What is the meaning of making a difference?
Ultimately the question of what it means to “make a difference” is a question for moral philosophy. For the purposes of the career guide, the 80,000 Hours definition of “making a difference” or “having a social impact” is as follows:
"The number of people whose lives you improve, and how much you improve them by."
Why this definition?
1. Wellbeing, broadly defined, is something almost everyone cares about. People from a wide range of moral backgrounds agree that it’s good if people have have happier lives and endure less suffering. So focusing on wellbeing allows our advice to be relevant to a wide variety of people.
2. There are large differences in the impact of different actions on wellbeing (e.g. 80,000 Hours has argued that some global problems are over 100 times more pressing than others). This means wellbeing is a particularly important outcome to focus on.
3. We have tools to compare the differences in wellbeing produced by different actions, such as cost-effectiveness analysis. This isn’t the case with other many other moral values, such as justice or beauty.
Career impact evaluation methodology
We can use the following framework to compare problems in terms of their potential for social impact:
Scale: If we solved the problem, how good would it be?
Neglectedness: How many resources are already going towards solving this problem?
Solvability: If we doubled the resources dedicated to solving this problem, what fraction of the problem would we expect to solve?
How to assess scale
If we solved this problem, by how much would the world become a better place?
For example, cancer is a bigger problem than malaria because it is responsible for 8% of all ill-health worldwide (measured in QALYs lost), whereas malaria is responsible for 2.7% of ill-health worldwide. If we got rid of all cancer it would reduce ill-health significantly more than if we got rid of all malaria.
This means scale can be increased by either (i) affecting a larger number of people (ii) affecting the same number of people in a bigger way, including both short-term and long-term effects. 80,000 Hours uses a broad notion of wellbeing, so the effect could be to improve many aspects of someone’s life, including: happiness, health, a sense of meaning, positive relationships, and so on.
How to assess neglectedness
How many people, or dollars, are currently being dedicated to solving the problem?
After a large amount of resources have been dedicated to a problem, you’ll hit diminishing returns. This is because people take the best opportunities for impact first, so as more and more resources get invested, it becomes harder and harder to make a difference. It’s therefore often better to focus on problems that have been neglected by others.
For instance, mass immunisation of children is an extremely effective intervention to improve global health, but it is already being vigorously pursued by governments and several major foundations, including the Gates Foundation. This makes it less likely to be a top opportunity for future donors.
How to assess solvability
If we doubled the direct effort on this problem, what fraction of the remaining problem would we expect to solve?
Even if a problem is hugely important and highly neglected, that doesn’t mean it’s an important cause to focus on. There might simply be very little we can do about it.
For example, ageing is a problem that is huge in scale: almost two thirds of global ill health is a result of ageing in some way. It’s also highly neglected: there are only a tiny number of research institutes focused on trying to prevent the causes of physical ageing (rather than to treat its symptoms, like cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and so on). However, one reason it’s neglected is because many scientists believe it to be very hard to solve, which is a major reason against working on the problem right now (though its other advantages could be enough to offset this downside).
How to assess personal fit
Finally, if you’re trying to figure out what problem you should work on, you can add bonus points for problems that you are better suited to working on. Within a field, the top performers often have 10 to 100 times as much impact as the median.
Given your skills, resources, knowledge, connections and passions, how likely are you to excel in this area?