Presents for impoving rationality or reducing superstition?

by mtaran1 min read19th Dec 201135 comments

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It's traditional in many parts of the world to buy (or make) presents for at least the closest members one's family around this time of the year. I would like to know if anyone here has ideas for presents to give to people from college age to middle age who are not rationalists, but not completely closed off to the idea.

So far I've considered mostly things that would help rid them of various superstitions, particularly astrology and the 2012 apocalypse myth. For this purpose I've looked at books and videos on

  • the history of astrology
  • the actual causes of various natural disasters
  • modern cosmology

Has anyone else on LW faced this sort of situation before? Or does anyone here have general advice on this topic?

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I have found the game Settlers Of Catan to be useful for illustrating basic economic principles like gains from trade, pareto efficiency, and price forming mechanisms. It is also pretty good for helping people to build a self image as someone who can connect calculatingly rational strategic plans (counting dots given various build plans) to specific short term plans (knowing what can be safely offered and what to trade for) which are accomplished through structured conversations that function as both resource negotiations and playfully friendly conversation. Being good at the game involves a sort of "end to end metabolic pathway" where any hiccups at any stage can sabotage the total performance, so it tests and exercises a lot of elements in a person's character and thinking in a pleasantly comprehensive way.

As one example, I've noticed that some women do poorly at the game at first because they seem to have a self image around being "nice" where niceness includes something like "never being at all demanding about getting their fair share out of mutually beneficial voluntary associations". But if they play a reasonable number of games in a supportive environment then they learn to be somewhat demanding (enough to win sometimes) in ways that are compatible with the rest of their self image.

Other times there will be people whose early big lesson is stopping to consider multiple build plans to see which will lead to accumulating the most resources fastest based on statistical dice expectations. Initially, they'll build a road half way to one build site and then change their mind and build a road and settlement to a different place, not because something surprising happened that motivated the change in plans, but just because they didn't stop to think about what they really wanted and were acting on a series of vague opportunity-based impulses. As they learn, their play becomes much more directed.

The thing I'm not certain of is whether such lessons translate into real life performance improvements, but it seems to me that they probably do.

In my experience Settlers of Catan has taught everyone I know the instrumental rationalistic lesson that Karmakaiser is never to be trusted.

It has taught me the instrumental rational lesson that winning isn't everything. That is, people get pissed off and sulk if I win every time so it is sometimes better to play games that are either team based (only half the people sulk) or heavily randomized (if I play perfectly I still lose sometimes).

Interesting. Playing tabletop and card games taught me quite the opposite lesson: that you can have a lot of fun while losing, and you don't have to be embarrassed about losing social status.

Interesting. Playing tabletop and card games taught me quite the opposite lesson: that you can have a lot of fun while losing, and you don't have to be embarrassed about losing social status.

That is a useful lesson but it doesn't seem to in any way 'opposite'.

I was quite in a hurry when I replied before, let me clarify. What I mean is that while you (correct me if I didn't understand properly) tried to minimize the number of people getting pissed off by letting everyone win at least sometimes, I (and my friend) have managed to get rid of the problem by learning to have a good time while losing (i.e. we enjoy more the act of playing than the result of winning).

Ha :-) What do you do that's not trustworthy? Do you not pay up on futures contracts or something?

People assume I am hyper competent and therefore form alliances in whatever game is being played to oust me first. Ironically I rarely ever win because of their high opinion of my skills. In response I treat Settler's of Catan as Grand Theft Auto where my goal is less to win, if it looks as if I'm about to I'm hit with trade embargo's faster than you can say Ahmadinejad, and more to seed chaos so that the other players have a rougher go. It's always widely entertaining.

(not Karmakaiser) In my case, people I play with learned not to trust my protestations of woe and ill luck :) I seem to usually aim for greater strategic planning (deeper building plots), perhaps influenced by early-age chess training. I also put relatively higher value on not revealing my plans (that is, compared to some of my friends, not revealing my goals has a higher preference as its own separate goal). So it's become a staple in our games that I'm behind others in points, then suddenly surge ahead and either win outright or get really close to winning. It doesn't always work, of course, but when it does it may seem spectacular.

I think my behavior taught at least some people I play with to never give up on going for the longest road/the largest army advantages. It's interesting that many players seem to go, "Well, I'm not getting those" and then completely putting them out of their minds, as if to free themselves for other concerns. I'm always plotting to get them, particularly when it seems I've given up on them and ruefully said so. They may not factor significantly in my strategy if it truly seems unlikely, but the thought's always there.

(Disclaimer: I very probably suck at Catan! I've been playing only for a year, not very frequently, mostly with other beginners. But "I only need to outrun you", etc. I wholeheartedly support the recommendation of the game).

The thing I'm not certain of is whether such lessons translate into real life performance improvements, but it seems to me that they probably do.

See, I'd presume from my knowledge of humans that they would compartmentalise horribly, and only apply lessons in one area to another rarely and with trepidation, as if they were crossing the magisteria.

I suppose we need studies: is gaming effective in training people up in a real-life field when they're not told the game is training material? We have people here working to achieve that very effect. And not to do the opposite.

(Of course, Cracked provides - check the first game in that article.)

I have found the game Settlers Of Catan to be useful for illustrating basic economic principles like gains from trade,

I agree with the rest of your post, but not this part. Catan is zero-sum (someone wins); real economies are not. When you trade with someone in Catan, you're not making a traditional Pareto improvement; rather, it's basically a test of who is more accurately gaging the "consumer surplus" of the other party. Except for the cases where you have to team up against a near-victory player (and then, only temporarily), you're basically hoping the other party doesn't realize how much more advantageous the trade is for you.

So in this respect, it doesn't model the dynamics that are at play in an actual economy, in which both parties become better off and generally don't have to have to center their concerns on "what do they see that I don't?"

(Note: in a previous article, I showed how another game failed to capture the actual dynamics responsible for markets' anti-cartel tendencies and yet a professor used it as an illustrative example anyway.)

[-][anonymous]10y 4

I imagine that most trades in Catan are beneficial to both players, which makes sense only because only two players get the benefit from the trade. If one played 2-player Catan, which seems sort of boring anyway, there would be no trading because every trade would be of the "trick the opponent" type you describe.

Both players believe they will benefit from the trade, but only one of them (at most) will win. This is not the same from it being beneficial in a more long-term, reflectively-consistent sense.

The same dynamic you describe as being present in 2-player Catan is also present in trades between two players in 3+ player Catan, but with the caveats I mentioned before.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

In the short-to-medium term, maximizing probability of winning is more or less the same as maximizing the rate at which you accumulate points. Trades that maximize points work in roughly the same way as they would in a real economy, given that it's a rough model that doesn't even try to be a perfect simulation. Near the end of the game, other concerns come up, because it becomes important to get to 10 points first even if this is not the action that maximizes projected point gain; for most of the game, though, that's not true.

Both players believe they will benefit from the trade, but only one of them (at most) will win. This is not the same from it being beneficial in a more long-term, reflectively-consistent sense.

Also, both players might benefit by having a more fun game, rather than both being stuck unable to build anything.

Thanks a lot for the suggestion. We already own the game and really enjoy playing it :)

As one example, I've noticed that some women do poorly at the game at first because they seem to have a self image around being "nice" where niceness includes something like "never being at all demanding about getting their fair share out of mutually beneficial voluntary associations".

Fair share? Thinking in terms of fair at all is still part of the 'nice' trap! ;)

This is true, but thinking in terms of thinking in terms of thinking in terms of fair is not; in some situations I might want to self-modify into a fairness based agent.

I'm thinking of the classic two-person experiment where one distributes a sum of money among the two and the other accepts it or neither gets anything particularly when if the vetoer is using e.g. cold calculation or spite rather than fairness, the distributer makes different decisions than when (the distributer believes) the vetoer is using fairness criteria.

Since happiness research generally says "spend money on experiences rather than possessions", perhaps buying them tickets to a show at a planetarium or to the closest museum of science or natural history....

Could you elaborate on that research? I've heard the claim, but I don't quite understand it. Tickets are a possession. They're a possession that leads to a particular new experience, but most possessions lead to new experiences. I couldn't experience camping without first possessing a tent, for example. Is it that the tickets lead to a relatively unique new experience? But I doubt that getting lifetime passes instead of one-time tickets would be an inferior gift. Is it that the new experience in the case of the tickets is more likely to be a shared/social experience too? That makes sense, but it wouldn't rule out board games or a number of other clear "possessions" gift ideas.

Possessions can absolutely produce experiences. The advice is to pay attention to the experiences you're buying, not just whether you will have something. Having something for the sake of having something doesn't make you happy (is what the studies show).

If they are a reader, try Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It is currently the closest thing to Less Wrong in book form while still being readable and interesting to the layman. On the other hand, your gift would probably be more appreciated if it was chosen to reflect their interests rather than yours.

I am currently reading this book and would like to second the recommendation.

Thirded, it is definitely "LessWrong, the Book", although it doesn't do a lot of Bayes, or any QM, FAI, reductionism, or meanings of words. Actually, I guess that makes it more like "Overcoming Bias, The Book", except without all the status and signaling, and omitting the near/far inflence on behavior, except as mediated by thinking.

(Holy crap, how big would LW/OB the book be if you included all that stuff? Thinking Fast and Slow is huge, physically speaking.)

Thirded, it is definitely "LessWrong, the Book", although it doesn't do a lot of Bayes, or any QM, FAI, reductionism, or meanings of words.

Clearly it needs to be sold in a combo with Gary Drescher's Good and Real.

I'm reading ciphergoth's LW ebook on my phone. It gets a bit dull around page 12,000 (of ~20,000 * ) where it's only one side of EY's debates on AI with Robin Hanson. But certainly good up to there.

** Mobipocket Reader for BlackBerry calls a two-paragraph screen a "page", so a 300-page paperback turns into ~2000 screens. The Sequences remain very* long.

Magic tricks are good way to teach children to be skeptical of miracles.

See also, for younger people. This Christmas I gave Dawkins' "The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True" to my 12-year-old nephew. Generally, though, I don't try to push such things on anyone, child or adult. The book speaks for itself, and what he makes of it is up to him. If I know someone's interests, I'll try to find something that fits with that, rather than what I think they ought to be interested in.

If you're not afraid of the possibility of offending someone, I'd suggest giving them a cheap gift (in addition to an actual thoughtful one) that gently mocks their favorite superstition. For instance, one year I got my Korean friend a cheap electric fan with no turn-off timer on it (a reference to the popular Korean belief in fan death). She was annoyed but somewhat amused, and has since discarded that particular belief.

EDIT: A personal favorite is The [blank] of [blank] by means of natural [blank] or the [blank] of favoured [blank] in the struggle for life, a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species with any word not appearing in the King James Bible blanked out.

Doesn't believing in the 2012 apocalypse myth indicate the level of critical thinking too low to be receptive to any kind of rational thought? This blog entry could be a start.

I'd say it's a golden opportunity for receptivity; most other crazy belief systems aren't so polite as to include easily-tested predictions with sharp deadlines.

If science didn't move on so fast, I'd suggest some Isaac Asimov writing on science. Got me at age twelve. Is there any that isn't horribly outdated in 2011?

College age to middle age ... I can't see a frontal assault working to any degree, and the trouble with anti-epistemology is that it is quite good at defending itself. So the question is how to white-ant it. This Hitchens series is hilarious and has effectively introduced a few people to the very notion that he might not be a semimythical fire-breathing dragon of scepticism. This suggests finding writers who are engaging and highly readable and carry reason as their secret (to the anti-epistemologist) payload.

white-ant
[...]
Verb
[...] To bring down from within; to undermine.

I'm giving everyone vitamin D as a stocking stuffer this year.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Doesn't believing in the 2012 apocalypse indicate the level of critical thinking too low to be receptive to any kind of rational thought? To encourage one to develop some level of critical thinking, you may want to look at this blog entry.

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