The 12 Second Rule (i.e. think before answering) and other Epistemic Norms

by Raemon 3y5th Sep 20163 min read13 comments

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Epistemic Status/Effort: I'm 85% confident this is a good idea, and that the broader idea is at least a good direction. Have gotten feedback from a few people and spend some time actively thinking through ramifications of it. Interested in more feedback.

TLDR:

1) When asking a group a question, i.e. "what do you think about X?", ask people to wait 12 seconds, to give each other time to think. If you notice someone else ask a question and people immediately answering, suggest people pause the conversation until people have had some time to think. (Probably specific mention "12 second rule" to give people a handy tag to remember)

2) In general, look for opportunities to improve or share social norms that'll help your community think more clearly, and show appreciation when others do so (i.e. "Epistemic Norms")

(this was originally conceived for the self-described "rationality" community, but I think is a good idea any group that'd like to improve their critical thinking as well as creativity.)

There are three reasons the 12-second rule seems important to me:

  • On an individual level, it makes it easier to think of the best answer, rather than going with your cached thought.
  • On the group level, it makes it easier to prevent anchoring/conformity/priming effects.
  • Also on the group level, it means that people take longer to think of answers get to practice actually thinking for themselves
If you're using it with people who aren't familiar with it, make sure to briefly summarize what you're doing and why.

Elaboration:

While visiting rationalist friends in SF, I was participating in a small conversation (about six participants) in which someone asked a question. Immediately, one person said "I think Y. Or maybe Z." A couple other people said "Yeah. Y or Z, or... maybe W or V?" But the conversation was already anchored around the initial answers.

I said "hey, shouldn't we stop to each think first?" (this happens to be a thing my friends in NYC do). And I was somewhat surprised that the response was more like "oh, I guess that's a good idea" than "oh yeah whoops I forgot."

It seemed like a fairly obvious social norm for a community that prides itself on rationality, and while the question wasn't *super* important, I think its helpful to practice this sort of social norm on a day-to-day basis.

This prompted some broader questions - it occurred to me there were likely norms and ideas other people had developed in their local networks that I probably wasn't aware of. Given that there's no central authority on "good epistemic norms", how do we develop them and get them to spread? There's a couple people with popular blogs who sometimes propose new norms which maybe catch on, and some people still sharing good ideas on Less Wrong, effective-altruism.com, or facebook. But it doesn't seem like those ideas necessarily reach saturation.

Atrophied Skills

The first three years I spent in the rationality community, my perception is that my strategic thinking and ability to think through complex problems actually *deteriorated*. It's possible that I was just surrounded by smarter people than me for the first time, but I'm fairly confident that I specifically acquired the habit of "when I need help thinking through a problem, the first step is not to think about it myself, but to ask smart people around me for help."

Eventually I was hired by a startup, and I found myself in a position where the default course for the company was to leave some important value on the table. (I was working in an EA-adjaecent company, and wanted to push it in a more Effective Altruism-y direction with higher rigor). There was nobody else I could turn to for help. I had to think through what "better epistemic rigor" actually meant and how to apply it in this situation.

Whether or not my rationality had atrophied in the past 3 years, I'm certain that for the first time in long while, certain mental muscles *flexed* that I hadn't been using. Ultimately I don't know whether my ideas had a noteworthy effect on the company, but I do know that I felt more empowered and excited to improve my own rationality. 

I realized that, in the NYC meetups, quicker-thinking people tended to say what they thought immediately when a question was asked, and this meant that most of the people in the meetup didn't get to practice thinking through complex questions. So I started asking people to wait for a while before answering - sometimes 5 minutes, sometimes just a few seconds.

"12 seconds" seems like a nice rule-of-thumb to avoid completely interrupting the flow of conversation, while still having some time to reflect, and make sure you're not just shouting out a cached thought. It's a non-standard number which is hopefully easier to remember.

(That said, a more nuanced alternative is "everyone takes a moment to think until they feel like they're hitting diminishing returns on thinking or it's not worth further halting the conversation, and then raising a finger to indicate that they're done")

Meta Point: Observation, Improvement and Sharing

The 12-second rule isn't the main point though - just one of many ways this community could do a better job of helping both newcomers and old-timers hone their thinking skills. "Rationality" is supposed to be our thing. I think we should all be on the lookout for opportunities to improve our collective ability to think clearly. 

I think specific conversational habits are helpful both for their concrete, immediate benefits, as well as an opportunity to remind everyone (newcomers and old-timers alike) that we're trying to actively improve in this area.

I have more thoughts on how to go about improving the meta-issues here, which I'm less confident and will flesh out in future posts.

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