The massive turn-out for this talk showed one encouraging fact: lots of people want to do good. But the matter of transforming these good intentions into positive and impactful behaviours is one of perhaps surprising complexity. Why don’t we always do the best we can? Dr Hauke Hillebrandt is the Director of Research at Giving What We Can: an organisation based around Effective Altruism, and has been working towards an answer to this question.
Effective altruism is a social movement that aims to use evidence-based theories in order to determine the best, most effective way of helping others. This involves ways ordinary people can help change the world for the better: from donating money to the most effective altruistic organisations, to supporting policies with a positive social impact, to choosing a career that will most improve the lives of others.
How much impact could a career in psychology or neuroscience research be expected to have? What are the most important areas to study?
Some research areas have immediate relevance to everyday life. For example, cognitive enhancement aims to improve cognitive functions such as memory, concentration and attention through behavioural, pharmacological or other means. This could have a huge impact in educational, occupational and social settings; from helping people to sleep better, to completing an essay on time.
Work into ‘nudging’ also has great potential for impact. This aims to change public behaviour and decision making in positive ways, for example eating less fatty food, through changes in public policies.
Of course, when deciding to specialise in a particular research area it is important to consider both personal interest and skills. But there are other factors other factors affecting how big an impact a career in research may have.
Replaceability: If you hadn’t taken the job, would someone else have been able to do it instead? If few others are willing or capable to conduct research in a particular field, the impact of each individual’s contribution is likely to be greater than when a role could simply be taken on by others.
Cumulative effects: It may also be helpful to look at the broader context of a particular research field. No matter how theoretically interesting a particular topic may be, if no one else pays attention to it the impact may only be minimal. On the other hand, if a study enhances or contributes to the work of others, or is relevant to public or political interests at a particular time, it may generate enough thought and follow-up work to be influential.
Importance: How many people does a problem affect, and how badly? The cost in terms of human mental and physical wellbeing, as well as economic factors, can be combined to indicate how urgently a problem needs addressing. Consider, for example, the scope for improvement in treatments for depression.
Tractability: Given a limited amount of time and funding, it is important to balance the potential benefits to be gains from a particular research project against the likelihood that such benefits can actually be achieved anytime soon.
Scope: the law of diminishing returns says that if a particular research area has been largely neglected, any subsequent work is likely to make a huge impact. By contrast, as more and more people focus on a particular area, the impact each individual adds becomes less and less. This may be where creativity and originality become most vital in a research career.
Although perhaps not everyone can conduct cutting-edge research, donating money to carefully chosen charities that use the money to “do good” is an easy way of having an altruistic impact. One aspect of the Centre for Effective Altruism project is the Giving what we can pledge; its members pledge to donate 10% of their income to the most effective charities for relieving extreme poverty.
So how can we encourage more people to do this? The factors preventing people donating money in this way have been closely examined in moral psychology research. For example, belief in a Just World is the idea that people have a cognitive bias to assume that the world is a fair place, so a given person’s experiences (whether positive or negative) are deserving consequences of their previous behaviour. However, with around two-thirds of the variance in global earnings attributable to place of birth, it seems evident that the world is not always fair.
A number of other psychological processes have been suggested to influence willingness to help other; for example their distance from you. It may be that helping others in third world countries is too distant to bring about the emotional reward that may accompany helping someone in direct proximity. The action-omission bias may also play a role: this suggests that although actively harming someone is considered morally wrong, passively allowing someone to suffer is not prohibited in the same way. Similarly, social norms may influence behaviour, and people may ‘follow the crowd’ in their donation behaviour; currently meaning that relatively few donations to third-world countries are made.
However, with knowledge of these preventative factors, and the psychological processes and biases underlying our thinking and decision-making, the scope for changing behaviour to have a greater and more altruistic impact appears promising. Projects run by the Centre of Effective Altruism aim to make this a reality.
More information on the Centre for Effective Altruism can be found at https://www.centreforeffectivealtruism.org/