What to Learn, Teach, or Research?

A utilitarian approach.

Posted Apr 08, 2019

MaxPixels, Public Domain
Source: MaxPixels, Public Domain

It's remarkable how irrationally we choose what to learn, teach, or research. We can be as simplistic as, “That seems interesting.” Or “My advisor is researching Indo-European linguistics so I'll study that.” Or “I fell into this job as a soda-flavoring taster so I might as well dig deeper into that”

We might more wisely choose what to learn, teach, or research based on just this single criterion: How likely will my focusing on this significantly improve my life and that of my sphere of influence?

Let's look at three diverse examples.


 I’ve written my previous two Psychology Today articles on procrastination: A Tougher But More Helpful Take on Procrastination? and The Moment of Truth.  How wise was it for me to write on procrastination?

How many people will likely benefit?  In theory, a large number because it’s a problem for so many people. Alas, some experts believe that procrastination is more difficult to ameliorate than is widely assumed. There’s even a respected study that found that half the variance in impulsivity, which is nearly perfectly correlated with procrastination, is genetic.

How big is the potential benefit to those who use the advice?  Large. Procrastination puts quite a dent in people’s ability to be productive, make a living, have good relationships, and make a difference to their sphere of influence.

How fungible is it?  So much has already been written and spoken on conquering procrastination, that the impact of my grain of sand onto that beach is modest.

What's the opportunity cost?  Is there a topic I could have written about that would have scored higher on the above criteria?  Not that I could think of, so I wrote it.

What to teach your school-age students?

Of course, K-12 instruction is heavily constrained by the Common Core Curriculum, which was developed largely by academics. Alas, too often that has resulted in students learning what professors deem important but what students, employers, and adults find less-so, for example: quadratic equations, the War of the Roses, stochastic processes, and the intricacies of Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Fortunately, teachers retain some discretion in deciding what to teach. Let’s take a topic of interest to Psychology Today readers: conflict resolution.

How many people will likely benefit?  Large numbers, as long as the material is well-taught: balancing lecture, guided and independent practice. Not only will all students benefit from learning conflict resolution in their current life and as adults, but so will the people they’re in conflict with.

How large is the benefit to those who use what they learned? Large. Conflict is frequent and its resolution important.

How fungible is it?  Because today, academic learning is given such primacy, most students have limited exposure to principles of and best practices in conflict resolution.

What's the opportunity cost?  It’s difficult to imagine a topic more valuable to as many students.  Yes, there is money management, sex education, drug education, and parenting education, but it’s difficult to argue that any topic is more important to students’ lives than is conflict resolution.

Sock material and thickness

Lest it appear that the aforementioned criterion for selecting topics is relevant only to the psychoeducational domain, let’s look at a decision to become an expert at determining the material and thickness of socks: what percentage merino, cotton, nylon, etc, at the toe, heel, and body of a dress sock, casual sock, athletic sock, and hiking sock.

How many people will likely benefit?  Especially if working for a research entity or major sock manufacturer, the benefit is large. Billions of people benefit from socks that are optimally made. For example, there’s no doubt that there's a point of diminishing returns on thickness: increased comfort versus increased cost and tight shoe-fit, which varies with the fabric blend. Even if you pursue such work on behalf of a small sock company, you’ll benefit many people while imposing no downside.

How big is the benefit to those who incorporate the advice?  Moderate. Whether a sock is a bit more or less comfortable or costs a couple of dollars more or less won’t change the world. But the collective benefit is significant.

How fungible is it?  Not very. Few people are interested in studying sock material. So if you commit to studying it well, your efforts likely won't overlap heavily with what already is being done.

What's the opportunity cost?  If you have the option to become an expert in the genetics of cancer, the opportunity cost of being a sock researcher is great. If, however, you have a no more impactful option then being a sock researcher, then certainly, for the reasons cited above, it's an area well worthy of focus.

The takeaway

So, as you decide what to teach, learn, or research, ask yourself how likely your efforts are likely to yield significant benefit to your life and/or to your sphere of influence.

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