When my friend invited me to a dating event last month, I leapt on the invitation. Earlier that day, I had found out that a guy I had spent most of a wedding flirting with had a girlfriend. I was bored of online dating. And I was bored of finding out that guys who hit on me have girlfriends – so I was heartened by the thought of an event primarily for people seeking “primary partners”.
And, apparently, it was primarily for “EAs”, which I originally took to mean executive assistants. When my friend clarified that it stood for effective altruists – of which he is one – I was sceptical. Effective altruism is a movement composed of organisations such as Giving What We Can (which recommends charities that save the most lives per donation) and individuals who argue that earning great wealth is a moral good, because it enables them to donate more money to said charities.
Others might have felt apprehensive because of the movement’s cult-like reputation, or the infamy of Sam Bankman-Fried, the EA-linked founder of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, who has been accused of defrauding investors to the tune of $8bn. Effective altruists are portrayed as justifying all manner of things as “for the greater good” , like the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald in Harry Potter. But my fear was largely founded on my scepticism of men who lay claim to virtue – what could be more pompous, I thought, than actually having the world “altruist” in the name of your movement.
On the night itself, I climbed the stairs above a converted old theatre to find a room full of people who looked personable and, well, attractive (I was surprised because my friend had proudly warned me that the EA movement was full of nerds). Upon entering, I was told to fill in a sticky name tag with my name and: 1) whether I wanted children; 2) where I was based; and 3) whether I was looking for monogamy or polygamy, and my sexuality. This was consistent with EA’s focus on defining and measuring goals, but I was surprised to see most people genuinely walking around with MONO emblazoned across their chest, as if to forewarn that they were contagious with kissing disease. Of course, some people’s said “POLY”, and some men were labelled “MONO-ISH” – I steered clear of them because I assumed that meant “I’m a cheater”, but it turns out it just meant they’d consider an open relationship.
Until this night, I’d always found earnestness in dating embarrassing. A part of me felt afraid to admit to others, even to myself, that I mainly want a serious relationship – let alone that I probably want children one day. So to be surrounded by so many perfectly self-assured people who spelled these things out up front made something shift within me. Google tells me that clear statements about intentions and children are part and parcel of EA dating events and websites. It’s funny that most single people I know my age (29) ultimately want to get married and to have kids, but rarely pick the “Long-term relationship” or “Wants children” categories on Hinge.
The same goes for the “dating docs”: dating bios that many of the attendees seemed to have on file and had been circulated via Google Docs before the event. They were disarmingly honest, spanning several A4 pages with sections about why past relationships didn’t work out. It reminds me of the sorts of thing used by professional matchmakers, popularised by Netflix shows such as Jewish Matchmaking and Indian Matchmaking. I’d thought it perhaps cringeworthy to be so detailed in what you’re looking for. But then, even on dating apps, people use particular photos to curate a vibe, and answer questions with heavily-engineered jokes to hint at their personality and values. I suppose effective altruists just get to the point, and don’t bother being cool about it.
One of the most surprising things about this EA dating event was that it was the best night I’d had in a while. There was an energy in the room that was fun, vivacious and kind. Yes, everyone was successful – running companies or working at reputable organisations such as 80,000 Hours, which advises people on the careers focused on social impact – but they didn’t define themselves as such. I often return home from journalism parties feeling mildly unhappy and wanting a shower – like the air I breathed was infused with an atmosphere of ruthlessness and self-importance. I left the EA dating event with my faith in the world reaffirmed. I often think that in the right relationship, you can feel like you’re coming home – so I found it telling that I felt like that at a dating event.
Should I be an effective altruist rather than a journalist? Rather than putting a Yes or No down for kids, I wrote 75 per cent. “So precise,” one guy joked approvingly. “The only thing is EAs wouldn’t use an integer.” One man spotted my black watch and recognised it to be the £6 unisex Casio watch from Amazon (I buy it on repeat because it’s the most unfussy, clear and economical watch I can find). He suggested that he, too, was a cult follower of this timepiece. While everyone joked that I must be “a secret EA”, I seriously considered the thought. I had not realised until this evening that effective altruism involved a full-on identity with a community constructed around it – it’s funny to think something so broad originated from what was initially an approach to giving and helping others.
The most surprising thing of all was that I ended up meeting more than one person I fancied. I’ve attended everything from singles parties to speed dating, and never met anyone I was attracted to. But after this event, I ended up going on more than one date with someone. There was chemistry, and we shared similar values (straightforwardness, fun and “not being a dick”). Effective altruist dating has taught that me it’s perfectly cool to not be cool about what I want. Why not be explicit and earnest instead?
At the end of our second date he said, gently, “I’m not sure I see this as something long-term” (if only all dating were so straightforward), and we agreed that we somehow just didn’t connect. Fact-based, data-driven compatibility has its limits. “What are you looking for, that you haven’t found on apps?” I asked him, after we agreed we weren’t well-matched. I was curious – was it someone with a specific sense of humour, a particular personality? He replied: “I mean, I guess I’m looking for a consequentialist.”