Part 3: No matter your job, here’s 3 evidence-based ways anyone can have a real impact

Should you save a person's life or spend your money on adding more clutter to your home?

No matter which career you choose, anyone can make a difference by donating to charity, engaging in advocacy, or volunteering.

Unfortunately, many attempts to do good in this way are ineffective, and some actually cause harm.

Take sponsored skydiving. Every year, thousands of people collect donations for good causes and throw themselves out of planes to draw attention to whatever charity they’ve chosen to support. This sounds like a win-win: the fundraiser gets an exhilarating once-in-a-lifetime experience while raising money for a worthy cause. What could be the harm in that?

Quite a bit, actually. According to a study of two popular parachuting centres, over a five-year period (1991 to 1995) approximately 1,500 people went skydiving for charity and collectively raised more than £120,000. That sounds pretty impressive — until you consider a few caveats.

First, the cost of the diving expeditions came out of the donations. So of the £120,000 raised, only £45,000 went to charity.

Second, because most of the skydivers were first-time jumpers, they suffered a combined total of 163 injuries, resulting in an average hospital stay of nine days.

In order to treat these injuries, the UK’s National Health Service spent around £610,000. That means that for every £1 raised for the charities, the health service spent roughly £13, so the net effect was to reduce resources for health services. Ironically, many of the charities supported focused on health-related matters.1

Photo by Ann W, CC BY 2.0

What about volunteering? One problem is that volunteers need to be managed. If untrained volunteers use the time of trained managers, it’s easy for them to cost the organisation more than the value they add.

In fact, the main reason many volunteering schemes persist is that if someone is a volunteer for an organisation, they are more likely to donate. When the organisation FORGE cut its volunteering scheme to be more effective, it inadvertently triggered a big drop in donations.

So while volunteering can be effective in the right circumstances, it’s often not.

In our research, we’ve found that any college graduate in a rich country can do a huge amount to improve the lives of others — and they can do this without changing jobs, or making big sacrifices.

We’ll cover three examples:

  • Donating 10% of your income to effective charities.
  • Advocating for important causes.
  • Helping others be more effective.

Reading time: 12 minutes

1. Donating effectively

How can you take whichever job you find the most personally rewarding, and do a huge amount of good?

Give 10% of your income to the world’s poorest people. It’s as simple as that.

How much good can donations do? A lower bound

Since 2008, GiveDirectly has made it possible to give cash directly to the poorest people in East Africa via mobile phone.

We don’t think this the most effective way to donate to charity by any means — later we’ll discuss higher-impact approaches — but it’s simple and quantifiable, so it makes a good starting point.

As we saw in part one, the more money you have, the less additional money will improve your life. For instance, in the US, doubling your income is only associated with about a half-point gain in life satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10.

These surveys have been extended across the world. There are examples in the chart below.2

Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. Subjective well-being and income: Is there any evidence of satiation? No. w18992. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2013 Archived link

Poor people served by GiveDirectly in Kenya have an average individual consumption of about $800 per year.3 This figure is based on how much $800 could buy in the US, meaning it already takes account of the fact that money goes further in poor countries.

The average US college graduate has an annual individual working income of about $77,000 (in 2023), or $54,500 post-tax.4 This means that, assuming the above relationship holds, a dollar will do about 68 times more good if you give it to someone in Kenya rather than spending it on yourself.5

If someone earning that average level of income were to donate 10%, they could double the annual income of seven people living in extreme poverty each year. Over the course of their career, they could have a major positive impact on hundreds of people.

Grace is a typical recipient of donations from GiveDirectly. She’s a 48-year-old widow who lives with four children:

I would like to use part of the money to build a new house, since my house is in a very bad condition. Secondly, I would wish to pay fees for my son to go to a technical institute…

My proudest achievement is that I have managed to educate my son in secondary school.

My biggest hardship in life is [that I] lack a proper source of income.

My current goals are to build and own a pit latrine and dig a borehole since getting water is a very big problem.

GiveDirectly conducted a randomised controlled trial of their programme, and found that recipients experienced significant reductions in hunger, stress, and other bad outcomes for years after receiving the transfers. These results add to substantial existing literature showing that cash transfers have significant benefits.

How much sacrifice will this involve?

Normally when we think of doing good with our careers, we think of paths like becoming a teacher or charity worker, which often pay under half what you could earn in the private sector, and may not align with your skills or interests. Compared to switching to those careers, giving 10% of your income could easily be less of a sacrifice.

Moreover, as we saw earlier in the guide, once you start earning more than about $55,000 per year,6 extra income won’t affect your happiness that much — while acts that help others, like giving to charity, probably make you happier.

To take just one example, one study found that in 122 of 136 countries, if respondents answered “Yes” to the question “Did you donate to charity last month?,” their life satisfaction was higher by an amount also associated with a doubling of income.7 In part, this is probably because happier people give more, but we expect some of the effect runs the other way too.

(Read more about whether giving 10% will make you happier.)

How to have a bigger impact than being a doctor

The reason donations can be so effective is that it’s possible that you can send your money to the best organisations in the world, working on the biggest and most neglected issues. Although many charities aren’t effective, the best are.

And while GiveDirectly is certainly an effective charity, there are others that some experts argue are even better. GiveWell, a leading independent charity evaluator,8 estimates that its top charities (such as Helen Keller International and the Against Malaria Foundation) can prevent a death for about every $5,000 in donations it receives.9 In addition, this provides other benefits that come with the treatment of malaria — such as improved overall quality of life and increased income — which causes further positive ripple effects over time.

With a typical US graduate salary, donating 10% of your income to the Against Malaria Foundation could therefore save more than one life every year.

These kinds of proven, cost-effective health programmes offer such a good opportunity to do good that even the most prominent aid sceptics have offered few arguments against them.

One life saved per year would amount to 40 lives saved over a 40-year career. In the previous article, we estimated that a typical doctor in clinical medicine saves three lives over their career. So by donating 10% of your income, you could achieve around 10 times as much impact.

We’ve just used the Against Malaria Foundation and GiveDirectly to provide a concrete lower bound on what you can achieve. We actually think there are many charities that are even more effective.

Some charities work on issues that seem even higher stakes and more neglected, such as preventing a catastrophic pandemic. We’ll discuss why we think pandemics are more pressing than global health later in the guide, and you can read our separate article about which charities are highest impact.

If everyone in the richest 10% of the world’s population donated 10% of their income, that would be $5 trillion per year.10 That would be enough to double scientific research funding, raise everyone in the world above the $2.15 per day poverty line, provide universal basic education, and still have plenty left to fund a renaissance in the arts, go to Mars, and then invest $1 trillion in mitigating climate change. None of this would be straightforward to achieve, but it at least illustrates the enormous potential of greater giving.11

How is this possible?

It’s astonishing that we can do so much good while sacrificing so little. How is this possible?

Consider one of the most important graphs in economics, the graph of world income:

World income distribution
PovcalNet and Milanović12

The x-axis shows the percentage of people in the world who earn each level of income (as indicated by the y-axis). Income has been adjusted to indicate how much that specific dollar amount will buy in a person’s home country (i.e. “purchasing power parity”). If the world were completely equal, the line would be horizontal.

As citizens of countries like the US and the UK, we know we’re rich by global standards, but we don’t usually think of ourselves as the richest people in the world — we’re not the bankers, CEOs, or celebrities, after all. But actually, if you earn $60,000 per year after taxes and don’t have kids, then globally speaking, you are the 1%.

Find out how rich you are by using this quick calculator.

These numbers are approximate, but it’s still the case that if you’re reading this, you are very likely in that big spike on the right of the graph (and perhaps even way off the chart), while almost everyone else in the world is in the flat bit at the bottom that you can hardly even see.

There’s no reason to be embarrassed by this fact, but it does emphasise how important it is to consider how you can use your good fortune to help others. In a more equal world, we could just focus on helping those around us, and making our own lives go well. But it turns out we have an enormous opportunity to help other people with little cost to ourselves — and it would be a terrible shame to squander it.

Take action right now

Many of the staff at 80,000 Hours have been so persuaded by these arguments that we’ve pledged to give at least 10% of our lifetime income to the world’s most effective charities.

We did it through an organisation called Giving What We Can, with whom we are partnered.13

Giving What We Can enables you to take a public pledge to give 10% of your income to the charities you believe are most effective.

You can take the pledge in just a few minutes. It’s likely to be the most significant thing you can do right now to do more good with your life.

Pledge now

It’s not legally binding, you can choose where the money goes, and if you’re a student, it only commits you to give 1% until after you graduate. You’ll be joining over 9,000 people who’ve collectively pledged over $3 billion.

The pledge is not for everyone. We’d recommend being cautious if you’re planning to have an impact mainly through your work (especially if that might involve lower-wage work, like at a charity), if you have significant debt or financial problems, or if you’re not sure you can stick to it.

And if you’re not quite ready yet, Giving What We Can allows you to take a “trial pledge” to give as little as 1% of your income for any period you choose, to see how it goes before making any long-term commitment.

2. What if you don’t want to give money? How to help through effective political advocacy


Just as we happen to be rich by virtue of where we were born, we also happen to have political influence for the same reason.

Rich countries have a disproportionate impact on issues like global trade, migration, climate change, and technology policy, and are generally at least partly democratic. So if you’d prefer to do something besides giving money, consider advocating for important issues.

We were initially sceptical that one person could have real influence through political advocacy — but when we dug into the numbers, we changed our minds.

Let’s take perhaps the simplest example: voting in elections. Several studies have used statistical models to estimate the chances of a single vote determining the US presidential election. Because the US electoral system is determined at the state level, if you live in a state that strongly favours one candidate, your chance of deciding the outcome is effectively zero. But if you live in a state that’s contested, your chances rise to between 1 in 10 million and 1 in a million. That’s quite a bit higher than your chances of winning the lottery.

Remember, the US federal government is very, very big. Let’s imagine one candidate wanted to spend 0.2% more of GDP on foreign aid. That would be about $187 billion in extra foreign aid over their four-year term.14 One millionth of that is $187,000. So if voting takes you an hour, it could be the most important hour — the highest in expected value — you’ll spend that year. (The figures are similar in other rich countries; smaller countries have less at stake, but each vote counts for more. Read more about these estimates.)

We’ve used the example of voting since it’s quantifiable, but we expect the basic idea — the very small chance of changing a very big thing — applies to other forms of (well-chosen) advocacy, such as petitioning your congressperson, getting out the vote for the right candidate, or going to a town hall meeting. We think this is likely to be even more true if you’re careful to focus on the most important and more neglected issues.

3. Being a “multiplier” to help others be more effective

Suppose you don’t have any money or power, and you don’t feel like you can contribute by working on an important problem. What then?

One option is to try to change that. We cover how to invest in yourself — no matter what job you have — in a separate article.

That aside, you might know someone who does have some money, power, or skills. So you can make a difference by helping them achieve more.

For instance, if you could enable two other people to give 10% of their income to charity, that would have even more impact than doing it yourself.

These are both examples of being a multiplier. By mobilising others, it’s often possible to do more than you could through just your own efforts.

Some ways you can be a multiplier include:

For whichever global issues you think are most pressing and neglected, you can find ways to share them with others. This is not about preaching, or struggling to convince people. Only share with people you think will find the issue interesting; you probably know some who would. (But look out for accidentally putting people off.)

This is also not just about raising awareness of an issue. Try to identify concrete actions that people can take which might help (like taking a specific job), and spread knowledge of those. Many people are interested in contributing if there’s an opportunity that’s actually effective.

You can do this by talking about the issues with your friends, sharing resources with them, posting links and ideas on social media, or simply by leading by example.

You can also help more indirectly by attempting to uphold important values — like compassion towards others, including animals and future generations; or having an open, honest, scientific mindset towards new evidence.

For example, Ben cofounded SecureBio with Kevin Esvelt. In Ben’s opinion, Kevin has designed the most comprehensive agenda to radically reduce the chances of future pandemics. By directing SecureBio’s strategy and operations, Ben enables Kevin to perform more research, and so also contributes to preventing pandemics.

(For more information about helping people who are already having a big impact, see our career review about being a high-impact assistant.)

Suppose you’ve come across a high-impact job, but you’re not sure it’s a good fit for your skills. If you can tell someone else about the job, and they take it, that does as much good as taking it yourself — and in fact more if they’re a better fit for it than you.15

If you’re interested in effective altruism, then you could help run a local effective altruism group or lead a workplace group. It’s often possible to get several other people interested in having a big impact — doing several times as much good as you might do by yourself.

It’s often possible to raise more for charity through fundraising than you might be able to donate yourself. One easy example is to “donate your birthday.” Or, if you work at a company with a donation-matching scheme, you might be able to encourage other employees to use it.

You can also read more about effective volunteering.

What matters is that more good gets done — not that you do it with your own hands.

We’re reminded of an old (most likely fictional) story about a time when President John F. Kennedy visited NASA. Upon meeting a janitor, Kennedy asked him what he was doing. The janitor replied, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Conclusion: anyone can make a difference

So, good news: you don’t need to throw yourself out of a plane to do good. In fact, there are far easier (and safer) ways to have an impact that are much more effective.

Due to our fortunate positions in the world, there’s a lot we can do to make a difference without making significant sacrifices, whatever jobs we end up in.

Here are some key ways to make a big positive impact without changing jobs:

  1. Give 10% of your income to effective charities.
  2. Use your political influence, such as by voting.
  3. Help others have an impact.

You might like to consider taking the 10% pledge right now.

Pledge now

Or take a moment to consider how else you might be able to make a big impact with little sacrifice.

What if you want to make a difference directly through your career? If you can achieve so much with just 10% of your income, then what you could achieve with your entire job over decades could be huge. That’s what we’ll cover in the next three articles.

Read next: Part 4: Want to do good? Here’s how to choose an area to focus on.

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Notes and references

  1. Of 174 patients with injuries of varying severity, 94% were first-time charity-parachutists. The injury rate in charity-parachutists was 11%, at an average cost of £3,751 per casualty. Sixty-three percent of casualties who were charity-parachutists required hospital admission, representing a serious injury rate of 7%, at an average cost of £5,781 per patient. The amount raised per person for charity was £30. Each pound raised for charity cost NHS £13.75 in return.

    Source: “Parachuting for charity: is it worth the money? A 5-year audit of parachute injuries in Tayside and the cost to the NHS.” CT, Lee, P, Williams and WA, Hadden. (1999).
    Archived link, retrieved April 2017.

    We’ve been told by skydivers that safety has improved significantly since the 1990s, so it might not be as bad of an idea these days. Nevertheless, it’s still an example of ineffective do-gooding that was pursued by over 1,000 people, and we think you can probably do much better even than modern-day parachuting.

  2. This chart only shows correlation, not causation — more detail on causation.

  3. “GiveDirectly does not routinely collect data on the absolute levels of poverty (i.e. average assets and consumption) of households enrolled in its program. Preliminary results from GiveDirectly’s general equilibrium study indicate that households in the area targeted for that study (in Kenya) are very poor. Endline results from this study in July 2018 found that mean consumption per capita per day in the full population of the control villages was $0.79.

    Control group households in Haushofer and Shapiro 2013 had a mean monthly non-durable consumption level of $157.40 USD PPP (Table 1, p. 49). In our [2018] cost-effectiveness model, we use this figure to roughly estimate baseline annual consumption per capita at $286 (nominal USD; see here for more detail). This translates to a daily consumption rate of approximately $0.78 (nominal USD).”

    Source: GiveDirectly – November 2020 version Archived link, retrieved 12 February 2023.

    To convert $287 per day to a ‘purchasing power parity’ figure, we use the World Bank’s record of the nominal KES to USD exchange rate from 2018 to convert this to 29,073.1 Kenyan Shillings.

    We then use the World Bank’s PPP conversion factors for 2018, which indicates that 42.55 KES buys the equivalent of $1 in the US. This suggests an effective consumption level of $683.27 in that year.

    We then inflation-adjust that figure using the US Consumer Price Index from 2018 to January 2023, arriving at a figure of $810–$825, depending which months we use.

    That’s an equivalent of $2.25, PPP adjusted, per day.

    This figure is, of course, imprecise. It’s difficult to compare the purchasing power of people living in different countries and circumstances. We discuss some of the problems here. There are reasons it might be both too low and too high. However, we’d be surprised if it were off by more than a factor of five. Moreover, all the official estimates we’ve seen of the income of the poorest billion people agree that they are about 10 times poorer than almost everyone living in a rich country, and about 100 times poorer than someone living on an upper-middle-class salary in a rich country.

  4. Source: Carnevale, Anthony P., Ban Cheah, and Emma Wenzinger. “The college payoff: More education doesn’t mean more earnings.” (2021).

    A bachelor’s degree holder earns, at the median, $2.8 million during a lifetime, which translates into average annual earnings of about $70,000.

    The paper was released in 2021, but wages have grown since then. In January 2021, average wages per hour in the US were $29.92, and they were $33.03 in January 2023. That’s a growth of 10%, which suggests that the average college graduate now earns $77,000. This is likely an overestimate, because college graduate earnings have been growing slower than average earnings.

    Source: FRED Economic Data, “Average Hourly Earnings of All Employees: Total Private (CES0500000003)”, retrieved 5 Feb 2017.

    This growth matches roughly what we’d expect from inflation, which was about 10% over the period, and wages tend to lag inflation in high-inflation periods like 2021–23.

    If you’re trying to predict what you’ll earn in the long term, then you should also take into account future wage growth, but we’re ignoring that.

    To calculate post-tax income, we plugged $77,000 into the Smart Asset online income tax calculator for someone living in California, and it came out at $54,500 post-tax. This includes federal income tax, FICA, and state tax, working out at an effective rate of 29%. California generally has higher taxes, so this post-tax income estimate is an underestimate. (As of 1 March 2023.)

    If you choose to have a child, then you would also need to support them for 18+ years. This would reduce your effective income by about 25% during that period. We explain more here.

  5. If the relationship between income and wellbeing is logarithmic, then doubling someone’s income increases their wellbeing by a constant amount. That means if someone has an income of $54,500 and another has an income of $800, you’d need to increase the first person’s income by $54,500 to increase their wellbeing as much as you would if you increased the second person’s income by $800. $54500/$800 = 68. We explain why we think the relationship is logarithmic (or perhaps even weaker) in our evidence review on income and happiness.

    In addition, there is empirical evidence for significant benefits. GiveDirectly has had randomised controlled trials performed on their programmes by academics, and there is a wider literature showing benefits from cash transfers — see here and here.

  6. That’s $55,000 in individual income, not household income.

  7. This is the study we quoted: Aknin, Lara, Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh, Elizabeth W. Dunn, John F. Helliwell, Robert Biswas-Diener, Imelda Kemeza, Paul Nyende, Claire Ashton-James, Michael I. Norton (2010). “Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal.” Harvard Business School Working Paper 11-038. Link.

    Though there is some evidence that part of the reason for the correlation is that happier people give more. See: Boenigk, S. & Mayr, M.L. J Happiness Stud (2016) 17: 1825. doi:10.1007/s10902-015-9672-2. Link.

    For a more comprehensive review of the question, see Giving without sacrifice, by Andreas Mogensen, Giving What We Can Research, Archived Link, retrieved 6 April 2017.

    A 2018 meta-analysis found that there is a causal link between performing acts of kindness and wellbeing. They included 27 experimental studies included in the review, with a total sample size of  4,045 people.

    These 27 studies, some of which included multiple control conditions and dependent measures, yielded 52 effect sizes. Multi-level modeling revealed that the overall effect of kindness on the well-being of the actor is small-to-medium (δ = 0.28). The effect was not moderated by sex, age, type of participant, intervention, control condition or outcome measure. There was no indication of publication bias.

  8. Open Philanthropy — 80,000 Hours’ biggest funder — was spun out of GiveWell, and the two share some leadership; for more information, see here.

  9. GiveWell’s estimate of the cost to save a life through its top charities has varied over time between $1,000 and $10,000, and is typically around $3,000–5,000.

    As of January 2023, you can find GiveWell’s latest estimates of the cost to save a life on its impact page. You can also see its latest full cost-effectiveness models.

    GiveWell also reported how cost effective it thinks these charities are compared to GiveDirectly, considering a wider range of effects (e.g. also including improvements to education and income), and typically estimate that they’re about 10 times more effective.

    10% of $77,000 is $7,700, which is enough to prevent at least one death per year.

    Of course, there is a lot more to say about how valuable these donations are when we try to consider all the possible effects. You can read more about the philosophical problem of cluelessness. In general, we’d encourage you to consider which global problems you think are most pressing, all things considered (we take a longtermist perspective), and find the best organisations working to address those issues. Read more about how to pick a charity to support.

  10. The richest 10% of the global population currently takes 52% of global income [PPP].

    Source: Chancel, L., Picketty, T., Saez, E., Zucman, G., et al. “World Inequality Report 2022”, World Inequality Lab

    So, if the top 10% give 10%, then that’s 5% of world income. World income in 2021 was about $96.5 trillion, so that’s around $5 trillion donated. Source: World Bank, retrieved 1 March 2023.

  11. The World Bank’s poverty line is $2.15 per person per day, in 2017 USD, PPP-adjusted. The poverty gap at $2.15 a day (2017 USD, PPP-adjusted) in 2019 was 2.6%, according to the World Bank. This means that people below the poverty line live off of $2.10 a day, on average. The poverty headcount ratio at $2.15 a day (2017 USD, PPP-adjusted) — i.e. the proportion of the world population below the extreme poverty line — was 8.4% in 2019, according to the World Bank. The global population in 2019 was 7.74 billion, according to the World Bank, which means 650 million people were in extreme poverty in 2019.

    This means it would cost only $36 million a day to bring everyone in extreme poverty up to the poverty line. That’s $13 billion a year. This is probably an underestimate, because transferring all that money to people in poverty would raise prices, have substantial logistic costs, etc. Let’s say it’s a factor of 10 off, and it’d cost around $130 billion a year.

    Research and development expenditure as a percentage of GDP was about 2.6% in 2020.

    Source: World Bank, 2020 data, Link, retrieved March 2023.

    Assuming this proportion has stayed roughly constant, if world GDP is about $96.5 trillion annually (see footnote 10), it would cost about $2.5 trillion per year to double global R&D.

    Globally, an estimated 244 million children and youth are out of school. If we suppose it would cost $1,000 to provide education for a single child for one year, then the total cost of universal basic education would be $244 billion annually. For reference, schools in the US spend around $13,000 per person per year.

    Source: UNESCO, Archived Link, retrieved 18 February 2023.

    In 2012, all donations to the arts in the US totalled $13 billion annually. So let’s allocate ten times that — $130 billion — for funding a renaissance in the arts.

    Source: Archived Link, retrieved 6 April 2017.

    According to Wikipedia, going to Mars has been estimated to cost $500 billion. Though it suggests this is likely an underestimate, we also wouldn’t have to pay for it all in one year, so will go with this figure for our purposes.

    Summing all the above with $1 trillion put toward mitigating climate change gets us to just under $4.5 trillion annually, meaning we’d still have nearly $500 billion to spare. So, although all these figures are very imprecise (and budgets often blow up), we don’t doubt the basic point that it would be a huge amount of resources directed to the most urgent problems.

    If this many resources were actually suddenly given to charity, it would take time for the economy to adapt, corrupt leaders might try to extract it from their citizens, and there might be other unpredictable effects — it certainly wouldn’t be straightforward to use them effectively. However, these figures at least show there is the potential for enormous gains from greater and more effective charitable giving.

  12. For a detailed discussion of the origins and accuracy of this graph, see our blog post How accurately does anyone know the global distribution of income?

    Briefly, the data for percentiles 1 to 79 were taken from PovcalNet: a previously available online tool for poverty measurement developed by the Development Research Group of the World Bank. For a similar up-to-date tool, see the World Bank’s Poverty and Inequality Platform. Note that this is in fact a measure of consumption, which closely tracks income and is the standard way of tracking the wealth of people towards the lower part of the distribution. The data for income percentiles 80 to 99 were provided by Branko Milanović in private correspondence.

  13. Giving What We Can, like 80,000 Hours, is a project of the Effective Ventures group — the umbrella term for Effective Ventures Foundation and Effective Ventures Foundation USA, Inc., which are two separate legal entities that work together.

  14. According to the World Bank US GDP was about $23.3 trillion in 2021, 0.2% of that is $47 billion (data retrieved March 2023). Over a four-year term, that’s $187 billion.

  15. Whether or not this actually does more good depends on the counterfactuals: what exactly the other person would have done otherwise, what you’d do otherwise, and what would happen to all the other people whose careers would be affected (for example, the person you replace in the job that you then go on to do). Read more about how counterfactuals change our view of what does good in our advanced series.