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How can psychology research help to solve the world’s most pressing problems?
Psychology research often focuses on understanding individuals’ attitudes and behaviour. Psychology can be highly interdisciplinary, drawing elements from philosophy, anthropology, statistics, neuroscience and computer science to provide a more well-informed perspective on human behaviour and social phenomena. For these reasons, research in this discipline is potentially relevant to most of our recommended research directions; it can help us answer foundational questions about welfare, understand the impact of altruistic interventions on wellbeing, understand people’s beliefs and misconceptions about global problems, and offer insight into how to encourage more altruistic and rational choices.
There are many ways we think psychology research could be particularly useful from the perspective of improving wellbeing and decreasing suffering. Some of the most promising issues to work on may include factory farming, mental illness and chronic pain. You could explore research questions such as: what motivates individuals to care about animal welfare?; what mental health interventions are most effective in various lower-income settings?; and how can we encourage charitable donors to make more effective donations?
There are also multiple risks that could threaten humanity’s future in the coming decades – such as increasingly powerful artificial intelligence, nuclear war and engineered pathogens – that psychology research could help address. You could work on these problems by exploring questions such as: how can a culture of safety be created among researchers working on dangerous technologies?; what makes people more likely to elect leaders with dangerous personality traits?; and what social, cognitive and emotional factors affect decision-making regarding risks to humanity’s future?
Further insight into these and many more questions is needed to tackle the most pressing global problems. Research on these questions could improve the world through informing the decisions of policy-makers, research scientists, philanthropists, activists, charities and society in general. Research could also lead to the development of evidence-based tools and large-scale intervention programs to support more effective decision-making in general, for example across political and scientific institutions.
Depending on your subject, degree level and the requirements of your institution, your thesis might take many different forms. It might look like an in-depth critical review — in which you compile and evaluate a large body of evidence on a specific issue, aiming to clarify a detailed question or mechanism and provide recommendations for practical applications. You could administer surveys or conduct experiments with human participants, use text mining on social media to gather insights about public opinion on important issues, or use computational methods (e.g. involving neural networks) to mathematically model human behaviour. You could alternatively conduct a meta-analysis, summarising findings from several studies that investigate a certain research hypothesis to determine whether the effect in question holds true or not.
If you’re writing a thesis in this area and want guidance on selecting research questions or any other part of the research process, you can apply to our coaching service for advice.
Examples of work on some of the research directions we recommend
- An interdisciplinary synthesis of research on understanding and promoting well-doing (Lieder et al., 2022) describes research on well-doing in social and personality psychology.
- The Psychology of (In)Effective Altruism is a recent paper by Caviola et al. (2021) on the psychology underlying ineffective giving.
- EA, Psychology and AI Safety is a recent review of researchers in this field and their work.
Research agendas and potential sources for research questions
- The research agenda from the Effective Altruism Psychology Lab covers a wide array of global problems from the perspective of improving the long-term future.
- Research questions that could have a big social impact, organised by discipline from 80000 Hours.
- How Effective Altruism Can Help Psychologists Maximise Their Impact (Gainsburg et al. 2022) includes a section about impactful research topics, including research relating to effective giving, animal welfare, institutional decision-making and risks for the long-term future.
- The research agenda from the Happier Lives institute contains many research ideas relevant to psychology and cognitive sciences, focused on improving wellbeing measures and interventions. See also their report on pain for additional research questions.
- This research agenda from Faunalytics contains many questions related to animal welfare.
- Life Improvement Science’s Reading List and Research Priorities list publications and research suggestions for high-impact behavioural science.
- This research agenda from The Good Food Institute contains many questions related to consumer perceptions of alternative proteins.
- The Sentience Institute suggests potential research questions related to artificial sentience and the moral circle.
- Cause Area: Differential Neurotechnology Development – EA Forum
- High Impact Psychology lists multiple additional sources of research questions and further reading.
This profile was last updated 31/05/2023. Thanks to L. Sophie Gullino for creating this introduction and Matt Coleman, Daniel Gambacorta and Maria Stogianni for helpful feedback. All errors remain our own. Learn more about how we create our profiles.