Biases in career choice: Don’t be misled by the category ‘high impact career’ when deciding between careers

I’ve noticed a bias in my thinking about career options that I’d like to help you avoid: I often group several careers together into a ‘high impact’ category even when the careers are very different in their potential to make an impact.

For instance, I’ve been considering different professional philanthropy careers. I’ve noticed that I tend to think of professional philanthropy through being employed as a programmer and through going into finance as similarly high impact, even though bankers can earn several times the salary of programmers and thus donate more to charity.

Similar thinking may occur in conventional ethical careers advice. Jobs working in a charity tend to be thought of as ‘ethical’, even though some charities have many times the impact of others. Similarly, some jobs within a charity are much less replaceable than others and so have a higher impact.

Why do we think in this way?

1[]. The flaw in my thinking seems to be an example of the cognitive bias scope neglect, which is a result of the human tendency to think in categories. In a psychology experiment, three groups of people were asked how much they’d be willing to pay for nets to save 2000, 20,000 or 200,000 birds from drowning in uncovered oil pools. Their answers were surprisingly similar: $80, $78, and $88 respectively.(1) The proposed explanation is that when the people in the experiment were weighing up how much they were willing to give to save the birds, they imagined a prototype event (a suffering, drowning bird) and weighed up how bad it was, regardless of how many birds were actually drowning.(2)

In a similar way, when thinking about careers you probably have the categories ‘high-earning’, ‘influential’, and ‘ethical’ in your mind represented by prototype cases, even though careers in those categories differ a great deal in earnings, influence, and how much difference they make.

2[]. Another reason for my flawed thinking is that humans tend to think in terms of diminishing returns(3) and this can affect the way we decide between high-earning careers. The subjective value of gaining £100 is less than two times the subjective value of gaining £50. So we perceive the difference between earning £120,000 per year and £70,000 per year as much less than the difference between earning £20,000 and £70,000 per year. Indeed, we’d be tempted to regard both the job that pays £120,000 per year and £70,000 per year as ‘high earning.’

This thinking would be useful if you were going to spend the money on yourself because after a certain point the extra money won’t make much difference to your happiness. But when you’re donating to charity, giving twice as much money really is twice as good. Even if you’ve already saved 50 lives, saving an additional 50 is just as valuable.(4)

How to avoid this bias when thinking about careers

To avoid these biases, try to think of different careers as having different levels of impact and compare all the options rather than settling for one that minimally satisfies your idea of a high impact career.

One way of comparing your options is to use rough numbers to measure the potential impact of each career. Your comparison might show you that some are many times better than others. Coming up with a measure of impact is tricky, but there’s often something available. A campaigner, for instance, could think about how many extra people they are able to reach. You can also use money to estimate impact. Someone working as a manager in an NGO could think about the size of the budget they control. A philanthropist could think about how much money they can donate.

Another way to decide from among a set of careers is to imagine yourself in the most high-impact career of the set. Then decide whether you’d be willing to reduce the amount of good you do to pursue a career with less impact. For example, would you be ok with saving 100 fewer lives per year if you took a lower-impact job?

  1. Hutchinson, W. G., Chilton, S. M. & Davis, J. ‘Measuring non?use value of environmental goods using the contingent valuation method: problems of information and cognition and the application of cognitive questionnaire design methods.’ Journal of Agricultural Economics 46, 97–112 (1995).

  2. Kahneman, D., Ritov, I. & Schkade, D. ‘Economic preferences or attitude expressions?: An analysis of dollar responses to public issues.’ Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 19, 203–235 (1999).

  3. Fox, C. R. & Poldrack, R. A. ‘Prospect theory and the brain.’ Neuroeconomics: Decision making and the brain 145–174 (2008).

  4. You do eventually get diminishing returns to charitable donations when the most cost-effective interventions receive all the donations they need and you have to donate to the next most cost-effective intervention. However, the benefits to other people diminish much slower than they would if you spent the money on yourself.