tl;dr: within the LW community, there are many clusters of strategies to achieve rationality: doing basic exercices, using jargon, reading, partaking workshops, privileging object-level activities, and several other opinions like putting an accent on feedback loops, difficult conversations or altered states of consciousness. 

Epistemic status: This is a vague model to help me understand other rationalists and why some of them keep doing things I think are wrong, or suggest me to do things I think are wrong. This is not based on real data. I will update according to possible discussions in the comments. Please be critical. 

[Update : The term "Theory" is replaced with the term "Attitude" in the following paragraphs]

Spending time in the rationalist community made me realize that there were several endeavors at reaching rationality that seemed to exist, some of which conflicted with others. This made me quite frustrated as I thought that my interpretation was the only one.

The following list is an attempt at distinguishing the several approaches I've noticed, which I will call Attitudes (in lack of a better name). Of course, any rationalist will probably have elements of all attitudes at the same time. See each attitude as the claim that a particular set of elements prevails above others. Referring to one attitude usually goes on par with being fairly suspicious of others.

Finally, remember that these categories are an attempt to distinguish what people are doing, not a guide about what side you should pick (if the sides exist at all). I suspect that most people end up settling on one attitude for practical reasons, more than because they have deeply thought about it at all.

Basics Attitude

Proponents of the Basics Attitude put a high emphasis on activities such as calibration, forecasting, lifehacks, and other fairly standard practices of epistemic and instrumental rationality. They don't see any real value in reading extensively LessWrong or going to workshops. They first and foremost believe in real-life, readily available practice.

For them, spending too much time in the rationalist community, as opposed to doing simple exercises, is the main failure mode to avoid.

Speaking Attitude

Proponents of the Speaking Attitude, although often relying on basics, usually put a high emphasis on using concepts met on LessWrong in daily parlance, although they generally do not necessarily insist on reading content on LessWrong. They may also insist on the importance of talking and discussing disagreements in a fairly regular way, while heavily relying on LessWrong terms and references in order to shape their thinking more rationally. They disagree with the statement that jargon should be avoided.

For them, keeping your language, thinking, writing and discussion style the same way that it was before encountering rationality is the main failure mode to avoid.

Reading Attitude

Proponents of the Reading attitude put a high emphasis on reading LessWrong, more usually than not the « Canon », but some might go to a further extent and insist on reading other materials as well, such as the books recommended on the CFAR website, rationalist blogs, or listening to a particular set of podcasts. They can be sympathetic or opposed to relying on LessWrong Speak, but don't consider it important. They can also be fairly familiar with the basics.

For them, relying on LW Speak or engaging with the community while not mastering the relevant corpus is the main failure mode to avoid.

Workshop Attitude

Proponents of the Workshop Attitude consider most efforts of the Reading and Speaking Attitude to be somehow misleading. Since rationality is to be learned, it has to be deliberately practiced, if not ultralearned, and workshops such as CFAR are an important piece of this endeavor. Importantly, they do not really insist on reading the Sequences. Faced with the question « Do I need to read X ? » a partaker of the Workshop Attitude will quite intuitively answer « No ». They also usually give a higher importance to emotional and social intelligence. They may even think that jargon should be avoided, even among people sharing it, so as not to fall into an illusion of rationality.

For them, reading LW or extensively using its jargon (mistaking the words for the techniques) without engaging in regular practice is the main failure mode to avoid.

Object-Level Attitude

Proponents of this attitude insist much more than the rest of the community on spending time on object-level pursuits, up to the point of maybe simply not reading more than a few dozen posts of the Sequences or never attending rationality workshops. They mainly care about being very productive, doing things in the world, and will microdose the time they dedicate to applied rationality, even if they discuss their particular object-level concerns with rationalists.

For them, spending too much time thinking about rationality is the main failure mode to avoid.

Idiosyncratic Attitude

Proponents of the idiosyncratic attitude take down to the letter the passage where Eliezer Yudkowsky suggests to create one's « own rationality ». They ditch away LessWrong and the Sequences for a time being and attempt to create their version of rationality -not in view of making « a better version », but because it is the only way to achieve rationality per se, believing that following other role models is irrational in its own way.

For them, absorbing and repeating LW culture without significant contribution or alterations is the main failure mode to avoid.


There are minor theories that I've met quite rarely :

Conversations Attitude

Proponents of the conversations attitude believe that major flaws of other theories can be completed or remedied by studying and practicing methods for handling difficult conversations. They believe that not relying on these procedures, even whilst being individually rational, can be quite net negative, and that their lack in standard applied rationality is problematic. They are typically quite critical of the standard way rationalists have of arguing with non-rationalists.

For them, keeping one’s arguing style confrontative and ineffective at converging towards truth with non-rationalists is the main failure mode to avoid.

Altered Consciousness Attitude

Proponents of the altered consciousness attitude believe that major flaws of other theories can be completed or remedied by practicing meditation, or consuming (usually hallucinogenic) drugs in specific procedures. They view these activities as an integral part of the path towards rationality, and are aware of the effects that such activities can have on one's epistemics. They usually give it a considerable importance, and can dedicate entire weeks of meditations every year in this prospect.

For them, staying in a “thinking” or “doing” only level, (as opposed to a “being” and “perceiving” one) while pretending to engage in rationality is the main failure mode to avoid.

Feedback-loop Attitude

I have not properly met anyone who seemed to defend this idea yet, but I know it exists thanks to this post. In short, Feedback-loop proponents insist on relying on feedback loops and deliberate practice, in order to measure as soon as possible if something does really work.

For them, forgetting to set up feedback loops (or setting up poor ones) while engaging in other practices is the main failure mode to avoid.

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17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:46 AM

I like this post! It doesn't feel like a fully fleshed out partitioning, but its great that it was done at all.

Object Level and Basics Theory seem entangled with Feedback Loop Theory.

Subtype of Reading Theory: Math Theory, if you understand the relevant mathematics deeply enough that constitutes rationality.

Mostly broadly correct descriptions of patterns, but needs to be emphasized that these perspectives are not mutually exclusive. (You do say basically this—“any rationalist will probably have elements of all theories at the same time”.)

For example, I consider reading the Sequences (and a very few auxiliary texts) to be important (because they contain the core ideas that must be integrated into your worldview and your epistemic/intellectual practices in order to “become more rational” in any sense). I also believe very strongly in object-level productivity. These are not opposed, in my view. (Indeed, one might say that building was a manifestation of this combination of views…)

In my experience, what you call “speaking theory”, “workshop theory”, and “altered consciousness theory” are all failure modes (the last of these being the most dreadful of the three).

Upvoted, but be aware.

The rationality that can be named is not the true rationality.

Witty, but I feel like that is not actually true?

It is likely that the rationality oft named is not the true name of the thing. Or “just be a perfect bayesian agent lol” is not practical. But that does actually mean anything legible is immediately false?

“Anything legible is immediately false“ is actually a pretty good tagline - I may use that in the future. In truth, I’d usually say “misleadingly incomplete” or “implies false boundaries” rather than the simple “immediately false”.

In this case, I more specifically meant to gesture at the idea that these techniques and framings are tools to use in seeking rationality, not the goal of rationality.

Oh, and to signal my wit in the reuse of a core Taoist saying. Maybe that was primary. I think it worked, at least in self-signaling to make me feel clever.

iterate, repeat, revise

I'm not sure if all of these descriptions would pass the ideological turning test, but I upvoted because I think the post is broadly right and interesting.

(For example, Object-Level theory is the closest to how I feel about this, but I don't think thinking about rationality is a failure mode exactly (although there is a type of thinking about rationality that I do think is a failure mode).)

Curated! This is a nice, short post that feels to me like it accurately describe a bunch of things in my environment over the last decade that nobody ever wrote down in one place before.

I'd be interested if commenters can add other attitudes about applied rationality that they've noticed — I agree with niplav that there's a "Math Theory" attitude where "if you understand the relevant mathematics deeply enough that constitutes rationality".

(I slightly wish that the title was changed along with the change you made to the post, e.g. "Attitudes about Applied Rationality".)

Good post, upvote.

I think "theory" is too strong of a word for these, because although it need not mean "established and verified model" (an oversimplified claim that's been bouncing around for the past 15-20 years), I would generally expect a "theory" to be a fairly precisely specified model. I'd have used the word "stereotype" for each of these, and I will do so when referencing them.

In particular I think I have several of these alleged clusters' failure modes going on at once.

I agree. I think I wanted to convey something like "normative views". The word "stereotype" bothers me a bit because it is a bit loaded (as in, "a sexist stereotype").
What do you think of "Types of Applied Rationality" ?
Edit : settled on "Attitudes" for now.

I just think all of "type", "attitude", "theory" are granting these things a level of normativity of description of normativity that I don't see as justified, but shrug, it's your words not mine

Another possible word is "archetype" - less loaded than stereotypes, but somewhat broader than attitude, and can be less conscious, if that is what you want to claim as well.

As a postrat and a therapist in training, would like to say a bit more about my perspective, that is imo quite common in that world. This is something of an expansion of/reconceptualization of the "altered consciousness attitude" (which is imo a slightly unfortunate name, though I know where the author is coming from: healing one's alexithymia, and unrepressing one's emotions/getting more of the subconsciousness into conscious awareness, and achieving "right-brain reintegration" aka recovering one's creativity and "integrative thinking" capacity, can be effectively pursued by means other than meditation/psychedelics; imo more rationalist types tend to use meditation/psychedelics as healing modalities due to their subconscious aversiveness to real relationships, which are essential to therapy as a healing mode, and which is tragic as healing the capacity for deep relationships is oft exactly what they could've benefitted most from.. but I digress).


The key tenets of that perspective, as I see it:
1) most of the brain is unconsciousness, thoughts pop up from there, the quality of what pops up is largely determined by what's going on "underwater", the thought "boat" is moved more by the underwater currents than by your conscious steering

2) quality of one's thought is heavily determined by their level of awareness of their emotions and their self-awareness, aka how much of their unconscious patterns they brought to the light of consciousness; and that awareness is very much amenable to change, not quickly, but in a matter of a few years, by the use of appropriate "healing tools" like meditation and psychodynamic psychotherapy

3) hence, the way towards, not even clear thinking, but simply a good life, is by untangling subconscious knots many of us have, "healing trauma or complex trauma", making sure the adaptive balance in key unsconscious psychic conflicts every human faces in development (see eg erikson's stages) is achieved

4) emotional awareness specifically is imo the single biggest non-iq determinant of rational behavior in humans: if you have an active feeling it's gonna color your thinking heavily, and if it's repressed/you're unaware of it, don't know how to process it and self-regulate, you're screwed


For those of you familiar with the depression experience that might be an easiest example of all of the above: "can't logic your way out of the depression", if you're in a more depressed mood you'll find perfectly logical explanations of why it's all hopeless and you're bad, next morning if you're feeling better you'd find all of that logical but not convincing.

I think calling these "Attitudes" is alright (and indeed better than "Theories"). But if you're still not happy with it then you might prefer "Dispositions".

Man, getting stereotyped feels bad, but unfortunately there is no alternative for humans. Great list. I might have drawn the boundaries differently, but I still like what you wrote.


I'll plant this flag right here and now: I feel some affinity for all of these attitudes, some more than others. Above all, I have only a vague and partial sense of what a rational culture would be like. Dath Ilan is inspiring, but also feels vague and partial. It does feel easy to imagine that we are not close to the frontier of efficiency, and that this is due to silly mistakes.

I feel some worry when reading your comment on stereotypes.

I think that what I have depicted here gestures at vague axes in a multidimensional space, and I sort of expect that people can see which coordinate they're closer to and, mainly, realize that others might be at a different location, one they still need to inquire on. I hope them to adopt a certain gentleness and curiosity in aknowledging that someone might have a different perspective on rationality, and I hope that they will not try to label people out loud.

I'm always a bit worried when naming things, because people seem to associate categories with "boxes" or "boundaries" rather than "shores of vast and unknown territories".

Also, here are a couple of links that seem relevant to me, even if they are not fully on-topic.

Schools Proliferating without Evidence

3 Levels of Rationality Verification