Often when faced with a really difficult question, people “cheat” by opting to answer an easier but related one, without realising they’re doing it. For example, if someone asks you “How happy are you with your life right now?” you might find you actually end up giving the answer to an easier (but related) question such as “How happy do I feel at the moment?” or “How happy am I with my love life right now?”1 Sometimes this is a helpful tactic, but it can be a huge source of error. Could you be doing this with your career decisions? Is it helping you, or holding you back?

Answering an easier question

This tactic of “answering an easier question” is formally known as the attribute substitution heuristic. It was proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Shane Frederick in 2002 as underpinning a number of the mental shortcuts we use, that can lead to biases.2 Studies have shown that this tactic of “answering an easier question” is used by people when answering difficult questions in a variety of different situations: including how likely a person is to do a certain job,3 which of two cities is larger,4 and what volume of a cube a sphere will occupy if dropped into it5.

Common cheats in career choice.

What are some common “cheat” questions people use in their career decisions?

1) Which careers are most popular?

It’s easy to just follow the crowd when you’re not sure what to do. Often when a lot of people are doing something, it’s because it’s the right thing to do. Robert Cialdini talks about our tendency to do this in his book Influence (which I’d highly recommend), a phenomenon also known as social proof.6 The problem with social proof is it can lead us astray if we follow it too blindly: other people don’t always know best.

There are several reasons why following everyone else might not be a good idea in career decisions. First, other people are likely as uncertain about their career decisions as we are: so are probably following others too! Second, others might have reasons for choosing a career that don’t apply to you: so blindly copying their decisions without considering these reasons might lead you down the wrong path. Say you take a career in investment banking because you notice it’s where a large proportion of graduates seem to be going. If the reason the crowd is going into finance is because the jobs are highly paid, this won’t work for you if salary isn’t high on your list of priorities. Third, if you follow the crowd, you’ll miss under-resourced opportunities, which can often be much higher impact. Popular options are likely to be ones where your “direct” impact is clear, but as mentioned previously, in these cases your true impact is often much less.

Ask yourself why certain careers are incredibly popular, and question whether these reasons are good ones or really apply to you. Rather than just following the crowd, try to consider under-resourced options that the crowd might be missing.

2) Which careers come most easily to mind?

There’s a tendency to assume that because something is familiar or comes easily to mind, it must be good: a shortcut known as the availability heuristic. This means when trying to choose between a number of options, we’re likely to substitute the easier question “Which ones have I heard of?” for “Which one is the best?” Popular jobs are likely to be familiar, but there are other reasons a certain job might come to mind easily: a certain profession might have a strong family history, or a specific industry might be particularly big near where you live, for example. These factors don’t necessarily mean a career or industry is right for you.

If you find yourself being biased towards more familiar careers, look more closely: what makes them familiar? Question whether these are good reasons for you to choose that particular path. Even if they are, it’s still a good idea to seek out and consider less familiar possibilities (by speaking to lots of different people, for example) to broaden your options.

3) Which career stereotypes do I fit best?

Another common mistake is to judge which careers will suit you best based on how well you believe you fit certain career “stereotypes.” There are several ways in which this can obviously go wrong. First, stereotypes can be highly inaccurate, and don’t apply to everyone: accounting might be a stereotypically “boring” job, but some people love it. Without finding out more about what a job really involves on a day-to-day basis, it’s very hard to know if you’ll enjoy or excel in it.

Second, even if you understand what a career involves, you might still have a mistaken view of whether it will be right for you. Just as it’s important not to stereotype careers too quickly without getting more information, it’s also important not to do the same for yourself! Working out what you enjoy and are good at is hard, but it’s worth taking some time to understand better. Getting more experience and feedback from other people are two good ways to start doing this, and we’re hoping to have more advice on this in the future.

Cheating “making a difference”

As well as in career choice in general, answering an easier question seems like something people often do when they think about making a difference. “How do I make a difference with my career?” is clearly a very complex question: if it wasn’t, 80,000 Hours wouldn’t have much to do! There are a lot of different things to consider: who you’re helping directly, what you might be doing indirectly, who’d be doing what you’re doing if you weren’t, what else you could be doing… and so on. And like with career choice in general, it’s really hard to predict how different paths will work out.

One question people seem to commonly “cheat” with when thinking about making a difference is “Which careers are commonly viewed as being ‘ethical’?” But those careers that most people think of as ethical aren’t necessarily the ones that help people the most: some might not actually help people at all. Even if a conventionally ethical career does do good, the fact it’s well-known means it’s unlikely to be under-resourced, so your true contribution won’t be as much as it seems.

When is it worth cheating?

If substituting an easier question is such a common source of error, why do we do it? Sometimes cheat questions work pretty well. If we need an answer quickly and don’t have time to get more information, answering an easier but related question might be the best we can do. If I asked you to name the largest US cities in a minute, answering an easier question: “Which US cities come to mind most easily?” is probably the best you can do. It might also actually turn out to be pretty accurate: as the cities that come to mind easily will be the most well-known, and larger cities tend to be better known. If I gave you more time, though, you’d go out and get more information about the size of US cities.

On the other hand, if I asked you whether there were more words in the English language beginning with the letter r, or with the letter r in the middle of the word, the same tactic doesn’t work so well. It’s much easier to call to mind words beginning with the letter r, but there are actually more words in English with the letter r in the middle. The reason certain words are more readily called to mind is not that they are more frequent: rather it’s because of the way we organise our dictionaries, by first letter. The fact that something is easy to think of doesn’t always mean it’s more common: so the question “Which types of x can I think of most easily?” isn’t always a good substitute for “Which types of x are most frequent?”

On the whole, cheating by answering an easier question is helpful when:

  • The question you’re trying to answer is very complex
  • There’s a much easier to answer question which is closely related: what determines the answer to the substitute question is the same as what determines the answer you’re trying to find, at least most of the time
  • Time is limited or you’re unable to get more information in some other way

The first clearly applies to career choice and explains why we may often try to “cheat” on this. The second and third conditions, though, arguably don’t hold for career choice, which explains why cheating rarely helps career decisions. What makes for the perfect career is determined by a large number of different factors, and most of the “cheat” or substitute questions we use will leave out some important ones. Although you may feel pressured to make career decisions quickly, it’s really worth spending a great deal of time on: it’s 80,000 hours of your life, after all! Plus there’s an abundance of information out there to help you if you know where to look.

What can you do about this?

Given it looks like “answering an easier question” isn’t a good tactic in career choice, how can you avoid it, and what should you do instead? I’ve talked about some examples of common ways in which people cheat career choice by asking an easier question, and how to steer clear of these, but this certainly isn’t exhaustive. How can you avoid cheating career choice in general?

1) First, try to identify which easier questions you might be substituting for “Which career is right for me?” Our suggestions may help, but there are certainly others. Discussing your career decisions with others and asking for their feedback might help you to do this.

2) Once you’ve identified your “cheat” questions, ask yourself whether they’re really good enough. Would an answer to the substituted question necessarily give you the same answer to the question you’re really after?

3) **If not, what information do you need to answer your question that answering the “cheat” question doesn’t give you? **

This is also a good way for identifying what extra information you need in order to make better career decisions.

In general, rather than substituting an easier question, have a more systematic method for answering the real question. Answering a highly related but easier question is a good tactic when time is limited or you can’t get more information. But neither of these things apply in career choice: it’s a decision worth spending a large amount of time on, and you can pretty much always get more information. We’re currently working on a process to help you with this: if you’d like to help us by testing it, please get in touch!

People often end up cheating and answering an easier question because the real question is so complex that they don’t even know how to go about answering it. Often, though, it’s worth trying a bit harder to answer the real question, even if it seems daunting. What we’re aiming to do is provide you with the tools and guidance you need to answer the questions “Which career is right for me?” and “How can I make a difference in my career?”, so that you don’t need to cheat.

You might also enjoy

Our research on how to find a job you’ll love

What’s your true impact?

A formula for the perfect job?

References and notes

  1. Strack, Martin, & Schwarz (1988). Priming and communication: The social determinants of information use in judgments of life satisfaction. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1: 429–442. 
  2. Daniel Kahneman and Shane Frederik (2001). Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in heuristic judgement 
  3. Maya Bar-Hillel (1980) The base-rate fallacy in probability judgments Acta Psychologica 44: 211–233. 
  4. Dan Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer (2002) Models of Ecological Rationality: The Recognition Heuristic, Psychological Review, 109, 1, pp. 75-90 
  5. Frederick & Nelson (2007). Attribute substitution in the estimation of volumetric relationships: Psychophysical phenomena underscore judgmental heuristics. 
  6. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini