Optimizing ways to convey rational thinking strategies to broad audience

by Gleb_Tsipursky1 min read15th Nov 201424 comments


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What do you think of this post as a way to use graphics, narrative, metaphors, and orientation toward pragmatic strategies to communicate about dual process theory to a broad audience? It's part of the work of our new nonprofit organization, and we're trying to optimize ways to convey rational thinking strategies widely and thus raise the sanity waterline. So advice on how to improve this post, as well as our other posts, with an orientation toward a broad audience, would be helpful. Thanks, all!

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Your article feels too abstract to really engage the reader. I would start with a surprise element (ok, you do this to some extent); have at least one practical anecdote; include concrete and practical conclusions (what life lessons follow from what the reader has learned?).

Worse, I feel that your article might in fact lead to several misconceptions about dual process theory. (At least some of the stuff does not match with my own beliefs. Should I update?)

First, you make a link between System 1 and emotions. But System 1 is still a cognitive system. It's heavily informed by emotions, but does not correspond to emotions. Also, there has never been doubt that human thinking tends to be seriously emotionally biased. The surprising contribution of Kahneman was exactly to show that many (most?) judgment errors come from cognitive biases.

Also, your article makes it sound that System 1 is the one responsible for producing bias ("the autopilot system is prone to make errors"), while in fact System 2 is equally susceptible to biased thinking. (Biases are just heuristics, after all - there is nothing inherently irrational about them.)

Second, Kahneman himself stresses that the dual system theory is merely a useful fiction. So I would be wary of including the neuroscientific stuff. These conclusions are order of magnitude less solid than the dual system theory itself. Anyway, why is the localization of the systems in the brain, or the evolutionary recentness of prefrontal cortex even relevant to this article? Don't try to prop up the credibility of your account by including random scientific facts. You'll lose in the long term.

(Caveat - I'm not a LW regular, so most of my knowledge about dual process theory comes directly from Kahneman's book.)

Appreciate the feedback. I thought I provided concrete examples of life lessons in the article, namely "If we know about how our minds work, we can be intentional about influencing our own thinking and feeling patterns. We can evaluate reality more clearly, make better decisions, and improve our ability to achieve goals, thus gaining greater agency." Are you suggesting some more specific lessons? If so, can you give some examples of what you mean?

Agreed on dual process theory being a useful heuristic. So are most ways of thinking about the brain :-) Here is a more complex piece I wrote on this topic, let me know your thoughts about it.

I'm confused by your criticism of my linkage of System 1 to emotions. You say you got most of your knowledge of dual process theory from Kahneman's book. Kahneman's book states, and I quote, "System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional" - it is even described this way on the publisher's website, making it clear that this framing is a key component of what Kahneman sought to convey. So can you clarify why you have an issue with me making a link between System 1 and emotions, when Kahneman himself stated this.

Why are you asking us? We aren't exactly your core audience. Shouldn't you ask people who've never heard of dual process theory, and hear what they say about it?

My main impression was that this is still too close to Wikipedia. Anyone likely to benefit from your post is also likely to benefit from the Wiki page on Dual process theory. I'm thinking you need a much clearer picture of who to adress - and not who you'd like to listen to you (everyone, obviously), but who is currently underserved by the Wiki, by "Thinking Fast and Slow" and all your other competitors. I don't think you've done that nearly enough, and I believe this oversight puts you at great risk of investing a lot of effort ineffectively.

Lets take the Wiki as one example. It has much, much more readers than 99,99% of sites on the web. It has a huge credibility advantage over you. Some mobile ISPs don't even charge for traffic for that site. And perhaps most crucially, it isn't a "Copyright - all rights reserved" situation like on your site.

Let me digress here, because this is important. If you want to spread knowledge and raise the sanity waterline, you would obviously want people to copy and share your materials, use it in courses and seminars, create movies and infographics and podcasts with it. They don't do that if they have to expect you'll sue them. Why in the world would you reserve copyright? The cost to your potential impact is huge. Is there any benefit you're expecting?

Anyway. You can certainly compete with Wikipedia in the same "reads long-ish explanations with complex grammar on a web site" segment of the potential audience. But your audience won't benefit nearly as much as it could if you did something Wiki can't.

Personally, I suspect the best audience to target would be kids. Kahnemann's book is excellent and quite accessible, but probably beyond most 15-year-olds. If you could make materials fit for 10-year-olds, you'd have that market to yourself, and could do a ton of good. And since cognitive returns can be re-invested, those who get them early will benefit most!

Good point about younger people, we are actually thinking about working with the Secular Student Alliance and Camp Quest to convey these ideas to younger audiences, especially since the heads of both organizations are on the Intentional Insights Advisory Board.

Regarding the Wiki, I have the sense that the article on dual process theory there is quite a bit less engaging than our article, due to our focus on graphics, engaging narrative, and pragmatic orientation. Let me know your thoughts.

Good point about copyright, we'll think about that. Thanks for pointing it out!

we are actually thinking about working with the Secular Student Alliance and Camp Quest to convey these ideas to younger audiences

Excellent! Good luck!

Regarding the Wiki, I have the sense that the article on dual process theory there is quite a bit less engaging than our article

I completely agree. Your article has strengths the Wiki one doesn't, just like the Wiki one has strengths yours doesn't.

You don't want people to have to read both, right? So uniting the strengths of both should be a priority. But some of the major advantages of the Wiki article aren't things you can copy: brand recognition, search engine rank. So wouldn't the logical move be to... improve the Wiki article? Go the Good Article, peer review, Featured article candidate and finally Featured Article route?

However, my main point was that you need to get feedback from the kinds of people you want to benefit from your work - not LWers. Maybe do it evolution-style: create three or four variants, let a bunch of people vote which they like best, create another three or four variants off of that, let a (different) bunch of people vote on those, etc.

For the Wiki, I actually think the articles we have and the Wiki article serve different purposes. The Wiki article explains things in a complex and long-form way, and it should still be there, very much so. Our goal is to get people interested in Rationality in the first place, and then direct them to other helpful sources for more advanced stuff, including not only Wikipedia, but also Less Wrong, CFAR, etc. - we have a bunch listed on our resource page and will add more over time.

my main point was that you need to get feedback from the kinds of people you want to benefit from your work - not LWers. Maybe do it evolution-style: create three or four variants, let a bunch of people vote which they like best, create another three or four variants off of that, let a (different) bunch of people vote on those, etc.

Yup, good point! We plan to do something like that - start with an outreach to the secular audience, who we figure are most likely to be the lowest-hanging fruit for early adopters as audience members. Then, they can give us helpful feedback on how to appeal to their friends and family, and thus help provide outreach to a broader audience.

Of course your articles and the Wiki's serve different purposes. But I'm not talking about purposes, I'm talking about effects. I think that at the end of the day, when people summarize what they got from either, the summaries of people who read one won't be easily distinguished from the summaries of people who read the other.

More mundanely, I did an intro to rationality presentation yesterday, and much of it was dual process theory. I found what really helped people "get it" was very detailed real-life examples, not only of which system does what, but also of how they interact. I had diagrams, animations, the elephant and rider metaphor... but what really did it for people were short stories with many "this is a system 1 action", "here's where system 2 integrates pieces of information" and so on thrown in.

Hm, that's actually a testable theory about the InIn article and the Wiki. That's something we can actually do, and get some real-world results. Thanks for the idea!

Good point about the short stories, that's something to think about. Much appreciated!

Yes I did catch several of my own biases.

Over all very good, I found that referring to the article 3 different ways, (Elephant and Rider) (Autopilot and Intentional systems) (Systems 1 and 2) was confusing.

The Elephant and Rider metaphor just did not hold up for me mentally. I don't think of elephants and Autopilot, neither dose the Rider bring intentional to mind. Being Technically trained I preferred the Autopilot and Intentional systems also, but I can very well see that some of my Academically trained friends will have a preference for System 1 and 2.

I also would expect that their will be at least some discussion what things go in the Autopilot grouping and what functions would be more accurately described as Intentional. The first of these that came to my mind was the function that "Activates?" "Turns On?" the Intentional system. This also leads me to wonder if their is not in fact at least one other system at work here, Perhaps a Monitoring System, A Tattle Tale system, some thing like that? In my field Binary systems that work are very rare almost always has to have cause/effect and control. or using the elephant and rider metaphor you need a pile of logs. (Really Bad Example but you get my point I hope). perhaps not in this case or perhaps the monitoring system is part of either the autopilot or intentional system.

Over all I accept that the systems described are likely functionally accurate. Simplified to the point that they can be presented in a short enough post that will be completely read by most and still get the concepts across. Very good popular writing.

The Links were very much appreciated. more complex/complete information even when I started to get lost in the detail, knowing that the detail was there added substantial credibility to the post. it has been a long time since I had so many tabs open at the same time. while I lack a lot of the background knowledge of a neuroscientist I was still able to follow the lines of thought.

Thank you.

Thanks for your thoughtful engagement! The metaphors work differently for different people: for some they are useful, for some less so. My wife and I use the elephant and rider metaphors quite frequently when we talk with each other, and in our own thinking - they work well for us. Glad that you found the framing and the writing helpful, as well as the references :-)

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