I took some Scientology classes in Hollywood so I could get into their Toastmasters club, which is the best Toastmasters club in L.A. county.1 My first Scientology class, 'Success Through Communication', taught skills that were mostly non-specific to Scientology. At first, the class exercises seemed to teach skills too basic to be worth practicing. Later, I came to respect the class as surprisingly useful. (But please, don't take Scientology classes. They are highly Dark Arts, and extremely manipulative.)

For the first exercise, I had to sit upright, still, and silent with my eyes closed for about an hour. I was to remain alert and aware but utterly calm. When my head drooped or my hand twitched, I was forced to start over. It took me five hours of silent sitting to complete the exercise successfully. At first I thought the exercise was stupid, but later I found I was now more in control of my awareness and attention, and less disturbed by things in the environment.

For the second exercise, I had to stare directly into someone's eyes without looking away - even for a split second - for 20 minutes in a row. If you've never tried this, you should. It's very difficult. Unfortunately, they first paired me with a 12-year-old girl. I was sure I would freak her out if I stared into her eyes for 20 minutes (it's an intense experience), so I made faces when the instructors weren't looking and waited for them to pair me with an adult. After half a dozen failures, I finally managed to maintain eye contact for 20 minutes in a row, without a single glance away or a long blink.

Again, this seemed absurd at the time, but later I discovered that I no longer had any trouble maintaining eye contact with people. This skill is a small one, but it is highly valuable in almost every social endeavor.

Later exercises seemed childish. An instructor would ask me simple questions from a book like, "What's that over there?" and I would have to answer correctly: "That's a table." I had to do this for hundreds of questions. But I couldn't just say "That's a table" any old way. I had to say it without a stutter, I had to enunciate, and I had to speak loudly. Answering questions like this 100 times in a row will reveal how often most of us speak softly, fail to enunciate, and use filler words like "um." Every time I did one of those things, I had to start over.

In another exercise, the instructor would do everything she could to make me laugh, and I had to sit still and not crack a hint of a smile for 10 minutes in a row. This simple skill took many rounds to master. It is a small skill, but repeating a simple exercise like this will eventually bring almost anyone to mastery of this small skill. At the end of the exercise I had noticeably improved a small part of my self-control mechanism.

This class - a religious class I took as an atheist in order to achieve an unrelated goal - turned out to be one of the most important classes I have ever taken in my life. It taught me an important meta-skill I have used to great effect ever since.

This is the meta-skill of building small skills in the right order. It is now one of the key tools in my toolkit for instrumental rationality.


Why it works

Previously, I explained the utility of success spirals2:

When you achieve one challenging goal after another, your obviously gain confidence in your ability to succeed. So: give yourself a series of meaningful, challenging but achievable goals, and then achieve them! Set yourself up for success by doing things you know you can succeed at, again and again, to keep your confidence high.

Building small skills in the right order is an excellent way to create and maintain success spirals.

Trying to master a large skill set like salesmanship is a daunting task that will likely involve many demotivating failures before you ever taste success. The same goes for public speaking, writing research papers, and lots of other large skill sets involving a complex interaction of many small skills.

Anna Salamon uses math to explain this concept. You could tackle calculus immediately after Algebra I, and you might eventually pick it up after many frustrating failures if you read the calculus textbook enough times, but why would you do this? It's much easier and more satisfying to learn more algebra piece by piece until the jump to calculus is not so great. That way, you can experience the pleasure and confidence-boost of mastering new concepts all along the way to calculus.

A key component of motivation is time delay. The greater the distance between you and the reward, the less motivated you are to work toward the reward. If you don't experience much reward until you've mastered the entire skill set of salesmanship or public speaking, maintaining motivation will be quite a challenge. But if you experience the reward of mastering small skills all along the way to becoming an effective salesman or public speaker, you have some hope of maintaining motivation throughout the journey.


Practical examples

How might one practice this meta-skill of building small skills in the right order?

Many skill sets, of course, are taught this way by default. Nobody teaches people to play piano by starting with Rachmaninov. Nobody teaches math by starting with calculus. Nobody teaches rock climbing by first free-climbing a YDS Class 5.10 route. But in other areas, this rather obvious lesson is not always applied.

For example, let's say you want to improve your social skills. Don't start by approaching an intimidating businessman and giving him your elevator pitch. You will probably fail, and be demotivated. Instead, start by asking a friend if you can practice staring into his or her eyes for 20 minutes in a row. Offer to buy them lunch, or something. After you've mastered that, ask them to do whatever they can to make you laugh while you try to suppress the urge to smile for 10 minutes in a row. (They will probably do this one without a bribe.) Once you've mastered that, ask them to pretend like they are a stranger so you can approach them and open a conversation 20 times in a row. Have them correct you every time you stutter or speak too softly or without a smile, and start over. Next, do the same exercise with your friend in public. Next, walk up to 10 actual strangers and ask for the time of day, then say "Thanks" and walk away. And so on. Build one skill at a time, and pay attention to the satisfaction of mastery each time you master a new small skill. After mastering many such exercises, you will find that you have mastered an entire new skill set that you previously lacked. And you did it with one small, mostly non-scary step at a time.3

Or suppose you want to learn how to write research papers. Don't start by setting a goal of having a well-written research paper one month from today. Instead, start by learning how to use Google effectively. Talk to a local librarian about how to use your library's resources effectively. Learn how to quickly understand the key terms and concepts in a given field (hint: read textbooks), so you know what to look for in Google Scholar. Learn how to bring yourself up to speed very quickly in a given field (hint: find a recent scholarly anthology of review articles from a major academic press, like this or this or this). Learn how to skim paper titles and abstracts. Learn how to get academic papers for free. Learn how to skim full papers for explanations and references relevant to the particular questions you are looking to answer. Learn how to find the home pages for leading academics in the field to see which papers they've written most recently. Learn the same kinds of small skills - one at a time - relevant to turning all that work into a great research paper. After learning, practicing, and mastering each of these small skills, you will after some time find yourself with some mastery in the entire skill set relevant to writing great research papers.

If you read a self-help book and its recommendations appear well-vetted but you don't experience much improvement, ask yourself: Which smaller, intermediate skills might I need to master before I can succeed in doing what the self-help book recommends? Practice and master those smaller skills first, then go back to the self-help book and try again. You may discover there are small skills that remain to be mastered before you're ready to tackle what the self-help book recommends, in which case you should do another round of granular self-improvement by mastering small skills that are prerequisites for the skills needed to achieve your larger goals. Fill your procedural knowledge gaps.

Much failure and frustration and demotivation results from not building small skills in the right order. This is unnecessary. Master small skills, one at a time, and don't be embarrassed about it. Just try it.

And if you need a partner for eye contact training, just ask. I'll be glad to help kick off your success spiral.




1 It was a wise choice, by the way. I learned to do public speaking very quickly.

2 In business academia, success spirals are known as "efficacy-performance spirals" or "efficacy-performance deviation amplifying loops." See: Lindsley, Brass, & Thomas (1995). Efficacy-performance spirals: A multilevel perspective. Academy of Management Review, 20(3): 645-678.

3 This book may also help. It's intended for children and those with various degrees of autism, but if you need to develop your social skills one small skill at a time and you can get over your own ego, it might be useful.

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For those wondering: The Scientology staring routines summarised, from David Touretzky's site. Anyone who's read the first section above really needs to closely read this page. (The whole section is quality, and includes demo videos by ex-Scientologists.)

Do it too much and you end up with the famous Scientology Stare, the thousand-yard "fixed, dedicated glare" that anyone who's dealt much with Scientologists will be familiar with. (This guy, from this demo, was doing his stare up to 12 inches from other people's faces.)

Scientology is based on a bunch of low-level hacks on human perceptual routines and cognitive biases. (The staring one works on others by intimidation, as you look confident in an odd therefore unpredictable manner; the routine itself trains you to uncritically accept what's in the later, sillier material.) Hubbard did rather well for someone with no theory and only an aim (money and fame) in mind. I would, however, caution that there are few arts of mind-hacking that are darker.

I strongly advise any LessWrong reader to stay the hell away from this stuff unless they have a fascination with dissecting the mechanisms of how people abuse other people [1]. Luke... (read more)

Scientology is based on a bunch of low-level hacks on human perceptual routines and cognitive biases. (The staring one works on others by intimidation, as you look confident in an odd therefore unpredictable manner; the routine itself trains you to uncritically accept what's in the later, sillier material.) Hubbard did rather well for someone with no theory and only an aim (money and fame) in mind. I would, however, caution that there are few arts of mind-hacking that are darker.

The other major hack going on in all of those routines is people paying attention to you. Being paid attention to is an extremely powerful behavior modifier, and it's a major recruitment tool used by cults of all kinds.

(Not only is staring paying attention, but in the other exercises, the instructor is clearly paying attention to the slightest detail of everything you say or do. This type of attention from parents and teachers tends to stimulate a desire to please the person giving the attention.)

PJ has nailed it here. The hacks are really simple and really evil. If they teach you anything that can be called a "communication skill" at all, it's only by happenstance: the real goal is obedience training and swallowing ever-increasing impossibilities.

Evil as techniques in and of themselves, or evil because of the larger goal of turning the trainee into a puppet?
From what I've seen, the techniques are not really useful for anything other than turning 'trainees' into compliant cult members. Yes, the exercises lukeprog mentions in the OP can be used to improve self-control, but only by toning the routines down and approaching them cautiously. For instance, developing a "thousand-yard stare" is clearly unhelpful for someone who's trying to improve eir social skills, even though staring someone down is occasionally useful as a way of asserting dominance.
The staring exercise seem to resemble simple exposure therapy. A lot of people have trouble making normal eye contact, so exposure therapy in this is likely to be a useful exercise for them.
Didn't David Gerard state that Scientologists develop a permanent thousand-yard stare as a result of OT-TR0/TR0? [1] My point is that this is a potential failure mode, i.e. not something that anyone actually interested in social skills would want. [1] edit: apparently, it's common enough to be a stereotype, which is effectively what I meant. I wouldn't expect this to apply to every member of the church, much less everyone who has taken an intro course, but it still counts as a potential problem.
Not all, but enough do that it's stereotypical.
Lukeprog is the obvious test case. If you are right that the the technique will give a person a thousand yard stare unless it is toned down, then it follows that Lukeprog currently has a thousand yard stare. So, does he?
Lukeprog may actually be a rather unusual test-case, since he's an atheist who was generally aware of what Scientology is about, yet he chose to approach the 'course' instrumentally. See the OP and his discussion with David Gerard. Regardless, even a moderate probability of such harmful effect ought to be of concern to those who would use the routine to improve their social skills. Keep in mind that even techniques expressly designed for improving social skills can result in "social robots" when misapplied. And this is the first time I see de-facto hour-long staring contests (from a cult indoctrination course, no less) mentioned as a way to improve eye contact skills.
Which techniques and can you link us?

"The other major hack going on in all of those routines is people paying attention to you. Being paid attention to is an extremely powerful behavior modifier, and it's a major recruitment tool used by cults of all kinds."

I remember when I was 18 and on the road alone on a spiritual quest and I got heavily recruited by a cult. The primary techniques seemed to be giving me such attention and affirmation for every word that came out of my mouth. My reaction was: Well, this is awkward. These people are being very nice but they're not interesting. Given their techniques I had difficulty politely disentangling myself from their presence. After about 12 hours I heard Reverend Moon mentioned, at which point I said "Oh, you're Moonies!". A few hours later I politely bid them goodbye and walked away. They followed me around for a while to no avail.

I wasn't in danger. Their perspective seemed narrow and boring to me.

Thanks for your post, but this is the first time I've heard of what sounds like practical mind-hacking at all. Where's the good mind-hacking stuff? I mean, the page you link to make it sounds like all of this brainwashing/mind manipulation stuff is standard understanding, but is it only standard in the dark arts sense, or is there a more general understanding about this sort of thing that can be used for good as well as for evil?
I don't have a list to hand, but you are absolutely right to flag the need for one. There are various posts on LessWrong which talk about little hacks you can do, accounting for your biases, to achieve results such as getting more stuff done better (beating akrasia). Someone (i.e., probably not me) really needs to compile a list and put it on the wiki.
I haven't read it yet myself, but I'd suggest that "Mind Hacks" is likely your best bet: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mind-Hacks-Tricks-Using-Brain/dp/0596007795
I was disappointed with Mind Hacks, which felt like a pile of "hey, isn't it interesting that your brain does X", for various X. Mind Performance Hacks was better ( http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mind-Performance-Hacks-Tools-Overclocking/dp/0596101538 ), but covers a lot of things you could just find on the Mentat Wiki ( http://www.ludism.org/mentat/ ).
Robert Cialdini's Influence is a good read. Cialdini emphasizes influencing people by using behavioral reflexes (like reciprocity, recognizing authority etc.) and how to defend oneself against it. Then, some of the pop-psy books on irrationality give good insights - I particularly liked Dan Ariely's writings, and Chabris/Simons' The Invisible Gorilla -- but of course they are primarily about pointing out bugs in our mental wetware rather than 'hacking' it. Anyhow, beware Sturgeon's Law.
No, I'm not recommending that Less Wrongers stare people down with an odd kind of staring dominance. I only recommended that people develop the skill of holding eye contact. As with all skills, this skill can be used for good or evil. These are exercises that I happened to learn in a Scientology class. They are not magic rituals that will turn people into Scientologists.

These are exercises that I happened to learn in a Scientology class. They are not magic rituals that will turn people into Scientologists.

But they were finely tuned over thirty years to do precisely that second thing. The TRs are the number one way Scientology gets its hooks into people's brains and keeps them there! That's why they always try to sell people a Communications Course!

You are not explicitly recommending LW readers go skinny-dipping in a sewer - but you are functionally recommending it by talking about what a marvellously successful experience it was for you. Personal recommendation (including implicit personal recommendation) is the thing that most effectively convinces people to try something.

You went dancing in live fire and dodged a bullet, and that's excellent. Others may not be so lucky, particularly including those who are sure they could never be fooled (since such certainly has no observed correlation with a detailed working awareness of human cognitive biases).

If you can write an article that makes your point (which is a great one) without the first third of it being a story of your great personal successes with Scientology, I would urge you to do so.

You went dancing in live fire and dodged a bullet, and that's excellent. Others may not be so lucky, particularly including those who are sure they could never be fooled

Good point ... now that I think about it, I should probably stop speaking so proudly of how I tried taking up smoking to see if it could hook me and yet it didn't ...

(splutter) That's probably more hazardous than Scientology, yes.

An important thing for the strong to realise when talking about hazards is that other people may not be as strong.

Trying cigarettes is more dangerous than trying Scientology classes?

Surely more people die from it.

I don't think people become addicted by TRYING a cigarette. It takes several if not dozens or more. The physical dependence is acquired and comes by degrees.
People don't typically get trapped in Scientology by trying it out either. But if you try a cigarette there's some risk you'll want to smoke another and then another. I'm confident smoking is a bigger danger to me than Scientology.
Agreed. I just sounded like this discussion was trending into hyperbole about the dangers of smoking.
More reliably addictive, I expect. I must admit I don't know of any comparative studies. Mind you, Scientologists notoriously smoke like chimneys. Because not smoking enough will cause lung cancer. Hey, you could always bum a smoke from Ron.

For a proper comparison, you wouldn't just consider addictiveness, but also the harm resulting from becoming addicted. It's not obvious to me which does more expected lifetime damage to you.

Cigarettes (chain smoker): Spend a lot of your money, become uglier and smellier, get excluded from lots of places, lose health while alive and die earlier, lose some connection to family and friends

Scientology: Spend a lot of your money (probably more than a chain smoker on cigarettes), eviscerate your thinking ability, lose most connection to family and friends outside of Scientology.

Is the health hit worse than the mind hit? I really don't know.

With Scientology, there's a bit more of a lottery effect: if you lose, you can lose big. Cigarettes are more gradually hazardous (with a bit of a lottery effect).
If you had to choose to be one or the other which would it be?
Well, I already know far too much about Scientology, to the point where I used so much of the jargon that an ex-Scientologist on IRC many years ago refused to believe I wasn't an ex-member ... and I used to smoke (and still tend to bum cigs when sufficiently drunk). So the actual answer appears to be "both", though more the cigarettes.
Oh, you mean I should make it clear that Scientology is dangerous and people shouldn't take Scientology classes? I figured that would be obvious, but okay: I added it to the post.

I think your disclaimer looks too much like an implicit challenge: "I dabbled with Scientology classes but didn't get hooked because I'm that rational/self-disciplined/awesome; but you shouldn't try it because you're probably not as awesome, and you might get reeled in."


The real history of the disclaimer, though, is more like, "I dabbled and didn't get hooked because I'm awesome, and I didn't warn you about it at first because I think you're awesome, but David Gerard thinks otherwise and he twisted my arm."

For my part, I appreciated having my awesomeness recognized, however briefly. It's not every day that other people notice that about me. :)

I am in fact just a big meanie about this stuff. "Dad just won't let me get into the really good mind controlling, he's so oppressive. Where are my Sea Org teenage minions? This is sooo bogus."

If in 25 years any of your kids run an international cult I'm blaming you.
The daughter will be the next Dark Lord. The girlfriend will be running the cult.
You're not my real dad!
I work sixteen hours a day keeping the Dutch from invading and this is the thanks I get? That's IT. My ocean, my rules. You are GROUNDED, young colonies!
You are awesome.

I'm not convinced "p.s.: don't do this thing that worked out really well for me and I shall now describe in thrilled detail" entirely makes it no longer functionally a personal recommendation, but it's possibly better than nothing. Thank you.

Yes but LessWrong is a lot like this - witness all the discussions in thrilled detail of drugs that put your brain into a more effective/enjoyable state. It's assumed that the readership is intelligent/responsible enough to handle this sort of thing.

The desire to succeed in unorthodox ways ("cheat" at life) is strong in many members of this community - Luke's Scientology story fits that pattern very well. It certainly makes me want to try a com course and I've read about Scientology in endless detail - including some of your work.

Sewer-diving could be fun, and instructive! But a note or few about adequate preparation first strikes me as a really good idea. Particularly when the story turns out to be "and then I swallowed this sample of engineered resistant mycobacterium tuberculosis, and I felt great." Hubris is one of the dangers of a little knowledge.

Sewer-diving is, in fact, fun and safe for humans, and your warnings about the dangers are alarmist and excessive. Scientology classes are also safe.
How did you come to the conclusion that this was a good comment to post?
How did you come to the conclusion that the parent of the comment containing this sentence was a good comment to post? Are you attempting to direct me on an endlessly-recurring chain of justification? At some point, reflection must stop and action must be taken, or else you will use up all free energy and entropize just thinking of your next action. Correct reasoning teaches you this very quickly.
By heuristic based processing, as with how I do most things. It seems reasonable to assume that the same isn't true of you, though, so I expected a rather more useful answer to my question. (Relevant heuristics include 'if confused, ask for information' and 'alert friend-type people to mistakes so that they can avoid those mistakes in the future'.) I wasn't, actually. I suspect that whatever system you used to decide to make that post is poorly calibrated, and intended to offer help in debugging it. It's also possible that my model of you is not as accurate as it could be, and that's what needs debugging. In either case, gathering more information is a reasonable early step in the process.
I also use heuristic reasoning, (governed by the meta-heuristic of correct reasoning), and here I thought that User:David_Gerard was significantly overstating the risks of sewer-diving and Scientology classes for humans. Therefore, I added my "independent component" to the discussion.
Sewer diving is in fact a favourite of urban explorers. And I must admit that trolling Scientology in my dissolute youth was lots of fun :-D
You shouldn't troll groups, even if you deem them evil and dangerous, for much the same reason that you shouldn't (EDIT: previous post had "should") murder their members.
The outside culture has enough warnings about dangers of using drugs that we don't have to repeat them here. Everybody knows that playing with them can fry your brain, and you should take proper precautions. I don't think the outside culture has enough warnings about psychological manipulation techniques in general, nor this particular sect. People routinely think they'll be less influenced than they are.

And there's also the thing that while the people who hang around at LW probably have more ammo than usual against the overt bullshit of cults, they also might have some traits that make them more susceptible to cult recruitment. Namely, sparse social networks, which makes you vulnerable to a bunch of techniques that create the feeling of belonging and acceptance of the new community, and tolerance of practices and ideas outside the social mainstream, which gets cult belief systems that don't immediately trigger bullshit warnings inside your head.

The Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan that did the subway sarin gas thing reportedly recruited lots of science and engineering students. An engineering mindset will also keep you working from the internalized bullshit against social proof, since science and engineering is a lot about about how weird stuff extrapolated beyond conventional norms works and gives results.

tl;dr: You're not as smart as you think, probably have a mild mood disorder from lack of satisfactory social interaction, and have no idea how you'll subconsciously react to direct cult brainwashing techniques. Don't mess with cults.

How about a word on the major religions? The most obvious difference between a cult and a religion is that the religion is many orders of magnitude more successful at recruitment - which is the very thing that we are being warned about with respect to cults.

Parasite species that have been around a long time have mostly evolved not to kill their host very fast. With new species, all bets are off.

The Mormons are a good comparison. They were dangerous lunatics in the mid-1800s - and Brigham Young was a murderous nutter on a par with David Miscavige. These days, they're slightly weirdy but very nice (if very, very conservative) people; good neighbours.

You must mean "kill off" metaphorically, since I don't recall any incidents in which Scientology has killed off Scientologitsts. In contrast I can recall many very recent incidents in which one old religion - Islam - has killed off adherents. But if "kill off" is a metaphor, then what is the literal danger from Scientology which is being referred to metaphorically as "kill off the host"?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Lisa_McPherson - and she was hardly the first.

I would caution against using "I don't recall" to mean "I haven't researched even slightly".

I used "I don't recall" to mean "I don't recall". Go ahead and bash me for failing to research the question but please don't put your words and ideas in my writing.

I think David's point is that when you say "I don't recall X", it matters very much whether you would recall an X to begin with, i.e., whether P("I recall X" | X has happened) is significantly larger than P("I don't recall X" | X has happened). So when you offer up "I don't recall X", people assume you're doing it because the former is larger than the latter.

But if that's not the case, then you are, in effect, using "I don't recall" to mean "I haven't researched", and this is why David was accusing you of blurring the distinction.

Ruin their life or mess them up mentally.
Check out Auditing Procedure R2-45. There are also a number of less formal murders attributed to them. Ask Google for "Scientology Murder".
Please do not use value-laden and unsupported terms such as "murder" here. Yes, there are some cases of controversial deaths involving Scienology, but none of these could be described as murder of either the formal or less-formal sort. The existence of R2-45 is rather unsettling, but apparently this 'auditing procedure' has never been enacted.
Okay, edited to use the less value-laden term "exteriorization".
Growth/attrition rates are actually the thing to look at here. Scientology is faster-growing than just about any other modern religion, though the attrition rate is also very high. In order to figure out virulency, figure out what population the S-curve of members of that religion will top out at. If growth is slowing, you're almost there. If growth is steady, you're about halfway there. If growth is exponential or approximately so, you're looking at a religion in its infancy.
This has of course been covered here before (with reference to this and this).
2Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
Umm. Not all of us. I may be vulnerable to cults for other reasons, namely my conformist personality, but not lack of people to talk to.
Oddly, a "sense of belonging" usually makes me feel alienated and uncomfortable. It's the rare exceptions like LessWrong, where it actually feels like I do fit, and am being challenged and growing and free to express myself, that avoid that.
This sounds very odd. In fact, it sounds oxymoronic. Can you explain?

I can take a shot at it, having experienced something similar.

The general situation usually follows the pattern of "There is a group with easily-noticeable standards A, B, and C and less-easily-noticeable standards X, Y, and Z. I conform to A, B, and C (though probably for different reasons than they do), but not to (some subset of) X , Y, and Z, but since X and Y and Z don't come up very often, 1) they haven't figured out that I don't fit them, and 2) I didn't realize that those standards were significant until after I'd been accepted as a member of the group (which is where the 'sense of belonging' comes in). At no point did I actually mislead the group with regards to X, Y, or Z, but it's very likely that if they find out that I don't conform to them, they will assume that I did and there will be large amounts of drama."

This usually leads to an inclination to hide facts relating to X, Y, and Z, which feels from the inside like being alienated and uncomfortable.

ETA: This isn't necessarily something that a person would have to be consciously aware of in order for it to happen, and it can also be based on a person's assumptions about X/Y/Z-like standards if a given group doesn't make them explicit.

Adelene's response strikes me as a similar experience. I should also admit that I'm having a lot of trouble actually getting a concrete description of the experience, as it's primarily emotional/subconscious, but here's my own go at it: I suppose the short version is that while I have the social/emotional response of "belonging and acceptance", I don't actually feel safe relaxing and letting down my guard around those groups, which produces a secondary emotional response of feeling alienated and uncomfortable that I have to keep those defenses up. ---------------------------------------- There are various social behaviors that groups will exhibit to build a very strong "sense of belonging", and it's more an emotional evaluation than an intellectual one - although the other part is that I often 99% fit with a group, am clearly a valuable member of the group, and risk getting expelled if I reveal that other 1% of myself. More specifically, I belong to a few groups where revealing one's status can still result in fairly sharp social ostracization . Thus, once I've found a group where I "belong", I run in to the choice of risking all of that to be accepted "for who I really am", or just shutting up and keeping quiet about things that almost never come up anyways. In the case of LessWrong, I feel safe because the community strikes me as much more likely to be tolerant of these things, because an online community has much less power to hurt me, and because these things are extremely unlikely to come up here to begin with (and, being an online forum, I can devote time to carefully crafting posts not to reveal anything; that's still annoying, but gets written off as "I don't want to post publicly about this" rather than "LessWrong is unsafe") ---------------------------------------- The other aspect is simply that a lot of standard recruitment/retention techniques trigger a visceral aversion to me, even if I don't view the group as a threat and genuinely do want to b
I've got a streak of that, though of a different flavor. Some types of ceremonial efforts to solidify group cohesion don't work for me, so I feel alienated from any group where there's an assumption that I'll feel good and devoted because of enforced symbolism. To be less abstract about it all, I'm American, whatever that means. I can be defensive and even mildly jingoistic about America (though I consider the latter a failing)-- but I'd be a lot more comfortable with the place and the identity if it weren't for all the damned flags. In other news, I've been wondering lately whether it would be closer to the truth if, instead of thinking of myself as Jewish (ethnically), it would be better to frame it as "People kept telling me I was Jewish until I started believing it".
The US has one of the most effective brainwashing systems in the (first) world, patriotism-wise. I suspect that a part of it is the historical narrative of a real or imagined success against formidable odds, all in the last 200 years or so. The message "America is great" is also constantly all over the school system and the media. This is really hard to resist, no matter how often you repeat to yourself "I ought to keep my identity small". I heard that sentiment many times, not necessarily from people of Jewish descent, although the latter are an easy example. Jews in the early 20th century Germany thought if themselves as Germans, until "real Germans" disabused them of that notion in 1930s. Same happened in Russia in 1950s. Various Yugoslavian ethnicities suddenly realized in 1990s that they were not just Yugoslavians, but Serbs, Albanians, Croatians etc., and those who did not were quickly and forcefully reminded of it by their neighbors.
I somewhat relate to his comment, and for me it's because of how much persona, holding myself back, and not letting myself go it requires to be accepted by others. When, and if, it actually does work, it feels like here all I was trying to do was be a nice guy, and now the ruse worked? Now it's like you've committed yourself to it.
"You probably have a minor mood disorder from lack of satisfactory social interaction" seems like a rather harsh description of the members of this community. What data generated that thought?

I agree with the description. Why? Because the joy people describe at going to the meetups seems out of proportion to what goes on in the meetups - unless, as the old saying goes, hunger is the best spice.

I started with the assumption that most people posting here live alone or with a small immediate family and occasional interaction with acquaintances instead of as a part of a tightly knit tribe of some dozens of people who share their values and whom they have constant social interaction with. Then thought what the probable bias for site members to belong into a mainstream society tribe-equivalents like churches, sports fan groups, gangs or political organizations was. The "mood disorder" thing is hyperbole for "your brain would like to be in a more tribe-like social environment than it is in now", not an attempt at a clinical diagnosis.
This is an important point. If you do mess with cults, start with the more innocuous ones before you face the heavy guns. Make sure you can resist the community in an average church before you test yourself against Scientology.
One of the impressive things about Sufism (at least as described by Idris Shah) is that they wouldn't take people as students who didn't already have social lives.
In other words "don't try to argue with the devil^H^H Scientologist -- he has more experience at it than you".

He might not. But things will be in his favor if you go in thinking knowing physics and science will make you impervious to the dark arts, without knowing a lot about psychology, cult and influence techniques and the messier stuff inside your own head.

(I'm not sure if you want to say something extra here by quoting a thing that was described as the "second most dangerous dark side meme" in the linked comment.)

I do believe you've nailed it. Well done, sir.
I wonder about this idea that knowing how someone will be manipulating you is any defense at all from being manipulated by that person. It sounds plausible, but is there any evidence at all that knowledge can have this affect? Or is knowledge not wholly intellectual, and can be considered a species of manipulation, but not manipulation of the dark arts variety. Maybe even "light arts manipulation"? Sorry, had to throw this last paragraph in there because I thought it was interesting.
Compare "I've only known this guy for half an hour, but he seems really likable" and "I've only known this guy for half an hour, he's been running through the tricks from the cult salesman playbook and is giving off a real likable impression at this point". You still need to have your own head game in order to actually counteract the subconscious impressions you are getting, but it will probably help to know that a contest is even happening.
I think what you say is plausible. But I also think that it is also plausible that a "likable impression" isn't just an appearance, but the effect of you actually starting to like the guy. I think that's the sort of thing that concerns me, that at a certain point our social instincts take over and we lose the ability to detach ourselves from the situation.
That's a valid point. Women who have read about the pickup artist techniques report that the techniques still work on them even when they're aware the person is using them. On the other hand, SWIM says that being aware of various techniques has helped him guard against HR methods on the basis of "Oh, now he's moving into stage x, next he's going to...". SWIM would say that it depends to what degree you're predisposed against the person using them. Be aware that some techinques are more obvious than others. Some are really obvious when you know they exist, but also really obscure, so you won't know they're being used unless you've read about it before.
Interesting. My intuition and experience say this is screamingly, overtly incorrect. The fact that yours do not means I'm probably wrong - either about the 'overtly' or the 'incorrect'!
Arguably, Internet culture has a tremendous amount of information on the dangers of Scientology in particular. (And I'm one of the people who put it there personally.) But you are entirely correct: people are convinced they're much less manipulable than they are. I need to write something for LW on the subject (as I've been idly contemplating doing for about 6 months).
Do you know of any techniques to measure your own manipulability somewhat objectively?
I would think the easiest method, albeit not terribly objective, would simply be to get someone who is fairly good at manipulation and play out scenarios with them. I've done this a few times as the manipulator, and it's sort of scary how easily I can manipulate people in specific games, even when they know the rules and have witnessed some of my techniques. If you do try it, I'll comment that time and social pressure help me a lot in making people more pliable, too. I do these as a group exercise, so there's a lot of peer pressure both to perform well, and not to use exactly the sort of "cheats" you should be using to resist manipulation. It's also helped that I've always known the group and thus known how to tweak myself to hit specific weaknesses. If you find something more useful than this, I'd love to hear it. I've merely learned I'm fairly good at manipulating - I have no clue how good I am at resisting :)
That reminds me of a bit from a book about art forgery-- that need, greed, and speed make people more gullible.
I'd love to try this (being the manipulatee). Do your mind tricks work over Skype?
Having not tested them, I wouldn't be sure. I tend to do best with people who are either following an easily inferred pattern (office workers, security, etc.) or people who I know personally, which would make it harder to do with someone I don't know. You also are neither "disposable" (someone I'll never deal with again) nor a friend, which adds a bit of social awkwardness. Given that's an entire paragraph of excuses, I suppose I should offer to try it anyway, if you want :)
Good! How about Sunday evening (CEST)?
CEST = UTC+2, correct? I'm PST (UTC-7), so that'd put you 9 hours ahead of me. My 10 AM would be your 7 PM - would that work for you? I can do a couple hours later if not. EDIT: I'm assuming Sunday, May 1st, 2011. If you could send me your Skype name that will probably also make this much easier :)
For anyone wondering how this went, handoflixue failed to manipulate me into anything, in fact most of the successful manipulating was the other way around :-)
I have occasionally seen quizzes that purport to tell you how biased you are in purportedly relevant ways to cult susceptibility. I can't say I found any of them revelatory, as, since you know what the test is testing, it's way too easy to answer with the right answer rather than the true readout, even when you want the latter. I suppose proper testing would have to be similar to psychological measures of cognitive biases.
I wish you wouldn't take this tone when agreeing to people's helpful suggestions :-/
Which tone?
"Sure, I'll correct it, even though people are obviously aware of [caricature of your idiotic warning]." That is, accepting a correction with passive-aggressive jab at the dummy who pointed it out. [Note: edited comment several times, a reply might begin before the latest.]

I think you "hear" the comment in this tone because that's how you would mean it if you wrote it. But to me, the tone seems reasonable, because when I place myself in lukeprog's position I don't imagine myself feeling any kind of aggression.

I don't think I'm imagining the caricaturing, at least, and this is far from the first time I've seen lukeprog blame others anytime anyone mentions anything wrong with a post of his. Also, this was not the basis for the evaluation I made.
...as far as you are aware. I detect that I might need to update. Links?
Though this seems to be a matter of your introspection versus SilasBarta's, right?
Yep. I don't claim knowledge of lukeprog's actual mental state when he made the comment.
I mean, your respective introspections regarding SilasBarta's mental state / processes.
Oh, I see. No, I just intended to express the by-now banal notion that people in general aren't good at knowing why they think what they think. ...as far as I am aware.
So wait, you can know better what I was thinking, but I can't know better what lukeprog was thinking? Anyway, here are your links of the same thing going on: 1: Lukeprog metaphorically kicking and screaming when asked for clarification of a citation, then insulting those who would have found the answer "I just read the abstract" helpful. 2: Lukeprog directing me on fruitless searches of his citations, then, when that doesn't work, equating his intuition with what his sources say, all to avoid admitting there might be some dissonance between his recommendations that he didn't realize. I didn't want to make this a big referendum about a bad habit of Luke's -- I deleted mention of earlier occurrences from earlier posts so as not to widen the confrontation -- but you asked for examples from the past.
I read the threads you linked, and my own assessment of them does not accord with yours. (Perhaps you will not be surprised by this.) This whole exchange and the ones you link have a tone I think of as "typical SilasBarta": uncharitable and far more argumentative than necessary. It frustrates me because I find it tiring and unpleasant to read and/or participate in, and yet I recognize that you often have good insights that I will have to forgo if I want to avoid dealing with your style of interaction.
You don't have to trust my judgment on this. See Tyrrell's input on the first and warpforge's in the second. Whatever I did or didn't say, whatever tone I should or shouldn't have been using, it should be clear that lukeprog's response in both cases was to give knowably unhelpful replies and divert attention away from the proffered shortcoming, just as he's doing here, which should satisfy your curiosity about why I would read him that way here. If you really do think it's okay to reply as lukeprog did here, when I would think you'd be the first person to criticize the tone of "okay I'll fix it but I'm going to mock your concern", then I'll be sure to keep that in mind for my future interaction with you -- but I doubt you actually think that. Indeed. I asked a simple question about the sources and didn't get the simple answer until ~5 rounds of back-and-forth -- that was way too much argumentativeness for what I was asking for! I'm glad you're right on top criticizing Luke for that instead of me!
This is precisely the interpretation of lukeprog's comments that I do not share, especially the bolded text. Actually you got the answers directly [1][2], and, if the timestamps are to be trusted, before any back-and-forth (as JGWeissman noted).
So we're at least agreed on the replies being knowably unhelpful then? I didn't get clarification that lukeprog was basing his characterization solely on the first two pages, and didn't actually read the papers himself, until after the back-and-forth. So JGWeissman is wrong, I just didn't bother re-re-explaining stuff to him at the time.
That one is trickier. It depends on what you meant by "knowably", that is, knowable by who in what state of information. I was going to try to dissect this, but rather than getting into the weeds of that exchange, I'll just say that to me your position seems to be predicated on assertions you take to be obviously factual but that I believe to be uncharitable inferences on your part. At this point my endurance is giving out, so I'm going to leave the question of exactly which assertions I'm talking about as an exercise for the reader.
I wouldn't actually be the first person to criticize that tone; I care much more about the effort to make the fix than the mockery. I'd rather the mockery not happen, of course, but for example, if you were to tell me, "I'm sorry that you find reading my arguments hurts your fee-fees, poor blossom; in the future I'll make an effort to question my inferences about other people's motivations and states of mind," I'd totally let the former part of the statement slide in light of the latter.
No, I can't. Hence my need to update. Thanks for the links, by the way.
Hmmm. Well, not the tone I intended. It literally did not occur to me that people would consider taking a Scientology course as a result of my post, but then I updated as a result of David's comment, and that is why I added the disclaimer to the first paragraph. "Figured" in my comment is past tense on purpose.
Our brains can add in these tones when they feel certain ways without it being consciously available. Tough stuff to keep out of discourse, our language is geared toward opinionated conflict in any case.
When people suggest changes, they're not saying you're a failure, and you needn't suggest flaws on their part as if they were.
That's a fair point; conversely, there are entire websites (or so I've heard) dedicated to obvious warnings, and there are already people making fun of how obvious his warning is. So I'm thinking his pre-emption was pretty close to spot on.
Do you think that "Don't take this Scientology course, which I just spent half the article praising with nary a bad word for Scientology?" falls into the class of obvious warnings? Also, lukeprog was caricaturing David's argument.
Wow, so if I say yes, then what? Will we go back and forth for a hundred pages in a good old fashioned internet flame war? No thanks, I have better uses of my time. ;) We know that scientology is bad, no one here's in any doubt about their legitimacy or thinks they might be some cool people to hang out with; conversely that course is sounding pretty good, which is what he was praising. Complaining until he adds a warning on the end, saying we shouldn't take it is pretty silly considering he obviously intends us to take the course or something similar to it. And so what? He's entitled to his opinion about scientology too, as well as their courses.
He's not entitled to caricature people's concerns though. Also, it's kind of interesting all the little details that trickled out afterward: "Oh, by the way, the place was deserted ... and I had to practice on a 12 year old girl ... and I had already been well-versed in what to expect and so had unusual resistance to their tricks..."
That's his way of communicating, I took it as a joke personally. If you're suspecting that he's a stooge for scientology, say it outright. I didn't really think it was that strange that he mentioned the little details; not to mention that all of us here are pretty well versed in scientology by now.
I don't think he's in any way a stooge. I do think he's got hazardous levels of hubris and I do think his post was a danger to others.
Oh I agree it's dangerous. The world is filled with dangerous ideas and pointy bits, we're all adults here and can make our own decisions without child friendly warnings over everything.
If common sense were comparatively robust against mind-control techniques, they wouldn't be mind-control techniques.
True. Nevertheless I've always felt common sense to be a hazy subject. I'd prefer to use the words "personal judgement". They can use their personal judgement ;) to prepare against the risks in order to get the benefits of the course. Or not. Because this stuff sounds pretty similar to what beginner PUAs are taught, those guys hold courses too, although you might end up paying way more.
I don't think he's a stooge, not at all. I think, however, after reviewing the exchange and David Gerard's input, that he lacked a sort of awareness of what was going on, and didn't appreciate the dangers others would have in his position. FWIW, I did read his initial article as, "Go take this Scientology course -- the exercises are great, just don't get sucked into the religion." Which is a much weaker warning than he now gives.
"Sure, I'll correct it, even though people are obviously aware of [caricature of your (implied) idiotic warning]."
The question would be if knowledge of these techniques' purpose within Scientology is enough of a vaccine against harmful long-term effects. I can't see how it wouldn't be, if these techniques were further dissected, disclaimed, and tuned to general social skill enhancement. However, I think that lukeprog should probably have spent more time explaining his intentions dealing with actual Scientologists in this manner, being the most mainstream example of extensive Dark Arts.
Knowledge of the individual exploits does help, though it's not infinitely generalisable. There are lots of people who go "hah, that's ridiculous" about many cults before falling for another one. Because these things basically work as security exploits of your basic human cognitive biases. Possibly if you had a reasonably complete catalogue of cognitive biases not only present as a list in your head, but with personal experience of having been bitten by each and every one, that might help. Better would also be personal experience of defeating each and every one, but that might be asking a lot of most people. Me, I don't even have the list. A nice defensive intro to the dark arts of Scientology, and a cracking good read, is Bare-Faced Messiah by Russell Miller, a biography of Hubbard. (Out of print, freed for the Net by the author - a mainstream journalist, not an ex-Scientologist.) I read it and thought, "Hah, this is easy, I could do that! If I had no ethics and literally couldn't tell true from false." One problem with Scientology being the best-known cult is that they are actually the Godwin example of dangerous cults. I can't find the reference, but I have read of sociological studies that they are the most damaging cult, based on time to recovery of ex-members. They make other actually quite nasty cults look relatively benign by comparison. It's pretty much as if your only referent for "authoritarian" was "Hitler", so other obnoxious authoritarianism looks relatively benign by being not as bad as Hitler.
For those interested, I interviewed Russell Miller about Hubbard here. A nice intro to Scientology bullying tactics.
Heh, you were much less dodging a bullet than I thought you were :-) (Ten years after I more or less gave up following the stuff, I still know way too much about it. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised it turns out to be of interest on a philosophy site interested in cognitive biases.)
I didn't realize Scientology has the same structure as a Spanish prisoner scam.
No transcript?
Listeners paid to produce transcripts of many episodes, but not that one.
You really think he dodged a bullet? I assume lots of people are in no danger of being brainwashed by Scientology and lukeprog is probably one of them. lukeprog, Did you judge you were in danger of being brainwashed into Scientology at any point during this class? Or seriously in danger of being otherwise mind damaged?

I didn't know when I wrote that that Luke had interviewed Russell Miller and had read extensively on Scientology. So I think he would likely have more immunity than most :-) I think his dangerous error is in casually assuming that others are as immune as he is. Perhaps they are, but I wouldn't risk betting that way myself.

I would assume a lot of LWers are pretty immune. I think one is not in much danger of being brainwashed by another if one has a broader perspective on life than the would be manipulator. I think most people who try heroin or Scientology suffer no lasting ill effects. If it worked on most people Scientology would be a lot more virulent than it is.
Both are true. I'm as unlikely to recommend Scientology to people as I am to recommend them heroin, though. (But, kids - fifty million dead junkies aren't wrong. Opiates are great! I'm a big fan of codeine when my back's playing up, and I have no doubt heroin would be even nicer.)
Both what are true?
Both sentences I quoted.
I'm not sure about this. The steps of getting someone to take a look at what one is doing is difficult when it has weirdness aspects. Note that even altruistic causes that take minimal effort have a lot of trouble recruiting people. People are disinclined to to search out for new ideas in general. This hurts both the good and the bad memes. Even if a set of memes is very strong, getting people to try it is tough.
Do you think most people subjected to the mind control techniques of Scientology are successfully brainwashed into Scientology or not? I don't know the data but bet it's a smallish fraction. I believe less than 10% of the people who are subjected to the mind controlling properties of heroin become addicted. lukeprog has apparently looked into Scientology more than I have, is conceded to be aware of the dangers, and yet there is not even a hint in his piece that he thought the young girl he was partnered with was in danger. Surely people would have reacted differently to this article if he cheerfully recounted shooting heroin with a twelve year old. So clearly he was very confident that what was going on in the room was a lot less dangerous than shooting heroin. But how could that be if Scientology is more persuasive than heroin?
Retention rates for cults and cult-like groups tend to be low. I seem to recall numbers in the 2-4% range for most; this paper corroborates that, giving numbers from 0.5% to 5% for the Unification Church ("Moonies") depending on what your threshold for membership is. Accurate data for Scientology is difficult to come by, given its infamous propensity for spin, but what I have been able to find seems to give similar numbers. This claims a little over 2% retention based on demographic calculations, but may be biased toward underreporting.
If most people succumbed when exposed to such techniques we'd see a lot more explosive growth. This caused me to modify my priors: I expected those at risk to be more easily identifiable. If they are not identifiable than the risk of conversion of most people is much higher than I thought. On the other hand Supports the view that the supposed danger of cults is overblown. And.. ...does seem to provide some criteria by which you could assess risk to yourself or another individual.
This seems to imply that children of privilege raised by educated parents in suburban homes may tend to be deficient of strong attachments; and that economic, social, and psychological definitions of "normal" are not capable of detecting this?
Deficient relative to what? For example, if some other group G (perhaps children not of privilege not raised by educated parents in suburban homes) has stronger attachments, resulting in members of G having a lower chance of being converted, then we can say they are deficient relative to G. This theory is testable, at least in principle. OTOH, if no such group G exists, but we want to alter our economic, social, and psychological evaluation such that children we evaluate as normal don't become cult converts, then this sounds more like a matter of how we define the word "normal" than any kind of statement about the world.
I wonder if there's a test for how easily people are influenced. If an easily influenced person is in a benign environment, then such a person might do well in life (perhaps better than someone who's more generally resistant) until they run afoul of a group or an individual that isn't benign.
I agree with this. When I was reading the comparison with Islam upthread, I imagined how bad it would be if Scientology took over a government. On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be any current risk of that happening, and I wonder why.
Somehow, I think that this isn't the best question to ask, considering that Luke can't root his own brain to find out. Introspection is a notoriously bad tool for discovering subconscious motivations.
A little research online will turn up extraordinarily serious accusations against the Church of Scientology, including the specific accusation that the course you took and appear to be advocating is the entry point to a series of courses that takes very dark turns later. While I do believe that the specific exercises you did in the amounts you did them were not harmful and were possibly beneficial, and that you were unaware of these accusations, I have to agree with Gerard's assessment that you were "dancing around in live fire and dodged a bullet". Now that you're aware of these accusations, you ought to edit your post to warn readers that dealing with Scientology is not to be taken lightly, or better, remove the reference entirely. (It seems like an unnecessary distraction from the main point of the post, which is quite good.) Posted anonymously because the Church of Scientology has a history of harassing, framing and sometimes murdering its critics. Publishing negative information about Scientology under your real name is also not to be taken lightly, especially if you are or expect to become a visible public figure. I will PM you my account name so you'll know I'm not a new account.
Did you see my update to the first paragraph?

I wrote that comment before I saw it. However, that update ("But please, don't take Scientology classes. They are highly Dark Arts. You can learn things on your own without playing with cult fire") is inaccurate. It seems to be saying that Scientology's classes teach those who take them to be manipulative (that is, to use the dark arts), but that is not what the problem is. The real problem is the opposite: they manipulate those who take them. And it doesn't stop at "manipulate", it's an escalating spiral that in some cases goes all the way up to "abduct and traffick".

And, um, I can't help but notice a disturbing connection - the document Gerard linked to says trainers should look for peoples' buttons, focusing on sexual perversion for men, and you were assigned the exercise of staring at a 12-year old girl for 20 minutes. It's eminently plausible that the instructor meant for that to happen and to be creepy. What was she even doing there, how were the pairings assigned, and did the instructor have the option of arranging the pairings in a non-creepy way?

Every time I went in to take a class it was always hard to find people to pair with, because of the odd hours I went to take classes. I would often wait 20 minutes for there to be somebody to do an exercise with. I think they paired me with the girl because nobody else was available until 20 minutes later when the adult became available to do the exercise with me. Also, kids take these classes, too. They're not adult-only classes. Her parents are Scientologists and they were training their kid in their religion. I adjusted the wording of my update again to include 'manipulative.'
That's because Scientology has had the crap beaten out of it by the Internet and Scientology "orgs" are largely ghost towns at any hour of the day since the mid-1990s, not just when you went. Even in Los Angeles. Uh, Luke. That would have been a Sea Org member's kid. They brought her in especially for you. You don't seem to want to accept the designed purpose the TRs were written for: to draw people further in.

I was at one point a 14 year old girl taking a Scientology Communications course, brought there by my father to train me in his religion. While I certainly can't speak for all of the children in all Scientology classes, most of the other children there that I hung out with were also brought there by their parents to be trained in Scientology.

It seems plausible to me that if there happened to be a 12 year old girl in lukeprog's class, they would have paired them together for that part of the class specifically because it would create an uncomfortable, "creepy" situation. Developing the ability to react unflinchingly to that sort of situation is pretty much the point of the exercise. (As an example, they paired me with a grandmotherly older woman for a different exercise: bullbaiting. She was certainly not the sort of person who I was comfortable trying to provoke a reaction from or had an easy time remaining stoic to.)

But it seems unlikely to me that the people at the Org I went to, at least, would have gone to the extent of enlisting their daughters in the class specifically to make one man feel uncomfortable, as you seem to be proposing.

A common description from those who've been in it is that they had one auditing session where they had some amazing and brilliant internal experience, and they can spend years in Scientology trying to get that one feeling back. More often, it's the phenomenon where having a theory - any theory, even a bad one that doesn't work when properly tested - makes one feel more confident and therefore able to better apply the master hack to humans of telling people to do what you want them to, whereupon they often do. So yes, there is indeed bait. And, like bait, the bait's just part of a process centred on hooking you.
People have tried to pull the useful parts out of Scientology while not having the destructive aspects. Has anyone here worked with those systems, and if so, what did you think of them?
People who practice something descended from Scientology without being in the Church of Scientology are generally collectively referred to as the Free Zone, though not all of them like the term. Some are weirdly sci-fi-ish, a lot are near the weird end of New Age. Some are very Scientological (including belief in Xenu), some you'd barely know were related. In general, they're much better-behaved and much nicer people than the Church of Scientology, though that's not hard. The only one I know of that has any sort of acceptance as non-lunacy in general circles is Traumatic Incident Reduction, an abreaction-based psychotherapy derived from Dianetics by Frank A. Gerbode, an ex-Scientologist who went on to become a psychiatrist. (Hubbard started off pitching Dianetics to psychiatrists, and was greatly embittered by them dismissing him as a crank.) It isn't particularly noteworthy and I don't know of any clinical trials of it.

I really liked your report of the scientology class. The conclusions, not so much. Many LW posts (including some of mine, too ashamed to link here) follow this pattern of giving a wonderful convincing anecdote and then a big flimsy over-generalization on top. Perhaps we could institute a norm that posting anecdotes without making conclusions from them is okay. I took some boxing lessons, still cannot fight but no longer fear physical confrontations, and that's all. I learned to draw using a book by Betty Edwards, it was easy and fun, and that's all.

I agree that this trend is annoying and should be addressed. There is a tendency here to use personal anecdotes as an excuse to dish out overly-general (and usually obvious) life advice, and we should know better. Personally, I find Luke's conclusions in this particular article to be good ones (whether they stemmed naturally from the anecdote or not). But then, this is sort of trivial given that the title employs the term "right order", which is tough to argue against ("No no, do it wrong!"). I have to disagree though with the notion that posting anecdotes to this blog for their own sake is a good idea. While there has been a strong focus on instrumental rationality in the past few months, I think it's important to ensure LessWrong does remain a blog about rationality, and not general self-help. Anecdotes that can't be related back to a meta-level skill are still valuable, but might be better suited to the discussion section or collected as comments somewhere.
No argument with your main point, but I'll point out tangentially that another possible argument against the "right order" can be "actually, the order in which you tackle skills doesn't actually matter that much." So it's not entirely vacuous.
I wouldn't want to prohibit people from speculating based on their experiences and background knowledge. As long as no one misprepresents themselves as an expert on the topic and their flimsy over-generalizations as established scientific knowledge, almost no harm is done. And the little harm that comes from potentially wasting your time reading things you're not interested in could be adressed by more systematic inclusion of summaries in long articles.

Of course if you estimate the harmful effect of one such article on one individual, it won't amount to very much! But the proliferation of such articles can turn LW into yet another vague self-help site, in fact from the list of posts it looks like it's already been happening for awhile, and I don't want that to happen.

I concede that the front page shouldn't be overrun with vague self-helpy stuff. But I read your original comment as a request to not allow that kind of content on LessWrong at all and I think that would be going too far. This all hinges on the estimated worth of sharing speculative self-help advice. I think there are insights to be shared that can't simply be found by reading research literature and the potential benefit of gaining such insights outweights the additional cost of mentally filtering unwanted content. I also think that on LessWrong such content will be less vague and of higher quality than on dedicated self-help sites so I'd prefer to keep it, though perhaps relegated to the discussion section.
original comment: how its read: I find this transition very curious and see it often. Is there a term for this kind of reactive twist of reasoning?
I don't know of a term for the thing you're describing, but the inverse thing -- where someone who thinks "Anecdotes with conclusions should not be allowed" ends up saying "Perhaps we could institute a norm that posting anecdotes without making conclusions from them is okay" is sometimes called "indirection" or "hedging." (Or, in some circles, "being polite.") They are, of course, related: my knowledge of the existence of indirection in the world makes it more likely that I will interpret "Perhaps we could institute a norm that posting anecdotes without making conclusions from them is okay" as an expression of the thought "Anecdotes with conclusions should not be allowed" (as well as a wide range of other thoughts). Perhaps the inverse of indirection should be called "dereferencing"?
You're right that each individual such article does almost no harm, but the accumulation of such articles can turn LW into another vague feel-good self-help site. I don't want that to happen. From the list of posts I feel that it's been happening for quite a while already.
What's wrong with the conclusion? The conclusion is to build small skills in the right order. If it's not useful to you, fine. Lots of other people found it quite useful, and have told me so already.

There's nothing wrong with the conclusion, except we don't know if it's right :-) Unlike many of your other posts, this one isn't based on published research. It's more like garden variety self-help, or as Paul Buchheit put it, "Limited Life Experience + Overgeneralization = Advice". All self-help authors can claim their advice is good because it works for them and some self-selected others.

I'm confused. It looks to me like you've just dismissed every life advice post on Less Wrong except for five posts that I wrote. Is that right?

Yeah, that's about right. I usually just downvote such "life advice" posts, but now some counter in my mind reached a critical value and I decided to speak out.

I gotta admit that he has a point. I don't know that published studies should be the only way of producing rationalist self-help; I think the way is open for sound DIY empirical studies (but hasty generalization is an inductive fallacy). But look at it this way--you can imagine a lot of really bad advice being given front page status, and the problem is that there is no threshold, no point at which enough is enough. I think your post is interesting as an abduction instead, and should probably be in the discussion pages. This should be a way of describing your experiences, and indicating what possible explanations and hypotheses could explain those experiences. By no means should we discount our experiences, that would be anti-empirical. The problem is unsound generalization of those experiences. That said, I find your post valuable as abductive material, and the discussion it resulted in was stimulating.
I think any sort of anti-anecdote norm is a very clearly bad idea. Anecdotes are great. Less Wrong is already challenging at best to post on.

I have two major comments. First, I took the Scientology Communications class 35 years ago in Boston, and it was basically the same as what has just been described. That's impressive, in a creepy kind of way.

Second, my strongest take-away from the class I took was in response to something NOT mentioned above, so this aspect may have changed. We were given a small book, something like "The History of Scientology". (This is not the huge "Dianetics" book.) We were told to read it on our own, until we understood it, and would move on to the later activities in the class only after attesting that we had done so. The book was loaded with very vague terms, imprecise at best, contrary to familiar usage at worst, but we were not allowed to discuss their meaning with anyone else, or ask instructors for insight. We had to construct a self-consistent interpretation in isolation, and comparing our own with anyone else's was effectively forbidden in perpetuity. So each student auto-brainwashed. I was impressed by the power of this technique.

Ask a Korean!: When is it OK to Make Eye Contact?

Never, never, NEVER look into the eyes of someone who is in a superior position than you are. This includes everyone who is older than you, even by one year, family or not. This also includes people who are higher than you in a workplace or social hierarchy, regardless of age. (For example, your boss, a judge, etc.) In practical terms, this means that you are pretty safe with not looking into anyone's eyes when you are in Korea.

Also, in places with a lot of ne'er do well young men roaming around and where the enforcement of public order leaves something to be desired, making eye contact with strangers in public can be seen as a challenge to a fist-fight (or worse).

"Coming from Dunfermline, if someone looked at you squint, you went across and battered them. That was it. I just done it."
As a Korean who grew up in a very traditional hometown, I agree at some point with the article XiXiDu posted. But in modern days, in a mutual relation(at a school, a workplace) we need to contact others' eyes. Avoiding eyes is sometimes seen as a person who is not confident or unreliable. But staring one's eyes in public may be seen as trying to fight.

Voice to text software can also help you learn to enunciate.

Once you've mastered that, ask them to pretend like they are a stranger so you can approach them and open a conversation 20 times in a row.

A friend actually did this exercise with me when I was about grade 9. At the time I was not so much shy as overwhelmed by small talk; I couldn't process it in real time, so if someone said "what's up?" to me I would freeze and eventually blurt out some rude-sounding conversation-killer. We were on some kind of volunteer field trip, I think, and we spent an hour in the hotel room with her 'starting conversations' with me and me responding. ...Wow, I had actually forgotten I had that much trouble with social skills.

Answering questions like this 100 times in a row will reveal how often most of us speak softly, fail to enunciate, and use filler words like "um."

Some of us wish we could learn to speak more quietly! I don't know if it's because of my family dynamics or the crowd I hung out with in high school, but when I'm excited I speak very loudly and people find it disruptive.

I have always tried to "Build Small Skills in the Right Order", but I think it has been detrimental or even crippling to my learning process in some cases.

I'm pretty good at math, but I haven't studied advanced math and would like to begin a program of self-study. I have started a few times, usually reading the first couple of chapters of a high-level calculus book (Apostol or Spivak), or something at a similar level.

I already know calculus well, having used it as a physics major in college and taught it as a private tutor for high school students, but I am not completely familiar with all the subtleties, such as why Taylor series converge and under what conditions. Reviewing calculus before diving into an advanced book on real analysis seems like a good idea because I know I can understand the calculus book, and reading it will prepare me to study more challenging material.

Nonetheless, what usually happens is that I get impatient at the slow progress, bored with the material, and want to jump straight to the more difficult book. If I do, I feel like I am "doing it wrong" by ignoring the small skills, but if I don't, I wind up abandoning the program of st... (read more)

This is how I prefer to learn as well. I call it "Immersion Learning". For example, during my first year of Algebra, I carried a Calculus textbook with me to class, and read whenever I was bored. I read through the whole textbook that semester, and understood maybe 20%. I didn't bother doing any problems, and when I tried I was totally incapable, but that was OK. The next semester I read through a Calc II and Calc III textbook. Afterward I decided I was going to take the AP Calculus exam. I bought a prep book and started doing calculus problems for the first time in my life, and found that mastering the techniques came naturally. A few weeks later I passed the AP exam. I think this works because knowledge (at least as it exists in brains) is not highly structured. It's a giant associative mess. As with learning a language, the best way is to be immersed, and let the entire associative mess emerge simultaneously. Learn the shape of the forest before the lay of the trees. Afterward you can do targeted study to patch up your makeshift map.
A question: Is 'Immersion Learning' a term that you have coined? If not, does this have anything to do with Luis Von Ahn's immersion concept on duolingo?
Ah, I should have guessed that 'Immersion Learning' had been co-opted a few times before. My above use is my own coinage. By it I just mean jumping in and being exposed to everything you can and letting your brain sort it out, rather than methodically building a cathedral of understanding, one block at a time.
Maybe he coined it, but it's not new: http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/ (Just pointing out one popular example of immersion learning.)
This seems like a useful counterpoint. The idea of leaping in, realizing what you don't know, and then backtracking to cover the fundamentals seems useful. I recently decided I wanted to learn advanced math, grabbed some sample calculus problems, and failed them so hard that I'm now doing a methodical go-through of Algebra before I even try again. I've found that, for some of the exercises, and realize I'll completely forget the material in a week because it seems "irrelevant" to me and is easy to relearn. For others, I just skim over them because I already know how to do it, or because it's simply irrelevant to what I want to learn. Taking the time to at least skim each section has definitely helped me, though, as I get little reward boosts of "oooh, I already know this!" and I'm making myself aware of skills I might need to review if they become relevant.
Each new skill needs to be a challenge. Ideally, a very easy challenge.

Yes, a thousand times yes.

Note, however, that society is not generally set up to encourage learning this way. In particular, the right order may not be the one they teach in school.

See my discussion-section post Inverse Speed for a case where I had to invoke my understanding of "university-level" mathematics in order to master a "middle-school-level" problem.

How could we apply this to Akrasia? That is, what small skills can you learn to help you beat procrastination, instead of just setting a big goal like, "Finish every assignment at least two days before it's due."? Here are a couple ideas:

1) Pick single, relatively easy things to stop procrastinating on. For example, errands like doing laundry or getting groceries.

2) Starting every assignment right after you're assigned it. It could just be a little bit, one problem or simply an outline, that would help you break the resistance to starting.

I feel ... (read more)

Good things to look for in this kind of task is things that you clearly enjoy for it's own sake ut somehow procrastinate anyway, and things that are well defined and take a short amount of time to do.
I'm currently thinking about this as well. For one, I'm trying to get around being tired, so I have started making a list of all activities that might restore my mental energy and began doing trial runs with a scoring afterwards. So for example, I check how awake I currently am (8/10) and then watch TV for 20 minutes and check again (still 8/10). That way, I do 10-20 minute chunks and eventually get a useful list of working techniques. Another is trial runs. I went through all my reasonably plausible self-help stuff and collected all techniques in a big list ("write down steps while you work", "timeboxing", ...). Then I pick a simple akratic activity and do a short run (at most a few days, often just one <1 hour go) and write down my experience. I would really love to have something like a skill tree for some of my major goals, like Khan academy's knowledge map. I've tried making some myself, but I didn't really know in advance what kinda stuff should go in there and my attempts all looked like linear chains. Having clear-cut progression standards and a full map from dirt-easy to mastery seems to be a major component for my recent great success at picking up resistance training, but I haven't yet figured out how to transfer it to other skills.

I've heard of that specific Scientology training routine - having two people look at each other's eyes for an extended period of time - before. Apparently, doing that with a person of the opposite gender is remarkably effective at producing feelings of romantic love, and Scientology critic Keith Henson describes it and other "auditing" practices as emotional manipulation aking to brainwashing...

The staring one works on others by intimidation, as you look confident in an odd therefore unpredictable manner (a scary and possibly dangerous freak); the routine itself trains you to uncritically accept what's in the later, sillier material. It's obedience training. Many critics, being terribly negative and close-minded and observing how Scientology tends to work out for people, consider the latter the main purpose of the TRs. Luke was pretty much dancing around in live fire here and dodged a bullet.


Nice post, yes, but... something's missing. In summary, I think the question here is, "How should you go about learning a big skill?" The answer this post gives seems to be "find a bunch of small skills that are contained within the big skill, and learn each one; then your small skills will gradually build up to the big skill."

But that method, without a bit of clarification, just won't do. How do you know which small skills are necessary for the big skill? Suppose you want to learn how to drive (and let's assume you're in a country that... (read more)


I took some Scientology classes in Hollywood so I could get into their Toastmasters club, which is the best Toastmasters club in L.A. county.

That's interesting, what sets them apart?

* Strict, dependable schedule. * Everybody has a role, and invests planning and effort into it. * Stage, lights, music, camera. * Excellent speeches, excellent feedback. * The members take improvement very seriously, but have a lot of fun. * A wealth of mature, active, long-term members with deep knowledge and experience. * Constant participation in all the regional and sometimes higher-level Toastmasters competitions.
But you have to take a Scientologist class to join? You couldn't just join a Toastmasters somewhere else and then show up, for instance?
Right. Not all Toastmasters clubs have 'open membership.' For example, corporations can have their own clubs and only admit people who work for the corporation. In this case, the requirements for getting into this club were that you take a Scientology class or two and not say nasty things about L. Ron Hubbard or Scientology.
Was the prohibition on saying nasty things only inside the Toastmasters meetings? It seems like a dangerous precommitment.

This is the basis for the Montessori method of education.

After 2 years of failed swimming lessons by "professionals" I taught my daughter to swim in a few weeks using this technique (learn one step at a time).

BTW one benefit of Montessori education, for the early childhood years 3-5yo, is that the children develop amazing powers of concentration for some reason. My daughter is just amazing in this regard.

Isn't Montessori method the thing where you put a kid in a stimulating environment and let them figure it out? What does it have to do with building one small skill at a time? I'm just not that familiar...
6Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
This technique has a name? I teach swimming lessons as part-time job and I guess I'm still getting used to it not being obvious to most teachers (of swimming or other things) how important it is to break down skills into small chunks. Just out of curiosity, what progressions did you use with your daughter? I may be able to use them in my classes.

YDS class 5 is actually where rock climbing starts -- at any rock climbing gym, for instance, all routes will be class 5 (although many of them will be described as boulders instead). You want to say something like 5.10, which is something that basically nobody starts off able to do, but most people ought to be able to do if they work their way up.

Lol! Fixed. I thought I understood the Wikipedia article but obviously not.

I wonder if the same effect is had staring into someone's eyes over webcam.. The only person that I can really see trying this with is my wife and I have no problem looking into her eyes. I feel like we'd be skewed because we're so familiar with each other...

Does anyone else do this kind of Dune type training other than scientologists?

The main point in this article seems to be "if you learn small things in the right order, the wins you experience will help motivate you".

I think that there's another incredibly important point to add: things have dependencies. To learn B, you must first learn A. Learning things in the right order = traversing the dependency graph efficiently, and I think that this is extremely important.