Why do so few EAs and Rationalists have children?

post by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-14T19:09:41.376Z · EA · GW · 81 comments

This is a question post.

Previously: 1 [EA · GW], 2 [EA · GW]

Inspired by: The Case for One More Child – Why Large Families Will Save Humanity (a)

 

I know many people in the EA and Bay Area Rationality communities, but only a handful that have decided to have kids. What's up with that?

I know of enough people in their 30s and 40s so it can't just be an age thing...

Answers

answer by Davidmanheim · 2021-03-15T13:12:32.339Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe you're wrong, a two-part answer.

First, rich westerners have kids late, and EA is young - people having a child in their mid-to-late 30s isn't uncommon.

Second, the EAs I know with kids don't necessarily talk about them, especially in EA circles. so your sample that implies there are very few EAs with kids is probably skewed. (Edit to add: 6% of SSC survey respondents have more than 2 kids. Another 10% have 2, and a further 7.5% have 1. And the average age of respondents is 33 - per the survey, more than half of people over 40 have a kid, and 10% of those in their 30s do.)

 

comment by JoelMcGuire · 2021-03-16T21:17:05.959Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If SSC survey respondents were a good proxy for EA community then that seems to indicate EAs are having significantly fewer kids than the average American. 

Not sure if this apples to apples but this source suggests that 85%  of American women over 40 have had a kid

But the question isn't well defined, what is "so few?". If it means "basically none" then David's probably right. If it means "less than the average American" then probably. If it means "less than an average white westerner of similar education and income" then I don't know. 

Replies from: Davidmanheim
comment by Davidmanheim · 2021-03-18T19:28:12.303Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Mostly agree - based on the post, I was thinking of "so few" as "basically none," but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it were less than average for the comparable group.

And I don't think SSC is anything like a perfect proxy, and I assume it somewhat over-represents people who are less involved in rationality/EA, and are more likely to have kids, but it's the closest proxy I could easily find.

answer by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-03-14T19:21:28.148Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Having kids is very expensive.

comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2021-03-14T21:40:15.735Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think having kids needs to be expensive. At least in the UK, schools and healthcare are free. Food and clothing are cheap. Their addition to  bills isn't much in percentage terms. Toys are cheap. 

The biggest expense is probably the time investment, but parenting is a different kind of "work" to  the professional work that most EAs do, so I don't think it necessarily comes from the same time budget (unless maybe the counterfactual is working 60+ hour weeks on EA).

Replies from: Julia_Wise, MichaelStJules, Stefan_Schubert
comment by Julia_Wise · 2021-03-15T15:47:54.347Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Childcare in the early years is a major expense. Housing is another major one (and one that doesn't go away once they're old enough to be in school). https://thewholesky.wordpress.com/2018/12/27/how-much-do-kids-cost-the-first-5-years/

Replies from: Greg_Colbourn
comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2021-03-16T15:59:30.747Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great to see the write up of expenditure! 

Housing: this is kind of pretend, because we actually built two extra rooms onto our house, which had a high up-front cost but will be useful for years and will eventually make the house sell for more. I’m instead substituting the cost at which we currently rent our spare bedroom ($900/month times 2 bedrooms)

I think it's unusual for people to rent out their spare rooms, and it's good that you have done so and provided yourselves with more income/reduced your living costs. By that metric I imagine that many people (especially home owners) have higher housing costs than they think. Maybe EAs are more likely to think about this and maximise the efficiency of their housing. But at the limit, every loft, basement and garage not converted is counterfactual lost earnings. Or, indeed, you could say that real estate investment in general is profitable, and people should do more of it. But then so are other things. So any profits "left on the table" through suboptimally investing money are also potential "costs"... (and then here things get tricky, in determining what the optimal investments are. And we're pretty much back to the foundation of EA! Optimal allocation of resources).
 

[As I've said elsewhere in this thread, I don't think children are a special case of expensive. They are one of several things that can be expensive (see also: location, career choice, suboptimal investment, tastes, hobbies), and for most people, who aren't already maximising their financial efficiency (frugality; investments), it's a matter of prioritisation as to the relative expense of having them.]

Replies from: tcheasdfjkl
comment by tcheasdfjkl · 2021-03-17T06:06:32.644Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't know about elsewhere, but at least in the Bay the notion that people might have spare rooms they've just forgotten to consider renting out is downright funny.

Replies from: Greg_Colbourn, Milan_Griffes
comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2021-03-17T19:51:49.356Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I realise that. But I wouldn't be surprised if the median household in the developed world had at least one spare room (this was one of the reasons why the "bedroom tax" was so unpopular in the UK).

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-17T13:59:50.652Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There's actually a lot of underutilized real estate in the Bay Area, especially in East Bay, Marin, South Bay, and the Peninsula. 

Much of it is locked up in big old houses that haven't turned over in a long time though.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-03-14T23:25:29.662Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Getting a place with extra rooms for your children doesn't seem too cheap to me in percentage terms. A couple on their own can get away with one bedroom and more easily easily rent with roommates. With children, not only will they need more room, but they'll probably be more selective of where they live (neighbourhood, who they live with if with roommates). At some point, it might be too inconvenient to not have a vehicle, which means the cost of the vehicle and the insurance, if you weren't going to get a vehicle otherwise.

Raising kids may come out of your time spent sleeping or relaxing (risking burnout and lower productivity), reading (including EA stuff), EA community involvement, exercise. It could lead to value drift if you don't maintain strong ties and commitments to the EA community, and unless you work in EA, these will be harder to maintain. If you're a researcher, a lot of this extra stress and time spent will be during what would be your most productive years.

Replies from: Greg_Colbourn, Milan_Griffes
comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2021-03-15T08:36:57.938Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Re: location, rooms and vehicle - I guess it depends on how high your standards are (and could be net zero in % terms if you are willing and able to move to a cheaper location*). The median family in the developed world isn't especially rich (£30k/yr household income in UK), yet has a decent standard of living by most measures, without most children being impoverished.

Re: time - I think raising kids can help with preventing burnout from intellectually demanding work (and also in this vein, guarding against value drift via burnout - i.e keeping EA from taking over your life entirely, to detrimental effect). Although yes, sleep/relaxation can take a hit in the early years.

*You can rent a 3 bedroom house with a garden in Manchester (UK's 2nd largest/most productive city), for the cost of a double room in a shared house in London.

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-03-15T16:04:22.940Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that having a life outside of EA is good. I also know that a lot of people really want kids, and it wouldn't surprise me if having kids made many more satisfied with their lives, some happier and some more productive.

If you're willing to move to a 3-bedroom in Manchester for kids, why not do so without kids and get roommates to save costs instead? Or rent a smaller place in Manchester?

Replies from: Greg_Colbourn
comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2021-03-16T11:26:53.255Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

why not do so without kids and get roommates to save costs instead? Or rent a smaller place in Manchester?

Indeed. I would recommend that for anyone trying to be frugal so they can save/donate more (especially if they can work remotely). My point is, however, that unless you are already living a maximally frugal lifestyle, it's possible to reduce your living costs in other areas such that having children needn't be financially expensive. Children aren't necessarily a special case of "expensive living costs". It's ultimately a matter of prioritisation.

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-03-18T22:21:04.564Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Children are one of the largest financial costs and opportunity costs that the average person spends on, so they are one of the first things someone should not take for granted. Living somewhere significantly more expensive should be one, too, yes. Owning a vehicle is another. I think all three would need to be justified by their benefits (according to an impartial worldview), and whether or not they're justified depends on the particulars.

I think it's possible some people would be much less productive without children, because they'd be much less motivated.  I think this is primarily how having kids would be justified, although we should be careful about motivated reasoning here, and in general with justifying expensive things we think we need to be more productive. Sometimes there are much cheaper solutions depending on your circumstances, e.g. grocery delivery and riding a bike instead of owning a car, or commuting to work (with a car or by public transit) from somewhere much cheaper.

If too few EAs have children, this might make us too weird and exclusive, and the children themselves might go on to do good, but, on the margin, it sounds like we have more cost-effective forms of outreach.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-18T22:28:19.643Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"... on the margin, it sounds like we have more cost-effective forms of outreach."

Could you say more about what you have in mind? 

(Asking because I personally don't see any compelling alternative to a substantial fraction of EA folks raising children, especially when I consider a > 20-year time horizon.)

Replies from: jackmalde, MichaelStJules
comment by jackmalde · 2021-03-24T07:05:36.417Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

By the way, Toby Ord weighs in on this at 24:33 in his Global Reconnect interview

He basically agrees with Michael that having children and raising them as EAs is unlikely to be as cost-effective as spreading EA to existing adults. He also seems to feel somewhat uncomfortable about the idea of raising children as EAs.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-03-19T01:35:44.561Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm personally not sure, but this is what I hear from others in this thread and elsewhere. I'd be thinking the EA Community fund, university groups, running EA fellowships, GWWC, TLYCS, EA orgs to take volunteers/interns. Maybe we are close to saturation with the people who would be sympathetic to EA, and we just need to make more people at this point, but I don't think this is the case, since there's still room for more local groups.

I've been the primary organizer for the EA club at my university for a couple years, and I think a few of the members would not have been into EA at all or nearly as much without me (no one else would have run it if I didn't when I did, after the previous presidents left the city), but maybe they would have found their way into EA eventually anyway, and there's of course a risk of value drift. This is less work than raising a child (maybe 5-10 hours/week EDIT: or is that similar to raising a child or more? Once they're in school, it might take less work?), has no financial cost, and I made close friends doing it. I think starting a local group where there isn't one (or running an otherwise fairly inactive one) can get you at least one new fairly dedicated EA per year, but I'm not sure how many dedicated EA person-years that actually buys you.

How likely is the child of an EA to be an EA in the long run? And does it lead to value drift for the parents?

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T00:01:47.123Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If EA has the same plank as Shakerism, it probably doesn't have a bright future...

Replies from: Julia_Wise, Cullen_OKeefe
comment by Julia_Wise · 2021-03-15T15:56:53.647Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My pet peeve about this argument is that the Shakers lasted from 1770 to the present (although now with just two elderly members). That's nothing to sneeze at for a utopian movement - compare them to the longevity of many 1960s communes that produced plenty of babies.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T16:13:43.047Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think there's a lot to admire about the Shakers... I'm just pointing out that as a social movement they are dying out, probably in part due to their views about sex & child-rearing.

Catholicism, Islam, and Mormonism seem to be much more durable in the long run (at least so far).

comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-03-15T00:11:58.104Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

We have much better communications technologies than the Shakers had.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T01:36:09.887Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't follow how that's relevant?

Replies from: Cullen_OKeefe
comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-03-15T02:50:12.036Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

We can expect that we can "convert" people much more cheaply/effectively than they could. At current margins, it almost certainly costs far less to create EAs by "converting" existing people than "creating" new people and raising them in an EA household in hopes that they will later become EA. EA already has far more "adherents" than Sharkerism did at its peak. Also, neither celibacy nor childlessness is a "plank" of EA.

Replies from: JoelMcGuire, Milan_Griffes
comment by JoelMcGuire · 2021-03-16T22:00:46.104Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If I may abstract a bit from the Shakerism example...

I agree that we should be able to "convert" people more cheaply than other movements could in the past. But that doesn't mean EAs relatively lower fecundity couldn't pose some issues for the LR sustainability of the movement.

The question of "can we sustain the movement over time?" is whether 1. we can convert other peoples children more effectively than competing ideologies can convert ours and 2. that we can do so enough to make up for our relatively lower birthrates.

(Assuming we don't find a third way involving beings that don't die).

Maybe we convert our way to a stable transmission of values across generations, but I'm a bit skeptical since I'm having a hard time imagining a specific instance of a value system that made up for a lower birth rate by having a higher conversion factor. Catholicism? Since the priests / monks were prohibited from having children?

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-17T00:21:47.723Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Big +1

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T02:54:55.152Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Okay, but if affiliation with EA correlates with a reproductive rate that's far below replacement level, then if EA succeeds in converting everyone to EA, humanity will die out.

Replies from: Cullen_OKeefe
comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-03-15T02:57:07.053Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Think on the margin. Once the cost of conversion is high, transmitting the ideology (and humanity) by child-rearing makes more sense. In general, there are plenty of ways for me to promote population growth and the ideology that don't require me reproducing.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T02:58:49.514Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Among other things, this assumes that we know how to transmit the ideology via child-rearing and that we know how to switch from one reproductive strategy to another en masse.

Replies from: Cullen_OKeefe
comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-03-15T03:05:41.181Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Seem like pretty reasonable assumptions. If you thought that either was untrue, then this whole line of inquiry would seem self-defeating.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2021-03-14T22:56:06.219Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

One study  found that raising a child on average cost £10,822 per year in the UK 2014. I don't know how they calculated this, however. It looks like they didn't deduct child benefits from the cost, which one presumably should. 

 

Replies from: Greg_Colbourn, Greg_Colbourn
comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2021-03-15T08:45:51.147Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

~1/3 of that cost is  education at £74k, which I think is mostly  unreasonable to include as it includes university (where the cost is mostly borne born by loans taken out by the student that are effectively a graduate tax; and arguably, given all the free material available online now, isn't strictly necessary for a lot of careers apart from it's signalling value) and school lunch, when they will eat regardless (although fair if they deducted this from the food budget, which seems quite reasonable).

comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2021-03-15T08:49:44.693Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Child care and babysitting is ~1/4. This could be much reduced with a parent working from home (so no before or after school clubs/childminding needed), and/or living with extended family and friends on hand.

Replies from: Julia_Wise, Stefan_Schubert, ateabug
comment by Julia_Wise · 2021-03-15T15:53:24.347Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've done all these things, and the time still has to come from somewhere. Imagine a normal workday, and then imagine it while also getting snacks, resolving disputes, helping someone find their shoes, etc. Even while living with extended family and friends, we have never lived with someone who wanted to volunteer for this. We are just now getting to the point where it's viable to do for two days a week with a 5- and 6-year-old while both parents work full-time from home. Even that much is pretty suboptimal for both parents and kids.

Replies from: Denise_Melchin
comment by Denise_Melchin · 2021-03-15T16:18:17.640Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In my answer I was assuming that the children go to school (usually between 9am-3:30pm in the UK) and I'd guess Greg was assuming the same, therefore only having to cover 1-2 hours working while children are present each day.

Otherwise I agree, this is much harder if children don't go to school!

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2021-03-15T10:03:56.101Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sure, there are multiple ways of reducing these costs. But the same could be said about consumption among people who don't have children. So I'd say that raising children is relatively expensive compared with other forms of consumption.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T10:05:46.128Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There's an important difference in kind here – raising children is a qualitatively different form of "consumption" than other kinds of consumption.

Replies from: Stefan_Schubert
comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2021-03-15T10:18:50.360Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Of course - I'm not suggesting otherwise. My point is just to say that you can cut other forms of spending as well, just as you can cut spending on raising a child.

Replies from: Greg_Colbourn, Milan_Griffes
comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2021-03-15T10:24:54.103Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, it's ultimately a matter of prioritisation. My point is that it doesn't necessarily have to be expensive, so cost needn't be the overriding factor in deciding whether to have children or not.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T10:27:06.297Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I bet cost often gets used as an excuse here.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T10:20:09.872Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hmmm... something about making the two commensurable feels weird to me... (not sure what it is about it yet).

comment by ateabug · 2021-03-15T09:53:29.979Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This could be much reduced with a parent working from home 

I think the pandemic has shown this isn't the case. As an example in my company everyone has been WFH since March 2020 and my colleagues who are parents have been working evenings and nights, and were the first to get furloughed (at their request) so they can take care of their small children.

Replies from: Denise_Melchin
comment by Denise_Melchin · 2021-03-15T10:14:01.554Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me Greg was talking about school-age children where I think having a WFH parent will often be sufficient. I agree having a WFH parent for small children isn't much help, as taking care of them is usually a full-time job on its own.

That said, most of the childcare cost in the UK does seem to come from the first few years (as it is a full-time job) and not from when children are school-age.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-14T20:25:35.934Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes – and children are the future.

Replies from: Cullen_OKeefe
comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-03-15T00:13:10.443Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree—I'm ideologically pro-natalist but averse to having kids myself due to cost and more effective ways to positively impact the future.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T01:30:25.444Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Right, I think that position is approaching the ideology of the Shakers.

Replies from: Cullen_OKeefe
comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-03-15T02:55:12.581Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Shakers seemed to believe that any procreation was wrong.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T02:57:07.789Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Right. I wonder if affiliation with EA correlates with an implicit belief that procreation is wrong / not worthwhile / not clearing the bar of moral behavior...

Replies from: Cullen_OKeefe
comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-03-15T02:58:22.053Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I suspect that's not true (due to the popularity of total population ethics in the movement), but would be interested in getting solid empirical data on the point.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T03:00:18.128Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The revealed preference of most people who affiliate with EA could easily be that having kids doesn't clear their implicit moral bar. (This seems to be the case for you.)

Replies from: Cullen_OKeefe
comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-03-15T03:04:54.880Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This wrongly assumes that people act only on moral reasoning, not other (e.g., personal happiness) factors. It also wrongly assumes that factors that apply to one's own moral deliberation should universalize to either other EAs or people in general, when in fact I hold neither. I am generally very happy to see other EAs have kids, but don't feel morally compelled to do so enough to override my selfish preference against.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T03:15:47.873Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm basically trying to wonder about whether or not most people who affiliate with EA share your preference set about this.

Replies from: Cullen_OKeefe
comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-03-15T03:26:46.652Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

That is a very worthwhile question, but invoking Shakerism is likely to obfuscate the process of answering it.

answer by MichaelStJules · 2021-03-15T16:09:34.292Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'll give my reasons, but I'm not sure how well they generalize to the community.

I just don't want kids and never have. I value my time to myself a lot and the flexibility of having fewer commitments, and children would inevitably intrude on that. I'm also prioritizing my career, and I anticipate having to make career sacrifices for children, e.g. not taking a job in a new city (this weighs on my mind more than the costs of raising a child, but I'm not sure it should).

Also, raising an infant sounds pretty horrible.

answer by Cienna · 2021-03-15T03:32:07.991Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Higher sensitivity and standards. People in these communities take life, responsibility, long-term planning, and suffering more seriously than usual. Some are waiting longer for the sake of being a better parent when they do have kids. It's emotionally intense, living in constant empathic contact with another person who has full depth of feeling and perception, but who starts out with little skill at reasoning, shielding, or emotional self-regulation. I'm told one doesn't fully grasp the seriousness and scope of the project until after the kids have arrived, and I suspect the non-parents in this community have a better guess than the average non-parent about how consequential, meaningful, and intensive the raising of another person will feel. That's quite a commitment! 

answer by jackmalde · 2021-03-14T19:33:01.989Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Slightly (only slightly) tongue in cheek answer:

Rational people are less likely to have children because having children is often quite irrational. It has been suggested that people are succumbing to a focusing illusion when they think that having children will make them happy, in that they focus on the good things without giving much thought to the bad. Rationalists are less likely to succumb to these illusions. (Note: this is obviously not true of everyone as some people clearly derive significant happiness from having children).

Not at all tongue in cheek answer:

EAs want to do the most good in the world and it seems that having children is unlikely to help with this, and in fact may make this more difficult. Children are a big responsibility and cost money, reducing time and energy for other pursuits, of which doing the most good will be one.

EAs may also not feel the need to have children as they are already deriving significant meaning from doing the most good. People who aren't (as) motivated by making the world better are more likely to need to do things for themselves to derive meaning.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2021-03-15T10:24:55.301Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It has been suggested that people are succumbing to a focusing illusion when they think that having children will make them happy, in that they focus on the good things without giving much thought to the bad.

Worth noting that you might get increased meaningfulness in exchange for the lost happiness, which isn't necessarily an irrational trade to make. E.g. Robin Hanson:

Stats suggest that while parenting doesn’t make people happier, it does give them more meaning. And most thoughtful traditions say to focus more on meaning that happiness. Meaning is how you evaluate your whole life, while happiness is how you feel about now. And I agree: happiness is overrated.

Parenting does take time. (Though, as Bryan Caplan emphasized in a book, less than most think.) And many people I know plan to have an enormous positive influences on the universe, far more than plausible via a few children. But I think they are mostly kidding themselves. They fear their future selves being less ambitious and altruistic, but its just as plausible that they will instead become more realistic.

Also, many people with grand plans struggle to motivate themselves to follow their plans. They neglect the motivational power of meaning. Dads are paid more, other things equal, and I doubt that’s a bias; dads are better motivated, and that matters. Your life is long, most big world problems will still be there in a decade or two, and following the usual human trajectory you should expect to have the most wisdom and influence around age 40 or 50. Having kids helps you gain both.

Replies from: AGB, jackmalde
comment by AGB · 2021-03-17T10:51:30.735Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Worth noting that you might get increased meaningfulness in exchange for the lost happiness

FWIW, I think this accidentally sent this subthread off on a tangent because of the phrasing of 'in exchange for the lost happiness'. 

My read of the stats, similar to this Vox article and to what Robin actually said, is that people with children (by choice) are neither more nor less happy on average than childless people (by choice), so any substantial boost to meaning should be seen as a freebie, rather than something you had to give up happiness for.

I think there's a related error where people look at the costs of having children (time, money, etc.) and conclude that it's not worth it if the children aren't even making you happy at the end of all that. But this doesn't make sense, at least from a selfish perspective: the parents in these studies were also paying all those costs, their childless counterparts were not, and yet the bottom line was essentially no overall effect, suggesting that children are either providing something which makes up for these costs or that the costs are not as big as people sometimes make out (my suspicion as a father of two is that it's a bit of both). And so as Vox put it:

Bottom line: The evidence we have suggests having children doesn't affect a person's happiness much one way or another. But that evidence is limited by people selecting into the path they think is best for them. So: If you want to have kids, have kids. If you don't want to have kids, don't have kids. The happiness literature isn't going to make the decision for you.

comment by jackmalde · 2021-03-15T11:27:41.214Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah I agree that trading off happiness for meaning can make sense. I would just point out the following from the article I linked to:

But the warnings for prospective parents are even more stark than ‘it’s not going to make you happier’. Using data sets from Europe and America, numerous scholars have found some evidence that, on aggregate, parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003), and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.

I'm not sure how selective the author may (or may not) be being here, and there could certainly be confounding variables that aren't controlled for in the studies (I haven't looked at them so can't really say). The reason I draw out that quote is that 'life satisfaction' may be the best overall measure of wellbeing we have, and it should incorporate 'meaning' to some extent, so that Di Tella study should be concerning.

It would be cool for someone to do an in-depth review of the evidence on how children impact on wellbeing. Maybe I will, if I find the time...

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2021-03-15T18:42:12.505Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Fair point. Though apparently measures of 'life satisfaction' and 'meaning' produce different outcomes:

So, how did the World Happiness Report measure happiness? The study asked people in 156 countries to “value their lives today on a 0 to 10 scale, with the worst possible life as a 0 and the best possible life as a 10.” This is a widely used measure of general life satisfaction. And we know that societal factors such as gross domestic product per capita, extensiveness of social services, freedom from oppression, and trust in government and fellow citizens can explain a significant proportion of people’s average life satisfaction in a country.

In these measures the Nordic countries—Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland—tend to score highest in the world. Accordingly, it is no surprise that every time we measure life satisfaction, these countries are consistently in the top 10. [...]

... some people might argue that neither life satisfaction, positive emotions nor absence of depression are enough for happiness. Instead, something more is required: One has to experience one’s life as meaningful. But when Shigehiro Oishi, of the University of Virginia, and Ed Diener, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, compared 132 different countries based on whether people felt that their life has an important purpose or meaning, African countries including Togo and Senegal were at the top of the ranking, while the U.S. and Finland were far behind. Here, religiosity might play a role: The wealthier countries tend to be less religious on average, and this might be the reason why people in these countries report less meaningfulness.

Replies from: jackmalde, JoelMcGuire
comment by jackmalde · 2021-03-15T18:50:13.611Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interesting, especially that Togo and Senegal are top of the ranking! I'd imagine the Togolese and Senegalese are having quite a lot of children as well.

comment by JoelMcGuire · 2021-03-16T21:34:15.164Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

compared 132 different countries based on whether people felt that their life has an important purpose or meaning, African countries including Togo and Senegal were at the top of the ranking, while the U.S. and Finland were far behind.

I haven't explored this in depth, but it's worth stressing that this indicates that measures of meaning appear to lead to a much more counter intuitive ranking of countries than LS or happiness.

If meaning matters more to well-being than happiness or life satisfaction, then we are probably very, very wrong about what makes a life go well. 

Replies from: jackmalde, Milan_Griffes
comment by jackmalde · 2021-03-16T21:49:15.575Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

To be fair to Kaj they only said that one may rationally trade-off happiness for meaning, not that meaning intrinsically matters more.

For example you could theoretically have both meaning and happiness as components of wellbeing, with both having diminishing marginal contribution to wellbeing. In this case it would likely be best to have some meaning and some happiness. If one was very happy, but with no meaning, one could rationally trade off happiness for meaning to improve overall wellbeing - and this wouldn't require thinking that meaning is intrinsically better than happiness.

Replies from: JoelMcGuire
comment by JoelMcGuire · 2021-03-17T00:10:48.879Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Very fair Jack! 

I agree its uncontroversial that if there are multiple elements of well-being that don't necessarily have equal weights -- there will be a point at which getting more of the thing that matters less will be better overall than getting the thing that matters more. 

Since Kaj included the  Bryan Caplan quote it seemed to imbue the comment with a bit more opinion on what matters. 

And most thoughtful traditions say to focus more on meaning that happiness. Meaning is how you evaluate your whole life, while happiness is how you feel about now. And I agree: happiness is overrated.

Getting back to the point. If a potential parent is told "you'll be less happy but your life will have more of (whatever meaning means)." I'm trying to express, that if that potential parent asked me if they should take that tradeoff (from a self interested perspective), I'd say "make sure you're getting a heck of a lot of meaning for every unit of happiness you lose".  

Full disclosure: I'll probably make that tradeoff even though it doesn't seem like a great bargain. 

As a deeper aside, it's odd that he defines meaning pretty much as life satisfaction / evaluation which is normally "how you evaluate your whole life". They obviously aren't the same to people if they give opposite rankings of countries. 

Replies from: jackmalde
comment by jackmalde · 2021-03-17T06:04:54.735Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

As a deeper aside, it's odd that he defines meaning pretty much as life satisfaction / evaluation which is normally "how you evaluate your whole life". They obviously aren't the same to people if they give opposite rankings of countries. 

Yeah I think he may actually be referring to life satisfaction, but calling it meaning as a sort of informal short-hand. I'm not sure "meaning" is a very common wellbeing metric anyway.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-16T21:36:56.922Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Big +1

answer by julieconge · 2021-03-16T12:13:11.812Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There's been some interesting research done at Georgetown University that shows higher amygdala activity in the brains of extraordinarily altruistic individuals (in this case, anonymous kidney donors) compared to a control group in response to other people's fear (no similar increase in activity in response to pain or anger). Video for reference attached.

One reason for the increased activity is that "fearful expressions appear vulnerable and infantile" which triggers in mammals (humans, primates, dogs, lions) an alloparental care response. Dr. Abigail Marsh claims that the route of altruism is "the capacity, the desire, the skill, to care for other people's babies." 

Additionally, not only is the amygdala responsive to fearful stimuli, it's also said to be the "entry point to the parental care system," with a dense population of receptors for oxytocin.

EA is a hub of well-educated (less educated women = more children) altruistic individuals that are concerned with morality, not least including the moral weight of having biological or nonbiological children of their own. Pair these reasons with the evidence now supporting altruistic tendencies correlating to heightened amygdala activity, it could be that EAs are satisfying parental urges by simply participating in the EA movement. This participation could be enough for many EAs to forego parenthood of their own. 

All that said, birth control is sometimes fallible. I am 34 weeks pregnant with my second child and have found parenting extremely challenging and rewarding :).

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comment by Buck · 2021-03-14T19:43:07.155Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I’d be interested to see comparisons of the rate at which rationalists and EAs have children compared to analogous groups, controlling for example for education, age, religiosity, and income. I think this might make the difference seems smaller.

Replies from: AGB, Milan_Griffes
comment by AGB · 2021-03-15T00:36:07.952Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

To this I would add:

Beware of the selection effect where I’d expect people with kids are less likely to come to meetups, less likely to post on this forum, etc. than EAs with overall-similar levels of involvement, so it can look like there are fewer than is actually the case, if you aren’t counting carefully.

For EA clusters in very-high-housing-cost areas specifically (Milan mentioned the Bay), I wouldn’t be surprised if the broader similar demographic is also avoiding children, since housing is usually the largest direct financial cost of having children, so you may need to control for that as well.

(I think I agree there’s still some difference here, just flagging some confounders beyond what Buck mentioned.)

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T01:32:47.737Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

fwiw I'm using "Bay Area Rationality" to point to a particular subculture (that which grew out of Overcoming Bias and LessWrong and is now centered around but not entirely contained by the Bay Area), and to disambiguate from the broader notion of "Rationality," which I understand to encompass many social movements, subcultures, and time periods. 

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-14T21:07:57.669Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I believe Mormons and Catholics are punching above their weight in the US.

comment by Erich_Grunewald · 2021-03-14T21:03:37.852Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Possibly for the same reasons that people with higher income & education levels generally have fewer children? That is, it could just be a spurious correlation.

Edit: moved this to the comment section & now I see that Buck pretty much made the same comment already.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-14T21:08:39.300Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Why are people with higher income & education levels having fewer children?

Replies from: Erich_Grunewald, RomeoStevens
comment by Erich_Grunewald · 2021-03-14T21:15:01.102Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Speculation:

  • it interferes with working life or self-actualisation, which they value more than the average person
  • they have higher standards for what they deem sufficiently good living conditions for family life, e.g. they suppose one should have acceptably sound personal finances, or a bigger home, etc. in ways that other people don't
comment by RomeoStevens · 2021-03-15T00:16:42.045Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

rK selection.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T01:34:02.146Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

K strategists still need to reproduce at the replacement rate or above to be viable.

Replies from: RomeoStevens
comment by RomeoStevens · 2021-03-16T02:34:32.929Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

in the long run yes. But that's overly simplistic when considering humans because of all the things we might do to either memetically or technologically undermine evolutionary equilibria.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-04-06T02:21:39.414Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think we yet are collectively wise enough to engage in memetic and/or tech projects that undermine evolutionary equilibria, fwiw.

comment by Jeff_Kaufman · 2021-03-15T13:57:22.009Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The Plough link is broken; it should be https://www.plough.com/en/topics/life/parenting/the-case-for-one-more-child

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2021-03-15T16:10:40.534Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, should be fixed now