What we learned about Less Wrong from Cognito Mentoring advising

byVipulNaik5y6th Mar 201427 comments

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In late December 2013, Jonah, my collaborator at Cognito Mentoring, announced the service on LessWrong. Information about the service was also circulated in other venues with high concentrations of gifted and intellectually curious people. Since then, we're received ~70 emails asking for mentoring from learners across all ages, plus a few parents. At least 40 of our advisees heard of us through LessWrong, and the number is probably around 50. Of the 23 who responded to our advisee satisfaction survey, 16 filled in information on where they'd heard of us, and 14 of those 16 had heard of us from LessWrong. The vast majority of student advisees with whom we had substantive interactions, and the ones we felt we were able to help the most, came from LessWrong (we got some parents through the Davidson Forum post, but that's a very different sort of advising).

In this post, I discuss some common themes that emerged from our interaction with these advisees. Obviously, this isn't a comprehensive picture of the LessWrong community the way that Yvain's 2013 survey results were.

  • A significant fraction of the people who contacted us via LessWrong aren't active LessWrong participants, and many don't even have user accounts on LessWrong. The prototypical advisees we got through LessWrong don't have many distinctive LessWrongian beliefs. Many of them use LessWrong primarily as a source of interesting stuff to read, rather than a community to be part of.
  • About 25% of the advisees we got through LessWrong were female, and a slightly higher proportion of the advisees with whom we had substantive interaction (and subjectively feel we helped a lot) were female. You can see this by looking at the sex distribution of the public reviews of us from students.
  • Our advisees included people in high school (typically, grades 11 and 12) and college. Our advisees in high school tended to be interested in mathematics, computer science, physics, engineering, and entrepreneurship. We did have a few who were interested in economics, philosophy, and the social sciences as well, but this was rarer. Our advisees in college and graduate school were also interested in the above subjects but skewed a bit more in the direction of being interested in philosophy, psychology, and economics.
  • Somewhat surprisingly and endearingly, many of our advisees were interested in effective altruism and social impact. Some had already heard of the cluster of effective altruist ideas. Others were interested in generating social impact through entrepreneurship or choosing an impactful career, even though they weren't familiar with effective altruism until we pointed them to it. Of those who had heard of effective altruism as a cluster of ideas, some had either already consulted with or were planning to consult with 80,000 Hours, and were connecting with us largely to get a second opinion or to get opinion on matters other than career choice.
  • Some of our advisees had had some sort of past involvement with MIRI/CFAR/FHI. Some were seriously considering working in existential risk reduction or on artificial intelligence. The two subsets overlapped considerably.
  • Our advisees were somewhat better educated about rationality issues than we'd expect others of similar academic accomplishment to be, and more than the advisees we got from sources other than LessWrong. That's obviously not a surprise at all.
  • We hadn't been expecting it, but many advisees asked us questions related to procrastination, social skills, and other life skills. We were initially somewhat ill-equipped to handle these, but we've built a base of recommendations, with some help from LessWrong and other sources.
  • One thing that surprised me personally is that many of these people had never spent time exploring Quora. I'd have expected Quora to be much more widely known and used by the sort of people who were sufficiently aware of the Internet to know LessWrong. But it's possible there's not that much overlap.

My overall takeaway is that LessWrong seems to still be one of the foremost places that smart and curious young people interested in epistemic rationality visit. I'm not sure of the exact reason, though HPMOR probably gets a significant fraction of the credit. As long as things stay this way, LessWrong remains a great way to influence a subset of the young population today that's likely to be disproportionately represented among the decision-makers a few years down the line.

It's not clear to me why they don't participate more actively on LessWrong. Maybe no special reasons are needed: the ratio of lurkers to posters is huge for most Internet fora. Maybe the people who contacted us were relatively young and still didn't have an Internet presence, or were being careful about building one. On the other hand, maybe there is something about the comments culture that dissuades people from participating (this need not be a bad feature per se: one reason people may refrain from participating is that comments are held to a high bar and this keeps people from offering off-the-cuff comments). That said, if people could somehow participate more, LessWrong could transform itself into an interactive forum for smart and curious people that's head and shoulders above all the others.

PS: We've now made our information wiki publicly accessible. It's still in beta and a lot of content is incomplete and there are links to as-yet-uncreated pages all over the place. But we think it might still be interesting to the LessWrong audience.