Yesterday I attended TEDxBerkeley.  You may have seen TED talks online before, taken from the main TED event which used to be hosted in Monterey and is now in Long Beach (if not, I recommend browsing through them — there’s a lot of fascinating stuff there).  In the past couple years, TED, dedicated to “Ideas worth spreading,” has itself been spreading to a bunch of regional events that are locally organized.  The UC Berkeley event was subtitled “Doing the unprecedented,” and vetted its applicants for those interested in changing the world.  I went eager to hear talks on how others were changing the world, and hoping for some tips on how to do so effectively.

There were a number of interesting talks at the event, but a few stood out in particular from an effectivist viewpoint.  People spoke on everything from compassion, making progress toward ending conflicts, changing policy at the city level in order to save large numbers of lives, radically altering how the medical system works from the outside, and — perhaps best of all — effective philanthropy.

The first talk was by psychology researcher Dacher Keltner, who spoke about evidence for compassion as a universal emotion, and discussed how compassion and positive emotion spread through social connections and correlate with success in various ways.  He talked about how both adults and kids in the U.S. are low on compassion and trust compared to people in other countries.  Due probably in part to the relatively short length of the talk, Keltner didn’t spend a lot of time giving any specific data on what causes compassion or the spread of positive emotion — he just threw up a bunch of vague correlational figures and didn’t discuss much of his methodology or the conclusions that we can draw about what to do with his data.  But I’m interested in finding out more about Greater Good, an organization at Berkeley that not only highlights research into happiness, compassion, and altruism, but also appears to try to apply that research.  I’m going to start following their blogs and see what kinds of tips they have and how their advice relates to the empirical work that Keltner referred to.

Early on, a young (22-year old) Israeli-born American talked about a trip that changed his perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.  Amit Deutsch grew up with a strongly pro-Israel cultural background and a family that had lost family members in the conflict; his friends and family were frequently inclined to view Palestinians as monsters, and he was a strong advocate of Israel without thinking about the point of view or humanity of the Palestinians.  He then participated in a program called Abraham’s Vision, which takes Jews and Palestinians to the former Yugoslavia.  They spend weeks there meeting and talk to many people from different areas of the Balkans and learn about their experiences, and how they all see themselves as victims in different ways.  According to the program’s website:

The fellowship’s goal is to engage in a critical process of self and communal reflection as a tool for understanding how participants’ identities are practiced in their daily lives. Our program aims (a) to empower participants to heighten their self-awareness, paying particular attention to their political selves; (b) to develop their critical thinking; and (c) to examine how such thinking manifests itself in Jewish-Palestinian, Israeli-Palestinian, Jewish-Israeli, and intra Jewish-Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Apparently, the program transformed Deutsch and some of his friends’ thinking dramatically.  They were able to better understand all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and start thinking critically about socially just outcomes.  Deutsch took the scary step of carrying the message back to his family and asking them to stop demonizing Palestinians.  It seems that these changes came about partly because the program participants were forced to spend time together and talk, and in doing so they found shared experiences — such as having lost loved ones to the conflict — and gained empathy.  Additionally, first addressing a different conflict with some analogous properties enabled participants to back away from their own anger and think about the complexities of conflict in a less heated situation first.

I often feel despair thinking about conflicts, wars, and genocides between different groups or people around the world.  How much chance is there, after so many terrible things have happened, to get people on different sides of a conflict to re-humanize one another and work toward stable and just long-term solutions?  Abraham’s Vision is one of the few things I’ve heard of that gives me hope that there are some ways to have such an effect.  But how do we create these effects on a larger scale?   How do we enforce peaceful talking in small groups long enough to build empathy?  How do we get people to view their own personal conflicts through the lens of other wars, and come to better understand their own situations and seek social justice?  I’m still skeptical, on a large scale.  But I’m nonetheless excited about this program.  I’d love to hear about other programs with similar goals, if any readers know of them.

Another talk was much lighter in nature, but had several effectivist moments.  Fred Dust of IDEO talked about how we need to all be designers and design solutions to problems around us.  I thought the design theme was a bit weak (or perhaps I missed his point about what it means to be a designer), but I really liked several of his examples.  The mayor of Bogota, when faced with a problem of high numbers of pedestrian fatalities in his city, first tried to stop people from jaywalking via large fines.  When that didn’t work, he did research on what motivates people to stop behavior, and based on feedback from citizens, he hired mimes to mock and humiliate pedestrians who broke the traffic laws.  Traffic fatalities dropped 50%.  This reminds me of a study I heard about recently on NPR (but can’t currently find online) in which researchers discovered that the most effective way to get people to wash their hands in public restrooms was  by asking them if their neighbors in line had washed their hands, and thus increasing social pressure and shame on non-hand washers.  Understanding people’s motivations is a huge part of changing their behaviors, and humiliation/shame seem to be highly effective at causing change.

Another person that Dust talked about was Jay Parkinson, a doctor who was deeply dissatisfied with the way the medical system and insurance industry worked.  Instead of joining it and lobbying from within to change it, he decided to start an alternative system.  As he says,

I started a practice in NYC on September 24, 2007:

  • patients would visit my website
  • see my Google calendar
  • choose a time and input their symptoms
  • my iphone would alert me
  • I would make a house call
  • they’d pay me via paypal
  • we’d follow up by email, IM, or videochat

This concept became Hello Health via a partnership with Myca so other doctors could practice this way. Hello Health is a mixture of secure social network and electronic medical record that enables doctors and patients to connect both in their office and online via email, IM, and video chat.

This system didn’t address all problems with the current health care system — Parkinson still recommends that patients have an HSA (health savings account) and catastrophic coverage, and in some cases patients could still end up paying a lot (from what I can tell, anyway, having recently been doing  a lot of health insurance research in my own attempts to find coverage). But Parkinson’s revolutionary medical system is potentially going to have a huge impact on the health industry because he is providing an alternative to the current system that is better in many dimensions, and others are likely to follow his example — at which point the old industry is going to have to shape up in the face of the new competition.

It’s hard to directly apply Parkinson’s innovative jump to many things that we might want to change in our own lives — trying to sum up the lesson too easily ends up with the unhelpful directive, “think outside the box.”  But it reminded me how important it is to step back from the problems that I’m working on and ask, “What is the ideal solution for this that I can imagine, if not constrained by the way things are done right now?”  It may be that sometimes, even if I can’t design a new system all on my own, I might choose to donate money to someone working on an innovative alternative rather than a lobbying group going up against existing behemoths.

The final talk that I found really exciting was by Eric Rodriguez, a recent UC Berkeley graduate.  He proposed and then started a new course at UC Berkeley called “The Economics and Business Perspectives of Philanthropy.”  The students in the course spend the term studying what makes different non-profit organizations effective, and what metrics make sense in performing such evaluations (I want to get my hands on their course materials!) Thanks to an outside donor, the students receive $10,000 each term, and get to decide which Bay Area non-profit is most effective and most deserving of receiving this money at the end of the term.  By providing this monetary incentive and competition, they also hope to make local organizations more effective over time.

I’m thrilled by the idea of this class, and also by the organization that helped inspire them.  Apparently, a lot of their strategy in assessing the effectiveness of organizations and approaches to solving issues is borrowed from the Copenhagen Consensus Center.  The CCC, as they describe themselves, are

a think-tank based in Denmark that tells governments and philanthropists about the best ways to spend aid and development money. We commission research that analyzes the optimal ways to combat the biggest problems facing the world. We promote the use of sound economic science to make sure that with limited resources, we achieve the most good for people and the planet.

This is terrific, and I’m looking forward to learning more about the CCC — and the Berkeley class — and their recommendations for how to most effectively donate money.

That wraps it up for my TEDxBerkeley report, from an effectivist point of view.  There was also a lot of discussion of exciting technology


  1. Jessica Mah Said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

    Hey Lauren,

    Just wanted to say thanks for coming to TEDxBerkeley. Glad you were able to make it!


  2. Tweets that mention TEDxBerkeley — Effectivism -- Topsy.com Said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by jen_h, Lauren A. Schmidt. Lauren A. Schmidt said: New Effectivism post: TEDxBerkeley (http://bit.ly/bGuW7D) […]

  3. lauren Said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

    Jessica: Thanks so much for organizing!

  4. Kai Chang Said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 5:01 am

    Lauren – fantastic wrap-up of the day – we are honored to have you in our audience and look forward to seeing you at other future TEDx events.

    (the other TEDxBerkeley curator).

  5. lauren Said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    Kai: Thanks, and thanks for all your hard work putting the event together!