There has been another massive oil spill in the gulf and you are distressed by the
images of birds’ wings slick with oil, choked and unable to fly. On a scale of 1-100, how
bad would you say five birds dying would be? What about five hundred?
Weighing each bird’s life equally would suggest if your answer to the first
question was 1/100, the answer to the second should be 100/100. Yet, if you are like
most people you do not view two orders of magnitude more birds dying as two orders of
magnitude worse. In fact, the number of human deaths in a tragedy must change by a
constant fraction of the total number of lives lost in order for us to notice 1 .
As MIT students, we take pride in quantizing things for efficiency. Our buildings,
majors, and classes are all numericized. Therefore, it should not surprise us that if we
want to do the most good in the world for our limited quantity of resources, we should
take a scientific approach to this problem as well.
We must recognize that we all have biases that can affect our ability to judge
causes. It is only too easy for causes near to the heart of the relatively wealthy to
receive funding while other, more effective, causes languish. If we want to maximize our
impact, a good cause to donate resources to must have three factors. It is: (1) large, (2)
neglected, and (3) tractable 2 . A small cause can be completely solved without doing as
much good as solving a small fraction of a very large cause. If a cause is crowded, the
resources you contribute present a much smaller fraction of the total allocation and
often cannot be used as effectively. Finally, if we are confident a cause is currently
impossible to solve, we should not waste resources in the attempt when they could be
Once a cause is selected, the next step is to figure out how to address it. While
charities have different ideas on interventions, some can be vastly more effective than
others. Randomized control trials (RCTs) can be used to evaluate the good, or lack
thereof, done by taking a certain action. For $40,000, one guide dog can be trained or
2,000 surgeries to cure blindness can be performed 3 . While both charities seem
worthwhile, one can do three orders of magnitude more good. Such extreme differences
can be found for other cause areas, including education and global health.
Since putting some thought into your giving can change the effect your donated
resources have by multiple orders of magnitude, next time you are trying to make a
difference, be sure to ask yourself:
1. Am I correctly evaluating the harm done the “badness” of this problem?
2. Is this a good problem for me to work on?
3. Which potential solution will be most effective?
A scientific approach to giving can make all of the difference.