Osmosis learning: a crucial consideration for the craft

by toonalfrink2 min read10th Jul 20183 comments

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Self ImprovementScholarship & Learning
Personal Blog

I've been toying with a new approach to self-improvement that is quite different from what we've been doing at LW.

It hinges on the idea that the great majority of one's knowledge is implicit, and that most learning happens through osmosis (being near someone intelligent) rather than verbal communication.

If this is true, then the best strategy for increasing one's intelligence (in some domain) is to hang out with people that are more intelligent than you (in that domain).

So if you want to be mentally healthy, live at a Zen temple. If you want to be a good researcher, work with top researchers. If you want to be rich, hang out with rich people.

I think many people already implicitly know this. Lots of people would love to hang out with a billionaire. The naive hypothesis is that they're hoping to get a piece of their wealth, but perhaps they're hoping to get a piece of their intelligence.

This leads to competition to associate with intelligent people. Since market forces apply, ceterus paribus, the cost of associating with someone is correlated with their expected intelligence according to the average person.

So if this picture is true, then the best way to get ahead is to 1) be better at identifying intelligence, so that you can get a cheap deal for a big upgrade, 2) setting up an environment in which learning by osmosis is faster and 3) this learning happens asymmetrically.

For further thinking about this approach, I'd like to suggest three areas of inquiry:

  • Intelligence shopping: how do we identify individuals and communities that are more intelligent than us (in some relevant domain), but easy to approach?
  • A theory of osmosis: under what (social, psychological) conditions does osmosis occur with the highest bandwidth? My first guess is that it would include safety, attention, intimacy and trust. How much is this related to empathy? I don't know.
  • A theory of asymmetry: if two people exchange knowledge subsymbolically, how do we make sure that the more intelligent knowledge gets preference upon disagreement? This question seems to be the least tractable to me personally. i.e. there have been numerous times where I met someone's emotions by copying them, only later realising I should have met them with a smile instead.

And bonus:

  • For which domains can we expect our movement to be strictly better than any other movement out there? In which domains (of implicit knowledge) are we doing so bad that we would do well to be humble and apply osmosis learning?

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Yes, absolutely. This is what graduate school and CFAR workshops are for. I used to say both of the following things back in 2013-2014:

  • that nearly all of the value of CFAR workshops came from absorbing habits of thought from the instructors (I think this less now, the curriculum's gotten a lot stronger), and
  • that the most powerful rationality technique was moving to Berkeley (I sort of still think this but now I expect Zvi to get mad at me for saying it).

I have personally benefited a ton over the last year and a half through osmosing things from different groups of relationalists - strong circling facilitators and the like - and I think most rationalists have a lot to learn in that direction. I've been growing increasingly excited about meeting people who are both strong relationalists and strong rationalists and think that both skillsets are necessary for anything really good to happen.

There is this unfortunate dynamic where it's really quite hard to compete for the attention of the strongest local rationalists, who are extremely deliberate about how they spend their time and generally too busy saving the world to do much mentorship, which is part of why it's important to be osmosing from other people too (also for the sake of diversity, bringing new stuff into the community, etc.).

I love this post! If you've ever noticed that short workshops conducted by an expert seems to teach you a lot more and faster than spending weeks on something despite videos and docs, I think you ought to agree with toonalfrink's thesis.

I especially like the very crisply stated problem of asymmetrically engineering the subsymoblic flow towards "better" equilibria. I'll have fun thinking about that for a while.

(In fact, I'd say the first two 'areas of inquiry' you mention are really just natural subproblems of the third - bandwidth throttling is probably what we'll attempt to bind to "knowledge intelligence" once we know how to quantify and price it.)


A developed theory might also be applied negatively (as in, mainly throttling) to less domain-specific things like containing toxicity and misery, when you have less choice in the company you keep! I have personally tried to model this problem as mutiplayer-meditation: where distracting terrible thoughts can arise also from minds outside your own and you can, with focused practice, decide their influence on you. I think your model captures this more generally, and makes it more of a systematic communal effort.


When you talk about "verbal communication" though, it's not clear whether you're referring only to their attempts at talking about how they got so smart (or rich etc) or if you're also including specific object-level problems that they solve out loud (in a blogpost where they just apply their smarts, say), which could be said to allow for a sort of one-way, low-bandwidth osmosis.

Of course, the problem with a blogpost versus seeing them in-person (or even in-video, or some other neutral feed) is that they are themselves doing the filtering of what's notable - and as we all know around here, people usually have a poor idea of what is and isn't obvious to others. But this might have more to do with memorability than underspecification. I've noticed I often forget certain pieces of advice, but as a human, I tend to have good retention of the mannerisms of people. Another possible cause is the ability to ask questions without trivial inconveniences (like having to wait a long time for an answer, or gesturing at pictures). Yet another one is seeing a live demonstration of things actually working, so you're more likely to try it consistently rather than throwing away the whole thing when it doesn't work the first couple of times.

(Notice that memorability vs underspecification vs interactivity vs demo aren't distinguished when comparing workshops and self-study. Can we think of other factors?)


Anyway, I think we could start measuring this with increasingly-less-than-in-person media to start singling out what the factors really are, so we can continue to avoid meeting real people :P

See also: "show, don't tell"/the iceberg theory in writing and the monad tutorial fallacy in functional programming. These are weakish evidence for the existence of this phenomenon, although they still reside in the lingual realm.

[posting a double comment because it is sufficiently different and the previous one is already too long]