Improving institutional decision-making
How can we improve the effectiveness of institutions in solving important problems?

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This profile is tailored towards students studying economics, history, philosophy, political sciences, psychology, sociology and maths, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

Decisions made within institutions such as governments, charities and research organisations have a huge impact on the trajectory of many lives. Institutions influence major actions such as whether a country goes to war, what interventions are taken to alleviate poverty, what policies are adopted in the event of a pandemic and how countries coordinate on global risks such as climate change, biological weapons and artificial intelligence.

The Effective Institutions Project identifies two facets that determine the quality of an institution’s decision-making: how altruistically motivated their decisions are and their technical competence (see also this report). For example, an institution could be very good at achieving goals that don’t support the common good (high decision-quality, low value alignment). Alternatively, an institution could have highly altruistic goals but make decisions with negative consequences, for example due to some of the cognitive biases that psychology research has shown to affect human judgement (high value alignment, low decision-quality). 

It could be valuable to do further research to increase both of these organisational characteristics (decision-quality, value-alignment). For example: what goals should an institution aiming to be altruistic adopt, how do we incentivise institutions to adopt more altruistic goals, and how do we help institutions achieve these goals?

Explore existing research

Organisations focused specifically on decision-making for future generations

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

Some examples of research questions we think it could be particularly valuable to work on are:

  • What are some key learnings from the field of ‘mechanism design’ that are relevant for improving institutional decision making?
  • When faced with an important, irreversible decision for which relevant information will soon be obtained, a social planner may preserve ‘option value’ by delaying the decision until after the information has been acquired (cf. Bishop 1982; Dixit and Pindyck 1994). In delaying an important social decision intergenerationally, however, the planner may worry that future agents’ values and preferences will differ from their own (INFORMAL: Hanson 2018). Facing this tradeoff, under what conditions should the planner – or principal – defer irreversible decisions to better-informed future agents (MacAskill, MS) (INFORMAL: Brauner and Grosse-Holz 2018)? Can long-term intergenerational mechanisms help to overcome this principal-agent problem? What might they look like (Bostrom 2006) (INFORMAL: Tomasik 2018)? (The Global Priorities Institute research agenda)

Here are some other areas for further research on improving institutional decision making.

Ideas for topics that could be useful to explore further:

  • How have better practices have been implemented in organisations historically, and what happened badly in the event of major decisions?
  • What are some case studies and/or formal evaluations of attempts to improve decision-making environments in powerful institutions, and what outcomes have resulted from them? (Effective Institutions Project)
  • How and why were new institutions created? When have these outperformed existing institutions? When might it make sense to scrap and recreate an institution vs. reforming it?


Here are some other areas for further research on improving institutional decision making.

You could draw from Helbing, et al. (2015) to learn more about using mathematical and computational models to understand or support decision-making. Another path could be applications of computational rationality to political decisions and the resulting use of heuristics (Gerschman et al., 2015, Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2011).

Here are some other areas for further research on improving institutional decision making.

Some examples of research questions we think it could be particularly valuable to work on are:

  • ‘To what extent ought a government to take actions that are better for the world even if they conflict with the preferences of, and/or are worse for, their own citizens (Goodin 1995)? What about the relationship between corporate philanthropy and shareholder preference/interest?’ (Global Priorities Institute)
  • ‘What can considerations of international distributive justice (Blake and Smith 2020) tell us about a fair allocation of benefits and burdens related to institutional mechanisms that facilitate international cooperation in the provision of global public goods, such as the mitigation of global catastrophic risks from emerging technologies (Dafoe 2018)?’ (Global Priorities Institute)

Some examples of research questions we think it could be particularly valuable to work on are:

  • ‘Which types of political systems and institutions place a higher weight on long-run outcomes? For example, are democratic systems fundamentally more ‘short-termist’ than non-democratic systems, because of the political pressure of elections (Harstad 2020)? If yes, to what extent can such short-termist pressures be mitigated?’ (Global Priorities Institute)
  • ‘Is there a strong case for enfranchising future generations (Kavka and Warren 1983; Goodin 2007; Tännsjö 2007; Beckman 2009: Ch. 7)? If so, how should this be implemented? How effectively can contemporary individuals act as representatives for future generations? Might other democratic reforms, such as age-weighting, help to better align political outcomes with long-term priorities (Gonzalez-Ricoy and Gosseries 2017) (​INFORMAL​: MacAskill 2019)?’ (Global Priorities Institute)


It could also be useful to look into how practices have been improved in organisations historically, and what went badly in the event of major decisions. 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 are some other areas for further research on improving institutional decision making.

80000 hours suggests rigorously testing existing decision-making techniques to get strong evidence of effectiveness. Next steps could involve testing techniques that look the most promising – such as calibration training or structured analytic techniques – in more specific contexts (i.e. specific organisations or parts of governments) and on real-world judgements. Another option could be looking into how policy-makers work individually with evidence and update their beliefs (see this paper and this blog post).

Further research could also develop better methods for evaluating the quality of arguments when there is no “correct” answer – see the projects here, here, and here for examples.

Here are some other areas for further research on improving institutional decision making.

Research projects we think it could be particularly valuable to work on are:

  • Carrying out ethnographies/deep qualitative investigations of key groups of decision-makers such as AI lab researchers, national security officials in the US government, bioengineers, regulators in key tech regulation functions. This kind of research might provide detail-rich insights about the culture within these groups, their mental models, and other relevant dynamics that are useful when engaging or trying to influence these sets of actors. 
  • Exploring the question of whether, if individuals or a group become better calibrated due to decision-making techniques, this actually moves the needle within large institutions. When are incentive structures and other powerful status-quo forces so strong that better judgement fails?
  • Conducting case studies on how better practices have been implemented in organisations historically or analysis on what went badly during major decisions.



You could also look into Administrative behaviour and the new policy sciencesHere are some other areas for further research on improving institutional decision making.

Further resources

Apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas. You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in meeting other students working on this research direction.

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.

You could also join this community of behavioural scientists to connect with other researchers interested in this area and the Facebook group and Slack channel run by the Effective Institutions Project.

Academic research groups relevant to this direction include:


Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

Sign up for our newsletter to hear about opportunities such as funding, internships and research roles.

You could also explore our profile on ‘Reducing risks from malevolent actors’ if you’re interested in the question of how to reduce the chance that leaders with dangerous traits gain positions of power.


This profile was last updated 5/1/2023. Thanks to Michael Noetel, Sophia Brown and Jam Kraprayoon for helpful feedback on this profile. All errors remain our own.

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