Stir your inspiration and make your research useful

How to choose a research topic

As you arrive at this website, you’re probably thinking “What is the best way to choose my research topic? What I should be guided by when choosing?” Here are some suggestions and ideas:

When choosing a topic there are two sources of information you can draw from - internal (your own impressions and feelings) and external (what other people say and suggest). First, let’s discuss the internal.

Useful considerations for a topic choice

We think it is good to select a research topic based on your interests. This is because being genuinely interested in a topic will motivate you and will help you develop your research taste, which might be a powerful intellectual tool for orienting in complex and not yet defined waters. However, there are two other considerations we think are important.

First: How valuable would an answer to your research question be? What would the consequences be of having that question answered? Would it have any effect at all? Are there any questions that may elicit more valuable answers? Is there a question that could solve more important, larger, and more neglected problems? How much would answering this question improve the world? By “improving the world” here we don’t necessarily mean doing something applied - you can improve the world by testing interventions and finding answers to very applied questions, but you can also improve the world by improving the theoretical understanding of fundamental parts of some problem. Importantly, however, the extent to which this increased understanding is actually valuable may vary significantly depending on the topic. Gaining an internal sense of how valuable the answers to various questions would be is especially important when you want to make progress on open, not yet defined questions and in early-stage fields (which are often very interesting and provide opportunities for greater progress and discoveries).

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The second factor is your personal tractability - do you feel that you would be able to make progress on this topic? Even if it is in general possible to make progress on it, are you a good fit to do so? It’s often good to spend about 10 % of your time testing your fit with a project, rather than fully committing to something right away.

These factors are also important to keep in mind when assessing external sources of information. Look at what topics the most prominent researchers are interested in, and listen to what other people and communities think is valuable to work on—paying close attention to their reasoning behind it. Experienced researchers and other well-informed individuals can also be useful resources when determining tractability.

How to compare information from external vs internal sources

Generally, we think it’s good to start with and get inspired by external sources of information, but ultimately let the internal sources have the last word. For example, we think it might be good for you to choose a field/general topic that others have a good reason to say is valuable and that may improve the world more than other fields. Then you can let yourself be guided by your internal impressions on what specifically within this broader domain/general topic feels interesting and tractable.

To give you a head start, we have put together a list of general topics/domains that seem to be very valuable to make progress on from an impartial welfarist perspective (i.e., promoting wellbeing, with every entity’s wellbeing counting equally). Dive in and get inspired!

Explore and get interested

There are several paths 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 down for more info). If you would appreciate more tailored advice, you can try our thesis topic coaching.

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 both, 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 it would create is very large. However, we often lack knowledge of how to go about improving these processes. Read more here or watch this talk.

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 on how to think 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


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.

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, 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


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 on in this podcast.

How to tackle this:
Researching what types of requirements do 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 make people to actually report laboratory accidents when they happen.
Another angle could be to look into ways 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 synthesizer). 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)


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 talk by Stefan Schubert and this paper.
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 donation research, innovationsinfundraising.org by David Reinstein also gathers relevant research links


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.

How can this be tackled?
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 is 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


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)

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, page 60&61



Valence and consciousness research

Why is it important:
Improving our understanding of how people experience various states of consciousness and how they experience pain and pleasure is important since it is often exactly consciousness and valence what we considered morally relevant. Nevertheless, given how big of a role they play in our thinking about how to improve the world, there are significant gaps in our knowledge and understanding about these phenomena.

How to tackle this:
There are a number of ways to improve our understanding of consciousness and valence proposed by the Qualia Research Institute. These often (but not always) involve neuroscientific tools and access to clinical populations. Some examples include:

“The most important research project for which we need the most outside help is empirical validation of the Symmetry Theory of Valence, with the experimental design proposed in Quantifying Bliss. To do this, we need access to high-quality fMRI data of individuals experiencing strongly positive and strongly negative states. For example, data of people in high-valence states might involve studies that look into the brain activity characteristic of meditative Jhanas and Metta (loving-kindness), romantic love, orgasm, tasty flavors, euphoric drugs, and psychedelics. And data of people in low-valence states might involve studies about chronic pain, suicidal depression, schizophrenia, and drug withdrawal."

Other ideas for projects:

Cost-effective prevention of very negative valence states:
Interview people who suffer from migraines and cluster headaches to gather evidence about the effectiveness of sub-hallucinogenic doses of DMT (e.g. ~3mg) to abort these intensely painful states.

Improving the baseline:
While people can do all kinds of things to temporarily increase their sense of wellbeing, long-term substantial improvements are rarely achieved. We want to find ways to sustainably increase the baseline of hedonic tone:

Research the genetic basis of hedonic set point, e.g. develop a model to predict hedonic set point using SNPs available on 23andme. Some promising candidates for such a study include the SCN9A and FAAH and FAAH-OUT genes. See Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project;

Make a detailed table for the attributes of non-toxic partial mu-opioid agonists with extremely high therapeutic index (e.g. tianeptine, 7-hydroxymitragynine, etc.), and their compatibility for being prescribed in conjunction with anti-tolerance drugs (such as proglumide, agmatine, black seed oil, small dose ibogaine, etc.).

It appears plausible that some of the neurotoxicity of MDMA is caused by overheating of the brain. Development of portable rapid-cooling technologies to be deployed at places with high incidence of MDMA use could be a significant step in harm-reduction.

Test theories of valence:
Characterize the hedonic response to various auditory stimuli while on different states of consciousness. For example, does green noise feel better, worse, or the same while drunk? Does harmonic reverb sound especially good while under the influence of THC? Are dissonant city sounds more bearable while on SSRIs?

Compile a list of large effect-sizes in the valence space. It would be useful to have a list of little-known non-drug interventions which often result in extremely high valence in order to use as targets for research;

Applications of states of consciousness:
Some states of consciousness are better for doing your taxes than others. But when it comes to aesthetic enjoyment, creativity, and open-ended explorations, are the “do taxes” states of consciousness really optimal? A very interesting research area is that of identifying novel applications for unusual states of consciousness. And as we saw in the How to Secretly Communicate with People on LSD article, exotic state-spaces of consciousness could have unexpected information-processing benefits.

Create a software tool to practice identifying wallpaper symmetry groups, an activity which may be useful for corroborating the relationship between symmetry and bliss on altered states of consciousness. See here for inspiration;

Develop a scale that measures the acute prosocial behavior induced by MDMA. Then identify people who are naturally high on that scale. With them you can then investigate the ways in which their naturally prosocial frame of mind influences their productivity and ability to adapt to high-trust social environments.

Identify when such people are taken advantage of by others. This analysis would help us find ways to make a society with MDMA-like states of consciousness as the norm be game-theoretically robust. Example work to get inspired by Gabay et al., (2018),

Survey people in STEM fields about the insights or modes of understanding that they have been able to achieve thanks to alien state-spaces of consciousness (e.g. DMT-like states of consciousness may be a useful tool for studying the hyperbolic spaces for mathematicians).

Research connection between beliefs in Open Individualism and acquaintance with various states of consciousness. In particular, how does e.g. exposure to 5-MeO-DMT-like states of consciousness influence a person’s mood, social behavior, and big-picture beliefs?

Who are some of the people already working on this:
Gabay et al., (2018)

If you get interested in any of these topics, let us know. We can:

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