What better way to bond with strangers than to tell them your most controversial viewpoints right off the bat? It’s basically like Cards Against Humanity for rationalists. More specifically, for the Less Wrong Community Weekend in Berlin, all participants were asked to come up with one session to run for their fellow participants. Overton Gymnastics was born from an interest in exploring how we can stretch our Overton windows. Then I got the stomach flu and couldn’t attend the meetup…

But people were psyched about the idea! So here are some iterative takes on how to run a session of Overton Gymnastics. If you end up trying it, I’d be excited to hear how it was for you in the comments. Also, as this is a new idea, please do just take it where you’d like. Some variants will be more useful than others, and we can all learn from your experiences!

The Initial Idea

The following was the initial write up of Overton Gymnastics for the LWCW in Berlin.

Stretch our Overton windows! One person starts by saying something controversial they believe. Someone then volunteers to counter them. First you provide an Ideological Turing Test (ITT) of the controversial claim, then your counter, and then you provide your own controversial claim. The goal is to practice tolerating uncomfortable viewpoints and ITT'ing them accurately.

We'll first review some failure modes that became apparent when trying to run the exercise as described, followed by three possible variants you could run.

Possible Failure Modes

The two greatest challenges during Overton Gymnastics are generating controversial viewpoints and avoiding discussions during the exercise. To help people come up with controversial viewpoints it is useful to prime them with examples of claims that are controversial to different social groups. The goal of the exercise is to come up with claims that are controversial to the current group, but if people struggle with this, then they can be prompted to volunteer more generally controversial claims compared to mainstream culture.

To avoid discussion during the exercise, it's best to prepare participants for how tempted they might be to launch in to debate. Additionally, the facilitator should proactively take on a moderation role across groups, listening in to detect discussions as they pop up and gently remind the group to return to the exercise format.

How to Run the Exercise

After running the session at the LWCW, Sam Brown & omark provided feedback and improvements on the format. The ITT step turned out to be the most contentious item. Some people loved this element while others found it frustrating. Below is one variant with the ITT step including and two (untested) variants that skip ITT'ing the controversial claims all together.

Variant 1: Ideological Turing Test

This variant is the most conducive to building empathy and understanding for the viewpoints of others because the ITT step puts a strong focus on perspective taking. On the other hand, this variant is also the most challenging as participants will be more heavily tempted to debate each claim.

  • Explain to the group what an Overton Window is. Give examples of opinions that break various Overton Windows.
  • Explain the Ideological Turing Test (ITT).
  • Give everyone 5 minutes to write down 3 of their opinions that they suspect will break the Overton Window of some people in the group.
  • Split up into groups of 6-8 people.
  • Have each group elect a moderator. The moderator is in charge of redirecting participants from discussions back to the exercise.
  • One person starts by sharing a controversial opinion and offers some background and reasoning to support it.
  • Other people in the group ask as many questions as necessary to understand the first person’s position well. It’s a collaborative process leading to the ITT.
  • One person volunteers to deliver the ITT.
  • If the first speaker agrees with the ITT then the person who delivered the ITT shares a controversial opinion of their own. 
  • Rinse and repeat till everyone has shared all their claims or the time is up.


Variant 2: Centralized Whiteboard

Another way to run this is in a centralized, whiteboard format. This opens up more space for discussion of statements afterward. 

  • Explain to the group what an Overton Window is. Give examples of opinions that break various Overton Windows.
  • Give everyone three post-it notes.
  • Take 5 minutes for everyone to write one controversial statement on each of their post-it notes.
  • Gather around a whiteboard and take turns sticking one post-it note on the board. Say your controversial statement out loud before sitting down again.
  • If something like your controversial statement is already on the board, then put your post-it close to it. This should result in clusters of similar topics.
  • Repeat till all post-it notes are on the board.
  • Everyone gets a sharpie and can add one vote to a post-it. Vote on which statement you personally find the most uncomfortable/controversial to discuss. 
  • The person who submitted the top voted statement gets praised as winner! (maybe add a mock prize for bravery?)

Debate round: 

  • Review the clusters of statements from large to small. Is the largest cluster even controversial? Why (not)? 
  • Sort into groups to discuss the different clusters. Split discussions groups to 3-4 people each, and merge any groups that are too small.
  • Give people 10 minutes to discuss
  • Reconvene to check in how everyone felt.

Variant 3: Controversial Competition

  • Explain to the group what an Overton Window is. Give examples of opinions that break various Overton Windows.
  • Give everyone 5 minutes to write down 3 of their opinions that they suspect will break the Overton Window of some people in the group.
  • Split up in to groups of 6-8 people.
  • Everyone sits in a circle and holds their phone/notepad with their statements.
  • One person starts by saying one of their statements out loud.
  • Everyone who disagrees raises their hands
  • The current speaker picks their next speaker from the people who have their hand raised. If no one raised their hand, then they say their next controversial statement. If they have no more controversial statements, then they put their notepad/phone down in front of them, and pass the turn to the person to their right who is still in the game.
  • This process repeats till the last person has read all their statements. 

 Concluding Remarks

Overton Gymnastics is a concept for a new rationality exercise and as such, the first variant is the only one that has been run so far. If you end up trying out the exercise, let us know how you find it. If you end up creating a new variant yourself, it would be great if you could share it below. May it lead to much discomfort and mental growth.



New Comment
15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:53 PM

You start by talking about the Overton window and then speak about controversial statements. A statement out of the Overton window is not only controversial but is so in a way that violates the window.

There are a lot of controversial claims that you can make about AI timelines but those claims are not out of the overturn window within the rationality community.

By the nature those statements that actually are outside of the Overton window make the person lose status by voicing them. In our community believing in the Christian god would be outside of the overturn window and there are good reasons why someone might not want to share such a belief. 

Nothing in your post involves taking actions to make it safe to share those opinions. 

My intuition is that there is a gradient from controversial statements to this-will-cause-unrecoverable-social-status damage. I think I might have implicitly employed a 'softer' definition of Overton window as 'statements that make others or yourself uncomfortable to express/debate', where the 'harder' definition would be statements you can't socially recover from. I think intuitively I wouldn't presume anyone wants to share the latter and I don't see much benefit in doing so. But overall, my concept of Overton window is much more gradient than a binary, and this exercise aims to allow people to stretch through the (perceived) low range.

To add to this: Expressing belief in the Christian god will be still relatively harmless. It would cost you some professional status because people would think you are not very smart. But expressing other beliefs outside the Overton window may make people think you are actively evil or at least very immoral. As a historical example, expressing disbelief in God was once such a case. For such (supposedly) immoral beliefs you may lose a lot more status, and not just status. You might get cancelled or excluded from your social circles, lose job opportunities etc.

Pushing the Overton window is a delicate game: It is only rational to infrequently push it a little and no more. Otherwise the risks will outweigh the rewards.

Yes, agreed. The technique is only aimed at the "soft" edge of this, where people might in reality even disagree if something is still in or outside the Overton Window. I do think a gradient-type model of controversiality is a more realistic model of how people are socially penalized than a binary model. The exercise is not aimed at sharing views that would lead to heavy social penalties indeed, and I don't think anyone would benefit from running it that way. It's a very relevant distinction you are raising.

As I understand the Overton window it refers to mainstream opinions. Using Treviños degrees of acceptance they can be either Policy, Popular or Sensible. Outside the Overton window you have Acceptable, Radical and Unthinkable. In the general population a politician from a major party who wants to stay in office will only move within the Overton window. But not everyone is forced to stay within it, there may be quite large groups within the population that accept more controversial (e.g. "Radical") statements, but for the time being you will be denied mainstream appeal if you voice such opinions.

One such "Acceptable/Radical" example within the Rationality community could be "AI safety is overrated". The "Christian god" example would probably fall under "Unthinkable".

I agree that taking action to make it safe to share even very controversial opinions would be good. Do you have a suggestion?

tl;dr My understanding of the Overton window does not imply that every opinion outside it will make you lose significant status.

I agree that taking action to make it safe to share even very controversial opinions would be good. Do you have a suggestion?

The Chatham house rule is a standard way to make it more safe for people to voice controversial opinions. 

Originally the Overton window is about opinions that politicians can express without losing status. Most people have a wider range of what they can express without losing status than politicians. 

The concept that certain opinions are not expressible applies to any discourse community. If you speak about the Overton window of the rationality community then it's those opinions that can't be expressed in our community without losing status. 

"AI safety is overrated" is an opinion that I have heard from people at the community weekend even without going to the Overton Gymnastics session. It's controversial but it's an opinion that does get argued within the existing disourse. 

Are you saying that any statement outside the Overton window always makes you lose status but more normal controversial (that not everyone agrees with) statements do not make you lose status?

I'm not sure how I feel about this. On some level I think that most controversial opinion will make you lose status with some people (sometimes most of them) but at the same time gain status with others.

Also it seems like a narrower view of what the Overton window is than I have, but it's totally possible that your view is in fact more accurate and closer to what Overton intended.

FWIW when I did this exercise at the LWCW in our small group we were discussing opinions that are outside the mainstream social western European Overton window, not outside the Rationality-community Overton window. That makes it easier, though maybe less interesting or valuable.

The word controversial implies in its nature controversy which means debate. 

Overton was speaking about politicians. 

If you take an example like LSD legalization, it was unthinkable for a mainstream politician to speak about it 10 years ago. 

There were no controversies about mainstream politicians advocating LSD legalization. It was just something that wasn't done. Today, I would guess LSD legalization is in the bucket of radical positions. It's however also not a position that faces a lot of controversies. 

What advantages are there to these steps and procedures versus just talking it out in a normal conversation?

Good question!

My thinking on this is slightly different than @omark's. Specifically:

  • Everyone commits to being vulnerable by sharing their own controversial statements. This symmetry is often not present in normal conversation, where you focus on one topic where one person might have a controversial opinion and the other does not.
  • It's much higher density on iterating through controversial opinions than a normal conversation would be.
  • It's a session you can sign up for where you can trust everyone is coming to the session with the same intention to grow and show vulnerability.
  • Everyone opts in to being exposed to controversial viewpoints. Normal conversation seldomly features such opt-ins.

Thus, you can experience expressing and hearing controversial opinions much more quickly and safely than in a normal conversation.

That’s interesting though I don’t see how the commitment mechanism could work without some arbiter to decide if the follow up statement is actually controversial How do you envision disputes along the lines of not-actually-that-controversial will be resolved?

  • Explicitly coming together with a goal in mind instead of just chatting
  • Sharing controversial opinions gets harder the larger the group is, so having a small group seems like a good middle ground to get out of your comfort zone
  • Collaborating to come up with a good ITT works better with more people (referring specifically to Variant 1)

That being said, there is nothing wrong with doing this with just two people in an informal conversation.

People can explicitly come together in small groups with a goal in mind and have a normal conversation. It doesn't seem credible to suggest that this is only possible, or even most efficiently done, by following certain procedures.

I like this in theory, but in practice I’d be really really concerned about this exacerbating existing power dynamics, where people with lower social status have a higher likelihood of being both judged for their outside-the-window statements as well as being affected by others statements (in a large group it’s increasingly likely there’s going to be somebody who’s against some sort of minority/subgroup/ideology present in the room, for example). There may also be enough social pressure that people won’t feel comfortable opting out of such an exercise (if it’s in a work-related conference, for instance), so I’d be very very careful about how you organize this.