Effective social norms: don’t eat out

March 2015

Many communities have their own peculiar social norms. Effective altruism is too young to have them yet–which means we can still spend time optimizing them before they ossify. Here’s an example: I think that for EA events we should strongly prefer not to go out for food or drinks.

Going out to eat is expensive–it adds up incredibly quickly. Even though I rarely do it unless I’d be excluded from a social group otherwise, it’s usually my biggest expense after rent and transit, costing thousands of dollars a year.1 Plus, restaurants are often too loud for good conversation; the food can be unhealthy; they subsidize factory farming (even if you eat vegetarian);2 and they makes things difficult for parents–not to mention people with dietary restrictions or eating disorders.

I wouldn’t mind the cost as much if I were spending my entire salary on myself; I like restaurant food a lot better than what I make for myself, so it’s a reasonably good hedonic investment. But given that I’m trying to save most of my income to give away, it’s annoying to be essentially forced to spend a lot of it or miss out on socialization. This is even more of a problem for people whose low spending isn’t self-imposed, like students or those with low-paying jobs or high debt.


To install an alternate tradition, we’d need to replicate most or all of the upsides of eating out. Even though eating out costs a lot of money, it’s still a very strong tradition, which suggests that it has a lot of upsides to replace. And I think this is true:

I haven’t come up with anything that perfectly replicates those advantages without the cost. (Especially in colder climates where you can’t go outdoors, it’s particularly hard to get neutral, central space without paying anything.) But here are some partial solutions:

Hopefully these are enough to get your EA event most of the benefits of eating out, without incurring its worst downsides. But if anyone else has suggestions or alternatives, I’d love to hear them!


  1. I know some people feel that the time cost of preparing their own food is larger than the dollar cost of eating out. I’m fine with that, of course; but eating out as a group forces everyone to make that trade, including folks who can prepare food quickly enough that it’s not worth it for them. 

  2. Vegetarian meals subsidize meat because they’re sold at a higher margin than meat meals at restaurants that serve both (anecdotal evidence; can’t find a citation either way). 

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Ted

take a walk or a short hike

I love the idea of a hike– walking and talking is fun, the number of people in each conversation will be lowish (this is a good thing if you ask me), and it’s easy to drop back or go forward to talk to a wide range of people.


Jess Whittlestone

I agree with you that eating out can seem unnecessarily costly - a lot of my money goes on this too, and I feel uncomfortable about it. But I’d also be pretty concerned about EAs making “not eating out” a social norm, because I think it might make those meetups less attractive to new people (and maybe even to not-new people too). It’s also likely to make us seem more weird and extreme - “we don’t eat out because it costs too much money and we want to donate more” - and could even make it seem like we’re being judgemental of other people who do want to eat out.

I’m very much in favour of trying to think of fun alternatives to eating out. But I also think it’s sometimes probably worth the cost to go out, especially if you make an effort to go places that are cheap, and that making it a social norm that EAs don’t eat out could do more harm than good.


Rhys

“Plus, restaurants…subsidize factory farming (even if you eat vegetarian); … Vegetarian meals subsidize meat because they’re sold at a higher margin than meat meals at restaurants that serve both (anecdotal evidence; can’t find a citation either way)”

If this is true, might it be better to buy meat at a restaurant that serves both vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals, if the vegetarian meals are indeed overpriced?

If by “vegetarian” you mean lacto-ovo vegetarian, then of course vegetarians subsidize the meat industry every time they purchase something with eggs or cheese. But even if by “vegetarian” you mean “vegan,” someone who wants to avoid purchasing plant products that end up somehow benefitting meat producers would need to be wary of pretty much all food purchases, I would think, since the concern about money ending up in the hands of meat producers would be there when buying products from any company that is involved in animal products in some way, or is owned by a company that is, or creates products to be sold in a store that is.

It seems like someone who wanted to be that strict about it might need to grow most of their own food, or buy everything they eat from veganic farmers, since non-veganic farmers could be paying the meat industry for animal-based fertilizer.


Ben

Jess:

…I’d also be pretty concerned about EAs making “not eating out” a social norm, because I think it might make those meetups less attractive to new people (and maybe even to not-new people too).

Keep in mind that the food tradition also makes meetups less attractive to a number of not-new people, including me (and a number of other people, based on the response to this post). I don’t know how new folks feel about it, but I suspect that some people would be reluctant to pay money for something before they know they’ll enjoy it. It’s an empirical question which effect dominates.

It’s also likely to make us seem more weird and extreme - “we don’t eat out because it costs too much money and we want to donate more” - and could even make it seem like we’re being judgemental of other people who do want to eat out.

I think it has a lot to do with how you portray it. I’m not advocating categorically refusing to go out for food, just shifting the balance more in favor of non-default alternatives. “We don’t eat out because it costs too much money and we want to donate more” sounds aggressive and judgmental, but “We try to do things that are better for including people with less money or weird dietary preferences” sounds pretty reasonable, in my opinion.

Rhys:

If this is true, might it be better to buy meat at a restaurant that serves both vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals, if the vegetarian meals are indeed overpriced?

If you’re not worried about signaling, then yes! For instance, if you can buy a meat dish that the restaurant sells at a loss (without spending more yourself than you would on a veg dish), then you’re punishing them for stocking meat. In real life I think the signaling concern probably swamps this though.

It seems like someone who wanted to be that strict about it might need to grow most of their own food, or buy everything they eat from veganic farmers, since non-veganic farmers could be paying the meat industry for animal-based fertilizer.

If you’re trying to suggest via reductio ad absurdum that subsidizing the meat industry is a small consideration, then I agree. I think the others (particularly the cost) are more important.


Rhys

Related to the issue of saving money by not eating out, would another good norm for effective altruists be to live with their parents whenever they can, like when they happen to be working in the same city that their parent or parents live in? Arguably that runs into the problem of making EAs look too weird, but it’s becoming more common for adults to live with their parents again, and the money saved by not paying rent could do a lot of good.


Ben

Rhys: I would hesitate to elevate that to “norm” status since people can make individual decisions about it in a way that they can’t with eating out. But I do think it can be a good idea, depending on one’s family situation. For instance, Jeff Kaufman and Julia Wise shared a house with Jeff’s parents until after their daughter was born, although I think they paid rent. As far as I know, people didn’t think they were weird.

(I think living with one’s parents costs more weirdness points if it’s less obvious that you’re doing it by choice. In Jeff and Julia’s case, it was pretty clear that it was by choice, since they weren’t doing it right out of college and since they both had full-time jobs.)


John Salvatier

If the people are involved are not above and beyond EAs, but people who give ~10%, as a lot of people in my EA community are, then I think this makes less sense.

If you’re giving ~10%, then money for going out is not coming directly out of your giving budget, so the alternative is probably spending it on yourself in other ways.

One way to think about spending money on going out is trading money for easier between EAs. This seems like probably a pretty good trade because I strongly suspect that how close you feel to the EAs around you greatly influences how much you give and how much you think about how to give. I know this is very true for me.

That’s one reason I’m super willing to buy food for people who come to meetups, especially poor students and people without high paying jobs.

That said, many of these ideas are good. Spending less money if you can easily and having a variety of different bonding activities are both great.


Ben

@John: That’s a super good idea! And very big of you! It would definitely make restaurants better for the income-restricted folks.

I’d be interested to know how that works in your group. Do you offer to pay for people, or do they ask? How frequently do you end up subsidizing people vs. them paying for themselves?


John Salvatier

Its been pretty ad-hoc so far. Seattle EA is mostly programmers, a few people with other jobs and a couple of students. Paying people’s meals has happened in a few different ways:

  1. The organizers and I actively look for ways to throw money at the students. We will usually try to buy the students’ meals.

  2. We often order food in when we have a meetup at my house and a few of the organizers will split it. People will voluntarily chip in for their, but I will tell people not to worry if they can’t.

I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, but I’m thinking now maybe I should try to make it clearer that I’m willing to buy people meals if they’re reluctant.


Julia

I don’t know that restaurants are actually harder for parents than other locations.

Last night we had a successful experiment – there’s an indoor courtyard in Kendall Square (Cambrige, MA) outside two different cafes. There are tables to sit at. It’s quiet and not crowded. People can either order food or not, and it doesn’t feel like we’re imposing on a restaurant because we’re not actually in their space.