Discussion Groups


Contents

What are discussion groups?

Discussion groups are meetups where the primary activity of the meetup is discussing a particular topic. Participants usual listen, read, or watch something on the topic before or during the meetup.

A typical agenda for a discussion group might go something like:

0:00-0:05: Wait for people to join, get snacks, etc.

0:05-0:15: Introductions and a general overview of how the event will be structured

0:15-0:50: Discussion

0:50-0:55: Regroup to share takeaways

0:55-1:00: Final announcements

The discussion can be structured in several ways:

  • Split people into groups of 3-4, ideally with one facilitator per group, and have them discuss the topic. This works when you have enough volunteers to facilitate these small groups, and when most people attending are likely to be up-to-speed on the discussion topic and are open to sharing.

  • Stay in a big group, and have people raise their hands (in real life or over Zoom) if they want to share. This works best with groups of 6-16, especially when not all the group members may have had the chance to engage with the content yet (e.g. a book club). If you have more than 16 people, we recommend splitting into two or more groups.

  • If your group has more than eight people, consider suggesting breaking off into pairs. After a few minutes of discussion, each group shares what they came up with. This arrangement gives people more thinking time and puts less pressure on any individual to have something to say.

  • For more ideas, see Tessa Alexanian's post, "How to run a high-energy reading group"

You can have your participants read/watch/listen to the content ahead of time, or during the meetup. Many groups choose to watch a video together at the beginning of the meetup or read a short article together, but books and podcasts tend to be read or listened to ahead of time. Having everyone watch, read, or listen together can ensure that everyone is on the same page during the discussion (as many groups find their group members don't always read the recommended content before their discussion groups), but it also extends the time of your meetup, and can be awkward depending on what content format you choose.

Finding good content for discussion groups

It's worth thinking carefully about the topics you choose to discuss with your group. Having especially interesting discussion content can help group members stay more engaged with the community and its ideas. Boring discussion topics, or worse, discussion topics that represent EA poorly, can turn off members.

When considering content to discuss, look for:

  • Content where general life experience can inform the discussion. For example, talks about the psychology of effective altruism can be good because people can share their own experience with EA and their impressions of the experiences of others.

  • Topics around a question where the answer isn't obvious. For example, should people who are interested in donating effectively donate quickly, or save to give later? Presenting two contrasting views on one topic can also be a good way to generate interesting discussion. For example, Social Experiments to Fight Poverty by Esther Duflo and Growth and the case against randomista development by Hauke Hillebrandt offer two different approaches to global development, and participants may have different opinions about which case is more compelling.

  • Content with obvious next steps or action points. Content like this is harder to find, but if you find something that may influence someone's career, donation, or lifestyle decisions (such as an article about going vegan, or a video about taking the Giving What We Can pledge), these may have an even bigger impact on participants compared to a discussion about an issue they're unlikely to get involved in. If you decide to discuss topics of this nature, however, be respectful of people's decisions about how to incorporate the advice in their own lives. People should feel free to make big decisions at their own pace, and you want to be careful not to come across as overly pushy or evangelical.

In general, avoid content that is:

  • Too technical. It can be difficult for group members to engage with content that goes into topics they don't understand well, like the biology of clean meat or climate change mitigation technologies. Stick to topics that are more general, unless you're marketing your discussion towards people with an interest in a particular area of expertise.

  • Highly controversial, unless you have a plan for handling the discussion. Discussion on politics, social justice, and deep ethical questions can turn into bad faith arguments that can leave a bad impression on group members if not handled well. Consider whether the benefits of running these discussions will outweigh the costs. For example, a discussion on Peter Singer’s views on infanticide of very disabled newborns could be offputting to members of the group and is unlikely to provide actionable outcomes. Keep the group’s goals in mind, minimise harm wherever possible, and ensure that conversations are genuinely useful.

  • Potentially off-putting to newcomers. If you're inviting newcomers at your meetup, it may be a good idea to avoid discussing EA's most fringe ideas. You don't want people's first impression of effective altruism to be based on discussion around a cause that may be perceived as highly unusual or even harmful by outsiders.

  • Expected to bring up difficult topics, like addiction or suicide, unless you have a plan for handling the discussion. It's great to discuss things like self-care and mental health in the effective altruism community, but make sure your team has a plan for how to handle people who may share concerning details about their personal lives. (We have more advice on this in our Self-Care workshop guide.)

  • Written by or focused on controversial speakers/authors, unless you've thought through the costs and benefits. Particularly for events where you're expecting a lot of newcomers, we generally recommend not associating with people who have a history of controversial views, as people may associate effective altruism with these controversial views, even though most people involved with effective altruism may not endorse them. Read more about this in our guide to handling controversies.

Example content

If you're considering discussing content that isn't listed here, we strongly recommend you view or listen to it before your discussion group, especially if you're using content that isn't on CEA's website or Youtube channel. You may be surprised to find that the talk may not be suited to the audience you're advertising to, or otherwise might not represent EA ideas well.

Articles

Some EA Forum articles are available on the EA Forum podcast.

There are a few places to find aggregated lists of potential reading group content:

Articles with pre-prepared questions or worksheets

  • EA Fellowship curricula have a carefully curated list of readings with sample questions. If your group is not running a fellowship, you can adapt this content to suit standalone discussion events. Most fellowships require a couple of hours of reading per week so you might want to choose a subset of that week’s reading unless your group has plenty of time to read between meetups.

  • South Bay EA has an extensive set of worksheets that cover many EA related topics. Each topic has reading suggestions and a worksheet with discussion questions.

Other good sources for articles

Videos

Note: many videos have podcasts available on EARadio. Search "site:earad.io [talk name]" on Google to find them. Many also have transcripts on the Effective Altruism Forum.

CEA’s YouTube channel has recordings of EA Global and EAGx talks. Many of these talks are less than 30 minutes long if you don’t include the Q+A sections, so they can be played at the start of a meetup. This is a great option if your group members don’t have the time to read much between meetups. Check out Michael Aird's Where to Find EA-related Videos for more tips on finding relevant videos for your group.

Some of the 2020 EA Student Summit talks are particularly well suited to people newer to EA.

Some videos that groups have tried and found worked well:

You can also find a long list of EA video sources on this Forum post.

Books

Book clubs usually last for several weeks, with participants reading a chapter or two each week. CEA is able to provide funding to purchase books.

Some books that groups have used in reading groups:

These final two are more technical than the rest of the list:

You can also look at the Effective Altruism books list on Goodreads.

Before choosing a book, check out a review or two and scan through the book to gauge the level, then advertise your book club accordingly.

Podcasts

An organiser of EA Southampton wrote an EA Forum Post on podcast discussion groups which covers suggested formats and tips for choosing podcasts.

  • The 80,000 Hours podcast is a great source of interesting EA related discussions. Note that many are very long, so you might want to let your group know the sections that you think are the most important, so time-poor members can listen to the essential parts.

  • Learn Effective Altruism is a selection of ten 80,000 Hours podcast episodes selected to help listeners quickly get up to speed on effective altruism from a longtermist perspective.

  • Also check out this long list of EA-related podcasts