How To Make The World A Better Place: 4 Secrets Backed by Research


Many people aren’t happy with the way things are going right now. You want to make the world a better place — but you don’t have superpowers (I think that’s a safe assumption) and you don’t get to vote all that often.

Actually, it’s worse than that. It turns out many of the philanthropic things we can do don’t work all that well. And the way we go about engaging in them is fraught with problems too — like cognitive biases.

And then there’s the real smarty-smart issue: even if we do something to help others, how do we know it’s the best thing?

This is a really tough problem and lives are at stake — quite literally. But one guy may have found a solution. So I figured I should give him a call…

Will MacAskill is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University. He’s also the co-founder and CEO of The Centre for Effective Altruism and the author of Doing Good Better.

After college, Will worked as a fundraiser for a charity. And he ran head first into all of these problems we face when trying to improve the world. Here’s Will:

I worked as a fundraiser for Care International. I was that person who was approaching you on the street and trying to get you to give away ten dollars a month. And I didn’t raise very much money. But it did mean that all day every day I was talking about the extremity of global poverty, how much we could do to help, and encountering people who just had these kind of apathetic stares back at me. And I felt so frustrated. Then I started talking to academics and asking them, “What sort of impact have you had?” And routinely they would say, “Basically, none.” And that was very disheartening for me.

So Will did something about it. Let’s hear what he has to say about what we’re doing wrong when it comes to improving this world of ours, what’s really effective, and the smallest thing we can do in order to make a big difference.

Let’s get to it…


Most Programs Don’t Work

You’ve heard of “Scared Straight”, right? The program that brought troubled youths into maximum security prisons, inmates scared the heck out of them, and then the kids turned their lives around. There’s only one problem…

It didn’t work.

Actually, that’s not true either. Not only did “Scared Straight” not produce an improvement, it actually had a negative effect. Those kids were often more likely to become criminals.

From Doing Good Better:

The authors of the review estimated that the Scared Straight programs that had been studied increased the odds of offending by about 60 percent. “The analyses show the intervention to be more harmful than doing nothing,” they concluded.

(So the only way the name of that program is accurate is that the participants didn’t go straight and you should be scared.) But, sadly, the same is true for most philanthropic programs and charities.

From Doing Good Better:

One expert estimates that 75% of social programs have very low positive impact or no positive impact.

Now the point isn’t that we should cut programs and cease trying. Plenty of efforts are very successful. But there’s an enormous variance in how effective charity can be and so we need to be picky about where we put our money and time.

From Doing Good Better:

We discovered that the best charities are hundreds of times more effective at improving lives than merely “good” charities.

(To learn more about how to be ethical and successful, check out my book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.)

Now it may sound like I’m blaming people who are trying to do good. Nope. In fact, a big part of the problem also lies in us and how we go about supporting different programs…


What You’re Doing Wrong

When you’re deciding whether to invest in a company, you probably scrutinize it. But you don’t take that same attitude toward charitable endeavors. And that’s a big part of the problem. Here’s Will:

Imagine if someone comes up to you on the street, and they’re wearing this t-shirt that says “Dazzling Cosmetics.” And they tell you about this company that you could invest in, and they tell you all about how great the company is, how there’s such demand for these products that the company is selling. Maybe they even talk about how the CEO isn’t paid very much and they spend very little money on market research and other overhead costs. And then they ask you, “Well, do you want to invest in this company?” Most people would think you’d be insane to do so. If you’re going to invest, you’d look across many companies, and do your homework. You’d probably talk to someone in asset management to make sure that you were getting the biggest bang for your buck. So the idea of investing in a company just because someone approaches you on the street is absolutely insane. But we do something very similar with non-profits all the time.

And this isn’t the only mistake we make. In fact, there are a number of cognitive biases that get in the way of making smart decisions on how to best help those in need.

One is called “moral licensing.” Research has shown that after doing a good deed we often feel like we’ve checked our “do-gooder” box and we’re subsequently less likely to do another good deed. So making a minor or ineffective charitable effort can prevent you from doing something later that is really likely to move the needle. Here’s Will:

In one experiment, they gave subjects the chance to buy an environmentally-friendly light bulb, and then afterwards, on an unrelated task, gave them the opportunity to both lie and steal. And they found that people who had the opportunity to show that they were a good person by buying this environmentally-friendly light bulb were more likely to lie or more likely to steal in the subsequent task. And this is small amounts of money, stealing a couple dollars sort of thing. But it was still indicative that by doing one good thing, you just do less of other good things.

Maybe some of you know where Will’s headed with this: yup, when you post that article on Facebook supporting a good cause, you’re actually less likely to then volunteer or donate to that cause. Your little effort displaced the big effort that might have really made a difference.

(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

Pretty depressing so far, I know. Alright, enough negative. Let’s get to the positive. So if we’ve currently got it all wrong, how do we get it right?


Do You Wanna Feel Good Or Do Good?

Having done his homework on the problems we face with trying to help others and improve the world, Will co-founded a community dedicated to figuring out what works — and doing that. It’s called “Effective Altruism.”

From Doing Good Better:

Effective altruism is about asking, “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. It takes a scientific approach to doing good.

Let’s say you’re a big shot with $50,000 to donate and you want to address the problem of blindness. Do you just hand the cash over to the first clipboard-carrying volunteer you meet? No. Doing your research can make an enormous difference.

From Doing Good Better:

It costs about $50,000 to train and provide one guide dog for one blind person, something that would significantly improve that person’s quality of life. However, if we could use that $50,000 to completely cure someone of blindness, that would be an even better use of money, since it provides a larger benefit for the same cost. Not only is $50,000 enough to cure one person of blindness in the developing world, it’s enough to cure five hundred people of blindness if spent on surgery to prevent blindness from sufferers of trachoma (a bacterial infection that causes the eyelids to turn inwards, causing the eyelashes to scratch the cornea).

Pretty smart, right? But this is where the problem gets sticky, because you have to face the issue of trade-offs. And most of us don’t like to do that. That’s one of the reasons why we just like to use our hearts and not involve our heads.

If you give a dollar to charity X, you can’t give it to charity Y. If you cure those 500 people of blindness in the developing world, your blind next door neighbor doesn’t get his guide dog. Ouch. Here’s Will:

We have scarce resources, and there are far more problems in the world than any one of us is going to be able to solve. And that means we need to confront very hard decisions where, if I choose to donate to one charity, that mean I’m not donating to all the other places I could be spending that money. And so that means that it’s not enough just to think, “Is this a good use of money?” You’ve got to ask the question, “Is this the best use of money?” Because if you’ve donated somewhere that’s merely good, but not the best place, you’re still missing out on an opportunity to help more people than you otherwise could have done. And people are often not willing to think about that, because it’s just an unpleasant fact about the world.

And that’s one of the criticisms of Effective Altruism: that it’s cold, sterile and clinical. But is it better to be impulsive and ineffective?

From Doing Good Better:

When it comes to helping others, being unreflective often means being ineffective.

Your heart moves you to donate. But you need to use your head as well if you want to do the most good. Because while we instinctively want to trust our feelings, even empathy is subject to cognitive biases.

One is the “identifiable victim” effect. Here’s Will:

In studies, it was actually found that if you tell a story about a single child who will go hungry unless you donate a certain amount, you’ll get more donations than if you tell a story about two hungry children, even if you could feed them both for the same amount of money. And that’s just because of the way that empathy is programmed into the human brain. So that means that when people start thinking, “You’re just going with the numbers, you’re not being empathetic,” that’s just completely wrong. It’s a more sophisticated form of empathy where you can realize that when I talk about statistics, when I say seven and a half thousand dollars to save a child’s life, that’s a real child, that’s a child with a family, that’s a child with hopes and dreams, who wants to get an education, who wants to have a fulfilling life. And just because they’re not right there in front of me and I can’t see them, that doesn’t mean they’re any less deserving of moral concern.

(To learn the 7-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

Okay, brass tacks time: what should you actually do when you want to help others and improve the world?

I know, some of you are terrified I’m going to say you can no longer eat this, and you have to boycott that, you can never drive a car again, or use a plastic bag, and you need to quit your job and dedicate your life to building homes for the poor in Sub-Saharan Africa…

Actually, Will says the single most important thing you need to do involves none of that…


The Easiest Way To Improve The World

Just donate some money to an effective charity. Yeah, that’s it. No drastic lifestyle change required. Here’s Will:

The easiest single thing that people can do is just donate more effectively.

In fact, in some cases, a simple donation can be far more effective than lifestyle changes. In the case of carbon emissions, “offsetting” produces results that are actually impossible with lifestyle changes. Here’s Will:

With offsetting, you have the option to completely reduce your net carbon emissions to zero. That’s just not possible with any other sort of lifestyle changes. Everyone is going to have to eat some sort of product, buy some sort of product, and travel. And so people are still going to be emitting carbon dioxide to some extent. Whereas with offsetting you can reduce it to zero, or even make it negative.

Okay, sounds simple. But which charities are rock solid and put the “effective” in “Effective Altruism”? (No, I’m not going to make you do any research.)

Will says that the organization “GiveWell” thoroughly vets charities and their approved list is here.

Or you have another option. Will’s organization has started “EA Funds.” Basically, it’s like asset management for effective giving. They take all the donations, and then spend that whole pot of money in whatever way will have the biggest impact. More info about EA Funds is here.

And if you want to learn more about Effective Altruism go here.

(To learn how mindfulness can make you happy, click here.)

Alright, we’ve learned a lot from Will. Let’s round it up and learn the biggest mistake you still might make when it comes to helping others and trying to improve the world…


Sum Up

Here’s what Will had to say about making altruism effective:

  • Most programs don’t work: 75% have little or no effect.
  • A donation is an investment: To be effective, we need to scrutinize how we donate money the same way we invest money.
  • Do you want to feel good or do good?: Use your heart and your head.
  • Often, the best and easiest thing to do is simply donate: GiveWell’s vetted charities are here. The EA Funds are here.

What’s the biggest mistake you still might make? Waiting.

It’s easy to rationalize. Really easy. We’ve all heard somebody say something about how compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. So maybe you should just save your money and leave it to charity in your will after it’s had time to grow and grow?

No. Bad idea. Because the cost effectiveness of charitable interventions is decreasing faster than compound interest will increase the size of your donation. Here’s Will:

You’re going to have a much larger impact if you donate earlier than if you donate later. The world is getting richer. In general, we’re making progress on a lot of problems. And that means that it will actually be harder to do good in the future. I fully expect that in ten years time, we just won’t be able to fund bed net distribution as a way of doing good, because it will have been fully funded. And instead you’ll be funding things that just aren’t as effective. And that effect is much larger than the effect of compound interest. The rate at which the cost effectiveness of the best interventions are decreasing is faster than the rate at which compound interest would be increasing the size of your donation.

But maybe you don’t have the money right now to make any kind of donation. And you don’t have the time to volunteer. Well, then don’t worry about that “moral licensing” thingy…

Share this post so that friends can learn about the best ways to help others and you’ve done your good deed to improve the world.

Altruism is a good thing. Effective altruism is even better. Because, as Will likes to say, “Good intentions aren’t good enough.”

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