An interdisciplinary synthesis of research on understanding and promoting well-doing
Falk Lieder1, Mike Prentice1, Emily R. Corwin-Renner2
1Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, Tübingen, Germany
2Hector Research Institute of Education Sciences and Psychology, University of Tübingen,
Falk Lieder, Max Planck Ring 4, 72076 Tübingen, Germany
Understanding and Promoting Well-Doing
The authors would like to thank Will Fleeson, Brian Little, Ken Sheldon, Isabel Thielmann, Tim
Kasser, Marina Milyavskaya, and the members of the Rationality Enhancement Group for
helpful discussions and Peter Dayan, Quentin Huys, Igor Grossman, the members of the
Rationality Enhancement Group, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback on
previous versions of this manuscript.
Conflict of Interest Statement:
The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare that are relevant to the content of this article.
An interdisciplinary synthesis of research on
understanding and promoting well-doing
People’s intentional pursuit of prosocial goals and values (i.e., well-doing) is critical to the
flourishing of humanity in the long run. Understanding and promoting well-doing is a shared
goal across many fields inside and outside of social and personality psychology. Several of these
fields are (partially) disconnected from each other and could benefit from more integration of
existing knowledge, interdisciplinary collaboration, and cross-fertilization. To foster the transfer
and integration of knowledge across these different fields, we provide a brief overview with
pointers to some of the key articles in each field, highlight connections, and introduce an
integrative model of the psychological mechanisms of well-doing. We identify some gaps in the
current understanding of well-doing, such as the paucity of research on well-doing with large and
long-lasting positive consequences. Building on this analysis, we identify opportunities for high-
impact research on well-doing in social and personality psychology, such as understanding and
promoting the effective pursuit of highly impactful altruistic goals.
Keywords: well-doing; prosocial behavior; effective altruism; altruistic goals and values
Humanity has made tremendous moral, humanitarian, scientific, and technological progress over
the course of the past 500 years. The collective efforts of a few generations of people brought
about substantial reductions in violence (Pinker, 2011; Roser et al., 2016) and poverty (Roser &
Ortiz-Ospina, 2013) and significantly improved our quality of life along many dimensions (e.g.,
Roser, 2014; Roser & Ortiz-Ospina, 2013). How did we accomplish this impressive amount of
progress? Which psychological processes drove humanity forward? Which of them are essential
for human progress, and how can we promote them to solve the pressing problems we are facing
today (Messerli et al., 2019; United Nations, 2015)? These are some of the most crucial scientific
questions of our time. Insights relevant to answering these questions are currently spread across
many disparate literatures (Lieder & Prentice, in press). To promote the integration of knowledge
across these different literatures and to foster the cross-fertilization of ideas across their
respective communities, we review the relevant literatures in Section 1 and integrate some of
their findings in Section 2.
Different fields have approached different aspects of the psychology of human progress
from different angles. This has given rise to numerous constructs with varying definitions
(Pfattheicher et al., 2022; see Table 1). To foster integration across these different intellectual
traditions, we introduce a more general concept: thinking and acting in ways whose expected
causal consequences lead to a net increase in the sum total of the well-being of all humans and
animals that are alive today or will live in the future (see Table 1)
. In recognition of the
inspiring pioneering work of Little (2014, 2016) and Sheldon (2018), we refer to this concept as
well-doing. Crucially, our definition of well-doing weighs the well-being of all humans equally.
This also means that the well-being of distant others who will live in thousands of years counts
just as much as the well-being of a crying baby in the here and now and the person’s own well-
Our definition of well-doing differs from standard definitions of prosocial behavior (see
Table 3; Pfattheicher et al., 2022) in two ways. First, prosocial behavior seeks to benefit one or a
few specific individuals in the here and now. By contrast, well-doing need not benefit anyone in
the here and now. Instead, all of its benefits could lie in the distant future and all of its
beneficiaries could be unknown distant others or non-human animals. Second, prosociality is
Our definition of well-doing is grounded in utilitarianism (see Table 1). However, studying well-doing does not
require one to subscribe to utilitarianism. This is because, unlike in the philosophical thought experiment known as
the trolley problem, utilitarianism is virtually always compatible with other moral theories in practice (Parfit, 2011).
This definition is based on the ideas of utilitarianism and longtermism summarized in Table 2.
defined in terms of the actor’s prosocial intent (e.g., to make someone feel better), whereas well-
doing is defined in terms of the net value of the activity’s consequences. Therefore, a prosocial
behavior, such as telling someone who made a mistake that everything is fine, is not well-doing
when it has negative unintended consequences (e.g., the person fails to learn from their mistake
and later repeats it to the great detriment of others) that outweigh its positive intended
consequences (e.g., the person feels better immediately). Conversely, well-doing includes many
beneficial pursuits people undertake without any prosocial intent, such as when a curiosity-
driven scientist produces an academic article whose findings are later applied to improve
Some good deeds benefit the well-being of others more than a thousand times as much as
others that, intuitively, are at least as compelling (Ord, 2019). For instance, donating $1000 to a
charity that delivers an established treatment of HIV/AIDS (Kaposi sarcoma surgery) prolongs
one person’s life by the equivalent of 7 days at perfect health. By contrast, donating the same
amount to a charity that educates high-risk groups about HIV prevention, achieves gains
equivalent to 27 life years at perfect health. Either donation would constitute an act of well-
doing, but the second donation would be much more beneficial because the intervention it
supports is much more cost-effective (see Table 1). Some ways of thinking and acting are much
more likely to lead to such highly beneficial outcomes than others (Caviola et al., 2021;
Gainsburg et al., in press; see Section 3). We refer to the ways of thinking and acting that are
most likely to produce outcomes that are extremely beneficial to the long-term flourishing of
humanity as effective well-doing (see Table 1). Effective well-doing can be thought of as the
upper end of a continuum that also includes forms of well-doing that are moderately effective in
terms of the number of people they benefit (e.g., a local community or a workplace) or how
much it benefits those people.
While there are normative and prescriptive accounts of effective well-doing in the context
of philanthropy (MacAskill, 2015; Ord, 2019), the underlying psychological mechanisms are still
unclear, and we still know almost nothing about other equally important forms of effective well-
doing beyond philanthropy, such as the pursuit of altruistic goals over extended periods of time.
These knowledge gaps create opportunities for high-impact research for researchers from social
psychology, personality psychology, and other fields alike. We will outline these opportunities in
Section 4 and conclude with their implications.
Definitions of key concepts from different fields as they are used in this article.
costly behavior that is exclusively (or at least primarily) motivated by
the desire to benefit one or more other people
dispositional ways of wanting, thinking, feeling, and acting that are
conducive to the flourishing of humanity
wanting to alleviate that person’s suffering
the amount of good that a charity does per dollar donated (e.g., number
of lives saved per $1000)
using reason and evidence to do the greatest good possible
thinking and acting in ways whose expected consequences are extremely
beneficial for the long-term flourishing of humanity and the biosphere
feeling what another person might be feeling or will be feeling
intentionally, mindfully, and autonomously pursuing intrinsic goals and
values in ways that are conducive to one’s own well-being
acting in line with (individual or cultural) moral values and principles
a positive emotion experienced when witnessing a virtuous act that
benefits the well-being of others
donating one’s money or time to promote the welfare of others
a larger, stable, and personally meaningful long-term goal to make a
difference in the world
feeling sorrow or concern for another person based on inferences about
their situation or mental state
a stable disposition towards wanting, thinking, or feeling in a specific
morally good way (examples: honesty, fairness, rationality)
thinking and acting such that, on average, the causal consequences result
in a net increase in the sum total of the well-being of all humans and
animals that are alive today or will live in the future
1. A brief overview of well-doing research in social and
personality psychology and other fields
Understanding and fostering socially beneficial behavior is a goal that many fields inside and
outside of social and personality psychology share (Lieder & Prentice, in press). As a
consequence, well-doing has been studied from many different perspectives (see Table 2).
Although most research on well-doing has focused on a relatively small set of common
behaviors, such as helping, pro-environmental behavior, advocacy, and giving to charity, well-
doing can take many different forms (see Table 3). The literatures studying these different
behaviors are sometimes disconnected. For instance, philosophers, moral psychologists, and
personality psychologists often conceptualize well-doing as enacted morality (Section 1.1). By
contrast, most developmental and social psychologists have focused on interpersonal forms of
well-doing that arise from prosocial emotions (Section 1.2). Largely unbeknownst to them,
researchers studying charitable giving have discovered that people’s well-doing is often
ineffective and investigated how people’s decisions about whom and how to help can be
improved (Section 1.3). Instead of attempting a comprehensive review, this section aims to
identify important gaps in the literature (Section 1.4) and provide the background information for
the following sections on the mechanisms of well-doing and their relative effectiveness.
1.1. Morality and its development
1.1.1. Moral philosophy
Philosophical accounts of what people should (not) do are often grouped into three categories.
Consequentialist accounts assume that an action’s moral value depends on its expected
consequences in the situation in which it is taken. Deontological accounts construe morality as
compliance with a fixed set of inviolable rules (see Table 2). Lastly, virtue ethics defines
morality in terms of the nature and quality of people’s motives, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
(Hursthouse & Pettigrove, 2018; see Table 2). According to the most influential version of
consequentialism (i.e., utilitarianism; see Table 2), people should act so as to bring about the
greatest good for as many beings as possible (Driver, 2014). This ideal combines the idea that the
well-being/suffering of all beings counts equally with an imperative for rational decision-
making. Together, these two ideas form the core philosophy of effective altruism (MacAskill,
2015; Greaves & Pummer, 2019).
1.1.2. Moral psychology and moral decision-making
The deontological and utilitarian perspectives on morality (see Table 2) correspond to
psychological mechanisms that make moral judgments based on emotions/intuitions versus
reasoning (Cushman, 2013; Greene et al., 2008). Cushman (2013) argued that the key difference
between rational versus intuitive/emotional mechanisms is that the former use reasoning to
evaluate actions according to the desirability of their likely consequences in a particular situation
whereas the latter exclusively rely on the action’s learned value. This reconceptualization
establishes a bridge between moral psychology and research on the computational and neural
mechanisms of decision-making and reinforcement learning (Niv, 2009; Dolan & Dayan, 2013;
Sutton & Barto, 2018). This connection can be leveraged to develop information-processing
models of moral decision-making and moral learning (see Table 2).
1.1.3. Moral development
Children’s moral behavior and moral reasoning change systematically as they develop into
mature adults (Eisenberg et al., 1995; Kohlberg, 1983). In particular, Kohlberg (1983) suggested
that children’s morality shifts from obedience and avoiding punishment to a deontological
conception of morality that emphasizes following general rules and social conventions, and
sometimes culminates in moral reasoning according to universal principles (e.g., utilitarianism).
One of the drivers of moral development is moral learning (see Table 2). According to Cushman
et al. (2017), there are at least three types of moral learning: learning moral values (e.g.,
Cushman, 2013), learning moral rules (e.g., Kleiman-Weiner et al., 2017), and learning how to
reason about ethical questions in a principled way (Kohlberg, 1969). Identifying the underlying
learning mechanisms may be a promising approach to understanding moral development.
1.1.4. Individual differences in morality
In studying moral development, Kohlberg (1983) noted that adults differ in the extent to which
they rely on principled moral reasoning. Since then, how morality differs across people has
become an active area of research in personality psychology (see Table 2). Research on moral
personality traits seeks to a) identify moral character traits, b) assess which personality traits are
relevant for moral behavior, and c) examine to which extent people want and are able to change
their moral character. Furr et al. (2022) proposed a measure of global moral character and
measures of a number of traits that are widely believed to be moral, such as compassion and
fairness. Research on which personality traits are important for moral behavior arrived at a
tripartite model of moral character composed of traits for consideration of others (such as
empathic concern), effective self-regulation (such as conscientiousness), and considering
morality an important part of one’s identity (e.g., Cohen et al., 2014). Recent research indicated
that, generally, people may not have a strong desire to change morally-relevant personality traits
(Sun & Goodwin, 2020), but they can and will when they receive feedback showing that they are
less moral than many other people (Thielmann & de Vries, 2021).
Multi-disciplinary perspectives on well-doing.
The moral value of an
action lies in its expected
consequences for the total
well-being of all beings.
Greaves & Pummer
The effectiveness of well-
doing primarily depends on
its long-term consequences
because the future is much
longer than the present.
Greaves et al. (2021)
Certain moral rules should
never be violated.
Alexander & Moore
(2020), Levine et al.
Good moral character is
crucial for well-doing. To
promote well-doing, we
should help people cultivate
good moral character.
moral virtue, character
Fowers et al. (2021),
People differ in their
dispositions to think, feel,
and behave in specific
moral character, moral
traits, consideration of
others, moral identity,
Cohen & Morse
(2014), Luke et al.
(2021), Furr et al.
(2022), Thielmann et
Well-doing is often a social
endeavor that arises from
Eisenberg et al.
the intra- and inter-personal
mechanisms of social
(2015), Keltner et al.,
Much of human well-doing
is motivated by prosocial
and moral emotions.
love, gratitude, moral
elevation, warm glow
Keltner et al. (2014),
Eisenberg et al.
(2015), Aknin et al.
(2018), Cavanaugh et
Recreating the mental
mechanisms of well-doing
with mathematical models
will help us understand
them more deeply. What are
the mental representations
and algorithms that give rise
to (effective) well-doing?
heuristics and biases
Levine et al. (2021),
Agrawal et al. (2020),
Levine et al. (2020),
Lieder & Griffiths
(2020), Wallach et al.,
The mechanisms of morality
(and well-doing) are learned
from experience and other
Cushman et al.,
(2017); Grossmann et
Well-doing often results
from the pursuit of socially
beneficial goals and values
Grouzet et al. (2005),
McGregor & Little
How can we motivate and
enable people to engage in
Thaler & Sunstein
(2021), Hertwig &
Saeri et al, (2022),
The mechanisms of well-
doing evolved because they
increased the evolutionary
fitness to groups of
Jaeger & van Vugt
(2022), Burum et al.
(2020), Kurzban et al.,
(2015), Buss (1995),
Axelrod & Hamilton
(1981); Nowak (2006)
How and why does
change throughout the
moral stage theory
Eisenberg et al.
& Logan (2004),
Well-doing is produced by
group-level processes, such
Simpson & Willer
(2015), Fehr &
as reputation systems and
group identity, game
Chen & Li (2009)
People’s well-doing is
guided by their culture’s
norms, values, and beliefs.
Fehr & Fischbacher
(2004), Henrich et al.,
(2005), Preston et al.,
(2010), Shariff (2015)
1.2. Prosociality: behavior, emotions, goals, and values
1.2.1. Prosocial behavior and prosocial emotions
Prosocial behavior is voluntary behavior intended to benefit one or more other people
(Eisenberg, Spinrad, & Knafo-Noam, 2015), such as helping, comforting, and sharing (Dunfield,
2014). It may be motivated by self-interest, altruism, or both. Prosocial behavior is thought to
primarily arise when situational factors trigger empathy, sympathy, or compassion (see Table 1).
However, it can also arise from the application of moral rules or moral reasoning (Greene, 2015),
or from prosocial goals ranging from short-term goals to a prosocial life purpose (Damon, 2009;
Wentzel et al., 2007). For more information on the mechanisms of prosocial behavior, see
Section 2 and Table 2.
1.2.2. Prosocial goals and values
One of the most sustainable sources of well-doing are people’s core personal projects (Little,
2014, 2016), that is the pursuit of the personal goals they are most committed to. The benefits of
those pursuits depend, to some extent, on their underlying goals and values. Materialistic values
and goals, such as amassing great wealth or being physically attractive, stand in motivational
conflict with prosocial values and goals, such as affiliation and contributing to the community
(Grouzet et al., 2005; Schwartz, 1992). The extent to which a person endorses either type of
values is predictive of their behavior (Kasser, 2016). For example, materialism is associated with
compulsive buying (Dittmar et al., 2014) and large ecological footprints (Hurst et al., 2013),
whereas, prosocial values are predictive of helping others and other forms of well-doing
(Sheldon & Kasser, 1995). From the perspective of promoting the long-term flourishing of
humanity, the tension between materialistic versus prosocial values is particularly relevant when
limited communal resources have to be shared and preserved for the future. Studies mimicking
such dilemmas using economic games have revealed that more materialistic groups perform
worse at resource preservation than comparatively prosocial ones (Sheldon et al., 2000).
Although people’s values appear to be quite stable across the lifespan, certain life experiences
and some psychological interventions can change how much importance people place on specific
values (Hope et al., 2014; Jin & Rounds, 2012; Schuster et al., 2019). For instance, people can be
successfully guided to convince themselves to care more about the well-being of others (Arieli et
1.2.3. Purpose and eudaimonia
Making progress on valued personal goals is crucial for people’s well-being (Little, 2014, 2016).
The epitome of this idea is eudaimonia (see Table 1), that is pursuing personally meaningful
prosocial and altruistic goals and values freely, intentionally, and mindfully (Ryan et al., 2008;
Martela & Sheldon, 2019). Such pursuits are uniquely conducive to well-being because they
fulfill people’s psychological needs better than pursuing happiness directly (Sheldon, 2018;
Sheldon et al., 2019). Having a prosocial purpose in life (see Table 1), such as making high-
quality education available to everyone around the world for free, is a core component of
eudaimonia (Reker et al., 1987, Ryff & Singer, 2008).
Because purpose is a stable long-term goal, it can be powerful driver of sustained well-
doing (Bronk et al., 2019; Shek et al., 1994). But only 20%-25% of adolescents and 40%-50% of
30-year-olds report having a purpose (Damon & Malin, 2020). Purpose is thought to develop
when people discover that the world can and should be improved in ways that match their special
interests (Malin et al., 2015). Factors facilitating the development of purpose include seizing
opportunities to do something about one’s concerns about the world and reflecting on one’s
future in the light of such pursuits (Malin et al., 2015), observing respected people pursue a
purpose (Damon, 2009), and being supported in one’s prosocial pursuits (Moran et al., 2013).
Recent evidence suggests that the development of purpose can be promoted through scalable
psychological interventions (Baumsteiger, 2019; Bronk et al., 2019).
1.3. How effective is people’s well-doing and why?
The fact that some good deeds are much more impactful than others raises the question of how
good people are at identifying, choosing, and pursuing opportunities for effective well-doing.
This question has been most extensively studied in the domain of philanthropy (see Table 1).
Research has found that most charities choose activities that are relatively ineffective compared
to their best alternatives or are even harmful (MacAskill, 2015). Moreover, young people who
are motivated to save lives often embark on a career in clinical medicine even though, in the first
world, the increase in the number of lives saved per additional medical doctor is very small
compared to the number of lives saved per skilled person entering biomedical research, public
health, or health policy (Todd, 2016).
Furthermore, when people donate money to charity, they
usually choose charities with low cost-effectiveness (Baron & Greene, 1996; Kahneman et al.,
1999; Berman et al., 2018; Caviola et al., 2021). The prevalence of ineffective well-doing in the
work of philanthropic organizations, career choice, and charitable giving suggests that even well-
intended people are often not very good at deciding how to do good. This raises the question of
why people’s well-doing tends to be so ineffective.
Several authors have proposed evolutionary explanations for the prevalence of ineffective
well-doing (Burum et al., 2020; Jaeger & van Vugt, 2022; see Table 2). Moreover, psychological
research has identified three types of obstacles to effective well-doing (Caviola et al., 2021):
conflicting motives and limited altruism, systematic errors in judgment and decision-making, and
limited information and inaccurate beliefs (Caviola et al., 2020a). Why do people base their well-
doing on limited information when they could inform themselves better? One proximal reason is
that they rarely proactively set out to rationally identify the most effective way to do good.
Rather, most of the time, most people merely react to opportunities spontaneously. For instance,
85% of all charitable donations are made in reaction to solicitation (Bryant et al., 2003). When
their donation is solicited, people often immediately react to emotional appeals, such as the
image of a suffering child, or a persuasive message without researching potentially more
effective alternatives first. As a consequence, many donors never research what the world’s most
effective charities are. This may be partly caused by people not knowing that some charities are
orders of magnitude more effective than others (Caviola et al., 2020b).
And what prevents people from proactively setting out to identity the best way to do
good? One plausible reason is that many people are not striving for effective well-doing in the
first place. It has been argued that pure altruism (see Table 1) is rare and that most donations are
Furthermore, someone with the personal and intellectual qualities required for a medical career could
probably do even more good outside of medicine (Todd, 2016).
motivated by their reputational, social, personal, and psychological benefits, such as the warm
feelings many people derive from donating (Andreoni, 1989, 1990). Unfortunately, those
benefits are largely independent of the effectiveness of a charitable contribution (Burum et al.,
2020). Consequently, when people help others, they are much less likely to select an effective
solution than when they are helping themselves or their family (Burum et al., 2020).
One reason why people fail to select effective solutions unless they are highly motivated
is that good decision-making is more effortful than relying on emotions and intuition (Evans,
2010). People’s reliance on intuitive mechanisms leads to many systematic errors that can be
highly consequential (Caviola et al., 2021; Jaeger & van Vugt, 2022; Lewis & Small, 2019). For
instance, as the number of lives alternative humanitarian interventions could save grows into the
thousands, people’s intuition about which intervention is better becomes increasingly numb to
how many lives it saves (Fetherstonhaugh et al., 1997; Västfjäll et al., 2015)
. Relatedly, many
people have the incorrect intuition that a donation that saves one life for sure is better than a
donation that has a 10% chance of saving 100 lives, even though the latter donation is ten times
as effective in the long-run (Caviola et al., 2021).
1.4. Some gaps in the literature
Previous research on (in)effective well-doing was primarily conducted in the domain of
charitable giving (Caviola et al., 2020a). Its results might also be applicable to other forms of
well-doing (see Table 3). However, so far, there is very little (psychological) research on the
(in)effectiveness of people’s well-doing in other areas. Relatedly, most research is being
conducted on common forms of well-doing, such as helping, pro-environmental behavior, and
comforting (Dunfield, 2014; see Table 3), even though many less-common forms of well-doing
are more impactful (see Table 3). In particular, there is still almost no research on people
proactively embarking on and successfully pursuing highly impactful projects that make the
world a better place (i.e., changemaking; see Table 3), such as preventing future pandemics.
There is even less research on educators’ and activists’ efforts to motivate and enable others to
This might be partly because the reputational benefits of helping more people are only minimally higher than the
reputational benefits of helping fewer people. However, similar effects also occur in value-free perceptual
judgments (Fechner, 1860) and self-interested decision-making (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).
This is especially remarkable given that people tend to overweight – rather than underweight – small probabilities
of personal gains, such as winning the lottery (Markowitz, 1952).
change society for the better (i.e., metachangemaking; see Table 3), such as teaching pro-
democracy activists how to achieve social change without resorting to violence.
Far-sighted, proactive pursuits likely arise from qualitatively different psychological
mechanisms, such as setting and pursuing socially-beneficial long-term goals (cf. Section 1.2.2-
1.2.3). Those mechanisms deserve greater scientific attention. Relatedly, research on prosocial
behavior has primarily focused on socio-emotional mechanisms and paid comparatively little
attention to more rational mechanisms (cf. Section 1.1 vs. Section 1.2.1). We believe that
investigating far-sighted, proactive, and rational mechanisms of well-doing is fundamental to
addressing the crucial open question of why some people make much larger humanitarian
contributions (e.g., saving millions of lives; MacAskill, 2015; Table 3) than most people who are
similarly privileged, qualified, caring, and empathetic (see Section 1.3). Moreover, there is still
very little research on why and how some people develop the capacity and motivation to make
such exceptionally large humanitarian contributions (see Section 1.2.3). Last but not least, our
understanding of well-doing and prosocial development is still not nearly as mechanistic as the
current understanding of cognitive and computational mechanisms of more basic forms of
decision-making. The emerging connection between cognitive science and research on morality
and prosocial behavior (Cushman, 2013; Cushman et al., 2017; Caviola et al., 2021; Lieder &
Prentice, in press) creates a great opportunity for leveraging theories, methods, and information-
processing models that were originally developed in research on decision-making and
reinforcement learning (see Table 2) to elucidate the mechanisms of well-doing and prosocial
To help researchers close these gaps in our understanding of well-doing, the following
section introduces an integrative model of the potential mechanisms of well-doing and their
interactions. This model is intended as a guide to investigating previously neglected mechanisms,
generating new hypotheses, and interpreting findings in the light of what is known in other areas.
Overview of some of the different behavioral expressions that well-doing can take. Note that not
all instances of those behaviors are necessarily well-doing. The behaviors that we believe are
most neglected by academic research are listed first.
Cultivating people’s capacity and
motivation to bring about positive change
in the world (changemaking) or
(indirectly) enabling others to do so
Reynante et al. (2022)
Pursuing a career
with a high positive
Strategically selecting a career path that
affords opportunities for effective well-
doing and seizing those opportunities
(e.g., AI safety research or grantmaking)
Working towards positive cultural or
institutional changes (e.g., through social
activism or social entrepreneurship)
Chenoweth & Stephan
Pursuit of big social objectives through
the active, strategic investment of large
amounts of financial and social resources
Gordon et al. (2015)
Punishing others for violating social
norms of cooperation (e.g. by reporting
or prosecuting tax evasion, fraud, or
misconduct). People do so even when it
is costly and does not benefit them.
Fehr & Gächter (2002)
Egas & Riedl (2008)
Exposing wrongdoing or unethical
behavior that has occurred within an
Dungan et al. (2015)
Donating one’s time to a good cause.
Alleviating another person’s feelings of
grief or distress
Vaish et al. (2009)
Donating money to a philanthropic
Bekkers & Wiepking (2011)
Pursuing personal projects that
(in)directly benefit others (and typically
increase one’s own well-being)
Niemiec et al. (2009)
Little et al. (2017)
Founding and leading an organization
that addresses social, cultural, or
environmental issues to benefit society.
Peredo & McLean (2006)
Shier & Handy (2015)
Activities designed to influence the
decisions of political, economic, or social
Almog-Bar & Schmid
Child & Gronbjerg (2007),
Guo & Saxton (2014)
Actions taken to protect the environment
or to limit one’s negative impact on the
Schultz & Kaiser (2012)
Supporting others in the pursuit of their
Eisenberg et al. (2015)
2. Psychological mechanisms of well-doing
2.1. An integrative model of social-psychological, emotional, moral,
cognitive, and agentic mechanisms of well-doing
Previous research has identified a number of mechanisms of well-doing. As illustrated in
Figure 1, we propose that these mechanisms can be grouped into two categories: proactive
mechanisms and reactive mechanisms. Reactive mechanisms are triggered by external situational
factors, such as a request for help, whereas proactive mechanisms originate from internal
psychological factors, such as someone’s goals, identity, or moral principles.
Reactive and proactive mechanisms interact with each other in at least two ways. First, a
person’s psychological reaction to a situation that exposes other people’s needs may trigger the
creation of goals and intentions that will later be pursued by proactive mechanisms (e.g., Malin
et al., 2015). Second, people may proactively think about how they want to react to certain types
of situations in the future or strategically change their environment in such a way that reactive
mechanisms lead to more desirable outcomes and fewer undesirable outcomes (Duckworth et al.,
Both proactive and reactive mechanisms are malleable because they are shaped by
learning. Proactive mechanisms are, for instance, shaped by people learning when to pursue
which goal (Cushman & Morris, 2015), how much to focus on their current goal (Lieder et al.,
2018; Bustamante et al., 2021), and whether and how they engage in planning (He et al., 2021a,
2021b). Reactive mechanisms are shaped by habit formation and learning from previous positive
or negative outcomes. That is, our reactions become automatized with repetition (Miller et al.,
2019). Moreover, our (un)favorable intuitive reactions to potential actions are partly learned
from the outcomes those actions had in the past (Cushman, 2013).
Figure 1. The two main classes of mechanisms of well-doing and their tentative associations with
different types of well-doing. Information related to proactive mechanisms is highlighted in blue.
Information related to reactive mechanisms is highlighted in red. Two forms of learning that shape how
these mechanisms operate are shown in yellow.
2.2. Reactive mechanisms
As illustrated in Figure 2, we propose three categories of reactive mechanisms: socio-
psychological mechanisms, emotional mechanisms, and moral mechanisms
. The socio-
psychological and emotional mechanisms of well-doing been extensively studied from the
perspective of social interaction and group-level processes (see Table 2) in the context of
prosocial behavior (Section 1.2). In a given socio-cultural context, a person may choose to
engage in well-doing by imitating another person, responding to another person's need, reacting
to a request, complying with a social norm, or reciprocating a favor. According to Keltner et al.
(2014), the socio-psychological mechanisms underlying these choices perform an implicit cost-
Social cognition, emotion, and morality do, of course, also contribute to the proactive mechanisms of
well-doing described in Section 2.3.
benefit analysis. That is, people decide whether or not to help others in a given socio-cultural
context by weighing the costs of helping against the benefits that helping confers to themselves
and the people they might help. Another important factor people consider are the interpersonal
costs of refusing to help. The (inter)personal benefits that people may assess include that giving
feels good, increases social status, and encourages reciprocity. The costs of inaction people may
assess include reputational damage through gossip, the risk of being punished for violating social
norms, and feelings of guilt. All of these factors are assessed by intuitive judgments. Critically,
unlike some moral mechanisms, the intuitive judgments of socio-psychological mechanisms
weigh the well-being of the potential beneficiary according to factors such as ingroup versus
outgroup membership, perceived similarity to oneself, and perceived competition. The person’s
broader socio-cultural environment (see Table 2) informs these judgments through social norms,
pressure to conform to prevailing customs, demonstrations of prosocial behavior that the person
may want to imitate, and favors that the person may want to reciprocate.
People's intuitive judgments are often swayed by emotions (Haidt, 2001). In addition to
this indirect effect on well-doing, emotional mechanisms, such as empathy (Batson, 2010; see
Table 1) and positive affect (Aknin et al., 2018; Cavanaugh et al., 2015), can also trigger well-
doing directly (see Figure 2). Among the many positive emotions, gratitude (Bartlett & DeSteno,
2006), love (Cavanaugh et al., 2015), and moral elevation (see Table 1; Haidt, 2003a-b; Landis
et al., 2009; Schnall et al., 2010 Thomson & Siegel, 2013) appear to be especially conducive to
As illustrated in Figure 2, perceiving that another person is in need may trigger one or
more of four emotional responses: emotional empathy, emotional distress, compassion, and the
anticipation of feeling good about helping (i.e., the warm glow of altruism). Emotional empathy
for another person's suffering often triggers the desire to help alleviate their suffering (i.e.,
compassion), which can be a strong motive for well-doing (Batson, 2010; Batson et al., 1981,
2002). Whether and to which extent a person experiences emotional empathy and compassion for
another person is partly driven by the intuitive judgments produced by the socio-psychological
mechanisms described above. Those judgments depend on what the person attends to, how they
interpret the situation, whether they identify opportunities for helping, whether they think they
are capable of helping, and how their decision-making process weights the potential benefit to
others against conflicting personal goals and the cost of helping (Eisenberg et al., 2015).
As illustrated in Figure 2, well-doing can also be motivated by the desire to make oneself
feel better. This effect may occur through one of two routes. First, witnessing suffering can
trigger emotional distress. The desire to relieve oneself from this distress in order to feel better
can motivate well-doing independently of compassion or empathy (Eisenberg, 1991). The
strength of this effect depends on the person's emotional sensitivity and emotion-regulation
skills. Second, the desire to feel better may be fueled by the anticipation of the warm glow of
altruism (Andreoni, 1990; Crumpler & Grossman, 2008). This can happen even if the person
does not feel any emotional distress, compassion, or empathy. The anticipation of the warm glow
of altruism and the experience of compassion can be informed by the moral mechanisms
described in the next paragraph.
A person’s emotions can also be informed by moral considerations (Huebner et al., 2009;
see Section 1.1). However, as illustrated in Figure 2, moral mechanisms are only triggered when
the person perceives the situation as morally relevant (Luke et al., 2021). Moral mechanisms rely
more strongly on reasoning (Richardson, 2018; Turiel, 2010) than either the emotional or socio-
psychological mechanisms. To determine whether an action is right or wrong (moral judgment),
a person may reason according to utilitarian or deontic principles (see Section 1.1 and Table 2).
Utilitarian reasoning evaluates the action’s expected impact according to the person’s moral
values. Deontic reasoning applies the person’s moral principles for discerning good from evil to
the present situation. However, people’s moral judgments and reasoning can also be influenced
by their emotions (Haidt, 2003a-b). How consequential a person’s moral judgments are for their
actions depends on the strength of their moral identity and moral courage (Luke et al., 2021). As
reviewed by Luke et al. (2021), these and other determinants of moral behavior are shaped by
several moral personality traits.
Figure 2. The reactive mechanisms of well-doing can be divided into three categories: socio-
psychological mechanisms (blue), emotional mechanisms (red), and moral mechanisms (yellow).
2.3. Proactive mechanisms
In contrast to reactive well-doing, proactive well-doing often involves temporally extended
behavior directed toward socially beneficial goals. Therefore, proactive well-doing can be
understood as self-initiated goal-setting and goal-pursuit in the service of the greater good.
Research on proactive well-doing can therefore draw on theories, models, and methods for
studying goal-directed behavior that have been developed in other areas of psychology (Carver
& Scheier, 2001; McGregor & Little, 1998; Milyavskaya & Werner, 2018, 2021; Lieder &
Iwama, 2021; Prystawski et al., 2021; Gagné, 2003; Peetz & Milyavskaya, 2021; Weinstein &
Ryan, 2010). In particular, we already know that people’s goals are often organized
hierarchically (Carver & Scheier, 2001). If a person has found a life purpose (Bronk, 2013;
Frankl, 1985; see Section 1.2.3), it will be located at the top of a goal hierarchy. The subsequent
levels of the goal hierarchy serve to translate this abstract, long-term goal into a series of
increasingly more concrete and more proximal goals that bottoms out in actionable plans and
intentions for concrete action.
As illustrated in Figure 3, the defining element of the proactive mechanisms is imagining
and evaluating potential futures (i.e., prospection). Prospection is a crucial part of the process
through which goal hierarchies are constructed. It can help people translate their prosocial values
into a life purpose (see Section 1.2.3), derive goals from it, plan how to achieve them, and select
appropriate actions (Morisano et al., 2010). Therefore, which futures people imagine and how
they evaluate them can significantly impact their goals, plans, and actions (Morisano et al., 2010;
Jähnichen et al., 2022; Prentice et al., 2022). Which futures people imagine is informed by their
beliefs, plans, goals, values, and moral principles (Phillips et al., 2019). People then evaluate the
desirability of those potential futures according to their moral values. Moreover, compassion,
concern, or empathy for people’s suffering in those imagined futures can motivate people to set
altruistic long-term goals, such as preventing nuclear war and stopping global warming.
Figure 3. Proactive mechanisms of well-doing. The yellow arrows illustrate the process of
hierarchical goal setting and goal pursuit.
Although proactive well-doing is less dependent on external factors than reactive well-
doing, it is still shaped by the socio-cultural factors through mechanisms such as the cultural
transmission of prosocial values (Bekkers, 2007; Cipriani et al., 2013; Rohan & Zanna, 1996)
and situational cues that trigger the habitual pursuit of prosocial goals (Cushman & Morris,
Our taxonomy of different types of well-doing mechanisms raises a number of interesting
questions. Do different mechanisms lead to different types of well-doing? Are some of them
more conducive to effective well-doing than others? If so, which mechanisms are responsible for
ineffective well-doing (Section 1.3), and which mechanisms should we target when we design
psychological interventions to promote (effective) well-doing? In the following sections we
discuss these questions (Section 3) and derive implications for future research (Sections 4-5).
3. Some mechanisms lead to more socially beneficial
decisions than others
Distinguishing among the mechanisms that can give rise to well-doing is important
because some may be much more conducive to effective well-doing than others. This is likely
true of both the distinction between proactive versus reactive mechanisms (see Figure 1) and the
distinction between different types of reactive mechanisms (see Figure 2). The reactive
mechanisms described in Section 2.2 often lead to relatively brief and immediately beneficial
prosocial activities, such as comforting a crying child by buying them the toy they desire. By
contrast, the proactive mechanisms described in Section 2.3 (see Figure 2) can give rise to the
pursuit of bigger, long-term projects, such as Greta Thunberg’s efforts to stop global warming.
Because proactive mechanisms involve prospection, they can motivate far-sighted pursuits that
benefit people who are out-of-sight, including future generation and distant others, the biosphere,
and abstract causes, such as increasing human knowledge or fostering moral progress. Proactive
mechanisms are therefore more likely to lead to potentially large, long-term benefits for
humanity and the biosphere than reactive mechanisms. Certain reactive mechanisms, by contrast,
may be responsible for many ineffective forms of well-doing (see Section 1.3).
Distinguishing between the different types of reactive mechanisms surveyed in Section
2.2 (see Figure 2) is also important. In particular, recent findings suggest that moral mechanisms
and compassion might be much more conducive to effective well-doing than other emotional
mechanisms. For instance, Jordan et al. (2016) found that emotional empathy is less conducive to
effective well-doing than compassion plus utilitarian moral reasoning (see Figure 2), which they
refer to as rational compassion. Higher levels of rational compassion fostered charitable
donations to people in need. By contrast, people with heightened emotional empathy often turned
away from donating to people in need to avoid the heightened emotional distress caused by
feeling other’s suffering more intensely (see Figure 2). Similarly, in a public goods game,
rational compassion promoted prosocial contributions to a public good but emotional empathy
did not (Jordan et al., 2016). Moreover, emotional empathy and the socio-psychological
mechanisms based on intuitive judgments are biased in ways that interfere with doing the
greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people (Bloom, 2017; Caviola et al. 2021;
Lewis & Small, 2019). Consistent with evolutionary perspectives (see Table 2), many of those
motivational and cognitive biases appear to serve the self-interest of the individual and his or her
kin or in-group (DeSteno, 2015; Jaeger & van Vugt, 2022). The resulting biases can cause
donors to collectively miss out on opportunities to save millions of lives because the people who
can benefit the most from donations are almost always distant others in poor third-world
countries (see Section 1.3). Moreover, these biases in favor of helping the ingroup also
perpetuate unfairness and social discrimination (Dovidio et al., 2017; Greenwald & Pettigrew,
This section’s argument that some mechanisms of well-doing could be much more beneficial
than others has crucial implications for future research on understanding and promoting effective
4. Implications for understanding and promoting
Taken together the plurality of psychological mechanisms of well-doing (Section 2) and the
initial findings that some of those mechanisms lead to much more effective well-doing than
others (Section 3) suggest new psychological interventions that specifically target the
mechanisms of effective well-doing could be much more impactful than existing interventions.
This makes identifying the triggers and mechanisms of highly effective forms of well-doing
(Section 4.1) and developing interventions to promote them an important priority for future
research (Section 4.2). Both of these endeavors could be greatly facilitated by developing
measures of the quality and quantity of people’s well-doing (Section 4.3). We will now elaborate
on each of these three implications in turn.
4.1. Implications for investigating the mechanisms of well-doing
Well-doing can take many different forms, ranging from cheering up a loved one to dedicating
one’s scientific career to cancer research (see Table 3). These different kinds of behaviors may
have vastly different consequences and causal mechanisms. To identify which behaviors future
interventions should seek to promote and which causal mechanisms they should target, we first
need to better understand which forms of well-doing are most beneficial to the long-term
flourishing of humanity, which psychological mechanisms are most likely to give rise to them,
and under which circumstances people are most likely to rely on those mechanisms. These
questions would be easier to address if we had a comprehensive, multi-dimensional taxonomy of
different forms of well-doing. Progress towards such a taxonomy has been made in research on
prosocial behavior (Carlo & Randall, 2002; Dunfield, 2014) but other forms of well-doing have
yet to be incorporated. A tentative taxonomy of different forms of well-doing would allow us to
systematically investigate how different forms of well-doing are related to different causes,
mechanisms, and consequences. Given that some forms of well-doing are more than a thousand
times more effective than others (MacAskill, 2015), it is important to understand which
behaviors have the greatest positive impact on the long-term flourishing of humanity and which
causal mechanisms are most likely to produce them. One approach to identifying such behaviors
and their psychological mechanisms could be to apply the methods that scholars of moral
personality (see Table 2) have developed to study moral exemplars (Fleeson et al., 2021; Lawn
et al., 2022) to identify which personal and situational characteristics distinguish paragons of
effective altruism (MacAskill, 2015; Todd, 2016) from otherwise similar people whose
contributions have been more ordinary. Given that some of the greatest contributions to the
flourishing of humanity were the fruits of decades of systematic effort (MacAskill, 2015; Todd,
2016), the proactive pursuit of altruistic long-term goals might be an important mechanism of
highly effective well-doing (see Section 2.3 and Section 1.2.2-1.2.3). So far, there has been little
research on the mechanisms and consequences of the pursuit of altruistic long-term goals (e.g.,
Niemiec et al., 2009; Sheldon et al., 2010). Much more research remains to be done, and
personal projects analysis could be one promising methodology to conduct it (Little & Gee,
2007; McGregor & Little, 1998).
4.2. Implications for investigating different intervention strategies
Because some forms of effective well-doing are governed by different psychological
mechanisms than conventional well-doing, promoting it might require different kinds of
psychological interventions. Many interventions for promoting socially beneficial decisions can
be divided into seven categories that target different psychological mechanisms: nudging,
boosting, goal-setting, value change, intentional personality change, (character) education, and
cognitive augmentation (see Table 4). The most popular intervention, nudging, usually targets
intuitive reactive mechanisms (see Section 2.2). It can be applied to promote effective charitable
giving in a highly cost-effective manner (Saeri et al., 2022). However, it is less well-suited to
promote effective forms of proactive well-doing that require yet-unknown strategic intellectual
activities over an extended period of time (e.g., inventing climate-friendly technologies).
Promoting such forms of effective well-doing might require other interventions that foster the
proactive mechanisms of well-doing (see Section 2.3), such as goal-setting and value change (see
Section 1.2.2), character education, or intentional personality change. Such interventions may
have sustained effects that increase (effective) well-doing over extended periods of time and
across contexts. However, the mechanisms through which the underlying psychological changes
are achieved are not well understood yet. We therefore see understanding how the development
of purpose (see Section 1.2.3), value change (see Section 1.2.2), moral learning (see Table 2),
wisdom (Grossman, 2017; Grossmann et al., 2021), and cognitive growth can be fostered as
particularly important goals for future research (see Section 3). Such research could, for instance,
flesh out concrete, teachable, mental strategies that people can follow to think and act virtuously
(cf. Kristjánsson, 2014), investigate the learning mechanisms underlying character change, and
identify how obstacles to positive character change can be overcome (cf. Thielmann & de Vries,
2021). Another important direction for future research is identifying which type of intervention is
most effective for promoting which type of well-doing for which type of person in which type of
situation. Moreover, future research should also investigate how the principles of boosting and
cognitive augmentation (see Table 4) can be applied to help people to pursue socially beneficial
goals and values more effectively.
example intervention(s) relevant to
promoting effective well-doing
using psychological insights to
redesign the situations in which
people make decisions in such a way
that people are more likely to make
socially beneficial choices without
restricting their freedom of choice
(Thaler & Sunstein, 2021)
- exploiting people’s bias towards helping
identifiable victims by soliciting
charitable donations with images and
descriptions of a specific person in need
(Small & Loewenstein, 2003)
educational or informational
interventions that increase people’s
(Hertwig & Grüne-Yanoff, 2017).
- providing accurate information about the
effectiveness of different charities
- teaching people smart heuristics for
choosing a career with high a positive
social impact (Todd, 2016)
helping people set one or more high-
- helping people select a prosocial life
purpose (e.g., Baumsteiger, 2019; Bronk
et al., 2019)
- helping people translate their altruistic
values into actionable goals (e.g., Prentice
et al., 2022)
influencing how much priority people
place on different values (Bardi &
- presenting values that are linked to well-
doing as socially desirable (Maio et al.,
psychological interventions for
motivating and supporting a person’s
deliberate efforts to change one or
more personality traits (e.g.,
(Allemand & Flückiger, 2022)
- deliberately thinking and acting like a
conscientious person to make
conscientiousness a habit (Roberts, et al.,
2017; Stieger et al., 2021)
- cultivating compassion through loving
kindness meditation (Condon et al., 2013;
Jazaieri et al., 2013; Leiberg et al., 2011;
Weng et al., 2013)
classroom instruction and other
educational activities designed to help
people cultivate character virtues,
such as fairness, honesty, generosity,
and courage (Kristjánsson, 2014,
- guiding students to repeatedly think and
act prosocially to help them cultivate
prosocial (mental) habits.
- telling students about a person whose
character and behavior exemplifies certain
moral values. (Lamb et al., 2021)
providing people with tools that can
perform some of the information-
processing operations of good
decision-making for them (e.g.,
decision support systems)
- information systems for solving societal
problems (Slattery et al., 2021)
- apps that help people set or pursue
(socially beneficial) goals (Lieder et al.,
2019; Wirzberger, et al., 2020, 2022).
Table 4. Approaches to improving human decision-making.
4.3. We need measures of (effective) well-doing
To identify which forms of well-doing are most beneficial and to evaluate potential
interventions, we need methods for measuring the quantity, quality, and impact of people’s well-
doing. Although some measures of altruism (e.g., Rushton et al., 1981), prosocial behavior
(Baumsteiger & Siegel, 2019), and moral behavior (Luke et al., 2021) already exist, they often
only cover a small subset of the many forms of well-doing, do not assess the quality of well-
doing, and do not attempt to quantify the behaviors’ positive social impact. This makes
developing measures of the quality, quantity, and positive social impact of well-doing an
important goal for future research. A potential starting point for measuring the quantity and
quality of well-doing is the moral character questionnaire (Furr et al., 2022), which measures
moral traits, like compassion and fairness, that were shown to predict moral behavior in everyday
life (Prentice et al., 2020). To quantify the positive social impact of people’s behaviors, we could
measure the impact of their behavior on the well-being of the people who are affected by it.
5. Summary and conclusion
Research on well-doing can make the world a better place by revealing how well-doing can be
fostered. However, not all good deeds are created equal. Well-doing can arise from a plethora of
different mechanisms and take many forms. Some forms of well-doing are thousands, if not
millions, of times more beneficial for humanity than ordinary well-doing (see Table 3).
However, most people (almost) never engage in them, and prior research has neglected them.
Understanding effective well-doing and how people can cultivate the motivation and capacity to
engage in it would put us in a much better position to improve that (see Table 4). This makes
effective well-doing one of the most important, neglected topics of social and personality
psychology. Working on this topic is an outstanding opportunity to make the world better.
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