, productivity, and curiosity over time, sometimes culminating in depression, anhedonia, and burnout—though this might take a few years to materialize. It seems that many others have had similar experiences. See, for example, the post “Please don’t throw your mind away” and Anna Salamon’s observations on this topic: for example, the last section of this post, and her comments (e.g., 1, 2). 

Less likely to enter flow states and reduced creativity

It’s difficult to get fully absorbed in your work if you’re constantly obsessing about your impact and second-guessing whether your current project is really the most impactful thing you could be doing (as the answer is essentially never a resounding “yes”).

This is not only detrimental to your well-being. In our experience, it also makes you less impactful, because lots of impactful work benefits from the ability to enter flow states and to access playful, relaxed states of mind; for instance, researchers who want to think of creative or novel ideas. Personally, I (David) came up with some of my best ideas during a period in my life where I felt not as concerned with the question “what is the most impactful thing I can do?” and more motivated by the joy of exploration and experimentation (or “maximizing the value of information” which was the framing I used to pacify my inner “impact optimizer” part).

Competitive comparisons, shame, and isolation

The negative thought patterns of impact obsession often revolve around one’s own relative impact and value. That is, people often don’t focus that much on absolute impact—“I donated $10k, so I basically prevented the deaths of two children, that’s great!”—but rather on their relative impact, often in comparison to other EAs. “I donated $10k. If I keep doing this every single day for another 30 years, I’ll have donated about 1% as much as Dustin Moskovitz, fantastic.” [11] 

Generally, such thoughts can make you feel as if you’re competing with other EAs and can give rise to feelings of envy, bitterness, shame, self-hate, and alienation. Rather than feeling excited or hopeful about the achievements of other EAs, and having a sense of camaraderie, you might feel threatened and embarrassed about how little impact you’ve had.

This is quite sad and also kind of silly. After all, we’re all in this together and are working towards similar goals. Thinking like this also makes it difficult not to be biased in certain ways—e.g., to overestimate one’s own impact or downplay the impact of others in order to feel better.

Other risks

  • Disillusionment with EA and/or leaving EA: People with impact obsession often struggle to live up to their own highly exacting standards and/or (what they see as) the serious moral demands of utilitarianism; rather than living with the inconsistency or lowering their standards, some stop believing in the ideals of EA entirely or leave the community.
  • Generally speaking, being too fanatical and ‘hardcore’ about EA, without any sense of moderation or uncertainty, can cause problems, many of which Holden Karnofsky outlines in his post EA is about maximization, and maximization is perilous.

What might help

In this section, we list some ideas that have helped us and other people. Note that none of these ideas are panaceas.

Everyone is different so the most useful options probably differ from person to person and need to be adjusted to your own idiosyncratic needs, preferences, and circumstances. It’s best to cultivate a patient approach of repeated trial-and-error and seeing what works for and resonates with you and ignoring what doesn’t. Our suggestions are meant to be merely starting points for further exploration and experimentation on your part.

This section is by no means exhaustive. There are many helpful interventions which we don’t discuss, like improving sleep, exercise, nutrition, trying out antidepressants, psychotherapy, talking to friends, meditation, relaxation exercises, and many established CBT-style techniques (e.g., journaling, behavioral experiments, etc.). This is not because we think they are less important. In fact, you should probably try these interventions first if you haven’t already. It’s just that these interventions are usually rather straightforward and there are already enough resources out there which discuss them at length. Instead, we mainly focus (with some exceptions) on approaches that are targeting cognitive and emotional patterns more unique to impact obsession.

Reflect on your relationship with having impact and your conflicting motivations

To begin with, it seems crucial to reflect on your relationship with EA[12], your deeper motivation(s) for having impact and your conflicting desires. Many dedicated EAs feel guilty when they observe that impartial altruism is not their only motivation. They try to subjugate or eliminate their conflicting desires in order to have more impact (and reduce their guilt). However, this rarely works and usually just leads to more internal conflict, worse mental health and reduced productivity.

(If you struggle with guilt, it may help to remind yourself that no human is a purely altruistic creature. We are animals created by evolution and our minds consist of many different modules, some of which have non-altruistic motivations. Thus, it cannot be “your” fault if your motivations aren’t perfectly altruistic; you didn’t choose or create them.)

In the long term, being honest with ourselves, exploring and accepting our different parts, resolving internal conflicts and working out mutually beneficial agreements is almost always the way to go. A better understanding of our different motives can also help us to become more aware of our biases, reduce self-deception and motivated reasoning, which in turn enables us to have more impact. If you’re not aware that parts of you strongly care about, say, approval, status, fitting in with the cool crowd, safety, survival, or avoiding feelings of guilt or shame, you will inevitably optimize for the wrong things.

Better understanding yourself also makes it easier to identify your specific needs and the most helpful approaches for improving your mental well-being.

Strengthen additional sources of meaning and self-worth

If your self-worth, happiness and meaning in life are exclusively and solely determined by how much impact (you think) you have, you’re probably going to feel pretty antsy and it might be difficult to relax and rest. If your ability to have impact, for whatever reason, takes a hit, so will your self-worth and mental health. This lack of stability doesn’t seem optimal, especially if you aren’t very resilient. Therefore, having impact as your sole life goal could actually lower the expected amount of impact you’ll have.

So, in principle, trying to find other sources of meaning and self-worth would seem like a great idea. In fact, finding value in other aspects of life—like family, art, hobbies, being a good person—is a core treatment strategy for clinical perfectionism (e.g., Egan et al., 2016, especially ch. 13) and thus might also work for impact obsession.

However, for people with impact obsession, this is much harder to put into practice. People with typical clinical perfectionism usually derive their self-worth primarily from reaching demanding standards in, say, their work. But they usually didn’t pick their line of work after engaging for several years with various philosophical and empirical arguments. They are just an architect, for instance. If you engage them in Socratic dialogue and ask “well, in the grand scheme of things, is creating the perfect house really more important than being a good spouse? Shouldn’t you care more about the latter?”, there is a good chance they’ll concede pretty quickly.

In contrast, imagine asking a committed EA whether “in the grand scheme of things, is improving the long-term trajectory of Earth-originating life in order to increase the probability of utopian outcomes and decrease risks of astronomical suffering really more important than being a good spouse?”. Not exactly a slam dunk.

Another complication is that it might seem as though you’re asked to perform this Jedi mind trick of convincing yourself to adopt alternative values and find hobbies you really care about but only because this allows you to rest and recover and thus furthers your true terminal value of doing the most good, so these values and hobbies remain instrumental, so they can feel empty and unfulfilling.

All that being said, we think that it’s possible, though it might take a while, to find and strengthen alternative sources of self-worth and meaning in life. Luckily, no one derives their self-worth and meaning solely from their impact. There are no pure utilitarian robots. We’re all human, and we all have our idiosyncratic motivations besides doing good. We already care at least somewhat about other things, like being a good friend or partner, irrespective of the impartial impact that has.

It seems possible to further grow how much meaning and self-worth you derive from these areas by, for example, reflecting on values and virtues besides impact that seem important to you, or hanging out with people who inspire you and who seem to have lots of impact but also pursue other goals in life.

What about value drift?

Some people (including ourselves) have worried that cultivating other sources of meaning in this way could lead to value drift. To some extent, our advice might encourage this: rather than only and exclusively valuing utilitarian impact, those with unhealthy impact obsession might want to try attending to the other values and sources of meaning in their life that they’ve been suppressing (partly because this might allow them to have more impact). As Logan Strohl writes, EA burnout can often result from “prolonged dedication to satisfying the values you think you should have, while neglecting the values you actually have.”

To be clear, we aren’t saying that it’s wrong to only care about maximizing impartial good, philosophically speaking. If there was a pill that allowed you to exclusively care about impartial impact and spend all your available energy and resources towards that goal, by all means take the pill if you want to. We might take that pill. It’s just that there is no such pill.

You could view it as an expected value calculation. You could either stay on the EA hardcore path, where the risk of mental health problems, burnout and thus losing much of your future impact is non-trivial. Instead, trying to attend to your other values might mean some value drift, but it’s probably limited in scope—it seems unlikely that you would stop caring about impact completely. What is more, it’s plausible that having a more “lighthearted” attitude about having impact would actually make you more rational, happy, motivated and creative, which might increase your impact a lot. (See also the demandingness objection of utilitarianism and responses.[13])

Approach motivation vs. avoidance motivation

‘Approach motivation’ refers to the tendency to move towards something positive and is usually associated with excitement and interest. ‘Avoidance motivation’ is about wanting to move away from negative stimuli.[14] Generally speaking, excessive avoidance motivation is associated with reduced creativity (e.g., Friedman & Förster, 2002), and lower subjective well-being, performance and productivity, at least in the long term (e.g., Scholer et al., 2019).[15]

We therefore want to shift our motivation for having impact away from avoidance (e.g., fear of failing those in need, or being a bad person) towards approach motivation (e.g., the hopeful prospect of helping others and making a positive difference). Note that this is not a binary either/or but a continuum which also relates to our previous distinction between healthy and unhealthy impact obsession.

Of course, shifting one’s perspective in this way is much easier said than done. We hope that some of the sections below contain helpful tips. (For a personal anecdote from David about how he achieved this perspective shift (at least once), see this footnote.)[16] 

To be clear, we’re not advocating to never challenge or exert yourself. But we encourage you to use (when possible) approach/excitement-based motivation, rather than fear and self-criticism.[17]

Obligation vs. exciting opportunity

All of this relates to the discussion of whether effective altruism should be seen as an obligation or an exciting opportunity. Philosophically speaking, we tend to agree more with the former perspective. But adopting (some of) the latter perspective seems to have various psychological benefits and plausibly allows you to have more impact. In a way, you might have an obligation to view effective altruism as an exciting opportunity.[18] 

Focusing on the positive

You can increase your approach motivation by focusing more on the positive outcomes you want to achieve with your work rather than the negatives you want to prevent. For example, if you work in global poverty, rather than only thinking about all the children that are dying from easily preventable diseases and using this as your sole motivation, also reflect on all the children who are now able to lead happy lives, in part thanks to your efforts.

Or, if you’re working on longtermist interventions, take time to contemplate sublime futures where everything went well, in part thanks to your work, rather than only thinking about how we are all going to die soon (or way worse), and how you’re desperately trying to prevent that.

The obvious risk here is complacency, wishful thinking, and other forms of motivated cognition. Don’t do that, please. (Cf. Should you reverse any advice you hear?).

Second, if you struggle with feelings of depression or self-hate you could probably benefit from focusing more on your positive qualities or the positive things you have already achieved. (Of course, if you’re a massive narcissist with an overinflated ego—you know who you are!—please don’t do this.) For example, you might want to write down all the impactful things you already did in your life and remind yourself of them if you’re feeling particularly down (but be wary of overly demanding standards for what counts as impact). Or you could imagine an alternative possible world where you have had much less impact. In comparison, you might feel that you’re doing pretty okay—cf. this post for more details on why and how to replace our implicit, demanding, dichotomous (and ultimately arbitrary) standards with more adaptive ones.[19] (You might also want to check out the exercises in Meuret et al.’s Positive Affect Treatment for Depression and Anxiety (2022), particularly chapter 6.) [20]

Focus less on yourself, compare yourself less

An unhealthy relationship with impact is often characterized by an exaggerated preoccupation with one’s own impact. That is, thoughts like “how much impact do I have, especially compared to others?” or “am I having enough impact?”.

Of course, it’s natural for us to spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves. Thinking about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses is useful in many situations (e.g., when thinking about your career choice). However, (excessive) self-focus is associated with depression, anxiety, and negative affect (Mor & Winquist, 2002), and can make us competitive and envious.

Again, all of this is certainly easier said than done. We certainly often had thoughts like “I wish I was smarter and had more energy”. But it’s possible to lessen the emotional impact of such thoughts by repeatedly reminding ourselves, whenever such emotions arise, that ultimately our combined impact is what matters, not our individual impact.

You want to be the least impactful person in the world

In fact, we can take the above line of reasoning to its logical extreme. (The following is a bit tongue-in-cheek but you might find it helpful.)

Imagine two worlds. World A has 1,000,000 committed EAs, World B has 100 committed EAs. All else being equal, World A is (probably) going to be better than World B, so you should prefer World A. However, your relative impact is probably lower in World A (holding your ability to have impact constant) since most of the low-hanging fruit for doing good has already been picked.

Keep this in mind the next time you, for example, get rejected from a job at an EA organization. Every rejection you receive is an update that we’re actually closer to World A, and thus reason for celebration. What if you are already working at an EA organization, or doing EA-related work? Well, hopefully you are often worried about your performance and feel inferior to your colleagues. But what if you are widely considered to be one of the most competent EAs and have good reasons for believing this? Well, you have our condolences.

In all seriousness, this sort of thought experiment might make you realize that you don’t only care about impact, you also care about you personally having lots of impact. This is (of course) perfectly human and nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, admitting that your motivation for having impact isn’t purely altruistic and at least somewhat egocentric, can make it easier to develop a more light-hearted relationship with having impact. Recognizing this can help you take yourself and your mind’s stories about how it makes perfect sense to be miserable less seriously. It might also allow you to cultivate other sources of meaning in life.

Leaning into absurdity

When confronted with the real possibility of astronomically bad outcomes, cluelessness, backfire risks, and the immense complexity of the relevant problems—especially when compared to our capabilities—we can easily become overwhelmed by despair.

Usually, it’s best to boost our spirits by telling ourselves that “we can do this, it’s not impossible, we already made some progress”, and so on. Perhaps paradoxically, we have found it useful to occasionally do the opposite. We actively dwell on just how insane and ridiculous the whole situation is and positively relish the absurdity of it all. (This approach is probably more useful for certain types of problems, e.g., x-risks and s-risks.)

Some hypotheses for why leaning into absurdity might work: It can provide comedic relief and help you develop a more playful and relaxed attitude towards having impact. When the stakes are so high, leaning into absurdity takes off the pressure, and the possibility of failure becomes less frightening. You feel less like it’s your fault, and more like you aren’t even meant to succeed. It’s as if you’re being tasked with scoring a basket from 50 meters away. You’re pretty sure you can’t even throw that far, let alone muster the necessary precision. It might seem like a sick joke, but at least no one will hold it against you if you fail. But making the shot would be pretty epic, and that keeps you going.

Accepting what we cannot change

It’s common for those with unhealthy impact obsession to feel guilty, ashamed, or sad because of how little impact they have and that they cannot do more. Unfortunately, most factors that contribute to how much impact we can have are largely beyond our control—for instance, intelligence, energy / physical health, executive functioning, and our passions and interests.

Focusing our attention and efforts on what is within our control while developing an attitude of acceptance and equanimity regarding what is outside our control is one of the key teachings of Stoicism.[21] From this perspective, feelings of guilt or shame about how much good you do rarely make sense. Generally, one should try to cultivate whatever emotions are most helpful for achieving one’s goals. If your goal is to do good, guilt is rarely helpful (at least for most people who are reading this—there are certainly people whose positive impact would increase if they felt more guilt and changed their actions accordingly.)

Below we outline additional strategies and techniques that can help with accepting painful realities or possibilities (related to EA and having impact), divided into different emotions and themes.

Beware self-improvement perfectionism

One potential failure mode (for self-improvement in general) is to be overly perfectionistic and scold ourselves for not being an ideal Stoic sage who is able to immediately accept everything we cannot change no matter how painful. But this is unrealistic. A more healthy approach would be to celebrate every gradual increase in acceptance, even if we’re still far from perfect.

Welcoming and exploring negative emotions with acceptance and curiosity

(Mumbo-jumbo alert! This subsection contains what many might perceive as unscientific, esoteric, new-agey, mindfulness gibberish. We included it because we personally found it very helpful (after years of annoyed dismissal). Feel free to skip to the next section, which mostly consists of advice grounded in evidence-based CBT and good-ol’, hard-nosed Stoicism.)

Of course, in practice it’s extremely difficult to genuinely accept what we cannot change if it goes against our most profound wishes. In our experience, what appears crucial is to fully internalize that something really cannot be changed, e.g., by patiently allowing your different parts to realize this.

This process in turn often involves many negative emotions, like anger, sadness and grief. We often instinctively resist and try to push such negative emotions away because they are unpleasant.[22] But in our experience, this doesn’t work. The negative emotions will just reappear sooner or later, lurk around in the background, or become stronger over time. (See also Tara Brach’s talks on how resisting sadness without taking the time to grieve might lead to depression.)

What seems to work better is to lean into, fully allow and even welcome negative emotions to ‘wash through’ you.[23] It also helps to have an attitude of curiosity and kindness towards the emotion. How does this emotion feel in your body, what are its physical sensations? What are the thoughts, images or verbal fragments associated with this emotion? What is the “felt sense” of this emotion? Perhaps there are several emotions present at once (e.g., exhaustion and frustration or fear regarding this exhaustion)? A related helpful approach is to ask what the emotion “wants”; what is it trying to “tell you”, what is its purpose? For some emotions this is fairly obvious (e.g., a specific fear alerting you to danger) while it’s less straightforward for others. (Generally, almost all negative emotions have, at least to some extent, a useful function. Keeping this in mind can reduce the suffering associated with experiencing them and increase our acceptance.)

If you’re anything like us, some of this may feel weird or difficult in the beginning. You might constantly wonder whether you’re “doing it right” and whether this is all a load of bullshit. To facilitate such inner dialogue, you might benefit from using psychotherapy approaches that emphasize working with inner multiplicity or techniques that help to personify, embody, or otherwise externalize emotions (e.g., chairwork).

Mindfulness meditation, broadly defined, can be very helpful (not only for this technique!), partly because it trains relevant subskills like concentration, metacognitive awareness (not being swept away in one’s thoughts and feelings without noticing), sensory clarity, and equanimity. We personally like the app Waking Up.[24]

You also want to set boundaries for negative emotions

To be clear, resisting negative emotions can often be the right approach! For instance, when we’re overly anxious over some upcoming important event, we’ve found it helpful to "fight back" and adopt a defiant stance: "Listen, we’ve been in this situation many times before. I refuse to be intimidated by you, anxiety. You’ve always been mistaken before and are most likely mistaken now. I know you’re trying to help but you aren’t. I’m going to ignore you, you’re just wasting your time." We find this 'compassionate upper-cut’ technique especially useful for recurring moderate forms of anxiety, self-doubt, or self-criticism that we have felt many times in similar situations before.

It's worthwhile to experiment with both approaches. What's most effective varies based on the individual, the emotion, and the situation.

Fear and coming to terms with the possibility of having no impact

If all you care about is having impact, worries about having no impact—let alone having negative impact—can cause fear and anxiety.  

A potent way of reducing the emotional impact of such fears is to “play the script till the end[25]: Imagine a relatively concrete, (near-) worst-case scenario: for example, that your recent performance at work has been so bad that you are fired. Rather than following the natural urge of flinching away from such distressing scenarios, you stay with this imagined scenario and try to make it even more concrete, e.g., by asking yourself questions like “what next?”. For example, you might visualize how you would say goodbye to your colleagues, how you would explain the situation to friends and family, and so on.

At first, you might feel even more intense anxiety, but when you stay with this image your anxiety will usually abate and you will emotionally habituate to the scenario before long. This is the ‘exposure’ part of the technique. It’s analogous to how patients undergoing exposure therapy for arachnophobia will experience at first intense fear when a spider is placed in the same room, but as time goes on and nothing bad happens their fear will decline. The important part is to stay with the source of fear until the anxiety has reduced at least somewhat because stopping the exercise prematurely can backfire. This is of course much easier said than done so you might want to do this exercise with the guidance of a friend or therapist!

The second crucial part (and benefit) of the exercise is to come up with new ideas for coping if the feared situation should really happen (see also Robertson, 2019, ch. 6). Coming up with ways of coping usually further reduces your anxiety. For example, doing such exercises helped me (David) to keep in mind that I could probably manage to do a few hours of easy but impactful personal assistant work per week while living with my parents even when suffering from moderately severe insomnia, depression, and fatigue. This helped me to worry much less about being unable to have any impact for the rest of my life, even when I’m unable to work because of the aforementioned symptoms.

(Admittedly, the above is not a literal worst-case scenario. While this technique can also be used to lessen the fear of one’s own death or human extinction, it usually needs to be adapted and combined with other approaches. Warning: This technique typically doesn’t help and can easily backfire when applied to fears of more extreme scenarios such as s-risks.)

Last, there are less emotionally demanding but surprisingly effective techniques for reducing anxiety, such as worry postponement (e.g., Borkovec et al., 1983), which you may want to try out first. If you’re struggling with anxiety (or other negative emotions discussed in this section) we can also recommend the Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders: Workbook (Barlow et al., 2017, especially ch. 10, 11 on avoidance of emotions and exposure).

Sadness, despair, and guilt

As mentioned before, caring about doing good can be accompanied by sadness and despair about the state of the world or its future.

We might criticize ourselves for having such feelings because they are often not conducive to being motivated and productive. A part of us feels like we’re weak and that we should just toughen up—being sad isn’t going to help anyone, after all.

However, a better approach is to remind yourself that, while there is certainly lots of badness in this world, there is also much goodness (cf. focus on the positive). The world has gotten much better in the last hundred years and the future might be very bright indeed, so there is room for existential hope.[26] 

It’s also helpful to internalize that you’re not a weak person for feeling sad from time to time. If your work involves engaging, even indirectly, with the suffering of sentient beings, it’s normal to feel sad about this sometimes. Only psychopaths and sadists would never do so.[27] It’s also worth remembering that your sadness comes from the fact that you care about others and want to help them; that is, from what motivated you to be an EA in the first place. So it’s not only not realistic to eradicate this part of you, it might not even be desirable because it might reduce your altruistic motivations.

If any of the above resonated with you, or you’re struggling with depressive feelings in general, you might be interested in Overcoming Depression (Gilbert, 2001, 2nd edition), particularly ch. 14 ‘Coping with Guilt and Caring Too Much’. (Only the 2nd edition contains this chapter.)

Feeling like a failure or inadequate

People often feel like inadequate failures because they judge their accomplishments using very high standards. “If I am to be a worthwhile person, I must be truly outstanding in at least one major domain” is a typical core belief of clinical perfectionism. The related belief “If I am to be a worthwhile EA, I must have outstanding impact” is not uncommon among EAs. (The “logical part” of them might disagree, but there is another part of them that seems to believe it, at least sometimes.)

Unfortunately, such beliefs can be reinforced by our reflectively endorsed goal of trying to ‘do the most good’ which often entails doing something outstanding.

Of course, doing something outstanding is very difficult. Feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness may be lessened by reflecting on the logical necessity that only a small fraction of people can have truly ‘exceptional’ impact—that’s what ‘exceptional’ means. If everyone adopted the decision rule of “I’ll feel bad about myself if I don’t do truly exceptional amounts of good”, the vast majority of people would have to be miserable. Adopting this decision rule violates universalizability and veil-of-ignorance intuitions that are (in part) motivating the importance of doing good in the first place.[28] 

What if you feel like a failure not because you’re “just average” but because you truly have exceptionally low amounts of impact? First, you want to ask yourself whether it’s really true that you have exceptionally low impact. Compared to whom; the average person? That seems very implausible for most people reading this text. Let’s take charity donations as an example. The most cost-effective global health charities are usually around 25 times more effective than the average and US Americans donate about $1250 per year (in 2017). So you would have to donate only about $50 per year to, say, AMF to do an average amount of good. In fact, this crucially ignores that most US Americans donate to US charities and that donating to global health charities is plausibly much more cost-effective than that!

Also, all of this isn’t even taking into account longtermist considerations or other valuable flow-through effects of beneficial actions almost everyone can take such as being a supportive friend or partner to people who are doing good, promoting compassion, rationality, truth-seeking, or other EA ideals (online or offline), and so on. (Though once you factor in cluelessness and backfire risks, this line of reasoning may stop being the most reliable way of soothing your worries. But if you can stomach the uncertainty, go for it.)  

What if you can’t do any of those things, e.g., because of extreme poverty or severe (mental) health problems? It might help to reflect on the fact that it’s really not your fault that you got dealt such terrible cards. Imagine how you would feel about other people who face similarly terrible circumstances that prevent them from doing good. Concepts like “failure” wouldn’t even enter your mind. The same is true for you and the fact that you’re engaging with the EA forum at all in such circumstances is admirable.

Replacing self-criticism with self-compassion

In our experience, many people with impact obsession almost constantly criticize themselves about how they are lazy failures, how they don’t have enough impact, how they aren't smart, judicious, or courageous enough. We’ve certainly been there.

We often do this based on the assumption that harshly criticizing ourselves is what will actually motivate us to do better. However, the opposite is probably the case. For example, higher self-compassion (and lower self-criticism) is associated with less procrastination (Sirois, 2014) and self-compassion seems to increase self-control (Dundas et al., 2017). You might have already noticed yourself that telling yourself how lazy and useless you are doesn’t actually make you all that motivated. Of note, moving from (excessive) self-criticism to self-compassion is also a core treatment technique for clinical perfectionism (Egan et al., 2016, ch. 13).

One common misunderstanding is that self-compassion basically means telling yourself how awesome you are while you just play video games all day long. This is not self-compassion. Many illustrate self-compassion via the attitudes of a good coach or teacher.[29] When his students make mistakes, he clearly points them out; he doesn’t pretend they didn’t happen. But he doesn’t insult or berate his students; instead, he demonstrates how to do better and soothes his students if necessary, explaining how everyone makes mistakes. He would inspire his students to continuously improve, but from a place of finding joy in excellence, not with the threat of punishment. Last, he isn’t a pushover and will impose fair penalties if necessary, e.g., in cases of repeated misbehavior. 

You might want to try emulating the approach of such a coach when talking with or trying to motivate yourself. If you’re interested in cultivating self-compassion you might want to check out the Compassionate Mind Workbook (Irons & Beaumont, 2017, especially ch. 17).

Fully commit to rest

As discussed above, unhealthy impact obsession often comes with a diminished capacity to rest and recover. You want to make time for regular periods of rest and really commit to them, without feeling guilty. We need to be mindful of two common failure modes.

Keeping yourself busy with semi-useful tasks

The first failure mode is preventing yourself from resting by keeping yourself busy with semi-productive tasks that aren’t actually important or necessary to do. Why do we do this? Presumably, part of the reason is that we tend to judge ourselves on the basis of hours worked. (Also, other people will often judge you based on how long you are working.) Our inner critic often seems to believe that only bad and lazy people work for, say, 4 hours a day. Committed, morally serious, non-evil EAs work at the very least 7 hours a day. And if you want to really feel good about yourself, you want to work for 10 hours or more.

Unfortunately, the most important tasks are often very draining and, for many people, are difficult to do for more than, say, 4 hours per day. (Generally, most people probably work less than you think.) So, what can you do if you’re too fatigued and drained to continue working on your most important tasks but want to feel like a good, hard-working EA? You work on tasks that are much easier to do (but still somewhat draining): “Perhaps I can improve my task management system or read some marginally useful non-fiction book that isn’t too tedious!”

(See also Pain is not the unit of Effort.)

Not committing to rest

The second failure mode is to not fully commit to rest and recovery. We often observed the following pattern in ourselves: You notice that you’re too fatigued and drained to keep on working. So you stop working and decide to rest. For example, you play a video game. But part of you still would like to work. While playing, in the back of your mind you continually have thoughts like “​​I haven’t made enough progress today, I should work more, I’m so behind”, “I haven’t been productive enough to deserve rest”, “I can’t believe I’m playing video games while the world is on fire, how can I be so selfish?”, or “I should be the kind of person who enjoys reading books in their leisure time, playing video games is not cool”.

Obviously, such thoughts interfere with really ‘switching off’, and your time spent resting is much less restorative than it could be. It’s also worth pointing out that this failure mode can be difficult to recognize and requires some level of mindfulness. You might have had thoughts like this for such a long time that you’ve habituated to them and aren’t even fully aware of having them.

This type of “half-speeding rest” can be difficult to overcome, but the first step is usually to notice that you’re doing it and decide whether you really want to rest. If yes, really commit to the decision to rest for a set period of time, using whatever technique works for you. Perhaps put a post-it note saying “remember that you committed to resting for the rest of the day!” somewhere prominent, and block the time in your calendar.

If you have denied yourself from resting for a long time, you might need some time to figure out what activities you actually enjoy and are re-energizing. Then give yourself permission to enjoy that without any guilt or shame. In the beginning, you might need some form of therapeutic work, or to talk to resisting parts of you and engage with their concerns. 

It’s fine if you need more rest than others

Keep in mind that there are probably large individual differences in how much rest you need. Some people really can work 10 hours per day. But many cannot. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean that you are less committed or altruistic. (See this comment for more thoughts on individual differences in needs for rest.)

Another useful piece of advice is to have something like rest and recovery days.

Other related relevant resources

There is a good overview on mental health resources tailored for EAs by Miranda Zhang. We have referenced most but not all texts included there. We also liked these essays which aren’t included in Miranda’s list:

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Amber Dawn for helping with writing and editing substantial parts of the sections “What do we mean by impact obsession” and “Benefits and costs”, and for editing, comments and feedback on the whole post.

Thank you to Harri Besceli, Lucius Caviola, Ruairi Donnelly, Damon Pourtahmaseb-Sasi, Johannes Treutlein, and Kaj Sotala for many helpful comments and feedback!

References

Barlow, D. H., Ellard, K. K., Fairholme, C. P., Boisseau, C. L., Farchione, T. J., Allen, L. B., Ehrenreich-May, J. T. (2017). Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders: Workbook. 2nd edition. Oxford University Press.

Borkovec, T. D., Wilkinson, L., Folensbee, R., & Lerman, C. (1983). Stimulus control applications to the treatment of worry. Behaviour research and therapy, 21(3), 247-251.

Clark, A. (2023). The experience machine: how our minds predict and shape reality. Penguin Random House.

Deary, V., & Chalder, T. (2010). Personality and perfectionism in chronic fatigue syndrome: a closer look. Psychology and Health, 25(4), 465-475.

Dundas, I., Binder, P. E., Hansen, T. G., & Stige, S. H. (2017). Does a short self‐compassion intervention for students increase healthy self‐regulation? A randomized control trial. Scandinavian journal of psychology, 58(5), 443-450.

Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., Shafran, R., & Antony, M. M. (2016). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of perfectionism. Guilford Publications.

Friedman, R. S., & Förster, J. (2002). The influence of approach and avoidance motor actions on creative cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(1), 41-55.

Gilbert, P. (2001). Overcoming Depression 2nd Edition: A Step-by-Step Approach to Gaining Control Over Depression. Oxford University Press.

Irons, C., & Beaumont, E. (2017). The compassionate mind workbook: A step-by-step guide to developing your compassionate self. Robinson.

Kaptchuk, T. J., & Miller, F. G. (2018). Open label placebo: can honestly prescribed placebos evoke meaningful therapeutic benefits?. Bmj, 363.

Kempke, S., Van Houdenhove, B., Luyten, P., Goossens, L., Bekaert, P., & Van Wambeke, P. (2011). Unraveling the role of perfectionism in chronic fatigue syndrome: is there a distinction between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism?. Psychiatry research, 186(2-3), 373-377.

Kempke, S., Van Houdenhove, B., Claes, S., Luyten, P. (2016). The Role of Perfectionism in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In: Sirois, F., Molnar, D. (eds) Perfectionism, Health, and Well-Being. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-18582-8_5

Limburg, K., Watson, H. J., Hagger, M. S., & Egan, S. J. (2017). The relationship between perfectionism and psychopathology: A meta‐analysis. Journal of clinical psychology, 73(10), 1301-1326.

MacAskill, W., Meissner, D., and Chappell, R.Y. (2023). The Demandingness Objection. In R.Y. Chappell, D. Meissner, and W. MacAskill (eds.), An Introduction to Utilitarianism.

Meuret, A. E., Dour, H., Guinyard, A. L., & Craske, M. G. (2022). Positive Affect Treatment for Depression and Anxiety: Workbook. Oxford University Press.

Mor, N., & Winquist, J. (2002). Self-focused attention and negative affect: a meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 128(4), 638.

Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.

Robertson, D. (2019). How to think like a Roman emperor: The stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. St. Martin's Press.

Scholer, A. A., Cornwell, J. F., & Higgins, E. T. (2019). Should we approach approach and avoid avoidance? An inquiry from different levels. Psychological Inquiry, 30(3), 111-124.

Shafran, R., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C. G. (2002). Clinical perfectionism: A cognitive–behavioural analysis. Behaviour research and therapy, 40(7), 773-791.

Sirois, F. M. (2014). Procrastination and stress: Exploring the role of self-compassion. Self and Identity, 13(2), 128-145.

White, C., & Schweitzer, R. (2000). The role of personality in the development and perpetuation of chronic fatigue syndrome. Journal of psychosomatic research, 48(6), 515-524.

  1. ^

     Another term might be impact addiction, in the sense that one is never satisfied with a given level of impact and always craves more.

  2. ^

     When you do something impactful, especially when you receive positive social feedback, you will feel (brief but potentially intense) relief from all these negative feelings about yourself. This can reinforce “having lots of impact” as the go-to strategy for relieving deep-rooted negative feelings. Given the unpredictability of having impact, it also amounts to a variable reinforcement schedule which is known to be particularly resistant to extinction.

  3. ^

     This comment (last section: “Why do some people develop (unhealthy) impact obsession?”) offers some speculative thoughts on why and how impact obsession develops.

  4. ^

     These fluctuations in one’s beliefs don’t have to be irrational and could be driven by, for example, facing unexpected obstacles or receiving negative feedback.

  5. ^

     This is very related to moral scrupulosity (see this excellent post by Holly Elmore) which (usually) involves being deeply concerned with mistakes of commission—that is, taking bad or immoral actions. Distinctively, some people with impact obsession are almost equally worried about mistakes of omission—making a mistake by failing to do something—partly because mistakes of omission may cost more expected impact than mistakes of commission. Unfortunately, mistakes of omission are much harder to spot and some are basically impossible to avoid; there is always a project one could have pursued that would have had more expected impact than the project one is currently pursuing.

  6. ^

     If you struggle with clinical perfectionism, you may benefit from reading Egan et al. (2016) even though the book is aimed at clinicians.

  7. ^

     Relatedly, clinical perfectionists are often overly afraid of mistakes, have trouble admitting making or moving on from having made mistakes. In contrast, many EAs with impact obsession are quick to admit mistakes (and even seek out criticism) and are quick to update, change course, and move on. As mentioned, impact obsession can manifest itself in several ways, with some resembling the more typical OCD-like features typically observed in clinical perfectionism and scrupulosity, while others appear more distinct.

  8. ^

     Such fears can also make it more difficult to think for yourself or pursue unconventional, ambitious, or high-risk, high-reward career paths.

  9. ^

     Interestingly, (self-critical) perfectionism (which seems related to impact obsession as argued above) has also been associated with chronic fatigue syndrome (see Kempke et al., 2016 for an overview).

  10. ^

     Carl uses the related term “radical self-sacrificing utilitarianism”.

  11. ^

     Dustin Moskovitz has pledged around $11 billion which is roughly 30 * 365 * 10,000 / 0.01. This ignores considerations like inflation, the haste consideration, and so on.

  12. ^

     It’s helpful to reflect on your relationship with EA as a set of ideas as well as with EA as a community. EA might provide you with philosophical principles and existential meaning but also with your most important relationships, a sense of belonging and emotional validation, funding, a career, and so on. When all of these things are lumped together, feeling like you have little impact can be especially difficult. In general, it’s good to keep in mind that EA is not only a set of abstract ideas but also a social environment, especially when asking yourself whether EA brings out the best in you. Thanks to Harri Besceli for emphasizing this.

  13. ^

     For example, MacAskill et al. (2023) write: “Utilitarianism recognizes that we cannot work all the time to help others without burning out, which would lead to us doing less overall good in the long run. Similarly, we need to spend money on ourselves to stay reasonably happy and healthy to sustain our long-term motivation to do good.”

  14. ^

     In the terminology of Paul Gilbert’s three system model, fear / avoidance motivation corresponds to the “threat system”, while approach motivation / excitement corresponds to the “drive system”.

  15. ^

     As Scholer et al. (2019) note, approach motivation is not always superior to avoidance motivation. The benefits of approach motivation are most pronounced on a “system level”—that is, one’s overall goals—and seem to disappear on a tactical level, i.e., how one goes about pursuing those goals in specific contexts.

  16. ^

     A few years ago, I had the opportunity to do personal assistant (PA) work for a few EAs that plausibly no one else could do (for reasons I can’t get into here). Some of them were earning to give and had high salaries. This meant that I could calculate how much counterfactual value I was producing in dollars with fairly high reliability. Furthermore, by only doing a few hours of PA work per week, I would easily generate enough money to more than offset my own salary. This combination of factors allowed me to adopt a deep conviction of already doing enough because I was “net positive”. It was also obvious that I’d be able to work a few hours every week even though I suffered bouts of low motivation, depression, insomnia, pain, and so on. All of this allowed me to relax deeply for the first time since I joined EA. Paradoxically, after a few weeks of taking it easy and not working much, I started to work a lot more. What is more, I was much more motivated and curious, presumably because my motivation came from a sense of already being good enough, of just doing this because it’s exciting and potentially useful. I came up with some of my best ideas during that time. Previously, I would primarily be motivated by a desperate need to have impact and have thought like “I must produce good work, otherwise I’m not worth my salary and I’ll be net negative. In fact, if I fail to do this I’m basically creating more suffering than Ted Bundy because I’m taking money from an EA organization that could be spent on extremely cost-effective interventions.” Naturally, my mental health and output during this time weren’t amazing.  

  17. ^

     You also want to pay attention to how you’re feeling, physically and psychologically. Do you feel energized, happy and rested? By all means, challenge yourself and try to work more. But if you feel regularly drained and exhausted, you probably should change your strategy.

  18. ^

     (A joke.) For what it’s worth, we like Oliver Burkeman’s discussion of the disadvantages of an obligation-focused approach.

  19. ^

     Of note, decreasing dichotomous thinking is a key technique in the treatment of clinical perfectionism, e.g. with the help of continua and behavioral experiments (e.g., Egan et al., 2016, handout 11.6).

  20. ^

     In this context, we can’t resist mentioning the intriguing theory of predictive processing. For a good introduction see The Experience Machine (Clark, 2023). What’s most relevant for our purposes is that (top-down) predictions and expectations (including subconscious ones, which helps to explain the efficacy of honest placebos) influence our perceptions and experience to a greater extent than we naively assume. For example, Clark describes a construction worker who felt excruciating pain after an accident that seemed to severely injure his foot when in reality no tissue damage occurred. Predictive processing thus lends credence to the view that certain ways of “hacking” our prediction machinery may be surprisingly effective (Clark, 2023, ch.7). The benefits of skillfully utilizing self-fulfilling predictions, and positive thinking in general, have also been emphasized by intellectual powerhouse and fellow predictive-processing-enjoyer Rhonda Byrne in her magnum opus The Secret. (In all seriousness, this example shows that we should be wary of taking this line of thinking too far.)

  21. ^

     This is the well-known dichotomy of control which the (secular) serenity prayer sums up nicely: “May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

  22. ^

     Resistance and fear of negative emotions can be further reduced by remembering that we have experienced and overcome negative emotions many times in the past. Reminding us of our resilience and strength (in this or other ways) makes accepting and even welcoming negative emotions a lot easier.

  23. ^

     This relates to Shinzen Young’s famous expression of “suffering equals pain multiplied by resistance.”: “[...] pain is one thing, and resistance to the pain is something else, and when the two come together you have an experience of suffering, that is to say, 'suffering equals pain multiplied by resistance.' [...] that's true not only for physical pain, but also for emotional pain and it’s true not only for little pains but also for big pains.” (Full quote.)

  24. ^

     Particularly relevant to the topics discussed in this section might be the series “Compassionate Awareness” and two short conversations on anxiety and negative emotions. Though it may be best to first start with the introductory course. (The app contains a wide range of diverse content, so it’s best to try out different series, see what works best for you and ignore the rest.)

  25. ^

     See also the two very related CBT techniques, imaginal exposure therapy and decatastrophizing, or the Stoic technique of “premeditation of adversity”.

  26. ^

     It can also be helpful to remind ourselves that our minds might be biased towards the negative. On the other hand, many people are prone to exuberant wishful thinking, especially when it comes to existential questions. Most people, for instance, believe they and their loved ones will go to heaven when they die—a comforting thought indeed.

  27. ^

     In fact, you are probably stronger than most. Many people don’t work on altruistic causes because they would find it overwhelming to be confronted with so much suffering on a daily basis. It also requires psychological strength to see the darkness of this world and not rely on convenient rationalizations (e.g., just-world fallacy, religion/heaven, denying animal sentience, etc.).

  28. ^

     (This is extremely esoteric.) Some people might also resonate with the following line of thinking based on acausal decision theories like EDT or LDT. For example, in EDT terms, adopting the policy of “if I’m not above 95th percentile of having impact, I’ll feel bad about myself” gives you evidence that other sufficiently similar ‘copies' of yourself in the multiverse will also adopt this policy. Thus, it gives you evidence that most versions of yourself in the multiverse are feeling bad about having too little impact (with predictably negative consequences). Some might find this a more persuasive intuition pump for how thinking in this way is unwise/unhelpful, perhaps because it allows one to view oneself from a more reflective, third person perspective (which might also make having “self”-compassion easier) and perhaps because there is more at stake (cf. MacAskill et al., 2019). For more on this topic, see Gloor (2017) and Oesterheld (2017). (See also “Simply locate yourself” by Nate Soares.) (Also note that, at least when considering other EAs in the community, this type of argument does not hinge on acausal decision theory, since the EA community can just causally coordinate on good collective policies, such as via this Forum post.)

  29. ^

     See also Neff (2003) who defines self-compassion via three characteristics: “(a) self-kindness [...], (b) common humanity—perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, and (c) mindfulness—holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.”

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What a phenomenal post — thank you both for writing it! A bunch of the potential negative consequences of unhealthy impact obsession felt super familiar to me, and the ideas for things that might help are just so good. Going to discuss a bunch of them with my therapist :) 

Thanks for your kind words, I'm glad to hear that you found the post helpful! :)

Appendix B: Really random musings

The burnout-surrender-recovery cycle

Here’s a vicious cycle I’ve observed in myself. (I wasn’t aware of this for a long time.)

I) For whatever reason (often after a period of trying to accomplish something but failing), I feel terrible about myself. I might have thoughts like: “I’m a total failure. I haven’t done anything impactful in my life. I’m stupid and have no talents. I made idiotic mistakes with my career choice. I’m also really unproductive and have zero energy, so there is no hope for me anymore.”

II) Usually, I don’t really believe these thoughts and resist them. But during particularly bad periods, I just fully surrender to them. I give up. There is nothing I can do. Yes, I had no impact and won’t have any impact going forward. Yes, my life has been a waste. But whatever, fuck it, there is nothing I can do. It’s game over, I fucked up beyond redemption.

II) Paradoxically perhaps, a sense of surrender, acceptance and relief sets in. Whatever, it’s over, I can stop beating myself up. I can just do whatever, nothing matters, it’s all pointless anyways. I might watch movies, play video games or listen to music and don’t even think about doing something “productive”.

This period might last anywhere from a few hours to several days. More intense thoughts and feelings (outlined in I and II) usually lead to longer and more “committed” periods of nihilistic surrender.

IV) Weirdly enough, at some point, I end up feeling much more refreshed, motivated, and creative.

V) Of course, I now start working again and push myself hard, partly because I try to make up for all the time I wasted. Predictably, since I haven’t changed my relationship to and motivations for having impact on a more fundamental level, sooner or later I start feeling burnt out again.

“Nihilism vacations”

One theory for why a period of increased motivation follows step III) is that I actually spend some time fully committing, without guilt or doubt (because I have given up) to resting and relaxing which allows me to recover more fully.

Paradoxically, only hitting “rock bottom” allowed me to do this. Before that, I might spend weeks only being able to work a few hours a day and then being too exhausted to continue but not being able to fully commit to resting because I feel guilty about not having worked more. But this “half-assed resting” didn’t allow me to recover fully and on the next day, I still can work only a few hours, certainly not enough to feel like I deserve to rest and have fun, which perpetuates the cycle.

A related vicious circle (cf. the Matthew effect)

Generally speaking, if you obsess about having impact, the less impact you have, the more guilty and worthless you feel and the more you crave impact as this would (temporarily) relieve your feelings of worthlessness and guilt. Consequently, the less impact you have, the harder it is to stop thinking about EA, relax, rest, and recover. Due to this inability to take a break and recover, you might be stuck in a state of low mood, low creativity, and low motivation.

In contrast, the more impact you have, the easier it is to take a break from thinking about impact and just have fun and rest. You feel you deserve it, after all, you already did so much! This care-free attitude allows you to recharge your batteries and come up with new creative ideas and generally be more productive. You also feel much more comfortable taking big risks.

It’s perhaps a bit similar to how if you are poor, have an exhausting minimum-wage job, and are living from paycheck to paycheck, you don’t have the money or energy to take a break in order to find more well-paying jobs or invest in your education or skills to get better paying jobs later.

All of this is also reminiscent of Zvi’s notion of Slack.

More on individual differences in resting needs

When setting standards for productivity/effort, it’s easy to ignore individual differences and compare yourself with the most committed and hard-working EAs. In our early twenties, we lived in an EA office and noticed that some people were working 12 hours almost every day, even on weekends. We tried to match that by pushing ourselves very hard, failed, and felt lazy and selfish in comparison.

Nowadays, we believe that some people can simply work more than others, due to a variety of factors, including ones outside of one’s control. You aren’t lazy, selfish or otherwise mistaken if you can’t work as much as the most hard-working EAs. We know there are enormous individual differences in many traits that feed into productivity (defined here roughly as average hours worked per week). These traits include how much sleep you need, sleep quality, mental health (ADHD-symptoms, depression, etc.), hedonic set point, physical endurance, immune functioning, and so on. This variation seems at least partly attributable to genetics. It’s thus plausible that there will also be large interindividual differences in productivity and that some of the variance will be due to factors outside one’s control. [1]

Also, keep in mind that your ability to work hard might decrease with age, for various reasons. Don’t make the mistake of basing your standards for productive daily hours partly on what you could do when you were young (especially if you forget to factor in that the work you’re doing now might be much more difficult and less rewarding than what you did when you were younger).

More on healthy vs. unhealthy impact obsession and ‘hardcoreness’

A reader wrote that the posts seems to occasionally alternate between two contradicting views on the distinction between unhealthy and healthy impact focus:

1) Continuum view: There's a continuum that goes from 'doesn't care at all about doing good’ to 'is totally obsessed with impact'. The 'healthy + moral' good region is towards the obsessive end, e.g. 80-95%. But people who are, say, above the 95th percentile are (usually) unhealthy.

2) Orthogonality view: Impact focus and mental health are orthogonal. People can be 100% impact-focused but still healthy, as long as they are enjoying themselves and feel motivated by passion.

Here is my rambly reply:

As a matter of human biology / physiology / psychology, you simply cannot always think about maximizing impartial impact or take actions to this effect. Humans are biological creatures with a variety of psychological and physiological needs.

The most obvious, boring example is that you need to sleep, shower, eat, have shelter, and you need to spend some time optimizing for these things. But these examples are probably uninteresting.

Let's take a more concrete example of Julia Wise, widely considered (rightfully so) to be one of the most altruistic and dedicated EAs. Some time ago, Julia wanted to have children. At first she tried denying herself this wish because she thought that having children is not optimal for impartial impact, all else equal (I think this is most likely correct, at least in her case).

Of course, all else is not equal. Julia realized that not having children would make her miserable and she allowed herself to have children. In one sense, Julia isn't maximally hardcore because she is not a utilitarian robot that only cares about impartial impact and nothing else. No, she also wants to have children, simply as a desire in itself, regardless of how much impact this has.

However, in order to maximize her impact, it actually makes total sense for Julia to have children. If Julia doesn't have children, she will be sad or even depressed. If she is sad, she is less productive, happy, motivated and creative, and thus less able to do her job well and ultimately has less impact. Thus, given her psychological desires and constraints, having children actually allows her to do more good. (See also this comment by Carl Shulman which is already mentioned in the post.)

Regarding the orthogonality view: Yes, there is a lot of truth to this. If you're able to think about having impact and doing impactful work from a more approach-motivation oriented perspective (e.g., "this is cool and enjoyable and I'm doing meaningful work"), you can probably work many hours every week, in the long-term, than if you’re coming from a “this is my moral obligation, I need to do this, I just force myself to do this no matter if I enjoy it or not, this is irrelevant, if I don’t, I’m an evil person that is directly responsible for poor children starving to death” perspective.

So clearly the continuum view is not fully accurate.

But there are two problems here:

i) I'm skeptical that anyone is able to always 100% feel great about the impactful work they are doing, at least in the long-run. Sometimes doing the most impactful thing will be difficult and you won't enjoy it. (See also beware surprising and suspicious convergence.)

Now, for some people, this ratio might be very small. For example, take an AI alignment researcher who's always loved math and machine learning since they were young. They won the impact passion lottery. But still, even such people will have a few hours per week that they don't enjoy, e.g., necessary admin work, meetings, strategic planning, and so on. For others, it may be that a much larger portion of their work is something they don’t enjoy doing. (This may be particularly the case during periods of crisis. (Of course, if you really hate 90% of the work you’re doing, you are probably not going to last long.)

ii) But even if you really love your impactful work, it's probably good to rest and not at all think about work, at least from time to time. Doing work, even enjoyable work, involves being in the “drive system” and you sometimes probably need to be in the “rest and digest system”. But perhaps some people really need to do this only for like 30 min a day, while others need several hours a day, there are probably large interindividual differences here. (This post by Andrew Critch talks about this issue a bit.)

To sum up, I basically don't think any existing human is maximally hardcore if you define this as "having the drives of an AI programmed with a purely utilitarian utility function". I mean, we're all humans and our motivations were shaped by evolution to a large extent. We have desires for belonging, acceptance, friendship, love, and so on. (Lots of individual differences here again, of course. Some people really want children, some people don’t mind not having them, some people are introverts and don’t mind being alone most of the time, other people need to talk a lot with others else they feel lonely, and so on). But I doubt there is any human who has literally none of these human desires, to any extent. That would be an evolutionary miracle.

Another important and related issue is self-deception. Imagine an EA who really wants to think of himself as being maximally altruistic, hardcore and as having lots of impact. What if his intrinsic interests and talents actually aren’t perfectly aligned with the interests and talents optimal for having impact (and the prior is that there is at least some mismatch)? Well, one way out would be to rationalize that the activities they tend to enjoy are also the most impactful ones. (To be clear, I think in most cases this happens subconsciously, not least because we may not know our intrinsic interests very well.) That’s another reason for dispelling the “stigma” associated with not being 100% hardcore.

Anyways, to summarize, I’d say that neither the continuum or the orthogonality view is a fully accurate description. There is a lot of truth to the orthogonality view in that changing your attitudes and relationship with having impact probably can substantially improve your mental health without reducing the amount of impact you have (or even improving it). However, there is also some truth to the continuum view because you probably sometimes need to take a break from thinking about impact otherwise you risk becoming overwhelmed and overexerted. Another point against the orthogonality view which is probably somewhat controversial: sometimes the most impactful action will be unpleasant and you may need to sacrifice some of your happiness or mental health (temporarily!), especially in moments of crisis if you really want to maximize impact. (I could give examples.) But doing this too often can easily backfire and leave you burnt out and risks long-lasting psychological damage that severely reduces your ability to have impact going forward. So, as a general rule, you want to do this very rarely.

  1. ^

    Another personal example: There are people who can play video games for more than 24 hours, or even much longer (with occasional short breaks). The longest time I (David) was ever able to play was ~16 hours at a LAN party when I was 13. After that time, I was exhausted and needed to rest and sleep, even though I really wanted to play more and keep up with my friends. My 13-year old self was very fit and very motivated to play Diablo 2. My sense is that factors outside my control (e.g., genetics) largely contributed to this discrepancy between me and my friends who could play for much longer. It seems plausible that some of these factors are at least partly responsible for me not being able to work more in general.

(See also this comment by Carl Shulman which is already mentioned in the post.)

 

The link to Carl's comment doesn't work for me, but this one does. 

This link from the main text to the same comment also doesn't work for me:

as Carl Shulman observed many years ago

Thanks for pointing this out! I corrected both links. 

Appendix A: Impact obsession and other mental health conditions, thoughts on etiology

How EA can reinforce impact obsession and perfectionism

There are several ways in which EA’s philosophy and culture can reinforce perfectionism and impact obsession. (Note that almost none of the following is meant as a critique of EA or as a call for change. Most of it is unfortunate but also unavoidable.)

EA emphasizes consequentialism (rightly so): Your intentions don’t really matter, it’s the actual consequences of your actions, i.e. your achievements that matter, not whether you’re a good person in some virtue-ethical or deontological sense. Generally, other EAs pay a lot of attention to your achievements and praise you if you did something impactful. All of this reinforces basing your self-worth on your achievements (in the domain of EA), which is essentially the core dynamic of both clinical perfectionism and impact obsession.

Conceptually, EA is about doing the most good, not just doing a bit of good. EA discourse emphasizes heavy tailed distributions, hits-based approaches, and how “EA superstars” can have much much more impact than the average EA. This can reinforce perfectionist tendencies like “I have to be great, otherwise I’m a failure”.

Also, making mistakes in EA can be very costly, as the stakes can be very high. Some of your mistakes really could lead (indirectly, counterfactually speaking) to many beings suffering or dying. It’s not like your mistakes might just cost you a promotion. This high cost of mistakes can also reinforce perfectionist tendencies.

Lastly, many EAs—including our past selves—tend to believe that we should indeed aim for the minimum of self-care necessary. These sentiments can lead those who are vulnerable to perfectionistic impact obsession to dismiss the negative consequences of overexerting themselves to reach their demanding standards.

Impact obsession, scrupulosity and OCD

Interestingly, impact obsession seems very related to moral scrupulosity (as briefly discussed in footnote 5). This excellent post by Holly Elmore makes several interesting observations on the relationship between scrupulosity and EA, and what risks to be aware of. Particularly noteworthy is the observation that scrupulosity is characterized by an “excessive sense of personal responsibility [...or] “hyper-responsibility” (in the context of OCD), or the dysfunctional attitude of omnipotence.” A heightened sense of responsibility is arguably another core characteristic of impact obsession. (See also the influential concept of “heroic responsibility”.)

Scrupulosity is usually seen as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and clinical perfectionism also shares similarities with OCD (Egan et al., 2016, ch.3.; Limburg et al., 2017). Taken together, this suggests that impact obsession shares some characteristics with OCD (which is part of the reason for why we settled on the term ‘impact obsession’) and may benefit from similar treatment approaches, at least to some extent.

More on differences and similarities between impact obsession and perfectionism

Generally speaking, clinical perfectionism tends to be more like a personality trait that shows up in several domains of life. In contrast, many impact-obsessed EAs are not perfectionistic in other areas of life. Impact obsession seems more related to one’s values and overall meaning, whereas clinical perfectionism is usually motivated by the fear of not wanting to feel incompetent or worthless. (That being said, unhealthy impact obsession often is motivated by these fears as well!)

Typical clinical perfectionism is often accompanied by more severe cognitive biases like overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking, selective attention, and so on. These biases might appear among those with impact obsession but usually in much less pronounced and rigid form. Generally, the patients described in most CBT books on clinical perfectionism are often quite irrational, rigid, and inflexible. EAs might read these books and think “well, I’m certainly not like these people” and conclude that they don’t have anything like clinical perfectionism. This may be true but they might still benefit from working on their unhealthy impact obsessive tendencies. Preventing this failure mode is another reason for having written this post.

Why do some people develop (unhealthy) impact obsession?

Our sense is that those who think in highly systematic, low-decoupling, non-compartmentalizing ways are more likely to develop impact obsession. In a sense, impact obsession is a logical consequence of deeply internalizing ideas and relevant thought experiments like utilitarianism/consequentialism + impartiality, astronomical stakes, the drowning child, and so on.

Speculatively, people who crave some form of objective, cosmic meaning and purpose (but who cannot find it elsewhere because, e.g., they don’t believe in God) might also be more prone to developing unhealthy impact obsession.

Some other idiosyncratic traits seem more common among those with unhealthy impact obsession, such as being disgusted with hypocrisy and other human flaws (especially when reflecting on their evolutionary roots) and a strong desire to not be like this (cf. Hanson’s “smart sincere syndrome”), i.e., wanting to be a hero. Moral scrupulosity and other maladaptive schemas like “unrelenting standards”, “approval seeking”,  seem also more common among those with unhealthy impact obsession.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is a welcome, timely contribution.