Connection Theory Has Less Than No Evidence

by WilliamJames 2 min read1st Aug 201450 comments


I’m a member of the Bay Area Effective Altruist movement. I wanted to make my first post here to share some concerns I have about Leverage Research.

At parties, I often hear Leverage folks claiming they've pretty much solved psychology. They assign credit to their central research project: Connection Theory.

Amazingly, Connection Theory is never something I find endorsed by even a single conventionally educated person with knowledge of psychology. Yet some of my most intelligent friends end up deciding that Connection Theory seems promising enough to be given the benefit of the doubt. They usually give black-box reasons for supporting it, like, “I don’t feel confident assigning less than a 1% chance that it’s correct — and if it works, it would be super valuable. Therefore it’s very high EV!”. They do this sort of hedging as though psychology were a field that couldn’t be probed by science or understood in any level of detail. I would argue that this approach is too forgiving and charitable in situations when you can instead just analyze the theory using standard scientific reasoning. You could also assess its credibility based on standard quality markers or even the perceived quality of the work going into developing the theory.

To start, here’s some warning signs for Connection Theory:

  1. Invented by amateurs without knowledge of psychology
  2. Never published for scrutiny in any peer-reviewed venue, conference, open access journal, or even a non peer-reviewed venue of any type
  3. Unknown outside of the research community that created it
  4. Vaguely specified
  5. Cites no references
  6. Created in a vacuum from first principles
  7. Contains disproven cartesian assumptions about mental processes
  8. Unaware of the frontier of current psychology research
  9. Consists entirely of poorly conducted, unpublished case studies
  10. Unusually lax methodology... even for psychology experiments
  11. Data from early studies shows a "100% success rate" -- the way only a grade-schooler would forge their results
  12. In a 2013 talk at Leverage Research, the creator of Connection Theory refused to acknowledge the possibility that his techniques could ever fail to produce correct answers.
  13. In that same talk, when someone pointed out a hypothetical way that an incorrect answer could be produced by Connection Theory, the creator countered that if that case occurred, Connection Theory would still be right by relying on a redefinition of the word “true”.
  14. The creator of Connection Theory brags about how he intentionally targets high net worth individuals for “mind charting” sessions so he can gather information about their motivation that he later uses to solicit large amounts of money from them.

I don't know about you, but most people get off this crazy train somewhere around stop #1. And given the rest, can you really blame them? The average person who sets themselves up to consider (and possibly believe) ideas this insane, doesn't have long before they end up pumping all their money into get rich quick schemes or drinking bleach to try and improve their health

But maybe you think you’re different? Maybe you’re sufficiently epistemically advanced that you don't have to disregard theories with this many red flags. In that case, there's now an even more fundamental reason to reject Connection Theory: As Alyssa Vance points out, the supposed "advance predictions" attributed to Connection Theory (the predictions being claimed as evidence in its favor in the only publicly available manuscript about it), are just ad hoc predictions made up by the researchers themselves on a case by case basis -- with little to no input from Connection Theory itself. This kind of error is why there has been a distinct field called "Philosophy of Science" for the past 50 years. And it's why people attempting to do science need to learn a little about it before proposing theories with so little content that they can't even be wrong.

I mention all this because I find that people from outside the Bay Area or those with very little contact with Leverage often think that Connection Theory is part of a bold and noble research program that’s attacking a valuable problem with reports of steady progress and even some plausible hope of success. Instead, I would counsel newcomers to the effective altruist movement to be careful how much you trust Leverage and not to put too much faith in Connection Theory.