How can psychology research help to solve global problems?

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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


Research agendas and potential sources for research questions



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.

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