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Want to do good? Three questions to first ask yourself

Want to do good? Three questions to first ask yourself

This is an abridged version of an article from 80,000 Hours.



Choosing an area to focus your altruistic or career efforts on is a crucial decision. While it’s tempting to jump on the first issue that resonates with you, it’s important to be strategic. This is because you might end up working on an area that’s just not that big, important, or easy to make progress on. You’re also much more likely to stumble across the problems that already receive the most attention, which makes them lower impact. This guide elaborates on three key questions to ask yourself to ensure this does not happen.

  1. Is the problem large in scale?
  2. Is the problem neglected?
  3. Is the problem solvable?

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Question 1: Is the problem large in scale?

Why it matters

Scale is critical because the larger the problem, the greater the potential impact of your efforts. Focusing on small problems may mean wasting resources on issues that, even if fully addressed, won’t make a significant difference.

Common mistakes

People often misjudge the scale due to cognitive biases like scope neglect. For example, a study found that people were willing to pay nearly the same amount to save 2,000 birds as to save 200,000 birds. To avoid scope neglect, we need to use numbers to make comparisons, even if they’re very rough.

How to assess scale

  • Number of people affected: The more people a problem impacts, the larger its scale.
  • Effect size: A problem’s severity per person also determines its scale.
  • Long-term impact: Consider the ripple effects of solving the problem.

Real-world example

Campaigns like unplugging mobile phone chargers make a negligible impact compared to more scalable solutions, like promoting home insulation.

Question 2: Is the problem neglected?

Why it matters

Problems that have already received a lot of attention are likely to offer diminishing returns. Your additional effort might not add much value. Imagine you’ve got two friends who are moving house on the same day. One of them already has 10 other friends who have offered to help, the other only has 1. Naturally, you’ll prioritise helping the second friend because they need your help the most.

Common mistakes

People often focus on problems that are already popular, which are likely to be less neglected and therefore offer less scope for additional impact.

How to assess neglect

  • Existing resources: The more resources already allocated, the less neglected a problem is.
  • Public awareness: Issues that few people know about are often more neglected.
  • Affected groups: Problems affecting marginalized communities are often overlooked.

Real-world example

While many focus on cancer research, parasitic worms, affecting one billion people, receive little attention but are easier to treat.

Question 3: Is the problem solvable?

Why it matters

Even well-intentioned projects can fail or cause harm. Scared Straight, a program designed to deter youth from crime, actually caused more harm than good.

How to assess solvability

  • Existing evidence: Look for rigorous studies supporting a solution’s effectiveness.
  • Testability: Can you test a new solution to determine its impact?
  • Potential for massive impact: Look for problems where there’s a chance, even if small, of significantly changing the status quo.

Balancing the three factors

You’re unlikely to find a problem that scores highly on all three dimensions. It’s a matter of balancing these factors. For example, a problem could be significant even if it is difficult to solve, as long as it is large in scale and highly neglected.

Your personal fit and expertise

There’s no point working on a problem if you can’t find any roles that are a good fit for you: you won’t be satisfied or have much impact.

So while it’s a great idea to find a problem that has a good combination of being big, neglected, and solvable, you’ll also want to find a specific role that’s a good fit for you.

Personal fit is so important that it can easily be better to focus on an area you think is less pressing in general, if it’s a sufficiently good fit for you.

Early in your career, you only need to have a vague idea of what problems you might want to work on in the future. Your main focus should be exploring to figure out what you’re good at, and building skills that will plausibly be useful. Later you can use those skills to tackle the most pressing problems at the time.

If you’re already an expert in a certain skill, then your focus should be on finding a way to use that expertise to tackle a pressing problem. It wouldn’t make sense for, say, a great economist who’s crushing it to go and become a biologist. Rather, there is probably a way to apply economics to the issues you think are most pressing.


Strategic focus in altruism or social impact careers requires more than good intentions. By rigorously evaluating problems based on their scale, neglect, and solvability, you can significantly increase your impact. But don’t forget to consider your personal fit!

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