Neglectedness is the extent to which a certain cause area, organization or intervention is scarce in resources. These resources could be funding, talent, political capital, public attention, etc. When we can’t directly measure cost-effectiveness, neglectedness is often seen as a positive indicator towards an investment being cost-effective due to economic principles such as diminishing returns.
Neglectedness is often discussed in the context of estimating how promising a certain cause area, intervention or domain is to work on or invest in. Specifically, it is a core part of the Scale, Tractability and Neglectedness framework developed and used by Open Philanthropy and 80,000 Hours. Neglectedness is especially useful when we can’t measure cost-effectiveness directly. In this case, we often use heuristics (or approximations) to try and estimate whether the proposal in question is a worthy investment. Neglectedness is informative due to the common phenomenon of diminishing returns - often the first resources invested in a certain goal will be the most cost-effective, achieving high potential impact for relatively little resources. After that, investment of resources is likely to be less and less cost effective as we invest more resources. This happens because we (and others) will often first invest in the “low-hanging fruit” - or the most cost-effective opportunities, and only get around to less cost-effective investments afterwards. Neglectedness becomes even more important if you care about your counterfactual impact (which we think you should). This is because the extent to which others are working on a problem influences how likely it is that someone would take your place if you didn’t invest in it. What this means is that if we want to donate money then, all else being equal, we’re less likely to make a significant difference towards a cause that already has billions of dollars in donations than one that has very few resources. The same is true for investing our time and our career. Often, when we’re evaluating neglectedness to help estimate the cost-effectiveness of a specific area, it’s because we’re considering investing a specific resource. This could be a basic resource such as money or people working on the cause. Within a cause, we could look at underinvestment in more specific resources such as political advocacy, prioritization and planning time, certain types of outreach, and more. In this context, it makes sense to evaluate neglectedness as it relates to that specific resource, since a problem might be much more or less neglected in different resources (some cause areas have more money than available talent and vice versa). As mentioned above - this is only a rough tool for approximating cost-effectiveness. Of course, a more neglected cause won’t always be a more promising one - some areas are rightly neglected because they are not very promising! The question of when and how much neglectedness should enter into our decision process is non-trivial, but we think many people who care about doing the most good and fail to do so make the mistake of ignoring neglectedness completely - focusing on the most famous, salient and popular issues, and ignoring what this means about the difference their resources are likely to make.
80,000 Hours on how to assess how neglected a cause is (and the ITN framework)