Find inspiration and discover a research topic that makes a difference.

How to choose a research topic


Below are research directions that we think have high potential to improve the world by helping to solve pressing global problems that would particularly benefit from further research.

Several factors we suggest you consider when choosing a topic are:

If you're studying for an undergraduate or master's degree we often recommend focusing on developing your skills and knowledge in an area in order to contribute to solving a pressing problem later in your career.

If you're a PhD student you may be more able to contribute to solving a problem through your research already. You may also need to give consideration to building your reputation in academia and to whether your topic will 'lock you in' to an area long-term. The more likely this is, the more important it is that you choose an impactful topic which is a good fit for you! 

Check out our key ideas for more detail on how to choose a research topic. If you find a topic that you're interested in pursuing further, get in touch — we can help you make progress.

Explore and get interested

Check out all our recommended research directions here or click the disciplines below to see our profiles for your field of study.


There are several research directions we think might be especially high impact in making the world a better place. If you get interested in any of these topics, we can connect you with researchers working in these fields or provide other types of support (scroll to the bottom for more info). If you would appreciate more tailored advice, you can try our thesis topic coaching. Our list of prioritised research directions is not exhaustive, so there may well be some other high impact research directions that we have not yet covered. However, we aim to select impactful topics, so that chances of any of the topics we covered being highly impactful are higher than chances of average/randomly selected topic that we have not covered. If you know about research directions that could be similarly impactful to those we have covered, please let us know.

Improving institutional decision making

#social psychology #industrial-organisational psychology

Why is this important?

Large institutions in our societies, most notably governments, have vast resources and power to change the world, for the better or for the worse. Yet decision processes used in these institutions are often not optimal or rational. If we could improve these processes even by a little, the expected positive value created would be very large. However, we often lack knowledge of how to go about improving these processes. Read more here or watch the talk below for an introduction.


How to tackle this

Generally, looking into decision making in the group settings would be one option. Specifically, looking into how various methods (like calibration training or structured analytic techniques) improve decisions in real-life scenarios and settings could be valuable. Also, developing better methods for evaluating the quality of arguments when there is no "correct" answer (example 1, example 2, example 3) would be potentially impactful. Another option could be looking into how policy-makers individually work with evidence and update their beliefs (see this paper and this blog post).
Here is a possible framework for thinking about questions related to improving institutional decision making.

Alternatively, looking into case studies on how better practices have been implemented in organisations historically might also bring more understanding of how to contribute to improving institutional decision making.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Philip Tetlock, Eva Vivalt; the Simon Institute for Longterm Governance; the Effective Institutions Project; All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations; Rethink Priorities

Got inspired? We can connect you with other people working on this or otherwise help you - get in touch.
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Behavioural and attitudinal change in animal products consumption

#social psychology #moral psychology

Why is this important?

Each year, over 70 billion animals (9 times more than the population of humans) are raised and slaughtered in factory farms globally. Most animals experience serious levels of suffering evaluated as "better dead than alive". These conditions may also pose a threat to human health because overusing antibiotics leads to a faster spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and red meat consumption is also shown to correlate with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, and higher cancer mortality rates. In addition, the animal agricultural sector has detrimental environmental consequences. For example, it is responsible for 15 % of global greenhouse gas emissions and 75 % of recent Amazon deforestation. Decreasing the number of animals raised in factory farms by changing people’s diets seems like a promising way how to improve the world. Read more here or listen to this podcast.

For an introduction to this area from the perspective of moral circle expansion, see the talk below.


How to tackle this

From a more theoretical perspective, one can work on the psychology of speciesism, moral circle expansion, carnism or compassion for non-human animals (e.g. creating and validating measurement instruments in different countries and populations). Another way to approach this could be to look more generally into how large scale social change happens and use change in attitudes towards animals or animal product consumption as specific instances of social change.

From a more applied perspective, using well-validated measures to assess the effectiveness of various interventions aimed at changing attitudes and/or behaviour towards animals might also be helpful. Another way could be to look into consumer perception of clean meat & animal products alternatives (see e.g. sources in this topic). Some examples of such applied topics could be found in this, this and this research agenda.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

SHARKLAB research group at the University of Kent, Sentience Institute, the Credence Institute, Christopher Bryant, Lucius Caviola, Peter Singer, Melanie Joy, Cass Sunstein, also take a look at this list of resources including non-academic research groups and funding opportunities

To find further support, collaborators and projects to get involved with, check out RECAP, a transdisciplinary community of researchers working on reducing animal product consumption.

This document from Manja Gärtner provides a monthly collation of empirical research related to this research direction.

You could also join this community of behavioural scientists to connect with other researchers interested in this area.

Got inspired? We can connect you with other people working on this or otherwise help you - get in touch.
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Improving the culture of safety among scientists who work with dangerous pathogens

#social psychology #industrial-organisational psychology

Why is this important?

Large pandemic outbreaks (like recent COVID-19) has historically caused enormous losses in lives (Spanish flu is estimated to had wiped out almost 1 % of the global population). If we were to tackle more severe natural pandemics or even anthropogenic pandemic caused by engineered pathogens, we might risk significant disruption to global civilisation and the future of humanity’s progress. Improving the culture of safety among scientists who work with dangerous pathogens might help us prevent the scenarios when such pandemic happens by accident. Learn more about the general case for working on biosecurity here and in this podcast, or watch the talk below in which Megan Palmer discusses the need for improved biosafety and biosecurity.
.


How to tackle this

Researching what types of requirements we want to have on labs or on individuals who are working with dangerous pathogens so it’s as easy as possible for scientists to comply but at the same is effective in eliminating the chance of any accidents. Further, figuring out how to increase the chance people report laboratory accidents when they happen.

Another angle could be exploring how to encourage a culture of security among people who might be able to create pathogens on their own due to steep technological progress in this domain (e.g. with something like a desktop synthesiser). It would be valuable to look into how to make people less likely to misuse this technology and use it safely.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Megan Palmer specifically, generally Human error and safety culture research field (Bird, Reason, Rasmussen, Wiegmann and Shappell, Leveson, Pidgeon, Clegg); Perkins et al. and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk

Got inspired? We can connect you with other people working on this or otherwise help you - get in touch.
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Charitable donations decision-making research

#social psychology #industrial-organisational psychology

Why is this important?

Philanthropy could be an effective way to improve the world. The amount of money donated to charitable causes in the US alone was over $427 billion and still increasing, with the largest proportion of that amount donated by individuals. There is a reason to believe that differences in the effectiveness of various charitable interventions are vast. However, donors rarely compare or decide where to donate based on how much impact they produce by giving to a specific cause/organisation or how much this will improve the world. If a larger proportion of donors decided based on the impact produced it could improve the world dramatically.

How to tackle this

Focusing specifically on where individuals decide to give (in contrast to how much or how often they give) and which factors influence their decisions could be fruitful. That is because there are huge differences in impact across charities, and therefore it seems plausible that improving where people give could generate more good than increasing the amount donated. Also, prescriptive giving research (i.e. how to create desirable behavioural change) would probably be more valuable than descriptive research (i.e. how donors behave). For example, see this research, also see this series of blog posts describing more in-depth what kind of research would be best.

Another way to look at this is by asking "Why don't people donate effectively?" and "How to make them give more effectively?" We can, for example, try to assess and decrease certain biases and false beliefs that might lead people to ineffective giving (e.g. scope neglect; charity effectiveness can't be measured) and look whether they change their donation behaviour. See more discussion and data in this paper and the talk below.


This thread also suggests some important considerations for such research and some potentially useful research questions.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Smith, Faro, Burson, Karlan and Wood, Parsons, Caviola et al, Schubert et. al. also Bekkers and Wiepking for orientation in the general area of donation research; the Innovations in Fundraising wiki by David Reinstein also gathers relevant research links; Luke Freeman, Executive Director at Giving What We Can, is also glad to support students tackling these questions.

You could also join this community of behavioural scientists to connect with other researchers interested in this area.

Got inspired? We can connect you with other people working on this or otherwise help you - get in touch.
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Improving health and wellbeing metrics

#behavioural science #subjective wellbeing #psychometrics

Why is this important?

The quality-adjusted life-year (QALY) and the disability-adjusted life-year (DALY) are widely used to evaluate healthcare interventions and quantify the burden of disease. Some people also use these metrics informally as a general indicator of value. However, they have a number of major shortcomings in their current form. For example:

  • They focus on a relatively narrow set of health domains, ignoring many other areas of life that matter to us.
  • They normally assess the disutility of health states using preferences of the general public, who tend to be poor at predicting the impact of changes in health on their overall quality of life.
  • They give no weight to positive mental states, beyond the relief of mental or physical illness.
  • They fail to capture the severity of the most horrendous conditions.

For a discussion of some of these issues, see Peasgood, Dolan, & Foster (2019), Brazier & Tsuchiya (2015), Dolan (2008) and Dolan & Kahneman (2008).

These problems lead to serious misallocation of resources in public institutions, such as national governments, and in some non-profit entities as well.

In the conference talk below, Michael Plant and Clare Donaldson of the Happier Lives Institute cover some of the issues with these measures of impact and propose an alternative.


How to tackle this

An alternative metric is the wellbeing-adjusted life-year (WELBY/WALY). This is structurally identical to the QALY but quantifies value in terms of subjective wellbeing (SWB), typically measured using self-reported happiness or life satisfaction. (See Diener et al. (2018) for a review of the SWB literature, and Clarke et al. (2018) on the use of life satisfaction to inform public policy.)

Existing preliminary research arguably permits the construction and application of a rough WELBY. But further work is required to ensure it fully captures what matters. This includes:

  • Establishing the 'dead' point on SWB scales (the zero point of the WELBY scale): Below what level is it better to be dead?
  • Developing methods for valuing the most severe states: Are the worst states more bad than the best ones are good? How much worse? How can we know this?
  • Establishing the cardinality of the WELBY: How can we ensure a one-point increase represents the same change in welfare on all parts of the scale? Are measures of valence best understood as linear, lognormal, or something else?
  • Choosing (or developing) a SWB measure: What is wellbeing, and how can it best be measured?

Once this is achieved to some level of satisfaction, the new metric can be used to improve priority-setting. Projects include:

  • Re-estimating the global burden of disease: Which illnesses, injuries and disabilities cause the most unhappiness?
  • Estimating the global burden of unhappiness: Out of all the problems in the world – mental and physical disorders, unemployment, poverty, etc – what accounts for the most disutility?
  • Re-prioritising causes areas and interventions: Which projects are most cost-effective?
  • Comparing human and animal wellbeing: Can the WELBY approach tell us anything about cross-species prioritisation?

For more information on these and many related projects, see:

Who are some of the people already working on this?

In psychology and behavioural science, some key figures include Daniel Kahneman, Paul Dolan, Ed Diener, Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky.

*the thanks for building this profile go to Derek Foster

Got inspired? We can connect you with other people working on this or otherwise help you - get in touch.
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The psychology of altruistic decision-making

#moral psychology #evolutionary psychology #cognitive psychology #neuropsychology

Why is this important?

“Various apparently altruistic and reasonable behaviours seem puzzling on closer inspection if we assume that the agent is attempting to maximise the expected impact of their actions. These behaviours include (a) donating to more than one charity and (b) avoiding supporting work on mitigating existential risks on the grounds of ‘risk aversion’. The same behaviours might make more sense assuming a less pure form of altruism (the most obvious alternative being a ‘warm glow’ theory of motivation), or assuming deviations from expected utility theory that are arguably irrational (such as ambiguity aversion and certain forms of risk aversion).

A better understanding of the variety of psychological mechanisms underlying altruistic behaviour might aid efforts to work around behavioural limitations and maximise the good done by imperfectly altruistic agents” (cited from Global Priorities Institute’s research agenda, page 60)

In the lecture below, the psychologist Paul Bloom discusses his research on the limitations of empathy as a guide to doing good.


How to tackle this

For example, one might attempt at Mapping forms of altruism; Rationality and deviations from pure altruism, looking into where are the roots of human compassion, Formation of moral concerns or Value drift

Who are some of the people already working on this?

e.g. Andreoni, Batson, Schubert, Caviola & Faber, see the full list of relevant literature in Global Priorities Institute’s research agenda, pp. 60-61.

You could also join this community of behavioural scientists to connect with other researchers interested in this area.

Got inspired? We can connect you with other people working on this or otherwise help you - get in touch.
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If you get interested in any of these topics, let us know. We can:

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