The world faces many problems, but some are more pressing than others. Where should you focus if you want to have the greatest impact? We’ll introduce you to two tools for comparing causes – a qualitative framework and cost-effectiveness analysis – and a list of causes that seem especially promising.
Table of Contents
- What are causes and why are they useful?
- A framework for comparing causes
- Cost-effectiveness analysis
- Which causes are best?
- Why do so few people compare causes?
What are causes and why are they useful?
By ‘cause’ we mean a major social problem you can contribute to solving, or a major opportunity to make the world a better place. For instance, global health and climate change are causes. Within global health, malaria is a ‘sub-cause’.
In our career guide, we use causes to narrow down your opportunities to make a difference. If you’re comparing two career options, it’s useful to ask which option supports the most pressing cause. It can also be useful to have a cause as part of your vision as something to strive towards over the medium-term. Striving towards a cause helps you get motivated and spot new options.
But how can you compare causes?
A framework for comparing causes
We use the following framework to compare causes in terms of their potential for social impact. It was inspired by the framework used by the Open Philanthropy Project,1 though it has been adapted by researchers at the Centre for Effective Altruism. This framework provides a list of the most important, robust and easily assessable factors for comparing causes that we’ve identified so far. However, it is relatively new, so for now we may still be missing important factors.
In brief, assess causes using the following four factors:
- Scale – If we made more progress on this problem, by how much would the world become a better place?
- Tractability – How easy is it to make progress on this problem?
- Neglectedness – How many resources are already being dedicated to tackling this problem?
- Personal fit – Given your skills, resources, knowledge, connections and passions, how likely are you to excel in this area?
Each factor involves difficult judgement calls – there’s no easy answers and people can reasonably disagree. If a left-wing environmentalist applies the framework, they’re going to come up with very different answers compared to a libertarian! Nevertheless, we think using this framework allows some progress to be made comparing causes.
Read on to see more explanation of each of the factors.
If we made more progress on this problem, by how much would the world become a better place?
Why does it matter?
Some problems are bigger than others, and generally it’s better to work on bigger problems. Creating an HIV vaccine is higher impact than ending shark attacks because far more people suffer due to HIV than shark attacks. It’s better to work on bigger problems because it’s often possible to solve a proportion of a problem. For instance, if you develop a vaccine, you can solve almost 100% of the problem, so, all else equal, it’s better to develop a vaccine for the disease that causes the most damage to the largest number of people.2
What counts as ‘making the world a better place’ depends on your values. Different people have different values, so will disagree over the scale of different problems.
How can it be assessed?
To assess scale we need a way to compare the impact of solving different social problems. Broadly, most people want a society that’s robust and flourishing in the long-term. Ideally, we can compare causes in terms of how much they help us to build such a society.
Unfortunately, this goal is far too vague and hard to measure for everyday purposes. In practice, we need a set of ‘yardsticks’ – more easily measurable factors and rules of thumb we can use to compare the value of progress on different causes.
Agreeing on a set of yardsticks is difficult and will depend on some moral judgements – see our full views on how to compare the scale of different causes. In brief, we recommend asking how much solving this problem will contribute to:
- Improving people’s lives in the short-run (as measured by QALYs, log incomes and other metrics)
- Sustainable long-run GDP growth
- Building a collaborative and wise society
How easy is it to make progress on this problem?
Why does it matter?
Solving some social problems would provide enormous benefits, but if they are extremely hard to make progress on, they are poor opportunities. Inventing a perpetual motion machine would solve the energy crisis, but according to current physics, designing a perpetual motion machine is impossible.
How can it be assessed?
- Do interventions to make progress within this cause exist?
- How easy is it to tell if you are making progress in this cause?
- How strong is the evidence behind existing interventions in this cause?
- If the effectiveness of the interventions with this cause is an an empirical question, where does the evidence lie on the hierarchy of evidence, running from only anecdotal evidence to meta-analysis?
- Is there a theory for why these interventions should work that’s widely accepted by experts?
- Is there a track record of success in related areas?
- How many resources will be required to implement these interventions?
- Do you expect to be able to discover new promising interventions within this cause?
How many resources are already being dedicated to tackling this problem?
Why does it matter?
As a rule of thumb, the more resources that are already dedicated to a cause, the lower the marginal impact of extra resources will be. Therefore, other things being equal, you’d expect a cause with fewer resources dedicated to it to be higher-impact.
Some causes have a large scale and are tractable, but the best opportunities are already being taken, meaning that your potential impact is limited. For instance, mass immunisation of children is an extremely effective intervention to improve global health, but is already being vigorously pursued by governments and several major foundations, including the Gates Foundation, so it no longer seems to be a top opportunity.
How can it be assessed?
- How many resources have been dedicated to this cause in the past?
- How many resources are going to be put into this cause in the future?
- How rational and effective are the other people working on this cause?
- Are there apparently high-leverage opportunities within this cause that are not being taken?
- Does society undervalue this cause for bad reasons?
- Is there reason to expect this problem to not be solved by markets (market failure)?
- Is there reason to expect this problem to not be solved by governments?
- Is there reason to expect this problem to not be solved by other people aiming to have a social impact?
- To what extent will working on this cause teach us more about which causes are most effective?
4. Personal fit
Given your skills, resources, knowledge, connections and passions, how likely are you to excel in this area?
Why does it matter?
Which cause is best for you depends both on the opportunities in the world and your characteristics. That’s because you will be better placed to make progress on some causes rather than others. For instance, if you’re a biology professor, then it’s more likely you should work on a cause that requires knowledge of biology (like catastrophic risks from man-made pathogens) compared to someone with no knowledge of biology.
How can it be assessed?
- In terms of your skills, resources, and experience, where are you unusually strong? In what areas might you be able to develop a strength within a couple of years?
- What skills, resources and experience is the cause most short of?’ Do these match the areas in which you’re unusually strong?
- How motivated would you expect to be within this cause, if you worked on it?
Bear in mind that it’s easy to underestimate the extent to which you can become knowledgeable and passionate about a new cause. Rather, we’re biased towards continuing with what we’ve done before – the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ – and we understimate how much our preferences and passions will change.
How to apply the cause framework?
Applying this framework involves making difficult judgement calls, and there may not be a clear winner. Nevertheless, if we want to make the most impact, we need to make the best decisions possible given the available evidence. Don’t forget your choice of causes is not fixed. Although picking a cause is more robust than focusing on a single intervention, you can expect to revise your selection of causes over the coming years as you learn more and the world changes.
Also bear in mind this framework is general, which means it’s often useful to adapt it for particular comparisons. For example, the Open Philanthropy Project has made an adapted version to compare potential areas for US government policy advocacy.
To make the assessment, do a side-by-side comparison of the causes you’re considering on each factor. You might find it helpful to give them scores. For more, see our general guidelines on how to make an assessment.
Ultimately, what we want to know is ‘if I add an additional unit of resources to this cause, how much good will be accomplished’? If doing a detailed comparison of two causes, it can be useful to attempt to directly estimate this quantity, alongside doing a qualitative comparison using the framework.
If you already have a common outcome yardstick (such as the ‘QALY’, which is widely used in health economics for comparing health interventions), you can make a ‘cost-effectiveness estimate’. Alternatively you can try to convert benefits into dollar terms, and make a ‘cost-benefit analysis’. You can see an overview of both types of analysis and a description of the differences here. You can also see an example cost-effectiveness comparison by GiveWell here.
Advantages of cost-effectiveness analysis
- Explicitly quantifying outcomes can enable you to notice large, robust differences in effectiveness that might be difficult to notice qualitatively, and avoid scope neglect.
- Going through the process of making a cost-effectiveness estimate is a great way to test your understanding of a cause, since it forces you to be explicit about your assumptions and how they fit together.
- A clearly laid out cost-effectiveness estimate can help others to understand and critique your reasoning, further helping you to understand the cause.
Disadvantages of cost-effectiveness analysis
In practice, cost-effectiveness estimates usually involve very high levels of uncertainty. This means their results are not robust: slightly different assumptions can greatly alter the conclusion of the analysis. Moreover, it creates the danger of being misled by an incomplete model, when it would have been better to go with a broader qualitative analysis.
Overall, we think doing explicit cost-effectiveness analysis is an important tool, but it’s important to place the results of cost-effectiveness analysis in the context of a broad, qualitative assessment, along the lines of our cause framework. For more, see GiveWell’s discussion of the weaknesses of ‘sequence thinking’ (which corresponds to an approach that’s heavily reliant on cost-effectiveness analysis) compared to ‘cluster thinking’. You can see a discussion of the pros and cons of quantification here.
Which causes are best?
If we apply the framework and cost-effectiveness analysis, which causes look most promising? In this section, we outline some especially promising causes we have discovered. This list is very, very, far from complete – research to compare causes is only in its infancy. If a cause isn’t listed, then it could still be a high-impact opportunity, especially if it’s widely recognised as an important problem, and you’ve got good personal fit with the area.
Any list of causes will necessarily depend on many difficult judgement calls, over which you could easily disagree. Assessing the scale of different social problems is especially fraught with judgement calls, so we outline some of our key assumptions on the yardsticks page. However, there are also difficult judgement calls to be made in assessing tractability and neglectedness. We have a discussion of the effect of these judgement calls on which causes are most effective for our previous list of causes here.
Which sources of information are best?
We focus on research into careers rather than causes, so we seek to align our views on causes with other groups who broadly share our values.
Currently, we think the Open Philanthropy Project (formerly GiveWell Labs) is the most useful resource we’ve found for prioritising causes. This is because they take a very broad, impact-driven, transparent, rational approach to finding the best opportunities with a perspective that’s relevant to individuals. They chose to make cause selection a major part of their process to find the best giving opportunities.
We also pay attention to:
- The Copenhagen Consensus, which asks economists to produce intervention evaluations by area within international development, which includes cost-benefit analyses of the most promising solutions, and lists of which interventions they think are most promising overall (see their most recent list as ranked by a panel of leading economists.
- The views of individual researchers within the effective altruism community who we respect, such as Carl Shulman, Paul Christiano and Nick Bostrom.
- The Global Priorities Project at the University of Oxford (which is part of our parent organisation, CEA. The aim of the Global Priorities Project is to produce research to enable decision makers to identify the most high-leverage opportunities to make the world a better place. The project is in a startup phase, but we hope it will turn into a useful source of research. Much of its work to date has been published on The Effective Altruism Blog.
There are many other useful sources of information about specific causes, but they tend not to explicitly compare between them.
Which causes does the Open Philanthropy Project prioritise?
International health and development
With over one billion people living on less than $1.25 per day, global poverty is likely to be one the biggest problems in the world. At the same time, it seems there are concrete ways to make progress.
Within global poverty, OPP is interested in furthering evidence-backed interventions that are not already being implemented by governments and major foundations. Currently, OPP recommends donating to organisations working within:
However, there may be opportunities to set up new organisations implementing other interventions, such as water infrastructure and mass media health education. Evidence Action aims to accelerate the development of such organisations.
Global catastrophic risks
Events with low probability but devastating outcomes seem neglected, but also highly important, especially if you value future generations. See GiveWell’s latest (as of Aug 2014) review of the area here.
Within this area, OPP is particularly interested in:
- Geoengineering research
- Potential risks from artificial intelligence (see the relevant section of the general write up)
OPP believes influencing policy is likely to be one of the most high-leverage ways to make a difference. They focus on U.S. policy because the U.S. is highly influential and, as a US based organization, it’s much easier for them to investigate and influence. For more, see here.
Within US policy advocacy, they are most interested in focusing on areas laid out here, including:
- Criminal justice reform
- Labor mobility
- Macroeconomic policy
- Advocacy for improved or increased U.S. foreign aid.
OPP thinks scientific research is likely to contain many of the most promising causes. Within scientific research, they haven’t yet published their ideas about which areas are most promising. So far, they have mainly focused on biomedical research. See a summary of work to date here.
Other causes OPP is interest in
- Improving science policy and infrastructure, in particular, promoting open science.
- Improving the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture.
Other causes we’re interested in
We’re also interested in promoting the following causes due to information from groups besides the Open Philanthropy Project. Click on the links to see a description.
Other causes prioritised by the Copenhagen Consensus
The Copenhagen Consensus 2012 panel also ranked the following interventions highly. We think these are worth considering, particularly if interested in international development:
- Bundled interventions to reduce undernutrition in pre-schoolers
- Subsidy for Malaria Combination Treatment
- Expanded Childhood Immunization Coverage
- Expanding Tuberculosis Treatment
- R&D to Increase Yield Enhancements
- Investing in Effective Early Warning Systems
See the full ranking here).
To what extent do these findings inform career choice?
The sources listed above are focused on identifying the best funding opportunities, rather than the most pressing opportunities for additional human capital. Since a cause can be short of financial capital but not human capital, there’s a danger that these are not the best areas for someone choosing their career.
We think this isn’t the case for the causes in the list. They’re short of both human and financial capital. When we interviewed Holden from the Open Philanthropy Project, he agreed.
I would say that for most of the causes we say are uncrowded that means there’s not many people working on them relative to how many people we think should be working on them.
However, it’s likely there are some causes that are mainly short of specific types of human capital, but not particularly short of willing funders, so the list is incomplete. For instance, the Copenhagen Consensus 2012 identified increasing taxation on tobacco in the developing world as a promising policy, but chose not to rank it since it’s “largely a question of political will rather than funds”. The sources above will not identify these kinds of opportunities. Holden from the Open Philanthropy Project speculated that the following causes might be in this category: Environment and Climate Change; for-profit technology innovation and foreign relations.
Another difference between the funders perspective and the career chooser is that for the career chooser, it is much more important to think about which causes have the best level of personal fit. This is because there are many types of human capital, and some causes need specific skill-sets much more than others. So, career choosers should consider a wider range of causes, and weigh personal fit more highly than funders.
A final difference is that it seems harder for people leading careers to switch cause than it is for funders. Given that the results of cause selection are still relatively new and unrobust, it’s more important for career choosers to focus on keeping their options open.
There’s likely to be other differences between cause selection for career choosers compared to funders that we don’t yet understand.
How robust are these views?
Systematic research aimed at identifying which causes are most promising from a global perspective has only begun in the last decade, so we expect our views to change significantly over the next decade. This means it’s important to keep your options open about which cause to support in the future.
Why do so few people compare causes?
It’s still relatively uncommon to explicitly compare causes. We think this is largely because most people aiming to do good are already committed to a cause they’re passionate about, rather than aiming to generally do good. It’s also because tools and data for comparing causes have only recently been produced, and the results are not widely known.
The fact that people often don’t explicitly compare causes may also be because it’s too intractable, and it’s better to focus on identifying where you have the best personal fit. We think personal fit is important and include it in our framework, but we also think there are useful insights to be gained from thinking about which causes are best in general.
See all our research articles on causes.
Notes and references
- What is the problem? How many people does it affect, and how deeply does it affect them?
- What are the possible solutions? Are there opportunities to make tangible progress?
- Who else is working on it? All else equal, we expect to have more impact where there is less existing philanthropy.
Within each category, we’re searching for issues and approaches that seem important, tractable and relatively uncrowded. The questions we’re asking are:
2 The sheer size of the problem isn’t the only thing that matters, since it can be better to work on a smaller problem that’s easier to solve. Nevertheless, it’s a useful starting point