The Zeroth Skillset

by katydee1 min read30th Jan 2013109 comments



Related: 23 Cognitive Mistakes that make People Play Bad Poker

Followed by: Situational Awareness And You

If epistemic rationality is the art of updating one's beliefs based on new evidence to better correspond with reality, the zeroth skillset of epistemic rationality-- the one that enables all other skills to function-- is that of situational awareness. Situational awareness-- sometimes referred to as "situation awareness" or simply "SA"-- is the skillset and related state of mind that allows one to effectively perceive the world around them.

One might ask how this relates to rationality at all. The answer is simple. Just as the skill of lucid dreaming is near-useless without dream recall,[1] the skills of updating based on evidence and actually changing your mind are near-useless without good awareness skills-- after all, you can't update based on evidence that you haven't collected! A high degree of situational awareness is thus an important part of one's rationalist toolkit, as it allows you to notice evidence about the world around you that you would otherwise miss. At times, this evidence can be of critical importance. I can attest that I have personally saved the lives of friends on two occasions thanks to good situational awareness, and have saved myself from serious injury or death many times more.

Situational awareness is further lauded by elite military units, police trainers, criminals, intelligence analysts, and human factors researchers. In other words, people who have to make very important-- often life-or-death-- decisions based on limited information consider situational awareness a critical skill. This should tell us something-- if those individuals for whom correct decisions are most immediately relevant all stress the importance of situational awareness, it may be a more critical skill than we realize.

Unfortunately, the only discussion of situational awareness that I've seen on LessWrong or related sites has been a somewhat oblique reference in Louie Helm's "roadmap of errors" from 23 Cognitive Mistakes that make People Play Bad Poker.[2] I believe that situational awareness is important enough that it merits an explicit sequence of posts on its advantages and how to cultivate it, and this post will serve as the introduction to that sequence.

The first post in the sequence, unimaginatively titled "Situational Awareness and You," will be posted within the week. Other planned posts include "Cultivating Awareness," "How to Win a Duel," "Social Awareness," "Be Aware of Your Reference Class," "Signaling and Predation," and "Constant Vigilance!"

If you have any requests for things to add, general questions about the sequence, meta-thoughts about SA, and so on, this post is an appropriate place for that discussion; as this is primarily a meta post, it has been posted to Discussion. Core posts in the sequence will be posted to Main.


[1] What good are lucid dreams if you can't remember them?

[2] This is a very useful summary and you should read it even if you don't play poker.