Altruistic decision-making
How can we encourage effective action to help others?

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Why is this a pressing problem?

There are many barriers that can decrease the extent to which people effectively help others, such as narrow self-interest, cognitive biases, mistaken beliefs, and misaligned incentives.

A better understanding of the reasons people do or don’t take the most effective altruistic actions available to them could be useful in a number of ways. For example, it could:

  • inform the development of interventions to help people correct for their cognitive biases, such as tendencies to over- or under-weight low-probability outcomes.
  • help people cultivate the characteristics that make them more altruistic, care more deeply about the suffering of distant others and non-human animals, and act more effectively.  
  • identify ways to decrease the ‘value-action gap’ between altruistic feelings and actions.
  • identify causes of value drift (which can lead to people becoming less motivated to take altruistic actions over time).
  • help decision-makers identify the most effective strategies for increasing altruistic behaviour and values.
 

More concretely, further research on these questions could help further a number of causes, such as promoting concern for farmed and wild animals and future digital beings, safeguarding the long-term future, encouraging people to take effective action to alleviate global poverty, preventing malevolent leaders from gaining power, and informing attempts to broaden humanity’s moral circle.

Next steps

Here are some steps that can help you do research in this area.

Explore our research direction profiles below this introduction for some deeper dives into specific areas.

  • Lieder, F., Prentice, M. (2022). Life Improvement Science. In F. Maggino (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research. Springer, Cham.

 

As well as exploring the profiles listed below, which go further into specific research directions that you could explore if you’re interested in this area, here are some broad questions that further research could help answer. If you’re interested in these or similar topics, apply for our coaching for help getting started.

  • ‘Improve our understanding of the various motivations for apparently altruistic acts, for example, ‘pure’ altruism or ‘warm glow’ altruism (Andreoni 1990; Ashraf and Bandiera 2017). Which characteristics of individuals or the choices that they face are associated with different types of apparently altruistic acts?’ (GPI research agenda)
  • ‘What factors underlie how people choose which causes they prioritize, and what interventions would lead people to “invest” in more impactful causes?’ (Life Improvement Science)
  • ‘What interventions are most promising for encouraging young people to develop life-long prosocial habits and ways of living?’ (Life Improvement Science)
  • ‘What can evolutionary psychology tell us about moral values (and indeed more broadly)? Does it say anything about which moral norms are feasible to cultivate in society on a long-term basis? Can it inform which relevant behaviors are strongly influenced by genetics, and therefore, what strategy is best for improving them?’ (EA psychology agenda)
  • What are the psychological mechanisms of moral development, moral learning, and moral progress? (existing research reviewed in Moral learning: Psychology and philosophical perspectives).
  • Why do some people embark on ambitious altruistic projects and pursue them effectively? What are the underlying psychological mechanisms? (highlighted in An interdisciplinary synthesis of research on understanding and promoting well-doing).

Apply for our coaching and we can connect you directly with researchers and potentially mentors who can help you refine your research ideas. You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in connecting with other students specifically.

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.

You could also look at this directory of researchers working on the psychology of effective altruism or reach the newsletter of the EA behavioural science community to find connections.

Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

  • Sign up for our newsletter to hear about opportunities such as funding, internships and research roles.
  • Sign up for the EA behavioural science newsletter to hear about new research, funding and collaboration opportunities and more.

Contributors

This introduction was last updated 26/05/2023. Thanks to Matti Wilks, Izzy Gainsburg and Falk Lieder for helpful feedback. All errors remain our own. Learn more about how we create our profiles.

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