I am anti-awareness and you should be too

People seem to like raising awareness a lot. One might suspect too much, assuming the purpose is to efficiently solve whatever problem the awareness is being raised about. It’s hard to tell whether it is too much by working out how much is the right amount then checking if it matches what people do. But a feasible heuristic approach is to consider factors that might bias people one way or the other, relative to what is optimal.

Christian Lander at Stuff White People Like suggests some reasons raising awareness should be an inefficiently popular solution to other people’s problems:

This belief [that raising awareness will solve everything] allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges…

What makes this even more appealing for white people is that you can raise “awareness” through expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and bracelets.  In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference…

So to summarize – you get all the benefits of helping (self satisfaction, telling other people) but no need for difficult decisions or the ensuing criticism (how do you criticize awareness?)…

He seems to suspect that people are not trying to solve problems, but I shan’t argue about that here. At least some people think that they are trying to effectively campaign; this post is concerned with biases they might face. Christian  may or may not demonstrate a bias for these people. All things equal, it is better to solve problems in easy, fun, safe ways. However if it is easier to overestimate the effectiveness of easy, fun, safe things,  we probably raise awareness too much. I suspect this is true. I will add three more reasons to expect awareness to be over-raised.

First, people tend to identify with their moral concerns. People identify with moral concerns much more than they do with their personal, practical concerns for instance. Those who think the environment is being removed too fast are proudly environmentalists while those who think the bushes on their property are withering too fast do not bother to advertise themselves with any particular term, even if they spend much more time trying to correct the problem. It’s not part of their identity.

People like others to know about their identities. And raising awareness is perfect for this. Continually incorporating one’s concern about foreign forestry practices into conversations can be awkward, effortful and embarrassing. Raising awareness displays your identity even more prominently, while making this an unintended side effect of costly altruism for the cause rather than purposeful self advertisement.

That raising awareness is driven in part by desire to identify is evidenced by the fact that while ‘preaching to the converted’ is the epitome of verbal uselessness, it is still a favorite activity for those raising awareness, for instance at rallies, dinners and lectures. Wanting to raise awareness to people who are already well aware suggests that the information you hope to transmit is not about the worthiness of the cause. What else new could you be showing them? An obvious answer is that they learn who else is with the cause. Which is some information about the worthiness of the cause, but has other reasons for being presented. Robin Hanson has pointed out that breast cancer awareness campaign strategy relies on everyone already knowing about not just breast cancer but about the campaign. He similarly concluded that the aim is probably to show a political affiliation.

These are some items given away to promote Bre...

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In many cases of identifying with a group to oppose some foe, it is useful for the group if you often declare your identity proudly and commit yourself to the group. If we are too keen to raise awareness about our identites, perhaps we are just used to those cases, and treat breast cancer like any other enemy who might be scared off by assembling a large and loyal army who don’t like it. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, I think our enthusiasm for increased awareness of everything is given a strong push by our enthusiasm for visible identifying with moral causes.

Secondly and relatedly, moral issues arouse a  person’s drive to determine who is good and who is bad, and to blame the bad ones. This urge to judge and blame should  for instance increase the salience of everyone around you eating meat if you are a vegetarian. This is at the expense of giving attention to any of the larger scale features of the world which contribute to how much meat people eat and how good or bad this is for animals. Rather than finding a particularly good way to solve the problem of too many animals suffering, you could easily be sidetracked by fact that your friends are being evil. Raising awareness seems like a pretty good solution if the glaring problem is that everyone around you is committing horrible sins, perhaps inadvertently.

Lastly, raising awareness is specifically designed to be visible, so it is intrinsically especially likely to spread among creatures who copy one another. If I am concerned about climate change, possible actions that will come to mind will be those I have seen others do. I have seen in great detail how people march in the streets or have stalls or stickers or tell their friends. I have little idea how people develop more efficient technologies or orchestrate less publicly visible political influence, or even how they change the insulation in their houses. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is too much awareness raising; it is less effort to do things you already know how to do, so it is better to do them, all things equal. However too much awareness raising will happen if we don’t account for there being a big selection effect other than effectiveness in which solutions we will know about, and expend a bit more effort finding much more effective solutions accordingly.

So there are my reasons to expect too much awareness is raised. It’s easy and fun, it lets you advertise your identity, it’s the obvious thing to do when you are struck by the badness of those around you, and it is the obvious thing to do full stop. Are there any opposing reasons people would tend to be biased against raising awareness? If not, perhaps I should reconsider stopping telling you about this problem and finding a more effective way to lower awareness instead.

24 responses to “I am anti-awareness and you should be too

  1. Excellent post.

    I looked forward to adding a pithy extension to your point, but both of the things I was about to say got covered in the final pars, so I’m left with just “…yes!”.

  2. Beautiful post!

  3. I’m for raising awareness of the issues that are insufficiently visible given their importance. But that’s not the typical kind of “feel good” awareness raising. You mentioned breast cancer, an issue that everyone knows about. In that case, raising awareness is often equated with raising money (sometimes indirectly). We all realize that breast cancer is an awful thing. Being openly “opposed to it” is easier than openly opposing National Socialism. But I just talked to an advanced medical student specializing in oncology, and got a new perspective on the issue.

    It turns out that all those “awareness” campaigns, coupled with effective lobbying, do end up raising a good deal of money – well north of a US$1B/year. All that money is necessary for even the tiniest step forward in our breast cancer treatment methods. If you ask doctors to quantify how the billions we’ve spent in the last ten years have improved the lives of women with breast cancer, there is some controversy. No doubt that things have improved a bit, but each unit of improvement seems to cost exponentially more dollars. Breast cancer is awful like that – there’s only so much that medicine can effectively do against it.

    My oncologist friend said that even if we limited investment to cancer research, and only cared about the outcomes for women, spending another $100 Million on breast cancer would do much less than spending the same amount on lung cancer. Lung cancer is a bigger killer, but we can all guess why it doesn’t have a ribbon, nor research budgets that are within an order of magnitude of breast cancer: Nobody wants to associate themselves with it. That would be “letting smokers off the hook for their bad choices”. But because of this lower level of funding, there is a much higher rational expectation that the next lump of research money is going to produce a revolutionary treatment.

    But of course, there are still better things that require our awareness. My recent favorite is micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries. There is so little awareness of it that my spell checker doesn’t even recognize “micronutrient”. Yet for people who are interested in doing good with their money, that’s one of our biggest bangs for the buck.

    So what I’m saying is that we should be raising awareness, but ONLY of things that deserve more. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun or signal the goodness of our characters or whatever. I notice that I find smart advocacy much sexier than bandwagon advocacy.

  4. Lower awareness? You mean on a case-by-case basis for each over-awared cause? The self-referential application of this principle to itself is cute, but I don’t think you should stop raising awareness for misguided awareness-raising. The most effective strategy to counter too-much-awareness is simply to increase awareness of those 3 biases you identified.

    Having taken into account that I self-identify as a rationalist, that I think over-aware people are bad, and that raising awareness on this issue is an obvious solution, I still recommend raising awareness. The problem is in people’s brains you see, so the obvious solution of pointing out their biases is quite natural, and I strongly suspect the most effective way about it. Of course, good rhetoric and persuasion techniques go a long way here.

    The warning against preaching to the choir applies, but not the being especially pissed off at friends eating meat. Finally, doing the obvious thing, raising awareness of over-awareness among those not already enlightened, is the most effective thing you can do.

  5. “Raising awareness” is oxymoronic and, moronically, conceited. “People don’t legitimately think/belief/act differently from me – they just need to know what I know.”

    As Rodney King wept – “Why can’t we all just get along.” – and have an elite education – like me and my BFFs?! Darn it!

    Consistent evidence also suggest “adult education” is impossible. To the contrary, beyond the teen years and a bit longer – brain-behavior repertoires ossify. Our brains code any kind of change — + or – — as (literally) taking food out of mouths. The status quo rules and presenting contrary evidence actually triggers defensive protection of existing beliefs. Well researched and proven.

    Let’s be honest, there is no way to even accurately describe complex phenomena, let alone “understand” or fix. Our brains are deeply flawed and limited in our perceptions, forget about processing experience. “Making a difference?” – clueless. “Saving the world?” – someones on drugs….etc.

    But all this silly talk is great mating signaling and an effective deceptive social dominance signal as well. “I’m not really here to rise in the food-chain, I’m here to help other (poor, benighted) peoples….babee.” Best they be of darker skin tone and involve trips to warm climates. Having cute other people, available for mating, really helps.

    Our brains, however, as are other mammals and social insects (likely bacteria), are acutely tuned to hyperbolic discounting especially around social cues – right now! Depending on life stage, that hyper-sensitivity is either focused on dating & mating, child protection, in-group competition (i.e., meetings), cognitive declines (starting at 27 BTW.)

    The in-group vs. out-group dynamics are reasonably sketched here. Most social mammals do the same. Ho hum.

    We have a keen interest in the individual stuff that creates “identity” that people are willing to “kill and be killed for.” That seems to be a critical behavioral theme and we have found very little research or discussion on it. Ideology – yes. Identity which, when challenged, triggers immediate fear-rage-hostility – nope.

    Help welcome. Let’s build some more awareness of our do-gooding — darn it!!
    (Why the heck do we have to subscribe to every separate post comment? Huh?)

  6. Thanks very much for the excellent post. One of most enjoyable I’ve read in a while.

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  8. Mitchell Porter

    There are lot of transhumanists, cryonicists, and Singularity believers among the readers of this blog. So let me ask them: In your communities, there are a lot of people – mostly young enthusiastic people – who want to increase awareness of transhumanism, cryonics, and the Singularity. Are you prepared to dismiss *their* motivation in the same terms that you dismiss the motivation of activists who work on behalf of more familiar causes?

  9. I like the ubiquitous “suicide awareness” campaigns, precisely because they do not generally accomplish anything. Campaigns to raise awareness have no effect; campaigns to fence off bridges and restrict access to drugs and prosecute people who advocate suicide actually do harm.

    If we tested the average effects of intervention versus nonintervention in a variety of contexts, we may find that nonintervention is generally better; then we’d have an a priori reason to favor raising awareness, precisely because it does nothing. Primum non nocere. I think I’ve encountered something like this for medical intervention – I can’t remember the context.

  10. Hey, …sleeprunning, why not give us some references, both for your comments and for your Tumblr? (Perhaps I missed them.)

    I’m not trying to call you out—even if I think you and the post resort too much to generalization on this topic, though I can’t provide argument with your comments about social grouping—but it does no one any good to read your statements/posts (especially on Tumblr) without providing links to the studies.

    Again, if I’m missing something, I apologize. I cannot claim to be running at full capacity at the moment.

  11. …calling out is fine, we have no interest in being right but in knowing the best research…we’ll mayb get around to it…but so much science, so little time…itz easy to put a phrase in google and the study will come up…

    just have it with disagreements but evidence is better than opinions…. evidence is hard..

  12. I wholeheartedly agree. I have interest in nothing more than the evidence.

    And sure it’s easy to do a Google search, but isn’t it just common practice to provide a citation? I’ll Google the ones I find interesting, certainly. I understand sifting through all of the science is time consuming.

  13. well yeah, plus no one really cares abt cites…no one really cares abt evidence either…lol…we have multiblogs…… on sr we run fast n loose….mainly we post snippets from abstracts….don’t be (mor) lazie….get out thair n find sum evidence…..peer-reviewed plz…

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  16. You (generic you) should be aware that grey letters on white background isn’t very readable, especially if the font is set too small (which many websites do, by overriding the user’s preference).

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  23. Demoncrats posts: The end of the article states maybe the goal should be one of ” … finding a more effective way to lower awareness instead.” I believe the solution is a website dedicated to ” anti- awareness” issues. For example pair the “anti-wedgie month”, “anti- wet willie month”, or ” anti-pacifier month” to counter the prevalent socialist, communist, progressive (i.e., Demoncrat) lickspittle awareness campaign of the month.


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