I've recently made some posts (, , , ) geared toward helping high school and college students increase their expected future earnings, as a part of my work for Cognito Mentoring. A LWer recently asked how closely aligned this is with our goal of producing social value. Specifically, he noted that in some cases the effect of our advice will be to help people win zero-sum competitions. For example, to the extent that majoring in economics has signaling benefits, if somebody majors in economics based on our information, the signaling benefits to him or her will be counterbalanced by reduced signaling benefits for others. At first glance, this appears to lack social value, raising the question of why we're working to provide this information. We recognize the tension, and this post responds to this question.
There are a number of relevant considerations (which are largely unrelated to each other):
We need to provide a service that people find useful in order to help people create social value (whether by design or incidentally)
The primary reason that we're generating and offering advice that helps students win zero sum competitions is to gain traction so as to be better positioned to disseminate information that does have social value.
Our strategy for disseminating information that has social value is to become a central hub for intellectually talented students to find information on all subjects that are of personal interest to them. Some of what they're interested in is winning zero sum competitions, and we wouldn't be as attractive and visible to our target audience if we didn't provide them with relevant information.
We need to win people's trust and prove useful to them in order to have further impact. Some of the people will then be open to, and interested in, making decisions that contribute social value.
It's hard to help people without helping them win zero sum competitions, and that's ok
Even advice that superficially has no relation to zero sum competitions often has hidden zero sum elements. Consider the case of helping someone overcome depression. If one is successful, one (in expectation) enables the person to be a more productive worker, which will help him or her get better jobs over other job candidates, reducing their expected incomes. But helping someone overcome depression is a positive thing on balance, despite the fact that it may hurt others to some degree.
Providing public information on how to win zero sum competitions levels the playing field, which is on balance positive
Consider the case of helping people with their job applications. This is zero sum from the point of view of employees: the job market is competitive, some jobs are (on average) better to have than others, and helping people make themselves look better relatively better to employers makes other people look relatively worse to employers: one person's gain is another person's loss.
But helping job applicants present themselves better to employers helps the employers offer a better product, which in turn helps the customers, provided that one is helping all job applicants equally. This is because it increases the signal-to-noise ratio. Leveling the playing field makes it matter less who happens to be better at presenting themselves (for example, owing to natural aptitude, or coming from a privileged background): if everyone has equal presentation skills, then people's actual abilities come across more clearly to employers, allowing them to make better hiring decisions.
We haven't been focused on helping people with their job applications, and it's not something that's part of our current plans, but the general principle applies to some of the domains where we offer advice that helps people win zero sum competitions: because most of our information is public, we're increasing the reliability of signals, which helps match people up with resources more efficiently (though we don't think that this is the dimension on which we can contribute the most social value).
Our resources devoted to primarily zero-sum aspects are small
We do have some pages that are almost exclusively useful for winning zero sum competitions, such as our page on standardized tests. But these reflect a very small fraction (perhaps ~ 2%) of the resources that we've spent on Cognito Mentoring.
We did a review of our personalized advising, and found that there too, a very large majority of our advising has been about subjects such as course selection, major selection, the resources available for learning different subjects, and personal well-being and productivity, which aren't particularly related to zero sum competitions (though see the point above).
Our research on zero-sum competitions is largely undertaken with a view toward finding ways for people to do well at them at a lower cost
For example, we investigated what colleges look for in extracurricular activities with a view toward finding ways in which high school students can build their human capital and contribute social value without it coming at the cost of decreased chances of getting into prestigious colleges.