Stan Pinsent

Researcher @ CEARCH
790 karmaJoined Oct 2022Working (6-15 years)London, UK



Director of Research at CEARCH: https://exploratory-altruism.org/

I construct cost-effectiveness analyses of various cause areas, identifying the most promising opportunities for impactful work.

Previously a teacher in London, UK.


Mental Health Report (CEARCH)


Topic contributions

The results have now been released!

Here are the top reasons given, from 20 responses:

Read the full post here.

By incentives do you mean incentives for taking one job over another, like pay, benefits, type of work, etc.?

I welcome this idea! More love would be a good thing, and we would rather make this change earlier in the life course.

I think implementation is hard. This is a big "if":

if we could come up with a healthy, inclusive (but respectful of differing opinions), curriculum that -encourages/rewards- love but does not impose it

As Joseph said, it is difficult to assess educational interventions. When it comes to knowledge transfer we can be generally confident that education is helping - calculus classes increase students' aptitude for calculus. But love?

Recent research suggests that mindfulness interventions in schools were much less impactful than hoped. I suspect that something like mindfulness works well if you opt in - and is much less useful if you didn't ask for it.

To explore this idea further, I recommend looking for comparable values-based educational experiments that have been tried in the past (maybe something about attitudes to sexuality, or religious tolerance, or positive thinking, or even campaigns to instil hate). Did they succeed in changing values? If they failed, why did they fail? If they succeeded, what can we learn from them?

Can anyone convince me that this is a robustly good move for donkey welfare? Working donkeys seem to have quite bad lives, so a falling population because people are deciding to sell donkeys for slaughter might be a good thing.

my guess is [...] you could counterfactually save 1-5 more lives per day by volunteering and being great at your job. 

I'm skeptical. That would mean that your average hotline volunteer is speaking to 1-5 new people per day who subsequently take their lives, but would not have if the call were handled better. This seems implausible purely on the basis that most suicide attempts fail (5-11% of people who ever attempt end up ever succeeding). Added to this, I suspect that some (most?) people who call are thinking about suicide but not literally about to do it, some (most?) are making multiple calls to the hotline, and that some of the worst cases may be possible to save today but will take their lives in a few months' time. Basically, I suspect that each call that a volunteer successfully handles would be worth more like 0.001 or 0.01 of an averted suicide.

I did (non-suicide) helpline training once and was struck by how formalised it is. Volunteers were supposed to be listeners, reflecting the callers' thoughts back to them and avoiding giving advice. This is likely a strategy to minimise the harm caused by layperson volunteers interacting with very vulnerable people. I would suspect that suicide hotlines have fairly rigid guidelines on how to handle calls, probably with more specific training on how to help the caller de-escalate their suicidal thoughts in the moment. My concern would be that this leaves little wiggle room for being "great at your job", and anyone trying to be significantly more effective may actually do damage by going off-script.

Would love to hear from someone with direct experience!

I think you could build a very compelling case for this. Even if official data sources do underestimate key numbers like overdose deaths, they are still a stirring call to action.

  1. Drug problems have got considerably worse in the past decade. This CDC source implies that overdose rates have more than doubled since 2015. Much of the increase came during the pandemic, which could add a little narrative spice to your argument.

2. Other "similar" problems are not getting worse. Other "despair" indicators like suicide and depression appear to be stable. Road accidents and violence have fallen. On one hand it's a bit sneaky to pick and choose comparisons like this, but it could be argued that they are all societal problems that often cause (very) early death. They're tragic.

3. Vaccines/ other pharma interventions may offer an unusually tractable and scalable solution. Addiction and all of the other problems in the chart above are very difficult problems to fight. At best, interventions usually take a chunk out of the burden but offer no hope of big change. Drug interventions can be controversial, with effects of uncertain sign. If you can show that your ideas are significantly better, you are doing well.

I expect that a major difficulty is that your solutions involve developing new vaccines/drugs, which is of course an expensive, unknown and long process. Will pharma companies see potential for a profit? Is there scientific grounding for optimism on these new drugs being possible?

Unfortunately I don't have the spare capacity to volunteer much time. I'd be interested in giving feedback on any future work. Good luck!

Also, do you have any recommendations for estimating the disvalue of a policy that curtails people's freedom (eg. by increasing the price of a good they value)?

Interesting! Can you link to any (reasonably simple) example CEAs where this process is applied?

Thanks for the recommendation! I came across something similar recently: Action for Happiness, which is recommended by Founders' Pledge. I think the theory of change is that people can meaningfully improve their wellbeing by applying some evidence-based changes to their lives. Most who start will probably drop out, but those who persevere will likely benefit. Costs could be kept low by relying on centralised resources, voluntary donations and possibly volunteer labour.

Unfortunately my report didn't explore this avenue for change as I only looked at preventing and mitigating mental illness (+ pain + suicide), but I wish I had done more on simply improving wellbeing.

I would say that although self-help is, on the face of it, basically free, the cost of reaching new people through marketing is likely to be a huge determinant of how cost-effective it is.

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