Psychology and cognitive science
How can psychology and cognitive science research help to solve global problems?

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How can psychology and cognitive science research help to solve the world’s most pressing problems?


Psychology research often focuses on understanding individuals’ experiences and behaviour. It can be highly interdisciplinary, potentially overlapping with philosophy, ethics and anthropology, statistics and computer science. 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 research in this discipline 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 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 to support wiser decision-making and improve well-being.

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. Alternative approaches to your thesis include administering surveys or conducting experiments with human participants, or using computational methods (e.g. involving neural networks) to mathematically model human behaviour.

If you’re writing a thesis in this area and want guidance on choosing for a research question 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 4/12/2022. Thanks to L. Sophie Gullino for creating this introduction and Matt Coleman for feedback. All errors remain our own.

Explore our recommended research directions relating to psychology and cognitive science