Is Rationalist Self-Improvement Real?

Cross-posted from Putanumonit.


Imagine that tomorrow everyone on the planet forgets the concept of training basketball skill.

The next day everyone is as good at basketball as they were the previous day, but this talent is assumed to be fixed. No one expects their performance to change over time. No one teaches basketball, although many people continue to play the game for fun.

Geneticists explain that some people are born with better hand-eye coordination and are able to shoot a basketball accurately. Economists explain that highly-paid NBA players have a stronger incentive to hit shots, which explains their improved performance. Psychologists note that people who take more jump shots each day hit a higher percentage and theorize a principal factor of basketball affinity that influences both desire and skill at basketball. Critical race theorists claim that white men’s under-representation in the NBA is due to systemic oppression.

Papers are published, tenure is awarded.

New scientific disciplines emerge and begin studying basketball more systematically. Evolutionary physiologists point out that our ancestors threw stones in a sidearm motion, which explains our lack of adaptation to the different motion of jump shots. Behavioral kinesiologists describe systematic biases in human basketball, such as the tendency to shoot balls with a flatter trajectory and a lower release point than is optimal.

When asked by aspiring basketball players if jump shots can be improved, they all shake their heads and rue that it is human nature to miss shots. A Nobel laureate behavioral kinesiologist tells audiences that even after writing books on biases in basketball his shot did not improve much. Someone publishes a study showing that basketball performance improves after a one-hour training session with schoolchildren, but Shott Ballexander writes a critical takedown pointing out that the effect wore off after a month and could simply be random noise. The field switches to studying “nudges”: ways to design systems so that players hit more shots at the same level of skill. They recommend that the NBA adopt larger hoops.

Papers are published, tenure is awarded.

Then, one day, someone merely looking to get good at basketball, as opposed to getting tenure, comes across these papers. She realizes that the lessons of behavioral kinesiology can be used to improve her jump shot. She practices releasing the ball at the top of her jump from above the forehead with a steep arc. As her shots start swooshing in more people gather at the gym to practice with her. They call themselves Basketballists.

Most people who walk past the gym sneer at the Basketballists. “You call yourselves Basketballists and yet none of you shoot 100%”, they taunt. “You should go to grad school if you want to learn about jump shots.” Some of Basketballists themselves begin to doubt the project, especially since switching to the new shooting techniques lowers their performance at first. “Did you hear what the Center for Applied Basketball is charging for a training camp?”, they mutter, “I bet their results are all due to selection bias.”

The Basketballists insist that the training does help, that they really get better by the day. Their shots hit at a slightly higher rate than before, although this is swamped by the inter-individual variance. How could they know if it works?


A core axiom of Rationality (capitalized to refer to LessWrong version) is that it is a skill that can be improved with time and practice. The names Overcoming Bias and LessWrong reflect this: rationality is a direction, not a fixed point.

What would it mean to "improve at Rationality"? On the epistemic side, to draw a map that more accurately reflects the territory. To be less swayed by bias, make more accurate predictions, avoid error. On the instrumental side, to use their improved epistemics to achieve their goals in life. The two are often conflated, both by Rationalists and skeptics, but the two are also highly correlated — an accurate map gets you to where you're going.

A core foundation of epistemic rationality is the research on heuristic and biases developed by Daniel Kahneman. The first book in The Sequences is in large part a summary of Kahneman’s work.

Awkwardly for Rationalists, Daniel Kahneman is hugely skeptical of any possible improvement even just in epistemic rationality, especially for whole groups of people. In an astonishing interview with Sam Harris, Kahneman describes bias after bias in human thinking, emotions, and decision making. For every one, Sam asks: How do we get better at this? And for every one, Daniel replies: We don’t, we’ve been telling people about this for decades and nothing has changed, that’s just how people are.

Daniel Kahneman is familiar with CFAR, but as far as I know he has not put as much effort himself into developing a community and curriculum dedicated to improving human rationality. He has described human irrationality, mostly to an audience of psychology undergrads. But psychology undergrads do worse than pigeons at learning a simple probabilistic game, we shouldn’t expect them to learn rationality just by reading about biases. Perhaps if they started reading Slate Star Codex…

Alas, Scott Alexander himself is quite skeptical of Rationalist self-improvement. He agrees that Rationalist thinking can help you make good predictions and occasionally distinguish truth from bullshit, but he’s unconvinced that it's something one can seriously get better at. Scott is even more skeptical of Rationality’s use for life-optimization.

I told once Scott that I credit Rationality with a lot of the massive improvements in my financial, social, romantic, and mental life that happened to coincide with my discovery of LessWrong. Scott argued that I would do equally well in the absence of Rationality by finding other self-improvement philosophies to pour my intelligence and motivation into, and that these latter two are the root cause of my life getting better. Scott also seems to have been doing very well since he discovered LessWrong, but he credits Rationality with not much more than being a flag that united the community he’s part of.

So: on one side are Yudkowsky, CFAR, and several Rationalists, sharing the belief that Rationality is a learnable skill that can improve the lives of most seekers who step on the path. On the other side are Kahneman, Alexander, several other Rationalists, and all the sneerers, who disagree.

When I surveyed my Twitter followers, the results distributed somewhat predictably:

The optimistic take is that RSI works for most people if they only tried it. The neutral take is that people are good at trying self-improvement philosophies that would work for them. The pessimistic take is that Rationalists are deluded by sunk cost and confirmation bias.

Who’s right? Is Rationality trainable like jump shots or fixed like height? Before reaching any conclusions, let’s try to figure out how why so many smart people who are equally familiar with Rationality disagree so strongly about this important question.

Great Expectations

An important crux of disagreement between me and Scott is in the question of what counts as successful Rationalist self-improvement. We can both look at the same facts and come to very different conclusions regarding the utility of Rationality.

Here’s how Scott parses the fact that 15% of SSC readers who were referred by LessWrong have made over $1,000 by investing in cryptocurrency and 3% made over $100,000:

The first mention of Bitcoin on Less Wrong, a post called Making Money With Bitcoin, was in early 2011 – when it was worth 91 cents. Gwern predicted that it could someday be worth “upwards of $10,000 a bitcoin”. […]
This was the easiest test case of our “make good choices” ability that we could possibly have gotten, the one where a multiply-your-money-by-a-thousand-times opportunity basically fell out of the sky and hit our community on its collective head. So how did we do?
I would say we did mediocre. […]
Overall, if this was a test for us, I give the community a C and me personally an F. God arranged for the perfect opportunity to fall into our lap. We vaguely converged onto the right answer in an epistemic sense. And 3 – 15% of us, not including me, actually took advantage of it and got somewhat rich.

Here’s how I would describe it:

Of the 1289 people who were referred to SSC from LessWrong, two thirds are younger than 30, a third are students/interns or otherwise yet to start their careers, and many are for other reasons too broke for it to be actually rational to risk even $100 on something that you saw recommended on a blog. Of the remainder, the majority were not around in the early days when cryptocurrencies were discussed — the median “time in community” on LessWrong surveys is around two years. In any case, “invest in crypto” was never a major theme or universally endorsed in the Rationalist community.
Of those that were around and had the money to invest early enough, a lot lost it all when Mt. Gox was hacked or when Bitcoin crashed in late 2013 and didn’t recover until 2017 or through several other contingencies.
If I had to guess the percent of Rationalists who were even in a position to learn about crypto on LessWrong and make more than $1,000 by following Rationalist advice, I’d say it’s certainly less than 50%. Maybe not much larger than 15%.
Only 8% of Americans own cryptocurrency today. At the absolute highest end estimate, 1% of Americans, and 0.1% of people worldwide, made >$1,000 from crypto. So Rationalists did at least an order of magnitude better than the general population, almost as well as they could’ve done in a perfect world, and also funded MIRI and CFAR with Bitcoin for years ahead. I give the community an A and myself an A.

Now, multiplying money with a simple investment is an incredibly competitive arena of human endeavor, one where we would least expect to find low-hanging fruit that hasn't been picked. Even if you think Rationalists' success in that space is modest, that's still better than the average hedge fund, the actual "professionals".

For most other goals we care about no efficient market exists to compete with our efforts. Making friends, staying healthy, improving the world with charity, finding compatible partners, managing your happiness and attention, living forever — we should expect some fruit of progress on those to hang lower than a Bitcoin fortune.


Scott blames the failure of Rationality to help primarily on akrasia.

One factor we have to once again come back to is akrasia. I find akrasia in myself and others to be the most important limiting factor to our success. Think of that phrase “limiting factor” formally, the way you’d think of the limiting reagent in chemistry. When there’s a limiting reagent, it doesn’t matter how much more of the other reagents you add, the reaction’s not going to make any more product. Rational decisions are practically useless without the willpower to carry them out. If our limiting reagent is willpower and not rationality, throwing truckloads of rationality into our brains isn’t going to increase success very much.

I take this paragraph to imply a model that looks like this:

[Alex reads LessWrong] -> [Alex tries to become less wrong] -> [akrasia!] -> [Alex doesn’t improve].

I would make a small change to this model:

[Alex reads LessWrong] -> [akrasia!] -> [Alex doesn’t try to become less wrong] -> [Alex doesn’t improve].

A lot of LessWrong is very fun to read, as is all of SlateStarCodex. A large number of people on these sites are just looking to procrastinate during the workday, not to change how their mind works. Only 7% of the people who were engaged enough to fill out the last LessWrong survey have attended a CFAR workshop. Only 20% ever wrote a post, which is some measure of active rather than passive engagement with the material.

In contrast, one person wrote a sequence on trying out applied rationality for 30 days straight: Xiaoyu “The Hammer” He. And he was quite satisfied with the result.

I’m not sure that Scott and I disagree much, but I didn’t get the sense that his essay was saying “just reading about this stuff doesn’t help, you have to actually try”. It also doesn’t explain was he was so skeptical about me crediting my own improvement to Rationality.

Akrasia is discussed a lot on LessWrong, and applied rationality has several tools that help with it. What works for me and my smart friends is not to try and generate willpower but to use lucid moments to design plans that take a lack of willpower into account. Other approaches work for other people. But of course, if someone lacks the willpower to even try and take Rationality improvement seriously, a mere blog post will not help them.

3% LessWrong

In an essay called Extreme Rationality: It’s Not That Great Scott writes:

Eliezer writes:
The novice goes astray and says, “The Art failed me.”
The master goes astray and says, “I failed my Art.”
Yet one way to fail your Art is to expect more of it than it can deliver.

Scott means to say that Eliezer expects too much of the art in demanding that great Rationalist teachers be great at other things as well. But I think that expecting 50% of LessWrongers filling out a survey to have made thousands of dollars from crypto is setting the bar far higher than Eliezer’s criterion of “Being a math professor at a small university who has published a few original proofs, or a successful day trader who retired after five years to become an organic farmer, or a serial entrepreneur who lived through three failed startups before going back to a more ordinary job as a senior programmer.”

How much improvement does Scott expect? Below is a key quote in his essay, emphasis in the original.

I think it may help me succeed in life a little, but I think the correlation between x-rationality and success is probably closer to 0.1 than to 1.

Well, how big of a correlation is 0.1?

Here’s the chart of respondents to the SlateStarCodex survey, by self-reported yearly income and whether they were referred from LessWrong (Scott’s criterion for Rationalists).

And here’s the same chart after I made a small change. Can you notice it?

In the second chart, I increased the income of all rationalists by 25%.

The following things are both true:

  • When you eyeball the group as a whole, the charts look identical. A 25% improvement for a quarter of the people in a group you observe is barely noticeable. The rich stayed rich, the poor stayed poor.
  • If your own income increased 25% you would certainly notice it. And if the increase came as a result of reading a few blog posts and coming to a few meetups, you would tell everyone you know about this astounding life hack.

The correlation between Rationality and income in Scott’s survey is -0.01. That number goes up to a mere 0.02 after the increase. A correlation of 0.1 is absolutely huge, it would require tripling the income of all Rationalists.

The point isn’t to nitpick Scott’s choice of “correlation = 0.1” as a metaphor. But every measure of success we care about, like impact on the world or popularity or enlightenment, is probably distributed like income is on the survey. And so if Rationality made you 25% more successful it wouldn’t be as obviously visible as Scott thinks it would be — especially since everyone pursues a different vision of success. In this 25% world, the most and least successful people would still be such for reasons other than Rationality. And in this world, Rationality would be one of the most effective self-improvement approaches ever devised. 25% is a lot!

Of course, the 25% increase wouldn’t happen immediately. Most people who take Rationality seriously have been in the community for several years. You get to 25% improvement by getting 3% better each year for 8 years.

Here’s what 3% improvement feels like:

You know what feels crappy? 3% improvement. You busted your ass for a year, trying to get better at dating, at being less of an introvert, at self-soothing your anxiety – and you only managed to get 3% better at it.
If you worked a job where you put in that much time at the office and they gave you a measly 3% raise, you would spit in your boss’s face and walk the fuck out.
And, in fact, that’s what most people do: quit. […]
The model for most self-improvement is usually this:
* You don’t have much of a problem
* You found The Breakthrough that erased all the issues you had
* When you’re done, you’ll be the opposite of what you were. Used to be bad at dating? Now you’ll have your own personal harem. Used to be useless at small talk? Now you’re a fluent raconteur.
Which, when you’ve agonized to scrape together a measly 3% improvement, feels like crap. If you’re burdened with such social anxiety that it takes literally everything you have to go out in public for twenty minutes, make one awkward small talk, and then retreat home to collapse in embarrassment, you think, “Well, this isn’t worth it.”
But most self-improvement isn’t immediate improvement, my friend.
It’s compound interest.

I think that Rationalist self-improvement is like this. You don’t get better at life and rationality after taking one class with Prof. Kahnemann. After 8 years of hard work, you don’t stand out from the crowd even as the results become personally noticeable. But if you discover Rationality in college and stick with it, by the time you’re 55 you will be three times better than what you would have been if you hadn’t compounded these 3% gains year after year, and everyone will notice that.

What’s more, the outcomes don’t scale smoothly with your level of skill. When rare, high leverage opportunities come around, being slightly more rational can make a huge difference. Bitcoin was one such opportunity; meeting my wife was another such one for me.  I don’t know what the next one will be: an emerging technology startup? a political upheaval? cryonics? I know that the world is getting weirder faster, and the payouts to Rationality are going to increase commensurately.

There is still the issue of selection bias. Rationalists are not a representative sample of the population by any means. According to the surveys the average LessWrong reader has a vastly higher IQ than average and comes from fields where analytical and systematic thinking is rewarded like engineering, exact sciences, or philosophy. We probably should not conclude that self-improvement through epistemic Rationality will work for many or most people.

But if you're reading this, you're probably not most people. The difference is not merely in ability but also in inclination — what you're curious about and what you're willing to try. If you’re the sort of person for whom success in life means stepping outside the comfort zone that your parents and high school counselor charted out for you, if you’re willing to explore spaces of consciousness and relationships that other people warn you about, if you compare yourself only to who you were yesterday and not to who someone else is today… If you’re weird like me I think that Rationality can improve your life a lot.

But to get better at basketball, you have to actually show up to the gym.

See also: The Martial Art of Rationality.

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I have some pretty complicated thoughts on this, and my heart isn't really in responding to you because I think some things are helpful for some people, but a sketch of what I'm thinking:

First, a clarification. Some early claims - like the ones I was responding to in my 2009 essay - were that rationalists should be able to basically accomplish miracles, become billionaires with minimal work, unify physics with a couple of years of study, etc. I still occasionally hear claims along those lines. I am still against those, but I interpret you as making weaker claims, like that rationalists can be 10% better at things than nonrationalists, after putting in a decent amount of work. I'm less opposed to those claims, especially if "a decent amount of work" is interpreted as "the same amount of work you would need to get good at those things through other methods". But I'm still a little bit concerned about them.

First: I'm interpreting "rationalist self-help" to mean rationalist ideas and practices that are helpful for getting common real-life goals like financial, social, and romantic success. I'm not including things like doing c... (read more)

Thank you for the detailed reply. I'm not going to reply point by point because you made a lot of points, but also because I don't disagree with a lot of it. I do want to offer a couple of intuitions that run counter to your pessimism.

While you're right that we shouldn't expect Rationalists to be 10x better at starting companies because of efficient markets, the same is not true of things that contribute to personal happiness. For example: how many people have a strong incentive in helping you build fulfilling romantic relationships? Not the government, not capitalism, not most of your family or friends, often not even your potential partners. Even dating apps make money when you *don't* successfully seduce your soulmate. But Rationality can be a huge help: learning that your emotions are information, learning about biases and intuitions, learning about communication styles, learning to take 5-minute timers to make plans — all of those can 10x your romantic life.

Going back to efficient markets, I get the sense that a lot of things out there are designed by the 1% most intelligent and ruthless people to take advantage of the 95% and their psychologic... (read more)

Thanks, all good points.

I think efficient market doesn't just suggest we can't do much better at starting companies. It also means we can't do much better at providing self-help, which is a service that can make people lots of money and status if they do it well.

I'm not sure if you're using index fund investing as an example of rationalist self-help, or just as a metaphor for it. If you're using it an example, I worry that your standards are so low that almost any good advice could be rationalist self-help. I think if you're from a community where you didn't get a lot of good advice, being part of the rationalist community can be really helpful in exposing you to it (sort of like the theory where college makes you successful because it inducts you into the upper-middle class). I think I got most of my "invest in index funds" level good advice before entering the rationalist community, so I didn't count that.

Being part of the rationalist community has definitely improved my life, partly through giving me better friends and partly through giving me access to good ideas of the "invest in index funds" level. I hadn't... (read more)

I have several friends in New York who are a match to my Rationalist friends in age, class, intelligence etc. and who:

  • Pick S&P 500 stocks based on CNBC and blogs because their intuition tells them they've beat the market (but they don't check or track it, just remember the winners).
  • Stay in jobs they hate because they don't have a robust decision process for making such a switch (I used goal factoring, Yoda timer job research, and decision matrices to decide where to work).
  • Go so back asswards about dating that it hurts to watch (because they can't think about it systematically).
  • Retweet Trump with comment.
  • Throw the most boring parties.
  • Spend thousands of dollars on therapists but would never do a half-hour debugging session with a friend because "that would be weird".
  • In general, live mostly within "social reality" where the only question is "is this weird/acceptable" and never "is this true/false".

Now perhaps Rationalist self-improvement can't help them, but if you're reading LessWrong you may be someone who may snap out of social reality long enough for Rationality to change your life significantly.

> if you ... (read more)

Agreed, I see a major problem with an argument that seems to imply that since advice exists elsewhere/wasn't invented by rationality techniques, a meta-heuristic for aggregating trustworthy sources isn't hugely valuable.

In general, live mostly within "social reality" where the only question is "is this weird/acceptable" and never "is this true/false".

It seems to me like people who primarily think in terms of weird/acceptable never join the rationality in the first place. Or do you believe that our community has taught people who used to think in those terms to think otherwise?

As I said, someone who is 100% in thrall to social reality will probably not be reading this. But once you peek outside the bubble there is still a long way to enlightenment: first learning how signaling, social roles, tribal impulses etc. shape your behavior so you can avoid their worst effects, then learning to shape the rules of social reality to suit your own goals. Our community is very helpful for getting the first part right, it certainly has been for me. And hopefully we can continue fruitfully exploring the second part too.

2Panashe Fundira
What is the error that you're implying here?
Could be a don't feed the troll error.
It also means we can't do much better at providing self-help, which is a service that can make people lots of money and status if they do it well.

Maybe the incentives are all wrong here, and the most profitable form of "self-help" is one that doesn't provide long term improvement, so that customers return for more and more books and seminars.

In that case, we can easily do better -- better for the "customers", but less profitable for the "gurus".

for me the point is about getting *consistently* good ideas, getting reliable ideas where applying scientific method is too hard. It is much less about self-improvement as it is about community improvement in the face of more and more connected (and thus weird) world. Rationality is epistemology for the internet era.
Even lots of leading rationalist organizations are led by people who haven't put particular effort into anything you could call rationalist self-help! That's really surprising!

Indeed, I'm surprised to read that, because for the leading Berkeley rationalist organizations (MIRI, CFAR, CEA) I can think of at least one person in the top part of their org chart whom I personally know has done a rationalist self-help push for at least a couple of months before taking said role. (In two of those cases it's the top person.)

Can you say what organizations you're thinking of?

Also, yes rationalists do more curating of good advice than invention of it, just as we do with philosophy. But there's a huge value-add in sorting out the good advice in a domain from the bad advice, and this I think the community does in a more cross-domain way than I see elsewhere.

I'm not sure how much we disagree; it sounds like I disagree with you, but maybe most of that is that we're using different framings / success thresholds.

Efficient markets. Rationalists developed rationalist self-help by thinking about it for a while. This implies that everyone else left a $100 bill on the ground for the past 4000 years. If there were techniques to improve your financial, social, and romantic success that you could develop just by thinking about them, the same people who figured out the manioc detoxification techniques, or oracle bone randomization for hunting, or all the other amazingly complex adaptations they somehow developed, would have come up with them.

If you teleported me 4000 years into the past and deleted all of modernity and rationalism's object-level knowledge of facts from my head, but let me keep as many thinking heuristics and habits of thought as I wanted, I think those heuristics would have a pretty large positive effect on my ability to pursue mundane happiness and success (compared to someone with the same object-level knowledge but more normal-for-the-time heuristics).

The way you described things here feels to me like it would yield a large ove

... (read more)
I'd similarly worry that the "manioc detoxification is the norm + human societies are as efficient at installing mental habits and group norms as they are at detoxifying manioc" model should predict that the useful heuristics underlying the 'scientific method' (e.g., 'test literally everything', using controls, trying to randomize) reach fixation in more societies earlier.

I'd disagree! Randomized controlled trials have many moving parts, removing any of which makes them worse than useless. Remove placebo control, and your trials are always positive and you do worse than intuition. Remove double-blinding, same. Remove power calculations, and your trials give random results and you do worse than intuition. Remove significance testing, same. Even in our own advanced civilization, if RCTs give a result different than common sense it's a 50-50 chance which is right; a primitive civilization who replaced their intuitions with the results of proto-RCTs would be a disaster. This ends up like the creationist example where evolution can't use half an eye so eyes don't evolve; obviously this isn't permanently true with either ... (read more)

Randomized controlled trials have many moving parts, removing any of which makes them worse than useless.

I disagree with this- for one thing, they caught on before those patches were known, and still helped make progress. The patches help you discern smaller effects, with less bias, and better understanding of whether the result is a fluke; but the basic version of a randomized trial between two interventions is still vastly superior to human intuition when it comes to something with a large but not blindingly obvious effect size.

And premodern people seem weirdly productive compared to moderns in a lot of ways.

I am curious. Could you expand on this?

I'm confused about how manioc detox is more useful to the group than the individual - each individual self-interestedly would prefer to detox manioc, since they will die (eventually) if they don't.

Yeah, I was wrong about manioc.

Something about the "science is fragile" argument feels off to me. Perhaps it's that I'm not really thinking about RCTs; I'm looking at Archimedes, Newton, and Feynman, and going "surely there's something small that could have been tweaked about culture beforehand to make some of this low-hanging scientific fruit get grabbed earlier by a bunch of decent thinkers, rather than everything needing to wait for lone geniuses". Something feels off to me when I visualize a world where all the stupidly-simple epistemic-methods-that-are-instrumentally-useful fruit got plucked 4000 years ago, but where Feynman can see big gains from mental habits like "look at the water" (which I do think happened).

Your other responses make sense. I'll need to chew on your comments longer to see how much I end up updating overall toward your view.

I'd propose that there's a massive qualitative difference between black-box results (like RCTs) and gears-level model-building (like Archimedes, Newton, and Feynman). The latter are where basically all of the big gains are, and it does seem like society is under-invested in building gears-level models. One possible economic reason for the under-investment is that gears-level models have very low depreciation rates, so they pay off over a very long timescale.
I would suspect it's the other way around, that they have very high depreciation rates; we no longer have Feynman's gears-level models, for example.

about whether we were really up to the task, and about what it would do to our movement if we tried

Does your outlook change at all if you try dropping the assumption that there is a "we" who cares about "our movement"? I've certainly found a lot of the skills I learned from reading the Sequences useful in my subsequent thinking about politics and social science. (Which thinking, obviously, mostly does not take the form of asking whether "liberalism" or "conservatism" is "better"; political spectra are dimensionality reductions.) I'm trying. I'm not sure how much I've succeeded. But I expect my inquiries to be more fruitful than those of people who make appeals to consequences to someone's "movement" before trying to think about something.

You're right in catching and calling out the appeal to consequences there, of course.

But aside from me really caring about the movement, I think part of my thought process is that "the movement" is also the source of these self-help techniques. If some people go into this space and then report later with what they think, I am worried that this information is less trustworthy than information that would have come from these same people before they started dealing with this question.

Even if they only work in modern society, one of the millions of modern people who wanted financial, social, and romantic success before you would have come up with them.

Nobody is claiming that everything around rationalist circles is completely new or invented by them. It's often looked to me more like separating the more and less useful stuff with various combinations of bottom-up and top-down approaches.

Additionally, I'd like to also identify as someone who is definitely in a much much better place now because they discovered LW almost a decade ago even though I also struggle with akrasia and do less to improve myself than I'd like, I'm very sure that just going to therapy wouldn't have improved my outcomes in so many areas, especially financially.

There are so many arguments trying to be had at once here that it's making my head spin.

Here's one. What do we mean by self-help?

I think by self-help Scott is thinking about becoming psychologically a well-adjusted person. But what I think Jacobian means by "rationalist self-help" is coming to a gears level understanding of how the world works to aid in becoming well-adapted. So while Scott is right that we shouldn't expect rationalist self-help to be significantly better than other self-help techniques for becoming a well-adjusted person, Jacobian is right that rationalist self-help is an attempt to become both a well-adjusted person AND a person who participates in developing an understanding of how the world works.

So perhaps you want to learn how to navigate the space of relationships, but you also have this added constraint that you want the theory of how to navigate relationships to be part of a larger understanding of the universe, and not just some hanging chad of random methods without satisfactory explanations of how or why they work. That is to say, you are not willing to settle for unexamined common sense. If that is the case, then rationalist se... (read more)

I think the best answer would be that rationality 101 is tabooing terms and not having the discussion on the level of "is liberalism or conservatism better". OpenPhil does invest money into individual political decisions such as prison reform and I would count them to be part of our rationalist project.
Part of the "resources" is working inside a bureaucratic system where it's necessary to spend a lot of time jumping through hoops. There's another large chunk of time invested in intellectual analysis. Most of the people inside academia spend relatively little time in deliberate practice to build skills to do intervention. It's not surprising to me to have outsiders outperform academia by a large margin.
If doctors would be good at breast cancer diagnosis, the US wouldn't have upped the age where testing is done under the Obama administration. We live in a world where doctors created so many unnecessary operations after they did their diagnosis, that we decided we should do less testing.
I don't know what the actual causal story is here, but it's at any rate not obviously right that if doctors were good at it then there'd be no reason to increase the age, for a few reasons. * Changing the age doesn't say anything about who's how good at what, it says that something has changed. * What's changed could be that doctors have got worse at breast cancer diagnosis, or that we've suddenly discovered that they're bad. But it could also be, for instance: * That patients have become more anxious and therefore (1) more harmed directly by a false-positive result and (2) more likely to push their doctors for further procedures that would in expectation be bad for them. * That we've got better or worse, or discovered we're better or worse than we thought, at treating certain kinds of cancers at certain stages, in a way that changes the cost/benefit analysis around finding things earlier. * E.g., I've heard it said (but I don't remember by whom and it might be wrong, so this is not health advice) that the benefits of catching cancers early are smaller than they used to be thought to be, because actually the reason why earlier-caught cancers kill you less is that ones you catch when they're smaller are more likely to be slower-growing ones that were less likely to kill you whenever you caught them; if that's true and a recent discovery then it would suggest reducing the amount of screening you do. * That previous protocols were designed without sufficient attention to the downsides of testing.

You had a situation where the amount of people who died from cancer were roughly the same in the US and Europe.

At the same time the US started diagnosis earlier and had a higher rate of curing people who are diagnosed with cancer. This does suggest that women got diagnosed in the US with cancer while they wouldn't have been in Europe with lower testing rates but where whether or not they are treated had in the end little effect on mortality due to breast cancer.

If someone is good at making treatment decisions then he should get better outcomes if he gets more testing data. The fact that this didn't seem to happen suggests a problem with the decision making of the cancer doctors.

It's not definite but at the same time I don't see evidence that the doctors are actually good at making decisions.

Looking back, I have quite different thoughts on this essay (and the comments) than I did when it was published. Or at least much more legible explanations; the seeds of these thoughts have been around for a while.

On The Essay

The basketballism analogy remains excellent. Yet searching the comments, I'm surprised that nobody ever mentioned the Fosbury Flop or the Three-Year Swim Club. In sports, from time to time somebody comes along with some crazy new technique and shatters all the records.

Comparing rationality practice to sports practice, rationality has not yet had its Fosbury Flop.

I think it's coming. I'd give ~60% chance that rationality will have had its first Fosbury Flop in another five years, and ~40% chance that the first Fosbury Flop of rationality is specifically a refined and better-understood version of gears-level modelling. It's the sort of thing that people already sometimes approximate by intuition or accident, but has the potential to yield much larger returns once the technique is explicitly identified and intentionally developed.

Once that sort of technique is refined, the returns to studying technique become much larger.

On The Comments - What Does Rationalist Se

... (read more)
It has now been 4 years since this post, and 3 years since your prediction. Two thoughts: 1. prediction markets have really taken off in the past few years and this has been a substantial upgrade in keeping abreast of what's going on in the world. 2. the Fosbury Flop of rationality might have already happened: Korzybski's consciousness of abstraction. It's just not used because of the dozens to hundred hours it takes.
5Matt Goldenberg
The fosbury flop succeeded because there's very clear win conditions for high jump, and it beat everyone else. I think it's much harder to have a fosbury flop for rationality because even if the technique is better it's not immediately obvious and therefore far less memetic.

Missing some other necessary conditions here, but I think your point is correct.

This is a big part of why having a rationalist community matters. Presumably people had jumping competitions in antiquity, and probably at some point someone tried something Fosbury-like (and managed to not break their spine in the process). But it wasn't until we had a big international sporting community that the conditions were set for it to spread.

Now we have a community of people who are on the lookout for better learning/modelling/problem-solving techniques, and have some decent (though far from perfect) epistemic tools in place to distinguish such things from self-help bullshit. Memetically, a Fosbury flop of rationality probably won't be as immediately obvious a success as the Fosbury flop, since we don't have a rationality Olympics (and if we did, it would be Goodharted). On the other hand, we have the internet, we have much faster diffusion of information, and we have a community of people who actively experiment with this sort of stuff, so it's not obvious whether a successful new technique would spread more quickly or less on net.

5Yoav Ravid
The fosbury flop is a good analogy. Where i think it comes short is that rationality is indeed a much more complex thing than jumping. You would need more than just the invention and application of a technique by one person for a paradigm shift - It would at least also require distilling the technique well, learning how to teach it well, and changing the rationality cannon in light of it. I think a paradigm shift would happen when a new rationality cannon will be created and adopted that outperforms the current sequences (very likely also containing new techniques) - and i think that's doable (for a start, see the flaws in the sequence Eliezer himself described in the preface). This isn't low hanging fruit, as it would require a lot of effort from skilled and knowledgeable people, but i would say it's at least visible fruit, so to speak.
1Alexander Gietelink Oldenziel
The obvious candidate for the Rationalist Fosbury flop is the development of good Forecasting environment/software/culture/theory etc.
if the central claim of rationality is that there are a small number of generic techniques that can make you better at a wide range of things, then the basketball analogy is misleading because its a specific skill. The central claim of rationality was that there is such a small number of generic techniques, ie. remove biases and use Bayes. Bayes (Bayes!, Bayes!) was considered the Fosbury Flop for everything. But that seems not to have worked , and to have been quietly dropped. All the defences of rationalism in this article implicitly use a toolbox approach, although law thinking is explicitly recommended.

Jacobian and Scott, you should do the adversarial collaboration thing!

I suspect that the debate about rationalist self-improvement has a problem similar to the "nature vs nurture" debates: it depends on the population. Take a population of literally clones, and all their differences can be explained by environment. Take a population that lives in a uniform environment, and their differences will be mostly genetic.

Similarly, if you already lived in a subculture that gave you the good answers and good habits, all that rationality can do is to give you a better justification for what you already know, and maybe somewhat prepare you for situations when you might meet something you don't know yet. On the other hand, if your environment got many things wrong, and you already kinda suspect it but the peer pressure is strong, learning the right answers and finding the people who accept them is a powerful change.

Scott makes a good point that the benefits of rationality not only fail to live up to expectation based on the rationalist fictional evidence, but often seem invisible. (It's not just that I fail to be Anasûrimbor Kellhus and change the world, but I mostly f... (read more)

I've said it elsewhere, but wringing your hands and crying "it's because of my akrasia!" is definitely not rational behavior; if anything, rationalists should be better at dealing with akrasia. What good is a plan if you can't execute it? It is like a program without a compiler.

Your brain is part of the world. Failing to navigate around akrasia is epistemic failure.

While you're technically correct, I'd say it's still a little unfair (in the sense of connoting "haha you call yourself a rationalist how come you're failing at akrasia").

Two assumptions that can, I think you'll agree, take away from the force of "akrasia is epistemic failure":

  • if modeling and solving akrasia is, like diet, a hard problem that even "experts" barely have an edge on, and importantly, things that do work seem to be very individual-specific making it quite hard to stand on the shoulders of giants
  • if a large percentage of people who've found and read through the sequences etc have done so only because they had very important deadlines to procrastinate

...then on average you'd see akrasia over-represented in rationalists. Add to this the fact that akrasia itself makes manually aiming your rationality skills at what you want harder. That can leave it stable even under very persistent efforts.

That's irrelevant to the question of whether interventions such as reading the sequences or going to a CFAR workshop improve peoples outcomes. It's useful for this discussion to see "rationalist self improvement" as being about the current techniques instead of playing motte-and-bailey.

The search space is multiplicative

Most people have a serious problem with doubling down on the things they're already good at rather than improving the areas they are bad at. This behavior interfaces well with the need to develop comparative advantage in a tribe of 150. It is misfiring badly in the modern context with massive peer groups.

Being embarrassingly bad at things is really difficult past the identity formation stage of adolescence where people calcify around whichever reward signals they invested a few hundred hours in, thus getting over the hump. People build an acceptable life out of whatever skills they have available and avoid areas of life that will provide evidence of incompetence. Midlife crises are often about remembering this forgotten thing when context changes enough to highlight it.

Much of the variance for the outcomes people most care about isn't very controlled by skill, this inculcates learned helplessness in other domains.

Wouldn't the modern context make comparative advantage even more important? It seems to me that the bigger a society you're operating in, the greater the returns to specialization.

Ultra high returns and positive externalities in the tails. Really bad internalities to personal quality of life if some basic thresholds aren't met. I am reminded of David Foster Wallace talking about how the sports press tries to paper over the absurd lifestyles that elite athletes actually live and try to make them seem relatable because that's the story the public wants.

What good is it to become a famous rich athlete if you lose all your money and wind up with brain damage because you never learned to manage any risks?

Ah, I see what you mean, thanks.

I think most of the strength of rationalism hasn't come from the skill of being rational, but rather from the rationality memeplex that has developed around it. Forming accurate beliefs from scratch is a lot more work and happens very slowly compared to learning them from someone else. Compare how much an individual PHD student achieves in his/her doctorate compared to the body of knowledge that they learn before making an original contribution. Likewise, someone who's practised the art of rationality will be instinctively better at distilling information into accurate beliefs. As a result they might have put together slightly more accurate beliefs about the world given what they've seen, but that slight increase in knowledge due to rationality isn't going to hold a candle to the massive pile of cached ideas and arguments that have been debated to hell and back in the rat-sphere.

To paint a clearer picture of what I'm getting at, suppose we model success as:

[Success] ~ ([Knowledge]*[Effort/Opportunities])

I.E. Success is proportional to how much you know, times how many opportunities you have to make use of it/how much effort you make to preform actions that you have chosen base on t

... (read more)
Yep. A group can usually collect much more knowledge than an individual. But the individual can (a) choose the group, and (b) contribute to its knowledge. From selfish perspective, the most important result of rationality is recognizing other rational people and choosing to learn from them. Luckily, information is free, so more people taking the knowledge doesn't increase the costs of those who generate it.

This is a self-review, looking back at the post after 13 months.

I have made a few edits to the post, including three major changes:
1. Sharpening my definition of what counts as "Rationalist self-improvement" to reduce confusion. This post is about improved epistemics leading to improved life outcomes, which I don't want to conflate with some CFAR techniques that are basically therapy packaged for skeptical nerds.
2. Addressing Scott's "counterargument from market efficiency" that we shouldn't expect to invent easy self-improvement techniques that haven't been tried.
3. Talking about selection bias, which was the major part missing from the original discussion. My 2020 post The Treacherous Path to Rationality is somewhat of a response to this one, concluding that we should expect Rationality to work mostly for those who self-select into it and that we'll see limited returns to trying to teach it more broadly.

The past 13 months also provided more evidence in favor of epistemic Rationality being ever more instrumentally useful. In 2020 I saw a few Rationalist friends fund successful startups and several friends cross the $100k mark for cryptocurrency earnings. And of course, LessWrong l... (read more)

Is what all forms of education aim at.

Nominating this post because it asks a very important question - it seems worth considering that rationalists should get out of self-improvement altogether and only focus on epistemics - and gives a balanced picture of the discourse. The section on akrasia seems particularly enlightening and possibly the crux on whether or not techniques work, though I still don't have too much clarity on this. This post also gives me the push necessary to write a long overdue retrospective on my CFAR and Hammertime experience.

Nominating because the idea that rationalists should win (which we can loosely defined as "be better at achieving their goals than non-rationalists") has been under fire in the community (see for instance Scott's comment on this post).

I think this discusses the concern nicely, and shows what rational self-improvement may look like in practice, re-framing expectations.

While far from the only one, this was one important influence in my own self-improvement journey. It's certainly something that comes to mind whenever I think of my own self-improvement philosophy, and when it comes to trying to convince other to do similarly.

4Jacob Falkovich
EDIT: The Treacherous Path was published in 2020 so never mind. Thank you (and to alkjash) for the nomination!  I guess I'm not supposed to nominate things I wrote myself, but this post, if published, should really be read along with The Treacherous Path to Rationality. I hope someone nominates that too. This post is an open invitation to everyone (such as the non-LWers who may read the books to join us). The obvious question is whether this actually works for everyone, and the latter post makes the case for the opposite-mood. I think that in conjunction they offer a much more balanced take on who and what applied rationality is good for.
4Ben Pace
(The Treacherous Path to Rationality, while a post I would personally nominate, was not published in 2019, so cannot be nominated for this Review.)
2Jacob Falkovich
D'oh. I'm dumb.

Consider this as two posts.

The first post is Basketballism. That post is awesome. Loved it. 

The second post is the rest of the post. That post tries to answer the question in the title, but doesn't feel like it makes much progress to me. There's some good discussion that goes back and forth, but mostly everyone agrees on what should be clear to all: No, rationalism doesn't let you work miracles at will, and we're not obviously transforming the world or getting key questions reliably right. Yes, it seems to be helpful, and generally the people who do i... (read more)

What’s more, the outcomes don’t scale smoothly with your level of skill. When rare, high leverage opportunities come around, being slightly more rational can make a huge difference. Bitcoin was one such opportunity; meeting my wife was another such one for me.  I don’t know what the next one will be: an emerging technology startup? a political upheaval? cryonics? I know that the world is getting weirder faster, and the payouts to Rationality are going to increase commensurately.

I think COVID-19 has been another one. Many rats see... (read more)

Why are we even talking about this?

If we are rationalists, should not the second thing to do be "ask our not-rationalist close people how they view us, and whether this changed around time T when we started doing things R?" (Yes, their answers will be influenced by sheer unpurified "life", but much of that "life" also work on us.) And before we ask them, the actual first thing to do would be to look at our other acquaintances and try to remember them around the time T, to see how they changed.

I don't think this will work, beyond giving an impression of much noise. But since this won't work, everything more complicated is even less trustworthy.

There seem to be two different questions:

1) Does self-improvement approaches work?

2) Is rationalist self-improvement superior over other approaches.

Let me start with the second issue.

Rob writes further down that the idea of TABs/implementation intentions was crystallized in 1999. It might be true for academia, but I don't the concept is very different from the way "anchor" is used in NLP two decades earlier.

I would even think that the older NLP concepts are further developed. Both in terms of modeling behavior (book: The EMPRINT Method) and... (read more)

7Jacob Falkovich
Somewhat unrelated, but one can think of RSI as being a *meta* self-improvement approach — it's what allows you to pick and choose between many competing theories of self-improvement. Aside from that, I didn't read the academic literature on TAPs before trying them out. I tried them out and measured how well they work for me, and then decided when and where to use them. Good Rationalist advice is to know when to read meta-analyses and when to run a cheap experiment yourself :)
Given that RSI is an acronym that has already a fixed meaning, adding a new meaning is likely going to be confusing for a lot of readers.
This seems correct to me. There are already self-improvement approaches to attempt and modify. Using epistemic rationality to achieve instrumental rationality is less about creating an RSI, and more about evaluating and improving upon existing SIs.

I often feel that use of rationality guides me towards the basketbalists, that already exist.

I think we should be clear to distinguish between person-level and population-level improvements. Individual-level improvement is relatively easy (for the young); just head to the gym or the library. Population-level improvement is much harder; eventually all of that self-improvement is lost to age. The improvements have to be continually replenished by training the young (unfortunately ignorance is a renewable resource). There's no intrinsic conflict between the belief that individuals can improve themselves through rational effort and the belief that society as a whole is in a steady state where self-improvement among the young roughly offsets declines due to age and infirmity.

Hello. I’m new.

I was invited to the community by someone who I have spent probably 20+ hours in rationalist arguments with. They seemed to think I belong, which is how I got here. I can proudly say that around certain subjects, my thinking is extremely consistent. Unbreakable, even. Around the majority of subjects, not so much. I have regularly been told I’m “intelligent” by people who are smarter than me. I don’t feel it. My reason for being here is to be able to think better, faster, and more reliably feel in control of my future. The world is changing f... (read more)

A shorter version of R:A-Z is the Sequences Highlights:  There's still a moderate amount of reading there but it's more like a book you could read over a weekend.
Thanks, kind internet person

I haven’t finished reading this post yet, but one thing jumped out at me, which is that… lumping “reading the Sequences” and “attending CFAR” (I assume you meant, a CFAR workshop or some such) into one class, and calling the whole thing “rationalist self-improvement”, seems rather ridiculous. These two things are… very much unlike one another. I honestly don’t see how they could sensibly be aggregated into anything at all resembling a natural category. And so I don’t think that anything at all may be concluded from your Twitter poll.

This is a properly controversial comment and I find this confusing. Could someone who's down-voted it explain their reasoning for doing so? My best guess is the first sentence: "I haven’t finished reading this post yet, but one thing jumped out at me, which is that…" My best guess is that we have a norm against responding before reading the entire post, or that comments that start off that way often end up being vapid or clearly wrong.
5Said Achmiz
For the record, I (of course) finished reading the post shortly after posting the grandparent comment (and prior to posting all my subsequent comments in this thread). Nothing in the rest of the post changed my view on this topic, nor the relevance of my comment.
I'm sympathetic to the point you're making - practice is a very different thing from reading. But, how you wrote it reads as overly harsh. EDIT: to be more specific, calling that lumping "ridiculous" and saying nothing at all could be concluded from the poll were both far harsher than warranted IMO
5Said Achmiz
I mean, that was one of the points I was making… I guess. But… just, in general, these two activities do not much resemble one another; they are different along many dimensions (and important ones!). Isn’t that obvious? It seems like quite a straightforward point, to me. Maybe my point got “rounded to the nearest cliche” or something, and that cliche perceived as harsh, I don’t know. I am quite taken aback by the downvotes; I’ve certainly made many comments here that I expected to be controversial, but this was not one of them.

I mean, a lot of the CFAR curriculum is based on content in the sequences, the handbook covers a lot of the same declarative content, and they are setting out with highly related goals (with Eliezer helping with early curriculum development, though much less so in recent years). The beginning of R:A-Z even explicitly highlights how he thinks CFAR is filling in many of the gaps he left in the sequences, clearly implying that they are part of the same aim. 

Sure, there are differences, but overall they are highly related and I think can meaningfully be judged to be in a natural category. Similar to how a textbook and a university-class or workshop on the same subject are obviously related, even though they will differ on many relevant dimensions.

The CFAR staff frequently makes the point that they don't want to give their handbook to outsiders, because attending a CFAR workshop is radically different then reading the handbook and they don't want idea inoculation and people to think that the workshop is similar to just reading the handbook.
5Said Achmiz
Yes, yes, they (EDIT: that is, the CFAR curriculum and the Sequences) may clearly be grouped into the same broad category in terms of content, but that is hardly the point! The activities of “reading the Sequences” and “attending a CFAR workshop” are what’s being compared… and those things are very, very different.

nods You did say the following: 

I honestly don’t see how they could sensibly be aggregated into anything at all resembling a natural category

I interpreted that as saying "there is no resemblance between attending a CFAR workshop and reading the sequences", which seems to me to include the natural categories of "they both include reading/listening to largely overlapping concepts" and "their creators largely shared the same aim in the effects it tried to produce in people". 

I think there is a valuable and useful argument to be made here that in the context of trying to analyze the impact of these interventions, you want to be careful to account for the important differences between reading a many-book length set of explanations and going to an in-person workshop with in-person instructors, but that doesn't seem to me what you said in the your original comment. You just said that there is no sensible way to put these things into the same category, which just seems obviously wrong to me, since there clearly is a lot of shared structure to analyze between these interventions. 

5Said Achmiz
I still think this, to be clear. I don’t think “there are similarities between X and Y” and “X and Y cannot be sensibly aggregated into a natural category” are at odds (except if you’re being pedantic). To take a somewhat extreme example, an apple and a hurricane are similar in that they are both phenomena that exist in physical reality, both are things you may encounter on the planet Earth, both are things that we have words for in English, etc., etc. If, however, you create a category “foozles; for example, apples, hurricanes, etc.”, then I should think that something is wrong with your reasoning. But in any case, it wasn’t my intent to make a particularly big deal out of this point; it’s not important enough to warrant a comment thread of even this size, so I am quite willing to let it go. Certainly other aspects of the OP are more interesting to discuss.
2Данило Глинський
I’d say, it is very strange how different people understand same words differently. Originally I thought that those 2 activities are in same category, but now that I read your explanations, shouldn’t I adjust my “categorization” heuristics? Who’s wrong here? This issue seems small compared to original topic, but how can we improve anything, if we don’t speak same language and don’t know what’s right and who’s wrong?
nods Seems good. I agree that there are much more interesting things to discuss. 
For the record, I didn't actually downvote you--just wanted to share why I suspect others did. I agree with your full reasoning and didn't mean to imply you thought that was the only significant difference. I mostly agree with what habryka is saying, though.