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

by Raemon3 min read5th Sep 201613 comments

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Communication CulturesCommunityRationality
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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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Deciding when to speak is an important topic, but I'm not sure whether this is a good norm. If you train the habit to always think before answering it's hard express your views in social contexts where other people don't play according to the norm. I myself have to train the ability to respond more quickly.

There an art of speaking when one has something to say that contributes but also being silent when silence would be more valuable because it allows other people to speak or simply to think more.

There's certainly important meta-norms of "figure out the right norm to use for the current situation", and this is not meant to be overwhelmingly conclusive. But some notes:

1) I recommend this specifically for spaces where truth seeking is shared value, or where collective intelligence/creativity is particularly important. I'd be surprised if it took root in other contexts and wouldn't recommend it there. Sometimes you are playing the game of "fun, interesting banter" or some-such (even within rationalist spaces) and then you'll be doing different things.

2) Remember, part of the norm is "when you see people begin to talk without giving themselves or others time to think, interrupt them and say 'Hey, can we each have a chance to think first so we don't all anchor on one idea?'". If you're in a group where truth seeking, collective intelligence or creativity is important (even a non-rationalist space), I think this serves as good practice for being quick and assertive as well as polite, all while also strengthening meta-norms of "truth seeking is important." If you're including this part, I'd be surprised if it dampened your ability to quickly express your ideas when the situation demands it.

(I added some clarification to the original post based on this)

But again, definitely use your judgement based on what kind of situation you're actually in.

Even in spaces where truth seeking is valued, time is valuable as well. When I sit together with a bunch of rationalists and the discussion is about what to cook for dinner there no benefit to waiting very long and it's quite okay when someone makes a reasonable decision to cook in a cached way.

Agreed.

I think I should probably reverse my original statement to "where intelligence/creativity/truthseeking is important" (similar sentence but narrows it down the focus - group intelligence and creativity usually don't matter for picking food, unless several people care about getting unusual/interesting food and roughly agree with each other on what kind to get)

The metanorm of "figure out what norm to use" is still important. But I do still assert that "the 12 second rule is a norm that should be used much more often i.e. at all in most rationalist discussion spaces"

Korzybski advocated a "semantic pause" of 30 seconds.

Sounds like a good idea, but from a practical pov how do you count those 12 seconds ? I can count 12 seconds more or less accurately, but I can't do that as a background process while trying to think hard. Do you use some kind of a timer/watch/clock ? Or the one asking the question counts on his finger ?

I know the "12 seconds" isn't a magical number, if it ends up being "10" or "15" it won't change much, but if you give a precise number (not just "think before answering") you've to somehow try to respect it.

"12 seconds" was chosen mostly to be easier to remember. I think it's totally fine if people end up taking 10 or 15. (If people tend to get fixated on the number 12 we can come up with some other name, but so far "think before answering" had seemed less memorable than "12 second rule")

You mention three different reasons to take a moment to think. One was an individual reason: avoid cached thoughts. Two were group reasons: avoid anchoring the group; and involve slower people, both directly and for practice.

That's a good summary. I wasn't sure from your phrasing of this, if I had worded things such that the reasons were confusing. (Were you suggesting I make the reasons more explicit/summarized?)

I think it would be useful to be more explicit. I think that as currently structured it is easy to read the several reasons being the same, and then just remember one. Indeed, when I came to the second group reason, I felt a little confused as to whether this was the same or not. Putting them together explicitly says that they are different, but also putting them next to each other makes it obvious. If you think that one reason is much more important, maybe the others should go. Or maybe they should be introduced as merely "another reason." It jumped out at me that you were promoting this as a group practice, but had given an individual reason.

Thanks. I ended up putting them under the TLDR section. (I tend to find that once I make a TLDR section it turns out the rest of the post wasn't especially necessary. Do you think the rest of the story is helpful?)

There are two stories. One story is about NY vs CA. It illustrates the importance of making practice explicit. But maybe this is more appropriate for the future meta post. The other story is about atrophy. I think it is a useful elaboration. It may also be valuable for moderating the risk of condescension.