Take a Scale-Sensitive Approach to Helping Others

Forty years ago, scientists estimated there were 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Upon hearing this, you might think, wow, that’s a lot of galaxies. Today, some scientists estimate this number is actually closer to 2 trillion. Yet upon hearing this massive increase in estimates, you might have about the same reaction…Yep, still a whole lot of galaxies.

There is an objectively massive difference between 100 billion and 2 trillion galaxies, but the magnitude of such a difference is nearly incomprehensible. And for most of us on Earth, it just doesn’t hold much significance either way. But what happens when the difference between large quantities is really important? 

Surprisingly, even if we really care about something, our inability to differentiate between large numbers can lead to misjudgements. 

In one study, researchers asked participants how much money they would be willing to pay to save about 2,000 birds from an oil-polluted pond. The response? About $80. Then they asked the same question for 20,000 birds and 200,000 birds. The response this time? About $80. 

This seems odd. You might assume people would be willing to pay more to help more (not the same amount). So what’s going on?

This scenario illustrates a cognitive bias called “scope neglect.” It means we fail to evaluate a problem in proportion to its real scope, usually when we’re dealing with especially large quantities. 

It’s easier, for instance, to feel emotionally compelled by something you can visualize, such as a helpless bird with black, oil-slicked wings. It’s much harder to recognize the meaning of an abstract quantity—even if hundreds of thousands of helpless, oil-slicked birds are behind it. 

So let’s think about these same numbers in another context.

Imagine you’re on a gameshow and the first tier prize is $2,000. If you keep succeeding, you could win $20,000. If you make it to the final round, you could win a grand prize of $200,000! When you think about what you could do with $2,000 vs. $200,000, it might be easier to grasp the difference between these numbers. One could help you buy a new laptop, while the other could help fund your child’s college education or buy a house or start a business.

These scenarios go to show that the numbers do matter. The difference between some money and a lot of money is life changing. The difference between saving two thousand and hundreds of thousands of animals matters even more; in fact, it’s life or death!

Yet as fallible humans, we don’t always intuit this significance or adjust our decisions in light of it. This is fine for abstractions like the number of stars in the sky. But when it relates to decisions we make to help others, this bias can lead us to unintentionally perpetuate needless suffering for those we don’t help. 

Not all actions are equal in impact

Doing anything to improve the world is great, but there can be a huge difference between helping some people and helping a ton of people

If our natural tendency is to overlook a problem’s real scope, we need to figure out ways to prioritize problems based on their scale—instead of doing something that seems good but doesn’t make much of a dent.

For example, think about some of the different things you could do to help mitigate climate change. There are all sorts of personal actions you could take, from recycling to using public transportation to planting trees. But some of these actions are much more helpful than others. 

To illustrate, let’s compare the amount of CO2 you’d save by taking three different climate-focused actions: unplugging a phone charger when not in use, installing home insulation, and avoiding a transatlantic flight. 

This image displays a proportional diagram comparing carbon dioxide savings from different actions. There are three circles of varying sizes, representing the amount of CO2 saved per year. The smallest circle, labeled "Unplugging phone charger," equates to a saving of 1.5 kg of CO2. The middle-sized circle, labeled "Installing home insulation," represents a saving of 180 kg of CO2. The largest circle, labeled "Skipping one transatlantic return flight," corresponds to a saving of 1180 kg of CO2. The sizes of the circles visually indicate the relative impact of each action on carbon savings.
Sources: CO2 emissions saved for one return flight from London to New York taken from TravelNav. Emissions saved for home insulation from Wynes & Nicholas (2017). Emissions saved for unplugging phone charger assumes energy use of 1.5kwh per year, converted into CO2 using this conversion chart (assuming coal as electricity source).

According to these estimates, averting one overseas trip could save the same emissions as more than six years of home insulation. And you’d have to leave your phone charger unplugged for nearly 800 years to save the same amount of carbon emissions. Even more surprisingly, donating just $100 to an effective climate change organization could reduce over eight times as much carbon dioxide as skipping a long-haul flight!

Moral of the story? Not all actions are equal in impact

Some actions to reduce climate change are more impactful than others. But the same is true for all sorts of efforts, whether you’re reducing global poverty or fighting the next global pandemic. Some efforts are proven to help a lot, while others are ineffective or even harmful. Oftentimes, the best interventions can even be tens or even hundreds of times more impactful than the average ones.

This is why thinking carefully about how (and how much) our decisions can help others is so important. By strategizing the most helpful actions, we can make a much greater difference in the world—sometimes for the same amount of effort.

Several people and organizations have taken a strategic approach to help solve a problem at a greater scale. In the 1960s, for instance, a group of researchers and physicians helped discover and implement a breakthrough treatment for cholera (and diarrhea in general). At the time, millions of children were dying every year from cholera and similar diseases, but treatments were limited and inaccessible. The new treatment, however, was shockingly simple and cheap: give people with diarrhea a mixture of water, salt and sugar. Known as Oral Rehydration Therapy, this treatment can be produced anywhere immediately. As a result, it ended up reducing about 93% of all diarrhea-related deaths. So far, it is estimated that ORT has saved more than 50 million lives!

This might seem like an exceptional case. We can’t all create easy solutions to save millions of lives. But what we can do is be strategic about finding ways to help at a greater scale. In other words, the cliché that you should “work smarter, not harder” proves true for helping others. It’s not just about your personal dedication to improving the world; it’s also about the approach you take to do so.

How can you apply this to your own career decisions?

In the same way that specific actions and interventions are more effective than others, some career paths are much more impactful than others. This means that the positive contribution you can make in your job varies widely between organizations, roles, and even causes you’re working on.

Many socially conscious people, for example, would easily choose a job at an inspiring nonprofit over a meaningless role in a harmful industry. But the choice is less obvious when deciding between two inspiring organizations trying to improve the world, like two mental health startups or two poverty alleviation charities. 

In this case, it’s important to ask, “Will this help others?” But the more important question to ask is, “How much will this help others?”

To apply this to a more concrete scenario, think about some of the jobs you could take if you want to help animals. Maybe you’d become a veterinarian. Or maybe you’d try to work for a national animal rescue agency. Both of these jobs would help animals, but how much would they help animals?

The majority of animals suffering aren’t companion pets; they’re on factory farms in horrific conditions. And for every pet painlessly euthanized in a shelter, about 3,400 farmed land animals are confined and slaughtered. That means that billions of factory farmed animals are killed every year—usually after a life of horrific, inhumane conditions.

If you’re motivated to help animals, taking a scale-sensitive approach might lead you to an alternative (perhaps less obvious) option. By using your career to mitigate factory farming—for example, by researching clean meat or advocating for policy change—you could help prevent millions of animals from needless suffering.

This isn’t to say that working for an animal rescue and/or becoming a vet are bad choices; in fact, we think veterinarians can significantly increase their impact by engaging in research or government roles. Rather, this case illustrates how much more of a difference some careers can make relative to others.

Of course, in real life, these decisions are complex. Helping more people (or animals) seems obviously better. However, what that means in practice isn’t always clear, and careers aren’t only about increasing your positive impact. It’s also highly important that your career aligns with your values, skills, and lifestyle. But by considering the scale of your actions, you could find opportunities to make a much greater difference in the world. And if some jobs are much, much more impactful than others, it’s a decision worth thinking strategically about.

Not sure what this looks like? We’re here to help. In fact, our whole goal as a nonprofit is to help you navigate these tough career decisions and prioritize your best options. Our content is informed by thousands of hours of research to understand a wide range of ways to help the world at scale, so we encourage you to explore the site or even reach out for a 1-1 advising call with our team—it’s free! 

What’s next?

This article is the second in our core career advice series. In the next one, we’ll introduce a helpful framework for comparing the potential impact of different career opportunities.