Work that makes a difference usually tackles a particular challenge, takes up a cause. Causes range from improving education to preserving biodiversity.
Where do causes fit in?
When you’re picking a career, picking a cause is an important step. There’s a huge number of problems you could work on, and it helps to break them down into a short-list of particularly promising areas. Once you’ve picked a cause that matters, you can delve into the specific interventions to work on. Then you can consider a type of career and combine the two. When you’ve got down to a couple of career options, look at our general career choice strategies.
At 80,000 Hours, we think picking the best causes matters for two reasons
- It’s a big part of what gets you up in the morning.
- Working on some causes is super-effective.
So even once you’re attached to a particular type of job or activity, there’s a lot of room to make a bigger difference by picking the right cause.
Some causes have opportunities for you to be really effective. You want your cause to be something important. But you also want it to be something where you can make a big difference. Some problems are really important, but also extremely difficult to solve. Or, they already have lots of great people working on them. Our aim is to find you a problem to work on that’s both important, and for which your efforts can go a long way.
Which causes are the best?
This question is a little tricky. There are lots of ineffective ways to tackle promising causes and lots of effective ways to tackle causes that look unlikely to be important. The following list of causes are plausibly important and neglected. We also like to recommend causes which have good effectiveness evidence, and these are sometimes also the ones with lots of attention already. Some careers, of course, won’t fit neatly into a particular cause.
How do we pick the best causes? Scroll down to see some of our approaches.
The most promising broad cause areas seem likely to include:
Around 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day. There’s a huge amount we can do to help them.
We don’t know enough about which causes and interventions are important. Since the differences in effectiveness between interventions are so large, the value of this research can be very high.
Future generations can’t stand up for themselves, but our actions will have consequences than will last for many generations into the future.
60 billion animals are killed each year for food, most living terrible lives in factory farms. We can reduce this suffering.
Research can transform society, but there are many important questions that don’t seem to be getting enough attention.
Some of the most promising sub-causes include:
- Increasing the amount of aid going to the most effective health interventions, and developing even better health interventions.
- Charity evaluation and encouraging effective giving
- Encouraging policy formation on the basis of global prioritisation
- Reducing the risk of unlikely but catastrophic global events
- Campaigning to reduce consumption of factory farmed meat
- Entering these research fields
Among many others, some of which are likely to be very effective.
Once you’ve picked a cause, it’s important to pick specific highly effective interventions. There’s always room to make much more of a difference by picking a really good career tackling a really effective intervention in a really promising cause. See the individual cause pages for more ideas.
80,000 Hours is currently researching a huge number of causes. We’ll be putting out some solid estimates of the attractiveness of these causes.-
How can I pick the best causes?
When we look for promising causes we look for causes that are:
Important: They affect a lot of people significantly. An improvement here will really matter.
Neglected: Not enough people are working on it, so extra effort can go a long way.
More precisely, we want to find the cause with the best overall combination of importance and neglect.
There’s a huge number of possible causes. So the first step is to narrow down the list. We’ve got a list of simple rules of thumb to help you do just that. And see below to see our best ideas at the moment.
Finding Important Causes
An important cause involves a problem, which if solved, would benefit a large number of people in a significant way.
So, as a first step, one thing to look at is the number of people who would be helped if this cause were solved, and to think about how much their lives would be improved. For instance, 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, resulting in the deaths of more than 6 million children per year from easily preventable diseases. So, if global poverty could be solved, 1.4 billion people would live much better lives, and at least 6 million lives would be saved each year. So, it’s an important problem by any scale.
Which cause you think is the most important will vary from person to person. Sometimes people disagree due to uncertainty about how big the scale of the problem is. That’s not as common as you might think, however, because there are often huge differences in scale between causes.
More likely, people disagree because they have different values. For instance, if you think animal suffering is morally relevant, then it’s an extremely important problem. But if you don’t value animals, then it might not matter at all. Similarly, if you don’t think we have a duty to protect future generations, it’ll have a big impact on which causes you think are the most important. Our list takes account of the most commonly held values. But to pick your cause you might need to think more about what ultimately matters to you.
Finding neglected causes
In addition to finding a cause that’s important, we need to find causes where extra resources can go a long way. We call these neglected causes.
We can make a first pass at finding neglected causes by looking at areas where we might expect our existing institutions to not be taking the best opportunities. We can then delve more deeply into specific opportunities. See below for our best answers, or use these rules of thumb to find your own opportunities.
Where can we find neglected causes?
- There’s no money in it: This can be because the problem mostly affects poor people, people who haven’t been born yet, non-humans, or involves public goods. It means that there’s little incentive to set up a business that tackles this problem.
- The political incentives are missing: This can happen when the problem hurts poor or otherwise marginalised people, people who tend not to organise politically, people in other countries, people who haven’t been born yet, or non-humans. This means there’s no incentive for governments to tackle this problem.
- The cause is low visibility: If people don’t know about a problem (or a solution) then they can’t work on it. This happens often with new solutions/problems, complicated issues, issues that affect poor or otherwise marginalised people, or issues with some taboo attached.
- There is some aspect of human irrationality that makes it unattractive: People have systematic biases that sometimes stop them working on important issues. This is particularly bad for problems that are hard to visualise, that are very unlikely, or that affect huge numbers of people.
- The cause is low status: Some careers are, fairly or unfairly, less respected. This might be because a cause is new or weird or associated with groups that suffer from discrimination.
- Have promising opportunities: We need to check that they aren’t neglected for a good reason. Sometimes problems are just extremely hard to solve.