Less Wrong NYC: Case Study of a Successful Rationalist Chapter


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Cosmos

It is perhaps the best-kept secret on Less Wrong that the New York City community has been meeting regularly for almost two years. For nearly a year we've been meeting weekly or more.  The rest of this post is going to be a practical guide to the benefits of group rationality, but first I will do something that is still too rare on this blog: make it clear how strongly I feel about this. Before this community took off, I did not believe that life could be this much fun or that I could possibly achieve such a sustained level of happiness.

Being rational in an irrational world is incredibly lonely. Every interaction reveals that our thought processes differ widely from those around us, and I had accepted that such a divide would always exist. For the first time in my life I have dozens of people with whom I can act freely and revel in the joy of rationality without any social concern - hell, it's actively rewarded! Until the NYC Less Wrong community formed, I didn't realize that I was a forager lost without a tribe...

Rationalists are still human, and we still have basic human needs. lukeprog summarizes the literature on subjective well-being, and the only factors which correlate to any degree are genetics, health, work satisfaction and social life - which actually gets listed three separate times as social activity, relationship satisfaction and religiosity. Rationalists tend to be less socially adept on average, and this can make it difficult to obtain the full rewards of social interaction. However, once rationalists learn to socialize with each other, they also become increasingly social towards everyone more generally. This improves your life. A lot.

We are a group of friends to enjoy life alongside, while we try miracle fruit, dance ecstatically until sunrise, actively embarrass ourselves at karaoke, get lost in the woods, and jump off waterfalls.  Poker, paintball, parties, go-karts, concerts, camping... I have a community where I can live in truth and be accepted as I am, where I can give and receive feedback and get help becoming stronger. I am immensely grateful to have all of these people in my life, and I look forward to every moment I spend with them. To love and be loved is an unparalleled experience in this world, once you actually try it.

So, you ask, how did all of this get started...?

Genesis, or a Brief History of Nearly Everything

The origin of the NYC chapter was the April 24th, 2009 meetup that Robin Hanson organized when he came to the city for a prediction markets conference.  Approximately 15 people attended over the course of the night, and we all agreed that we had way too much fun together not to do this on a regular basis. I handed out my business cards to everyone there, told them to e-mail me, and I would create a mailing list. Thus Overcoming Bias NYC was born.

It was clear from the very beginning that Jasen Murray was the person most interested in seeing this happen, so he became the organizer of the group for the first year of its existence. At first the times and locations were impromptu, but in August Jasen made the brilliant move of precommitting to be at a specific time and place for a minimum of two hours twice per month. Because enough of us liked Jasen and wanted to hang out with him anyway, several people began showing up every time and a regular meetup was established. Going forward we tried a combination of social meetups, focused discussions and game nights. Jasen also attempted to shift coordination from the mailing list to the Meetup group, but Meetup is not a great mailing list and people were loathe to use multiple services. That now serves as our public face.

In April 2010, Jasen departed to run the Visiting Fellows program at SIAI, and I became the group's organizer. We immediately agreed on a number of changes: weekly meetups (with game nights every other week), focused discussions addressing specific problems instead of general theory, and a temporary taboo on discussion of AGI/FAI. We also moved the majority of our meetups from a public diner to a private residence, which avoided a lot of hassles with loud crowds, ordering of food, etc.  These changes marked our transition to a social group that focused on practical life benefits. June brought two more key changes: we started holding strategy sessions on request to help members optimize their lives, and I started hugging people, which began a cascade of increasing physical contact. That summer brought an increased interest in skill sharing, a reduced game night frequency, and meetups focused around specific topics. That fall we began using the group more for discussions, sharing social events of mutual interest, and coordinating activities together outside of the weekly meetups.

Then, in October, things began to accelerate. I told everyone on the list to respond or be removed, to get an idea of numbers and to galvanize the core membership. Several members broke off old relationships and some of them entered new ones within the group. More women started attending; we had previously been almost all male. We began having more contact with the west coast rationalists, including visits by Jasen and Michael Vassar and an extended stay by Divia, which brought valuable new memes to our community. Self-reported levels of fun and happiness began to radically increase. Mailing list discussions turned towards asking for practical advice. The meetups took on a self-improvement focus, with weekly goal-setting and accountability. Andrew Rettek began a public lecture series presenting the Sequences. Demand for more-than-weekly meetups grew...

Lessons

NYC has pioneered creating rationalist communities. While we have largely proceeded via trial and error, the rest of you who are going to become organizers can learn from our experiments and avoid a lot of mistakes. The lessons largely fall under two categories: how to build a group, and what to do with a group once you have one. I hope that you find this advice helpful in your own efforts to establish rationalist communities.

Building a Community

Communities need heroes: Until we have a cadre of paid community organizers, LW meetups will have to run on hero power. Most members are going to be passively attending, a few will actively contribute ideas and activities on the mailing list, but someone needs to be willing to step up as a leader and begin organizing people. Do you want a community badly enough to build one yourself?

Commitment works: We started having regular meetings because Jasen committed to showing up at a specific time and place and staying for a minimum length of time, regardless of other attendance. Enough folks wanted to hang out that this resulted in successful meetups.

Schedule events first, get feedback later: Trying to ask everyone to state their preferences in order to accommodate them all rarely works and can result in prolonged indecision. Just schedule a time and place and topic; people who want to come but can't will speak up and tell you why. With enough iterations you can settle on something approximately utility maximizing.

We are a group of friends: This is the true secret of our success, we are not just a meetup group. We started off as a bunch of people who enjoyed talking about rationality enough that we kept doing it regularly until we became a part of each other's lives. You can tell because we greet each other with hugs instead of handshakes. That physical contact has a profound psychological impact. Furthermore, almost the entire growth of our group has come through friend-referral, not through increased Less Wrong readership. Rationality per se is not the core selling point of the group - people genuinely like hanging out with us, and they tell other people to come hang out with us too.

Gender ratio matters: It is no secret that rationality suffers from a paucity of women, which makes it difficult to start a group with any women at all. There is no easy answer here, but it is important to address this factor as early as possible. Simply put, if you're winning at life and having enough fun women will want to join you, and a balanced gender ratio encourages more people of both genders to attend.  Work hard to find interested women, and be careful in the presence of newcomers when trying to sanely explicitly discuss hot-button gender topics.  In case the argument for more women is not sufficiently clear, gender-balanced meetups are a lot more fun, and it provides a unique perspective on ideas and group dynamics.

The mailing list is for more than just meetups: While scheduling meetups is an obvious function of a group mailing list, it can be used for all manner of discussions and coordination between group members. Given our significant overlapping interests, one function of the list is for people to invite others to join them on their adventures, be that going to conferences, parties, sous-vide steak dinners, rock climbing, or whatever else people feel like doing.  Another very important use is to ask the group for advice on a particular subject, like optimizing OKCupid profiles, learning programming languages, alleviating bad moods, and more! Last but not least, mailing lists make large group discussions on serious questions feasible.

Interact with outside rationalists as much as possible: Just as division of labor exists within the group, it also exists among groups. This allows a steady flow of new memes to try out, and an external evaluation of the current group memes. SIAI and the NYC community have been working on different projects and have different perspectives, and it has been extremely helpful to both groups to have more collaboration between them. NYC is also a major city, so we get a lot of visiting rationalists passing through, and people have traveled from neighboring states to attend our events. This provides constant perspective and growth.

Meetup topics

  • Social/unfocused discussions: Attendance is usually poor, members replied that hanging out is harder to justify than having a specific purpose.
  • Discussion topics: Reliably good attendance and fun. The topics can vary widely, everything from TDT to making money. Note that large group discussions rarely lead to progress/insight on a question, but breaking into smaller sub-groups can work.
  • Presentation/skill share: Depends on the topic, draws specialized crowds, but usually high interest.
  • Game nights: Good for social bonding, regulars reliably show up. Poker, Nomic, German-style games popular. Games also represent a very stylized domain within which we can practice optimizing - rationalists should reliably win more on average or we're doing something wrong.  Note that even folks not playing the game still show up to socialize.
  • Group planning/meta: Draws only core members, so low attendance, but that is actually useful in this context. Worth doing occasionally for feedback and direction if no other avenues exist.
  • Structured exercises: Attendance varies but exercises tend to be highly engaging, we will likely explore with this format more in the future. Our recent fun with cognitive biases is a good example
  • Bacchanalia: Because sometimes, you just really need to party.

Group Rationality

Spend time with each other: The biggest benefit of having the community is having the community.  Hold meetups often, and use the mailing list to arrange activities outside the meetups as well. Do the things you like doing... together. Get to know other people in the group, figure out who your closest friends are and hang out with them.  This is incredibly fun, promotes well-being, and encourages the spread of knowledge. When everyone is feeling good, the positive mood contagion can be overwhelmingly powerful.

Epistemic privilege and meme-sharing: The most powerful aspect of a group of rationalists is that you have an entire class of people whose reasoning you trust. Division of labor arises naturally as each member has different interests, they all pursue a variety of skills and areas of expertise, which they can then bring back to the group. Even the lowest-level rationalists in the group can rapidly upgrade themselves by adopting winning heuristics from other group members. I cannot overstate the power of epistemic privilege. We have rapidly spread knowledge about metabolism, exercise, neuroscience, meditation, hypnosis, several systems of therapy... and don't forget the Dark Arts.

Ask the group for help: There is a reason we identify as aspiring rationalists, rather than just plain rationalists. Despite our best efforts we are not perfect Bayesians, but at least we know the importance of saying oops. One of the biggest advantages of a group of rationalists is that any of the individual members can ask the group for help when they are feeling indecisive or they think their logic is compromised. When everyone else in the group unanimously agrees with each other and disagrees with us, that's evidence strong enough not to ignore. For the record, the only thing that drives rationalists crazier than loneliness is being in a relationship.

Be honest with each other: Maybe this should go without saying, but it bears worth repeating. One of a rationalist's strengths is not identifying with our beliefs, which allows us to surrender our old attire, update on new evidence, and actually change our minds. It is difficult for others to identify errors in our data or reasoning if that entire process is a black box - and by symmetry, if others wish to improve as well, they need to be willing to hear us and we need to be willing to tell them unpleasant truths. Most rationalists I have encountered also tend not to be very judgmental, and this quality makes this kind of communication drastically easier because everyone feels safe. Make your community a place where everyone can give and receive feedback and share their best knowledge of the map without fear.

Learn to be social, and go forth into the world: To be frank, many of us are not very good at social interaction, which can definitely be painful, and, when socializing is an important part of our life or job, debilitating. Fortunately, rationalists have a major hack: we can start socializing with each other in a non-judgmental environment. Once some of the benefits of regular social interaction settle in, and people become happier and more comfortable in groups, it becomes increasingly easy to socialize with other people outside the group. There has been a very clear trend towards increased sociability and as a result good social outcomes.

Most progress is accomplished in small groups: There is strong consensus that group discussions rarely result in updating, even if they are fun. Conversations of 2 or 3 (maybe 4 at the most), seem to produce the most useful insights. This is why spending time together bilaterally is incredibly important to group development. When a handful of people are all interested in a particular topic and practice it together, they form a de facto working group which allows them to iterate rapidly and then teach it to the rest of the members.

Set goals and hold each other accountable: This has been a recent, but powerful, addition to the group. Humans are not automatically strategic, but we have each other to remind us of this fact. The vast majority of people don't even reach the first step of having explicit goals! Not only that, but being a social group allows us to leverage that social pressure on each other - it is legitimately challenging to stand in front of the group and admit that you have not achieved your goal for the week. These goals should either be focused on the most important step that would change your life, or radically push you outside your comfort zone.

The Road Ahead

The NYC community continues to change and grow, and every week brings something new. The problem of optimizing group rationality is far from solved, and I hope to share insights with Less Wrong as we continue to have them. Our current biggest challenge is that we are outgrowing our usual meetup location as there has been demand for more meetups on a wide variety of topics. Given that our biggest strengths are social in nature, we are beginning to hit fundamental limits on group size above which coordination begins to break down.

The solution we are currently implementing is creating multiple groups, each meeting weekly and focused on a different topic. Andrew Rettek is creating a group at Columbia University, focusing on outreach/education and specifically teaching rationality through cognitive biases. My own group is focusing on self-development, which involves goal-setting, skill-sharing, and creating tools to correct errors in reason and emotion - in short, instrumental rationality. Zvi Mowshowitz is running a third group sticking to the core meetups like discussions and game nights, and trying experimental formats as well.  Members may attend any meetups they wish during the week, with the goal of decreasing total attendance at each one to keep numbers reasonable - and we will keep creating more groups if these ones get full.

Most importantly, however, we want to make everything we have done here and everything we have learned reliably reproducible.  This post is one example of an attempt to codify what steps we have taken to get here from there as a community so that others can begin following our lead, and I fully intend to flesh out each of these in more exact detail. We have also stumbled on a number of useful memes and heuristics, all of which I seek to turn into explicit knowledge: step by step instructions that anyone could follow to achieve similar benefits. Given that much of this knowledge will likely contain implicit components, instructors of these skills should be able to earn profits teaching them to others. Making more money seems to be one of the biggest metrics on which rationalists do not yet perform exceptionally, but if we are truly creating value in the world we should learn how to capture it.

Call to Assemble

You have now heard my case for group rationality, and it rests upon the individual benefits it incurs: you will be drastically more happy, and you will level up a lot more quickly. Armed with this knowledge, what should you do?

First of all, if you live in an area which already has a critical mass of rationalists you should take these lessons and create a community of your own, so that you and everyone else can reap the rewards. It is up to you to be the hero - yes, you.  One common piece of feedback we get from new members is that Less Wrong discussions are intimidating, and they don't feel qualified to even talk about these topics (much less contribute or become an organizer).  They are invariably wrong.

If you find yourself having to move for any reason, then you should make every attempt you can to congregate in an area with more people.  Note that in-person interaction requires minimal effective distance between people. There is a strong case to pick NYC: it is a major urban area with a lot of different job opportunities, the unusually good subway system shortens effective distance, and we are creating a model which can scale with additional rationalists. Two alternatives are suburban areas with good highways, or to move within walking distance of other rationalists. Taken to the limit you can share housing with other rationalists, as in the case of the Visiting Fellows program. As the NYC community grows we are naturally clustering around different parts of the city, and we hope to build an intentional community where many of us live together in shared housing.

You may have had a sense that more was possible, and if you did then you were correct: groups of rationalists have more fun and win at life, and it's time to scale up the awesome. Whether you decide to make your own home or come join ours, the NYC community will always welcome you with open arms.