The latest in the Feedback Loop Rationality series.

 

Periodically, people (including me) try to operationalize predictions, or bets, and... it doesn't seem to help much.

I think I recently "got good" at making "actually useful predictions." I currently feel on-the-cusp of unlocking a host of related skills further down the rationality tech tree. This post will attempt to spell out some of the nuances of how I currently go about it, and paint a picture of why I think it's worth investing in.

The takeaway that feels most important to me is: it's way better to be "fluent" at operationalizing predictions, compared to "capable at all."

Previously, "making predictions" was something I did separately from my planning process. It was a slow, clunky process.

Nowadays, reasonably often I can integrate predictions into the planning process itself, because it feels lightweight. I'm better at quickly feeling-around for "what sort of predictions would actually change my plans if they turned out a certain way?", and then quickly check in on my intuitive sense of "what do I expect to happen?"

Fluency means you can actually use it day-to-day to help with whatever work is most important to you. Day-to-day usage means you can actually get calibrated for predictions in whatever domains you care about. Calibration means that your intuitions will be good, and you'll know they're good

If I were to summarize the change-in-how-I-predict, it's a shift from:

"Observables-first". i.e. looking for things I could easily observe/operationalize, that were somehow related to what I cared about.

to:

"Cruxy-first". i.e. Look for things that would change my decisionmaking, even if vague, and learn to either better operationalize those vague things, or, find a way to get better data. (and then, there's a cluster of skills and shortcuts to make that easier)

Disclaimer: 

This post is on the awkward edge of "feels full of promise", but "I haven't yet executed on the stuff that'd make it clearly demonstrably valuable." (And, I've tracked the results of enough "feels promise" stuff to know they have a <50% hit rate)

I feel like I can see the work needed to make this technique actually functional. It's a lot of work. I'm not sure if it's worth it. (Alas, I'm inventing this technique because I don't know how to tell if my projects are worth it and I really want a principled way of forming beliefs about that. Since I haven't finished vetting it yet it's hard to tell!)

There's a failure mode where rationality schools proliferate without evidence, where people get excited about their new technique that sounds good on paper, and publish exciting blogposts about it. 

There's an unfortunate catch-22 where: 

  • Naive rationality gurus post excitedly, immediately, as if they already know what they're doing. This is even kinda helpful (because believing in the thing really does help make it more true).
  • More humble and realistic rationality gurus wait to publish until they're confident their thing really works. They feel so in-the-dark, fumbling around. As they should. Because, like, they (we) are. 

But, I nonetheless feel like the rationality community was overall healthier when it was full of excited people who still believed a bit in their heart that rationality would give them superpowers, and posted excitedly about it. It also seems intellectually valuable for notes to be posted along the way, so others can track it and experiment.

Rationality Training doesn't give you superpowers – it's a lot of work, and then "it's a pretty useful skill, among other skills." But I think it's an important skill if you are trying to problems you don't understand.

I expect, a year from now, I'll have a better conception of the ideas in this post. This post is still my best guess about how this skill can work, and I'd like it if other people excitedly tried to make it work, and report how it went. 

Predicting Outcomes vs Comparing Plans

I'm using forecasting as one tool in a larger toolset. I'll have another post delving deeper into this, but basically: whenever I'm spending a bunch of resources on something, I try to:

  1. Explicitly ask "what are my goals?"
  2. Come up with at least two ideas for approaching that goal, that you really believe in.
  3. Identify possible cruxes for pursuing one plan, or the other.
  4. Reduce uncertainty on those cruxes.
  5. Pick a thing and do it.

The "fluent, cruxy predictions" skill is a tool for step 3 and 4. It's related to Murphijitsu (generally asking "what do I expect to go wrong here?", and then improving your plan, and then asking again until you feel like you plan is good enough).

Often, if I have an important uncertainty, instead of running an expensive experiment to resolve it, I can get a surprising amount of mileage out of just asking "well, what do I actually expect to happen here, if I force myself to get concrete and relevant?". The act of asking the question prompts my unconscious mind (i.e System 1 or Inner Simulator) to reveal what it actually believes when I'm not bullshitting yourself. 

The trick here is using your deliberate, System 2 reasoning, to notice important questions that your System 1 would be good at answering.

But, your unconscious mind isn't magic. It doesn't know everything. So I think it's important to follow this up with making explicit predictions, that you check later, so your inner-simulator can get more accurate over time.

Subskills that go into this are:

  • Operationalizing predictions that are cruxy and decision-relevant
  • Find the right amount of concreteness. How will you know if a prediction came true, or when to check?
  • Reduce friction. Make it very easy to write down a prediction, in a way that you'll actually followup on.

Of those: training the skill of "operationalizing cruxy questions" is most important. 

But, reducing friction is the easiest part to get traction on, so let's start there.

Frictionless

It should be as easy as possible to make a prediction. I particularly like the app Fatebook.io. It's very lightweight – I can open up the site, and my cursor will automatically be highlighted in the "new prediction" text box. I type in a prediction, tab over to the "forecast" input to enter a probability, and then hit return and boom, I'm done.

But I like it even more because: 

  • It can integrate with Slack or Discord (so you can make work-related predictions that your coworkers also can forecast on). 
  • The chrome and firefox extensions let you quickly make predictions from anywhere on the internet, and then paste them into whatever document you're working in. (Note: I recommend changing the default hotkey to whatever is comfortable)

For example, right now I'm writing a LessWrong doc. Are there any cruxy predictions I can make about this? What actually am I trying to accomplish with this post? After thinking a little, I hit Cmd-Shift-F, entered these predictions and then hit Cmd-V to paste them into the doc:

⚖ A week after posting this, between 1-3 people will have commented saying they got a Fatebook account because of this post (65%)

⚖ A week after posting this, 1-2 people will have actually made a chrome/firefox extension prediction that they paste into a comment. (50%)

Awhile later, I added:

⚖ A post (not by me) that gets 100+ karma will link approvingly to this post within 2 years (10%)

This is actually a decent example of how to use predictions, so I'll walk through what just went through my head. (This will be a little messy, because it's a real thought process. I think it's good to showcase what the real messiness might look like)

I started by asking myself "what actually am I even trying to do with this post?"

The most obvious goal with this post is to get people into the habit of making fluent, cruxy predictions. Ideally, I care that people are still doing it years later, skillfully. But I anticipate getting a very weak signal about that – I won't necessarily know who read the post. If I made Fatebook prediction like "a year from now, someone who read this post will have gone to develop a solid Fatebook habit", I wouldn't even know who to followup with to ask if it had worked.

As I thought about that, I started to feel despair – is this post really going to accomplish anything? I'm actually pretty pessimistic that many people will read this post and take action. And the longterm second-order effects feel pretty murky. This post is a fair amount of effort to write. Why am I even doing this? 

After thinking a bit, two things occurred to me:

  • My main reason for writing this post has more to do with "building a longterm intellectual edifice", i.e. people going on to develop new techniques about forecasting or rationality. 
  • It probably actually makes it more true that people will start practicing cruxy-prediction, if I explicitly ask them to, and make it easy.

And that hopefully illustrates a major point of this whole "fluent cruxy prediction" concept: Asking "what effects do I expect to see from my actions?" often throws into relief that I don't really expect to see results from my actions. I'm just kinda running on autopilot. But, having noticed that, I can followup and ask "okay, what would actually need to be true, to be in the higher-likelihood of success world?"

With that in mind: 

Hey there, reader. 

If this feels at least somewhat compelling, what if you just got yourself to Fatebook right now, and make a couple predictions that'll resolve within couple days, or a week? Fatebook will send you emails reminding you about it, which can help bootstrap a habit.

Feeling around for "cruxiness"

The previous section started getting into this already. But now let's focus more explicitly: What sort of predictions, if true, would change your decisionmaking?

Cruxy operationalization is a murky artform. But here are some principles, and tricks I currently use. Most of my technique involves asking myself various questions, and then seeing what bubbles up.

Over time, I keep track of which question-prompts feel most useful.

Ideal Prerequisite: 
Have at least two (plans/approaches/options)

I'll hopefully write up a whole blogpost about this someday. But one failure mode is "Well, I only really had one general idea. I made predictions about whether that idea would go well. Maybe they returned 'it'll go amazingly well!' and maybe they returned 'it'll go at least pretty well'. 'Pretty well' is at least 'pretty good.' I can't think of anything else to do, so... I guess I'll go with my original idea?"

Having at least two options, that are somewhat mutually exclusive, forces me to start thinking "okay, but how does my favorite plan compare to my other realistic options?". 

It's important to find at least two options you really believe in. (Ideally: have at least one alternative that fits reasonably well into your current lifestyle, or strategic framework, and one that is more radically different).

It's a form of leaving a Line of Retreat, that helps you be more cognitively agile as you decide whether to pivot. If you're having trouble coming up with alternative plans, try Metastrategic Brainstorming.

Frames 1: Costs and benefits

So, one set of questions are "high level cost/benefit comparison?", i.e:

  • What are the biggest benefits I'd hope to see from my mainline plan? What would I observe if those benefits came to pass? How likely is that to happen?
  • What are the costs associated with my current plan?

And then:

  • What are the biggest benefits of the main alternatives to my plan? And what are the costs of those plans? 

For me, these activate a different mode, that cuts more to what I actually care about.

Frame 2: Will this really help my deeper, longterm goals?

Often, my plans are really "step 1 of a much larger plan", or, a cluster of strategies that other people in the world are working towards. 

  • Do any of my current plans feel on track to actually accomplish my underlying, deeper goals?
  • What would I see in the world, 1-4 years from now, after my plan is completed, if my plan turned out to really help with the longterm goals?
  • What would I see 1-4 years from now in worlds where my plan hadn't really helped with the longterm goals?

Frame 3: Murphijitsu, and being dissatisfied with "maybe" 

Often while thinking about the first two sets of questions, I find my intuitive sense of "will my project be successful?" is "... kinda?". Either the outcome I'm predicting feels uncertain ("~55%?"), or it's hard to get that clear a visualizable outcome at all.

I then ask "okay, so, if this was definitely, clearly a resounding success, a year from now, what are all the things I would see?"

The way this works best at first sometimes feels like unrealistic dreaming, but then often highlights that the dream is maybe achievable (but perhaps a lot more work than I'd initially envisioned). I generate specific new intermediate actions I might want to plan for. Then, I go back to the original prediction and see if I expect greater success.

This is pretty similar to the process of Murphijitsu (asking "am I surprised if this goes wrong?", and if you wouldn't be too surprised, iterating on your plan until you'd feel actively surprised if it didn't work). The two novel components I'm adding here are:

  • Not merely stopping with "will my plan work?" but "will it have the cruxy outcomes I actually cared about, far in the future?". (One might say this should always be part of Murphijitsu, but it felt novel to me)
  • Making explicit predictions at the end, to train your inner surprisometer.

The feeling of "oh... that's cruxy" 

It's possible to do "fake work" – where you come up with some defensible sounding predictions, but they still don't actually cleave at your cruxes or help you think. 

One thing I particularly look for is a feeling of "oh man, that's cruxy." For me it often comes with a feeling of destabilization/vertigo.

I remember once a few years ago when I was arguing with someone about whether empathy was useful. I was like "Empathy isn't just nice. It makes people more effective so they'll be better at their job." My conversation partner (habryka) said "do you really think Elon Musk would do better at his job if he was more empathetic", and I felt a sinking feeling of "oh no, my beliefs just became falsifiable, and, I'm not sure how had I'd actually bet on them." 

It's hard to actually resolve a bet on whether empathy would help Elon Musk, but, operationalizing the bet, even if it's a hypothetical fantasy bet, helps boot up my realistic intuitions, rather than abstract hopes about "surely this 'make people more empathetic plan will be good' because empathy is generically good."

Example

The Fractal Strategy Workshop

While I was leading up to my Fractal Strategy Workshop, 10 days beforehand, my colleague and I sat down to make some predictions about the workshop.

A naive thing we might have written down is "after the workshop, someone will use a technique we taught them." But this wouldn't be very concrete. How would you know when to check? What counts as using a technique from the workshop?

The things my colleague wrote down tended to be questions like: 

  • "Six months after the workshop, a participant (other than Ray or me) will have set a ten * minute timer to brainstorm strategies for solving a problem." 
  • "A participant changes what they're planning to do, or skips to the hard part, in the year after the workshop, in a way that seems related to the workshop."

Meanwhile I was making predictions more like:

  • "After the workshop, will my boss think it makes sense for me to keep working on this rationality project?"
  • "Will there be people willing to pay enough money to support the workshop?" (ideally, clients who think it's worthwhile from a productivity standpoint to spend thousands of dollars on it)
  • If I pitch this to OpenPhil or other major donors, will they think it's worth funding?
  • "All things considered, I will find this project valuable enough to run another another workshop by the end of the year?"
  • "Will I find a cofounder who believes in this project enough to commit to it?" (My colleague notably didn't believe in the project enough to commit longterm)

In some sense, my colleague's questions are quite reasonable. If we aren't seeing participants use the techniques from the workshop, or generally improve their planmaking, the workshop can't be that useful.

But, that wasn't that cruxy for my decisionmaking. I know that the first workshop I run will probably have lots of problems. I also don't really expect a workshop to work in isolation (what I hoped would work was workshop + 6 months of followup coaching to help cement the skills and collaboratively iterate on applying them to the participant's lives). I was deliberately not committing to doing the followup coaching for this workshop, because it was an early beta test. The purpose was to get a sense of whether the curriculum was roughly pointed in the right direction, and decide whether to do a full workshop+coaching later on.

It is cruxy to me whether, if I worked on it for a year, the metastrategy framework would produce clear results. But for the immediate future, the more relevant question was "will the major stakeholders of this project think it is worth paying for?". If people aren't willing to pay significant money for the workshops, that's evidence that they don't expect them to be seriously valuable. And if my boss didn't think it made sense, I'd need to raise money from somewhere and strike out on my own.

This shaped my decisionmaking in a few ways. I realized:

  • The most important question for the workshop feedback form would be "how much would you be willing to pay for this?", "how much would you be willing to pay for the idealized version of this workshop tailored for you?" (and related questions about "what that idealized workshop would look like)
  • I wanted an interest form for future workshops that I would advertise around, to get a sense of how much demand there was for this sort of thing.
  • The purpose of the workshop was not to succeed on my first try (although I should still try to succeed on my first try). The main goal was to reduce uncertainty, and get a better sense of what parts of my agenda needed the most work. (This resulted in me including some classes I was less confident in)

(It's worth noting: my colleague had the opposite impression. They thought it was relatively easy to get funding, they were much more worried about the metastrategy practice failing to impact people. Which is reasonable! But, part of the point here is that what matters is what is cruxy for you. They're your decisions and plans!)

Tips and Tricks

Practice via Videogames

Real life takes a long time to give you feedback on your predictions. I've found videogames a good testbed to practice making predictions, in a way that feels fun, rapid-feedback, while connected to a "real-ish decisionmaking process." 

I recommend using Turn-Based games that you haven't played before, since those give you lots of opportunities to pause and think. 

At first, simply focus on making as many predictions as you can about the game's mechanics, to drill the basic move of "notice that there are multiple plausible worlds that you're living in, and that you have some useful intuitions about it even if you're missing lots of information."

Once you get a basic handle on it, try to specifically ask "what are some unknowns in this game that would affect my strategy?". When you're about to make a choice, consider "what could turn out to be true, that'd lead me to wish I'd made a different choice?".

NOTES for Prediction-Followup

Often, I'll notice "hmm, I could make a prediction about that" while I'm in the middle of a longer thought process. Something I find helpful is to jot down a note about it somewhere I can easily come back to after the train-of-thought completes. (If I'm in a brainstorming document, literally write something like PREDICTION, in capital letters).

The most common note I use is the word "PROMISING," which specifically refers to me having an idea that feels really compelling. (I developed this while practicing solving Baba is You levels, and making predictions about whether my current problem-solving process was on the right track).

I encourage you to develop your own shorthand, based on the mental qualia that are useful for you.

Stuck on making a perfect prediction? Make an imperfect one

(Relatedly: it's okay to make fuzzy predictions that only make sense to you, but when doing so, try to make "extremized" ones)

Sometimes I want to decision – quitting a job, or deciding to do a complex plan. If I can't pin down a concrete observable thing, I can always default to "Subjectively, a year from now, I'll think it was pretty clearly correct to have [done X]."

But, the words "pretty obviously" there are important. 

Oftentimes when I ask "was it a good decision [to quite that job / to start that new relationship / etc]?" the answer is "...maybe? Yeah, kinda?". And that's too vague to be useful as a resolution criteria. 

But if you set the standard for "it has to be pretty clearly correct", not just "probably correct", I find that leaves less room for hemming/hawing about it. 

Make multiple predictions

Relatedly: If you're not sure if one prediction captures The True Spirit of What You're Uncertain about, try making a few different predictions on the same topic.

If I'm considering leaving my job, I might separately try asking things like:

  • In a year, will I clearly regret having quit that job?
  • In a year, will I clearly be glad to having quit that job? 
    • (sometimes this returns an inconsistent intuition as the previous one!)
  • In a year, will I have some kind of steady paycheck at the time this prediction resolves?
  • In a year, will I have $N saved in the bank?
  • A year after quitting my job, will I feel clearly happier than I remember being at my old job?
  • A year after quitting my job, will Trusted Friend X think that whatever I spent the past year doing was at least as important/meaningful as my previous job?
  • The day after I quit my job, will I feel a sense of relief?

Takeaways

We just covered a lot of stuff. A quick recap of some of the key concepts:

  • Fluency is key: The ability to seamlessly integrate predictions into your thought process is what makes this skill truly valuable. It's not about occasional, formal prediction-making sessions, but about habitually asking yourself, "What do I actually expect to happen here?"
  • Focus on what's cruxy: Not all predictions are created equal. The most valuable ones are those that would actually change your decisions or plans if they turned out a certain way. Learning to identify these cruxy points is a skill in itself.
  • Reduce friction: Tools like Fatebook.io can make it incredibly easy to jot down predictions on the fly. The easier it is, the more likely you are to do it consistently.
  • Look for that "aha" moment: The feeling of "oh man, that's cruxy" can be a sign that you've hit on something important.

To reach fluency, you need some way of getting in lots of practice. The advice I'd give depends somewhat on where you're starting from. If you're totally new to predictions, I think it's necessary to first get a basic fluency with "making predictions, at all." Make tons of predictions about things you care about in your life, that will resolve reasonably soon. (i.e. days or weeks). Make tons of predictions about videogames or other fun domains with uncertainty and fast-feedback.

But, the thing to ultimately be aiming for is to hit a kind of "escape velocity", with a combination of skills make predictions useful for your day job, or major personal projects. For that, the skill of identifying and operationalizing "strategic cruxiness" is an important building block.

If you do end up installing the Fatebook browser extension and making some predictions, let me know! It is helpful to know when people actually take actions based on posts like this.

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I also got a Fatebook account thanks to this post.

This post lays out a bunch of tools that address what I've previously found lacking in personal forecasts, so thanks for the post! I've definitely gone observables-first, forecasted primarily the external world (rather than e.g. "if I do X, will I afterwards think it was a good thing to do?"), and have had the issue of feeling vaguely neutral about everything you touched on in Frame 3. 

I'll now be trying these techniques out and see whether that helps.

...and as I wrote that sentence, I came to think about how Humans are not automatically strategic - particularly that we do not "ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve" and "ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it" - and that this is precisely the type of thing you were using Fatebook for in this post. So, I actually sat down, thought about it and made a few forecasts:

⚖ Two months from now, will I think I'm clearly better at operationalizing cruxy predictions about my future mental state? (Olli Järviniemi: 80%)

⚖ Two months from now, will I think my "inner simulator" makes majorly less in-hindsight-blatantly-obvious mistakes? (Olli Järviniemi: 60%)

Two months from now, will I be regularly predicting things relevant to my long-term goals and think this provides value? (Olli Järviniemi: 25%)

And noticing that making these forecasts was cognitively heavy and not fluent at all, I made one more forecast:

⚖ Two months from now, will I be able to fluently use forecasting as a part of my workflow? (Olli Järviniemi: 20%)

So far I've made a couple of forecasts of the form "if I go to event X, will I think it was clearly worth it" that already resolved, and felt like I got useful data points to calibrate my expectations on.

Woo, great. :) 

Whether this works out or not for you, I quite appreciate you laying out the details. Hope it's useful for you!

Following this post, I made 4 forecasts on the output and impact of my MATS project, which led me to realize some outcomes I expected were less likely than I felt, absent active effort on my part to make them happen.

I got a Fatebook account at the beginning of 2024. After concluding the "Frictionless" section of this post, I felt encouraged to install the Firefox extension and make a prediction to share here.

Given that I haven't had time to read the full post in detail and that I feel that I want to get better at actively using predictions as a planning and calibration tool - and knowing that I may have time to dedicate to this activity within the next two weeks - I made the following, simple prediction.

⚖ Will I finish reading the post "Fluent, Cruxy Predictions" by Raemon within the next two weeks? (Nonmonotonica X: 65%)

Since I would like to take something concrete away from this post, I would want to find an area where setting up an action plan is relatively straightforward, so that I can focus on the prediction part. I already have few ideas, so I am quite confident that I will have found one by the time I will come back to this article:

⚖ Will I find a suitable area or goal where I can pair planning with prediction making using Fatebook and following Raemon's article? (Nonmonotonica X: 75%)

Thank you for taking the time to writing down this post.

I got a Fatebook account thanks to this post!

I think a basic possible concern (but likely minor in the long term, given sufficient rationality training and experience) is that making a lot of explicit predictions about things you have causal control over can have a self-fulfilling prophecy effect. So, for example, if you expect you won't be able to accomplish something, that belief could propagate through your mind and subconsciously make you not try as hard to achieve it (because you would expect you ultimately wouldn't be able to anyway), which later on makes your subjective estimation of the likelihood of your success go lower, so you try even less hard, etc. A self-reinforcing loop of anti-productivity. 

I believe that one of the effects of the current schooling system is training people to shy away from cruxyness, which makes you somewhat less of a liability for employment.

If this feels at least somewhat compelling, what if you just got yourself to Fatebook right now, and make a couple predictions that'll resolve within couple days, or a week? Fatebook will send you emails reminding you about it, which can help bootstrap a habit.

Done.

Curious to here what sort of things you end up predicting about, if you're up for sharing. :)

Whether I would get an article written, or a part of a website setup, by Friday. I was sure I wouldn't, and I didn't. But the predictions I made weren't cruxy.