A Summary of The Power of Habit

Introduction, and Summary of A Summary of The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit is a 2012 book by Charles Duhigg, which offers interesting models of human behaviour in terms of habits, extrapolated from some studies of human neurology, psychology, and behaviour. It focuses on modeling your own behaviour or the behaviour of groups you are a part of, for the purpose of making modifications to improve your ability to achieve your goals. It includes a great deal of practical advice along these lines.

I cannot speak to its accuracy, in this summary largely mostly repeat claims without analysis, and any serious fact checking would need to make use of the actual book, which includes 58 pages of details about its sources at the end. I do not feel it is amenable to summarisation, and also I can’t totally remove the point of buying the actual book, people reasonably frown on that.

I have let this summary expand relative to the length I was expecting to write, so I will make a very brief overview as well upfront.

The first five chapters, as well as the appendix, offer what I would suggest as the most personally, directly applicable parts of the book for an individual attempting to improve themselves, and are useful to read for anyone interested in those things. In brief:

  • Habits consist of a cue, a routine, and a reward.
  • Habits are formed automatically by primitive parts of the brain to automate tasks, and work on the basis of cues and rewards they can recognise.
    • Rewards can be abstract, the removal of a threat to things you care about, a sense of accomplishment, etc, but just because you can conceptualise of an abstract reward doesn’t mean you actually experience it.
  • Habits become ingrained when, on encountering a cue, you react immediately as though you had received the reward in anticipation of it. Doing so creates a craving to then finish the habit and actually receive it.
  • A corollary that I personally feel is the biggest deal to emphasise to people who have tried more naive approaches to self improvement: There is no point, absolutely no point, in putting yourself through suffering pressuring yourself to adopt a habit which does not involve any reward, or involves some hypothetical abstract reward you never emotionally feel. It will never fixate, the parts of your brain involved don’t care how much you yell at them to fixate it, it will be running off sheer willpower forever- or more realistically until you waver.
    • Saving myself from this and instead looking at how I could make doing painful things, e.g. consistently getting up after an early wake up, actually something which offered a strong reward that primitive brain could understand has been the single biggest gain from the book for myself.
    • In the above case, I moved my wakeup time even earlier, but started playing video games for half an hour immediately on waking up, before any morning routine, and lo and behold it reliably happens, and it is also easier to sleep now it is a timeskip to something I enjoy instead of to dreariness.
  • To change a habit, you want to keep the cue and reward the same, but swap out the routine.
  • The golden rule of habit change is that a a habit can never truly be destroyed, but it can be preempted by creating a new habit.
  • A keystone habit is a habit that, once changed, enables new habits to thrive, permitting major life changes. Often they only offer small wins in and of themselves, they’re hard to recognise, and for some poorly understood reason exercise tends to be one.
  • Improvements to willpower come from learning generally applicable habits that distract yourself from temptations.
  • Applying these ideas to disrupt an existing bad habit involves a four step process:
    • Identify the routine.
    • Experiment to identify the actual reward.
    • Isolate the cue.
    • Create a plan for a habit to preempt it.

The fourth through seventh chapter, overlapping with the above, discuss applicable strategies for leaders and agenty people to alter habits of people throughout groups and organisations they are involved in, and the ways companies alter habits of potential customers, clients, etc, that they interact with.

  • By creating new keystone habits within organisations and groups, you can alter the behaviour of the entire organisation and groups.
  • By drilling people in processes to use before, during, and after stressful points, until they become habitual, you improve their ability to do well in them.
  • Institutional habits in large organisations serve as agreed truces on where people put competing for personal success aside long enough for the company to actually function.
    • If these habits create wild power imbalances, terrible things go wrong when one of the less powerful parties needs a thing to be done in order for their role to work right.
    • If these habits do not have people personally responsible for a function of the company, and powerful enough to override others to ensure it is done, then that function may not actually happen.
    • If that function is ‘safety’, you can end up in a fascinating case study.
  • A sense of a crisis permits leadership to demand major changes to institutional habits.
  • Companies use really detailed analytics on everyone to predict lots of personal things, that you might have thought they wouldn’t care to try to predict, because those things correlate with shopping interests.
    • They then use those predictions to target people for ads and offers, and bury the targeted stuff amongst other things to hide them, as their resolution to the problem that people get freaked out about being targeted in this way.
    • A common item of interest is having children or being pregnant or marriage or divorce because the changing needs means you’re forming new habits, and if they can hook you then they might get to keep you. Also you’re less price sensitive.
    • If you can make it through Chapter 7 without feeling at least a small impulse to cut up all your cards, work in cash forever, and refuse to give anyone your name you’re more blaise than I am and I’m pretty blaise.

The eighth chapter provides a model of social movements in terms of habits, and how and why they take off or don’t. It is much less well evidenced and relies on a pair of examples it develops through the chapter, but the model is an interesting one and possibly a useful addition to a toolbox of models for social movements. In brief it posits:

  • You need strong ties between a group of friends who act to support each other for a movement to start.
  • You need peer pressure over weak ties throughout a wider community, where standing in the wider community becomes influenced by whether you participate or not, for a movement to grow.
  • You need your movement to alter the self-identity of participants and cause them to adopt new habits which reinforce that self-identify for it to become self-sustaining and have people who act in a motivated fashion to spread it that successfully create more people who act in a motivated fashion to spread it.

The ninth and last chapter is probably mostly interesting to people who are not consequentialists, or who view free will as a concept with value; for me it was not so useful. It contains long stories about a compulsive gambler who was held legally responsible for their debts, and about a person who committed murder in their sleep who wasn’t, and concludes with an argument that the former is culpable while the latter is not because knowing a habit exists gives you responsibility to change it. If you can get through it without screaming internally at Caesars Entertainment you are again a lot more relaxed than I am. It does have some talk about differences between sleepwalking and sleep terrors.

Prologue: The Habit Cure

A group of neurologists, psychologists, geneticists, and a sociologist funded by the US National Institute for Health examined former smokers and overdrinkers who had turned their lives around, seeking to understand how.

One particular example was Lisa, who found themselves in Cairo depressed without direction after their life had collapsed, and decided that they would come back to Egypt and trek through the desert. That led to a conviction that they had to quit smoking in order to achieve their goal. That, in turn, led to replacing smoking with jogging, which in turn changed all their other habits, which led to improvements everywhere else. Smoking was a keystone habit; replacing it permitted reprogramming other habits. Brain activity typical of craving still existed, but was coupled with activity in areas associated with self-discipline.

Organisations can achieve similar degrees of change to outcomes by focusing on changing habits of staff and customers.

More than forty percent of the actions we perform each day aren’t actual decisions, but habits.

The book consists of three parts; habits in individual lives, habits in successful companies and organisations, and habits of societies. All revolve around the argument that habits can be changed if they are understood, and draw on many academic studies. A habit is defined as a choice that is made deliberately at some point, but then is continued automatically.

The author became interested in habits as a reporter in Baghdad. The US military is one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history. Basic training teaches habits, and the battlefield relies on them. Thinking in terms of habits can be applied to modify behaviour; one major was able to prevent riots by having food trucks removed from the area riots would otherwise form in advance. They were enthusiastic about planning and designing habits as a way to run one’s life.

Part One – The Habits Of Individuals

Chapter 1 – The Habit Loop

In about 1992, a man named Eugene suffered severe damage to the medial temporal lobe in their brain as a result of viral encephalitis, leaving them unable to remember names, things they had said in the previous few minutes, and to perpetually remember outdated information, such as about their own age. In many respects they resembled a man named Henry Molaison from 1953 whose hippocampus was deliberately destroyed in an attempt to prevent seizures. However, unlike H.M, they could live at home with their wife, hold repetitive conversations, and perform complicated behaviours they learnt after the injury. Eugene could go out for a walk and find their way back, but not say where their house was, routinely go to the kitchen for food but be unable to point to the door leading to it.

Experiments showed that if an session in which Eugene was given pairs of objects, and asked to turn over the one with a correct sticker underneath, was repeated identically many times, they learnt to consistently turn over the correct object, but couldn’t understand how they knew to do so. Given all the objects together and asked to put the correct ones in a pile, they were unable to.

This demonstrates that they were forming new habits but not more general purpose memories, and their behaviour demonstrates that habit formation can encode remarkably complex rules independently of consciously accessible memory.

Experiments at MIT monitoring rat brains showed brain activity reduced as an activity, finding chocolate in a maze, was repeated. The basal ganglia, a small more primitive part of the brain, took over. This indicates that it handles recalling and acting on patterns. The complexity of our habits demonstrates that it can store remarkably complex patterns.

In order to identify when to start a habit, we learn something to recognise, which we call a cue. A habit consists of a loop, in which the cue triggers a routine, which ends with a reward; some change that indicates to our brain that the habit is worth remembering, and reinforces recognition of the cue. Over time, things fitting this loop become more and more automatic, and our brain stops participating fully in decision making.

Since the experiments with Eugene, habit formation has become a major field of study. Researchers have found that cues can be almost anything, including visual triggers, places, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or particular company. They can be complex or very simple; some, such as those related to emotions, can be measured in milliseconds. Rewards can include both physical sensations from food or drugs, and emotional payoffs.

This process is necessary to not be overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life. Damage to the basal ganglia causes trouble performing basic activities, such as opening a door.

By breaking a habit down into its components, we can learn to modify them.

Habits are fragile. If you remove or alter, even mildly, the reward or cue, a habit will cease triggering. However, it will still persist while unused, and when the conditions are restored the habit will go back to triggering. This makes modifying bad habits difficult. In order to replace habits, we must create new routines which overpower them.

They can be formed on purpose, as well as by accident. Things can be formed to provide more immediate rewards, and permit consistent routines to make them form more easily, and we do not generally notice this.

Habits we can’t change can become harmful. Eugene became very unhealthy as they aged, due to eating multiple unhealthy breakfasts. Only when the routines were entirely broken by removing all unhealthy food, and new habits established by placing salad next to them, were they able to improve.

Chapter 2 – The Craving Brain

Experiments monitoring the neurological activity of monkeys in the 1980s showed that if you train them that performing an action in response to a cue triggers a reward, they will begin to neurologically react to the cue the same way they react to the reward, in anticipation of the reward. If you then withhold the reward, they become unhappy and angry, and will decline to leave if offered the chance, in favour of holding out for the reward. Habits create cravings.

This means that if we encounter a cue, such as delicious smelling donuts or food on a plate, which has previously been associated with a reward, we will immediately feel some part of that reward and then craving for the real thing. This is used by businesses offering products that give rewards to manipulate you; Cinnabon, for example, wants you to be able to smell them from a distance, so you immediately feel a partial sense of what a cinnamon roll would be like, and feel a sense of craving and disappointment if you do not then go buy one.

This applies to all habits; a notification sound indicating the arrival of a potential distraction creates an immediate sense of enjoyment for the distraction, followed by a craving to then indulge in it. If you remove the notification sound, on the other hand, one can work for hours uninterrupted.

In order for a deliberately created new habit to stick, it must not only have a cue and a reward, but we must start anticipating the reward immediately in response to the cue. For a habit of exercise to stick, there must be some reward at the end, endorphin hit or otherwise, which we immediately begin craving in response to our chosen cue to start the exercise.

We can use this by deliberately attempting to envision the reward when we start a habit we are trying to create, until we begin to naturally anticipate it.

Advertising exploits the mechanics of habits. In the early 20th century, Claude Hopkins, author of My Life In Advertising, established toothbrushing as a daily ritual across America, and then much of the world. They did this by creating a craving.

Claude Hopkins advertised Quaker Oats as a breakfast cereal that provided energy for 24 hours, but only if eaten every morning. They advertised tonics to cure many things, but only if taken at first sign of fatigue or other symptoms. And they advertised toothpaste as to be used to get rid of the harmless film you can feel on your teeth. They described in their memoirs two basic rules: a simple and obvious cue, and a clearly defined reward, which remain a staple of advertising textbooks.

However, theirs was not the first toothpaste to be advertised with that language, and previous products had flopped. What they did that was different was include ingredients causing a cool, tingling sensation, that customers learnt to associate with cleanness, and on encountering the cue to start a habit, could crave in a way they couldn’t crave cleanness itself. Soon all the competitors came to add those ingredients, despite them not making the toothpaste perform any better.

When a Proctor and Gamble chemist found a chemical called HPBCD which removed smells, they first marketed it as a smell remover, under the name Febreeze. Using the principles of cue and reward, the cues they aimed for in their advertising were the smell of cigarettes and pet smells, and the reward was not smelling anymore. This flopped, because people become desensitised to smells around them, and so the cue did not work.

The solution was to use a cue and reward which were more amenable to creating a working craving in response to a recognisable cue. They added more perfume to Febreeze, and advertised Febreeze as something to be used after cleaning, to create a pleasant smell. This turned it into a hit.

There are other daily routines, with returns to our health similar to those from brushing our teeth, which we do not follow. Sunscreen reduces cancer risk, but we do not put it on every day, because there is no craving to make it a habit.

Chapter 3 – The Golden Rule of Habit Change

The golden rule of habit change is that you can never truly extinguish old habits, but can replace the routine of almost any habit if you keep the cue and reward the same. However, it only works if you believe the new routine will work; stressful circumstances can trigger reversion in the absence of some form of belief that grants certainty to the new routine, often caused by personal tragedy or tragedy affecting someone close to them, or caused by a change in their community.

This rule has influenced treatment for alcoholism and many other behaviours, and can be applied to your own habits.

In 1996, Tony Dungy used this rule to reform the perpetually losing Tampa Bay Buccaneers American Football team, focusing on instilling a smaller number of strategies to be performed near-automatically rather than a complex playbook. It worked and got far, but under pressure would break down. He later went on to work for the Colts, with similar results, until the team came together around the death of Dungy’s son.

Alcoholics Anonymous, although not obviously, works on this basis. Within its twelve steps, four (to make “a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves”) and five (to admit “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”) together lead you to find the cues for drinking habits. It then asks them to identify what rewards they get from drinking, which are often escape, relaxation, or companionship, and provides an alternative means for these things, allowing them to replace their routines for accomplishing them. Similarly, stressful events could cause reversion to old behaviour, but this was less common amongst those who believed in the spiritual elements about leaning on a higher power.

The golden rule of habit change has also been used in habit reversal therapy, to treat chronic nail biters, who bite their nails until they are pulled away from the skin, and others with similar problems, by asking them to record when they feel an urge to bite their nails, working out what it offers (such as a sense of completion or distraction) and then furnishing them with an alternative routine to do at those points which offers the same.

Part Two – The Habits of Successful Organisations

Chapter 4 – Keystone Habits, or the Ballad of Paul O’Neill

Some habits, known as keystone habits, can influence the development of other habits, so rather than trying to get everything right it is sufficient to focus on changing those habits which when changed will shift others. Recognising them is difficult; for unclear reasons, exercise functions as one for many people. They create new structures which enable other habits to thrive, often offering “small wins” directly but enabling further small wins. Finding and changing these works better than trying to change your entire life structure, because they stick easier.

Institutional processes, both private sector and government, can be understood as organisational habits, spread over bureaucrats and managers, who respond to cues in predictable ways to get rewards like promotions. These processes can be wildly suboptimal, and following them cedes control to something which occurred without actual thinking. The best institutions understand the importance of these habits.

Changes to organisational keystone habits can change culture.

 

In October 1987, Paul O’Neill took over as CEO of the aluminium manufacturing company Alcoa after previous management missteps. He immediately announced a singular focus on worker safety, alarming investors, but went on to improve profits massively, while at the same time safety improved greatly.

This was accomplished because the singular focus on safety required disrupting and replacing existing habits and processes within the company. O’Neill chose safety, because pursuing it provided the opportunity to change keystone habits affecting everything else, and it was something he could get everyone aligned on.

An early mandate was that any injury in the company had to be reported to O’Neill by the unit president within 24 hours along with a plan for making sure it didn’t happen again. In order to meet this mandate, the unit president had to find out about it almost immediately, which forced constant communication with floor managers, who had to get workers to raise warnings and provide suggestions on preventing the problem almost immediately. This forced the creation of new communication systems, which could raise an idea from the bottom of the company to the top as fast as possible.

Rules that could recognise processes performing poorly that had previously been resisted by either workers or management were adopted, because something going poorly was an indicator of risk of injury. Improvements to equipment that made injuries less likely also improved efficiency of operation. After an early strong response to an accident, O’Neill’s goals became well-regarded, and the processes that passed up safety concerns also passed up other ideas for improving operations, improving profits.

In 1996, after a decade, O’Neill had executives investigate claims of dangerous fumes in a factory in Mexico, and discovered that Robert Barton, one of the company’s most senior managers and important to various joint ventures, had failed to report a short-lived fumes build-up,which had caused some workers to become ill before being corrected by installing ventilation. They were fired within days of the investigation, a decision made easier because of the changes to institutional culture.

Since this, many companies have embraced the use of keystone habits to remake workplaces.

Bob Bowman, the coach for Michael Phelps, who won a gold medal swimming at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, used a focus on creating tiny moments of success in Phelp’s life and working them into a routine which could then lead to other moments of success, as well as practicing and visualising swimming until it became automatic, creating a focused and dedicated routine as well as instantly correct reactions while swimming itself.

Food journaling; simply recording what food is eaten; has proven more effective for dieting than attempting large life changes, because it sticks easier, and causes changes to other habits.

A young Paul O’Neill, working in government, worked to investigate the causes of the US’s high infant mortality rate. They found it was in part down to premature births, which was in part down to poor nutrition of mothers before pregnancy, which meant they needed better nutrition curriculums in high schools. However, many high school teachers in rural areas didn’t know enough biology to teach about nutrition. This led to the conclusion that changes were needed to how teachers were trained, in order to tackle infant mortality. By searching for a root cause that they could act on, they could cause a chain reaction of improvements which contributed to the 68% drop in infant mortality between when O’Neill started the project and today.

Chapter 5 – Starbucks and the Habit of Success

For one person, Travis, whose parents were addicts and who had been fired for subordination due to self-control problems, who was perpetually late, and who insulted themselves for not being better, a structured Starbucks training programme helped them get themselves together and resolve those problems, to the point that they became manager of two Starbucks stores.

The focus of this training programme is on willpower, in the sense of performing well in tests of self-discipline. Self-discipline is correlated with academic performance, and improvement in academic performance while studying. Willpower can be a habit, and making it a habit is how you strengthen it.

Willpower was of particular interest to Starbucks, because it needed to maintain a very high standard in how baristas interacted with customers in order to justify the high prices it charges for coffee, which required them to have a great deal of it, but recruits often had not previously had professional experience. This led to them spending millions to develop curriculums to teach it.

An old experiment from Stanford in the 1960s took children and left them unsupervised with a marshmellow, having told them that if they didn’t eat the marshmellow, then they’d get two marshmellows when the researcher came back. The children who didn’t eat the marshmellow, demonstrating better self-discipline, went on to achieve better academic results in life.

Subsequent experiments showed that teaching the child tricks, like distracting themselves by drawing a picture, or imagining a frame around the marshmellow making it just a picture, would help them learn self-control, leading to the consensus in the 1980s that willpower was a learnable skill, by which time funding for research had dried up.

In the mid 90s, some researchers found these answers unsatisfying, as if willpower were a skill, you’d expect it to remain consistent day to day, and planned further experiments. They told subjects to skip a meal, put out bowls of radishes and warm cookies, told them to eat one or the other allegedly as part of a taste perception experiment, and then had them do a puzzle allegedly as a gap before the next phase of the experiment. The puzzle was impossible, and they measured how long it took for the subject to give up. People who had been told to eat the radishes gave up in 40% of the time as the people told to eat cookies.

The conclusion, backed by subsequent studies, was that willpower was also akin to a muscle; it gets tired as it is used, leading to less available for subsequent things.

Subsequent experiments by Australian scientists starting in 2006 enrolled people in gyms, money management programmes, and academic improvement programmes to test how they affected the rest of their lives, and found that the people smoked less, drank less, watched less television, and showed improvements in other aspects of their lives despite them not being explicitly mentioned. This showed that willpower improved over time with use, and practicing it improved willpower elsewhere in life. A mechanism for this, proposed by a researcher at Dartmouth, is that this is because you learn habits for how to distract yourself from temptations.

Many firms, including Starbucks, have tried applying this research. Starbucks’ first approach was sponsoring weight-loss classes and offering free gym memberships, hoping for benefits to spill over. They found attendance was spotty; people with self-discipline problems at work were even less likely to show it out of work.

In 1992, a psychologist recruited elderly patients who had recently undergone hip or knee replacement surgery and needed to reliably perform painful exercise in order to recover correctly, and gave them booklets describing their rehab schedule, with blank pages at the back for writing in their own plans. Three months on, they found that patients who had written plans into their booklet were walking twice as fast, and getting in and out of their chairs almost three times as fast.

A common element was that they would write in a routine for handling a specific moment of pain, such as taking a first step immediately after standing up so they wouldn’t be tempted to sit down again, and their plans would end with something satisfying. They identified simple cues, and obvious rewards, and could resist the temptation to give up because they had crafted a habit around the self-discipline needed to keep going at the specific moment of pain.

Starbucks’ second approach was built on these lines; they provided a range of processes and routines and methods to follow at inflection points, such as angry customers, which stressed self-discipline, drilled their employees on them until they became automatic with large amounts of time spent in training, and had their employees write out how they planned to respond. And they found these methods worked, as have other companies such as Deloitte and the Container Store which have also developed processes and routines.

Looking into results further, some people seemed to learn willpower habits readily, while others didn’t. A further experiment, in which some people were given polite requests to do a willpower-requiring activity while others given brusque instructions, followed by tests, showed that doing something as a result of a polite request used less willpower. The conclusion drawn from examining the experiment was that a sense of agency improves willpower greatly. Companies which have tried putting this into effect, by arranging things to give employees this sense, have seen improved employee performance.

Chapter 6 – The Power of a Crisis

Institutional habits exist in any organisation, and will emerge in an unplanned manner if not managed. In an organisation with problems, toxic institutional habits can emerge as staff create informal norms to work around the problems. These can create potential for accidents.

Many decisions organisations make which people assume are the result of rational deliberation are actually made as the result of habitual processes. These processes are important, as they permit staff to experiment without needing approval for every action taken, and permit institutional memory.

Habitual processes also serve as truces between executives and divisions competing for success, with conflicts over allocation of expenses and division of duties and who has to do what for whom when. Individually selfish behaviour is normal. Organisational habits and norms define the behaviours which will enable the company to continue to function despite the competition. A common one of these is that anyone who goes too far finds their peers unite against them.

If these processes do not permit all the parties to affect the things they need to, then they are prone to fail, as one party is unable to make things that need to happen happen. However, it isn’t enough to simply make power be balanced between parties, because then the lack of any single person responsible for, say, safety, with the ability to override other parties, can cause failures for that concern to be properly implemented.

A sense of crisis creates a situation where organisational habits are malleable enough to change allocation of responsibility and make processes more equitable, to the point it can be worth deliberately inducing. Good leaders seize them to improve the organisation, and alter the habits and truces so that balance of power in general is equitable, but there is clear allocation of responsibility in a clear chain of command for managing safety or other critical concerns, with a responsible person who is able to override other concerns when needed.

 

A Pair of Longer Case Studies

Rhode Island Hospital in the mid 2000s had problems with doctors having power over nurses and no expectation of manners or professionalism, including in handling correction. The result was a set of norms and codes and habits worked out by the nurses to work around and warn each other of unreasonable doctors. This led to a death after a surgeon insisted on performing surgery to treat blood pooling in the brain (hematoma) with incomplete documentation missing the side that the hematoma was on, and nurses, having noted this surgeon as being unreasonable in the past, did not feel able to object.

This was a case where organisational habits, that constituted truces between the nurses and doctors needed for the organisation to function, were too imbalanced.

After more similar events, the hospital faced a crisis as critics and the media began to pile on. In response to the crisis, administrators were able to shut down all elective surgery for a day, force staff through an intensive training programme, and implement changes recommended by the Center for Transforming Healthcare, including checklists, video cameras in operating rooms, and a system for anonymously reporting problems endangering patients, which had been previously proposed but faced staff pushback.

 

Another example  of dysfunction caused by poor organisational habits and truces, which will be elaborated on in more detail, occurred in the London Underground, in 1987. At the time the main leadership was the “Four Barons”; the chiefs of civil, signal, electrical, and mechanical engineering, and there were many habits by which all their respective staffs avoided stepping on each others’ toes.

This led to a noticed burning tissue being ignored, as the staff member who it was reported to had no way to report it further, as fire safety was handled by another department and rules prevented interdepartmental communication not authorised by a superior.

Further reports which did reach the safety inspector were handled slowly, without reporting them to the fire brigade, because of an unwritten rule that they were not to be involved unless absolutely necessary. Earlier warnings of unpreparedness and urges to call the fire brigade quickly were not reacted to, because they were delivered to a different department and had never been read. An escalator sprinkler system had been installed as a result of those warnings, but no one inside the station had been trained in its use. Similarly, the extinguishers were controlled by another department, and no one inside the station was authorised to use them.

The fire brigade were first notified as a result of a police officer walking upstairs to where their radio worked and calling their superiors, who eventually passed on a report of a small fire.

The safety inspector discovered that the escalator machine room was already burning out of control by the time they reached it, and reported the need to evacuate the station to a police officer.

Almost half an hour after the initial report, passengers were noticing smoke, a smell of burning, and beginning to leave on their own slowly. The hot air from the burning escalators was accumulating against the layers of old paint on the ceiling, heating them. The director of operations had previously recommended the removal of older layers of paint to avoid a fire hazard, but painting protocol was the responsibility of the maintenance department, which rebuked them for interfering outside their department, leading to the recommendation being withdrawn.

When a train arrived shortly after, forcing a large gust of air into the station, the oxygen fed the fire, causing the superheated gases to rapidly reach their flashover point, causing everything in the elevator shafts to ignite in a fiery blast. The force of the sudden incineration caused the trench effect, a previously unknown combination of mechanics which pushed the fire upwards through the long shaft, gaining heat and velocity, until it shot out of the shaft into the ticketing hall, melting the flesh of the passengers inside, who had not been evacuated as the fire had previously appeared to be contained.

Thirty-one died, with dozens of injuries.

In this case, the truces represented an equitable balance of power, but no single person with authority over the entire system was in charge of safety, causing numerous deaths.

A special investigator, Desmond Fennell was appointed by the Secretary of State to identify problems. They found that people in the Underground had known for years that fire safety had been a problem, reforms had been proposed, but none had been implemented. When he made his own recommendations, he also had pushback from department heads, undercutting them with instructions.

Fennell responded by creating a media circus. They called for public hearings which lasted for 91 days, and exposed the ignored warnings. They implied to reporters that they were at risk every time they rode the Underground. He cross-examined dozens of witnesses who described the prioritisation of turf battles over safety, and ultimately published a 250 page indictment of the organisation, ending with pages of recommendations which accused large parts of the organisation of being either corrupt or incompetent.

The result was picketing, the organisation’s leadership being fired, new laws, and wholesale cultural overhaul. The truces still exist, but were altered enough to create a single person in charge of safety at each station, and give every employee responsibility to report them.

Chapter 7 – How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do

Companies hire statisticians to go over sales data and work out answers to questions like whether a joke is funnier in one colour or another, or whether birthday cards sell more with one animal or another.

Older marketing tricks, still in use, include putting fruits and vegetables near the entrance, because after loading up on fruits and vegetables shoppers are more likely to spend on unhealthy impulse buys, having acquired a sense of virtuousness. They also put all the most profitable goods to the right of the entrance, as shoppers almost always turn right on entry, and put soups and cereals in an unpredictable order, because by forcing shoppers to look through the shelves they increase the odds of the shopper choosing to buy something else.

These are effective, but are one-size-fits-all solutions, treating each shopper identically. Consumers buy habitually, but all have differing habits. Some large companies, Target being an example, gather large amounts of data on these habits, and the frequencies with which certain products are bought, and correlate them with other characteristics. For customers who they can identify, they can purchase data providing their ethnicity, job history, reading habits, political leanings, reading habits, and based on online photographs, approximate physical attributes, among many other details, to aid in this process.

If they see you are likely buying something routinely, but buying it from someone other than them, they can send you personalised coupons for that particular thing. If they identify you might be interested in something, they can send you coupons for that; for example, Target would send customers who bought bikinis in April coupons for weight-loss books in December. Almost every major retailer has a “predictive analytics” department using methods like these.

Large supermarkets such as Target can recognise, to a workable degree of probability, when a major event has occurred in your life on the basis of the contents of your shopping basket.

Certain events in life, such as moving house, getting married, getting a divorce, and more than any other, having a baby, are disruptive to existing habits and lead to new ones being formed. By targeting you when you’re going through these events with marketing aimed at things you might need, the store can create a greatly improved chance that the new habits you form to meet your new needs will involve giving them lots of money going forwards.

This is especially valuable because in the immediate aftermath of such events, most people will opt for whatever is easiest rather than whatever is cheapest, meaning you can accomplish this without having to be especially cheap. Marketing schemes targeting new parents in hospitals exist, with giveaways of items, for this reason.

By using shopping data from customers who were using the baby registry, Target was able to develop a method for recognising customers who were likely pregnant, and a probability distribution for their due date, which could then be applied to their customers more broadly to market to them before other companies did, which was used to mail out coupons. This worked effectively, even where the pregnancy was a secret; in one instance, this resulted in coupons for items for a new baby being sent to a teenager who hadn’t yet told their family they were pregnant.

This resulted in public relations problems, as customers didn’t like realising that Target knew what they knew. This lead to a desire to make use of this information without the subjects noticing. The solution was to send out personalised coupons, but hide the targeted coupons among others, making it non-obvious that the coupon booklet was personalised.

Similar analysis has been applied to music, in an effort to identify which songs will be hits, and to identify which songs will be sticky; that is, will not result in a listener turning off the music. This occasionally made dramatic mispredictions.

Being sticky is not the same thing as being consciously liked, and often things people consciously dislike are sticky. Being sticky seems to have a relationship with familiarity and similarity, and this book proposes the theory that this is because familiar sounds are a cue that tells us that if we complete listening we will get a reward of some kind, like a sense of the song being catchy, causing us to habitually listen instead of switching what we are listening to.

Standard playlist theory now is to sandwich new songs between two already sticky songs, until such time as they become sticky themselves. The previous dramatic mispredictions from the data were songs that were not presently sticky, but were amenable to being sticky with this technique.

The general technique of offering people what they really will pay money for or keep coming to you for, mixed in with the things that they endorse themselves as wanting, is a common one.

Part Three – The Habits Of Societies

Chapter 8 – Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

A social habit is a habit which relates to how we interact with each other. There are other routes by which society can be changed, but at the root of many movements is a three part process:

  • They start because of friendships, ties with close acquaintances, and supportive social habits associated with those things.
  • They grow because of supportive habits in a wider community, operating through weaker ties which hold neighbourhoods and clans together.
  • They endure because the movement’s leadership gives participants new habits which reinforce a changed sense of identity and a sense of ownership.

Usually all parts need to be in place for a movement to reach critical mass.

They start because of friendships, ties with close acquaintances, and supportive social habits associated with those things. People join protests because people they know are involved, out of friendship. But alone this is not enough to make a  protest more than a one-day event.

A person’s weak ties, distant acquaintances and friends of friends, are often more impactful than their near ties, because they grant access to distant social networks. Having few weak ties puts you in a disadvantaged position in the labour market, and a social movement starting amongst people with weak ties will struggle to spread beyond a small clique.

Social movements spread through weak ties via peer pressure, which functions adequately across them. A sense of obligation to engage in a protest, even if you don’t want to, is how that protest can become pervasive throughout a larger community. This sense is created through a threat that if you shrug off the request, you risk losing your social standing and weak ties, because of a credible possibility that people may talk about your decision not to participate across clique lines, and disfavour you for it. This creates participation in the protest within a wider community.

One particular mechanism by which this operates is that you are very unlikely to back out of a commitment to participate in something if your community groups will judge you for it, whereas a similar level of participation in non-judgemental community groups leads to more backing out.

The combination of reinforcement from weak ties and interaction with strong ties, combined with the right ideas, can then create new habits and identity which make people sustain the movement even in the absence of the original pressures.

 

The Examples

Rosa Parks was not the first to be arrested in Montgomery. What distinguished her from the others was that she was deeply respected and embedded within her community, which triggered an initial protest out of the habits of friendship.

At the time, Montgomery’s social fabric was formed of many hundreds of small tight-knit groups, and Rosa Parks and her friends were involved in many of them. This led to her being bailed by a prominent lawyer and a former head of the Montgomery NAACP, and then to the president of a local group of schoolteachers involved in politics, a friend of Rosa Parks, calling an impromptu meeting, and suggesting a boycott on the date Parks was to appear in court, then printing flyers, which they asked the group to distribute. Many of the people who received a flyer knew Parks, and out of the natural sympathy of friendship joined the initial boycott. However, this would not, in itself, have been enough to make the protest more than a one-day event.

Due to campaigning done through personal connections, Martin Luther King was brought onboard, and after talking with the city’s black ministers, and three days after the arrest on Sunday, they explained to their congregations that the churches had agreed to a one-day boycott, creating a sense that it would be embarrassing for anyone to sit out. The local newspaper, having gotten copies of the fliers via white citizens, published an article saying that the city was flooded with thousands of the fliers, and that they were expecting every black citizen to participate, which led to everyone assuming that everyone else was already onboard. Finally, everyone heard that the black taxi drivers had been convinced by the boycott’s leaders to carry black passengers for the price of a bus fare.

The community’s weak ties had left everyone either for or against the boycott, and they stood together because anyone who didn’t participate was at risk of appearing to be someone no one would have wanted to be friends with in the first place.

This led to many people attending the courthouse, and when Rosa Parks was found guilty, the impromptu rally was the most significant black political activism in the area’s history and led to the boycott being extended.

The boycott began to waver after a couple of months, with police and the authorities attempting to undermine workarounds adopted by the community to allow them to continue working, before a bomb was detonated outside Martin Luther King’s home. In response King gave a speech calling for non-violent activism and embrace, framing the conflict as part of God’s plan, a continuous part of the same narrative as the end of British colonialism, American slavery, and the death of Christ, with victory ultimately inevitable. By framing the conflict in such terms, rather than as a simple battle, they offered a new identity as people part of an inevitable force of progress. The people who took it on gained a sense of investment in the cause, and acted to lead it, with further bombings and violent opposition simply confirming this identity rather than discouraging the activists.

It has been argued that what led to the change in the law that ended segregation on the buses was the Supreme Court decision, rather than the boycotts; in any case, the now distributed and self-propagating self-leadership in the movement spread its changes in social habits widely, through ties to communities across America, changing the nature of the civil rights movement going forward.

 

In 1979, a Baptist pastor called Rick Warren set off to a place called Saddleback Valley, after looking for a location with high numbers of self-identified Christians but few churches, as a place to start a church. They were guided by the principle that missionaries should appeal to social habits, speak to people in their “own languages”, convert entire communities so that social habits reinforced belief, and get to the point that people follow Christ because “following Christ” is a core part of their identity.

Starting out the church with a focus on making the sermons practical and entertaining, they hit 200 members in under a year, before under the extreme workload they set for themselves they began to suffer panic attacks and strong bouts of depression, causing them to stop services for a while. On resuming, they took a step to make it less work for themselves; they had church members form groups, and meet in their homes for classes, instead of running them at the church. These were popular, but became distracted from religion, leading to Warren attempting to alter people’s habits so their natural inclination was to discuss religion in them, by creating a curriculum for these groups which instructed people that to have a Christ-like character they just needed to develop the habits that Christ had.

Soon every new church member was asked to sign a “maturity convenant card”, promising to adhere to three habits; daily quiet time for reflection and prayer, tithing 10%, and membership in one of the church’s groups.

In this case, the large weakly tied group comes first, the large congregation drawing new adherents. Then the strong ties come second, with the small group the new member joins. And finally, the curriculum coupled with pressure from both strong ties and the weaker ties leads to change in habits and self-identity that lead people to sustain the religious community on their own.

Chapter 9 – The Neurology of Free Will – Are We Responsible For Our Habits?

We take a person, Angie Bachmann, as an example of a person who developed a gambling problem. After her daughters left, she was extremely bored at home, and started going to casinos, which immediately offered some fun. She adopted strict rules, knowing gambling was risky, but after getting better at making her money last she adjusted them to spend longer gambling.

After her parents started showing signs of lung disease, she started visiting them on alternative weeks, which aggravated the sense of loneliness when home, as her absence disrupted the few routines keeping her busy. This led to a range of bad feelings, all of which were alleviated by a trip to the casino. She still had rules, but had bought into the idea that she could make money by following them and continuing losses, was now habitually making the ‘right’ moves while gambling, and the rules gradually became more flexible to permit those habits.

The size of her winnings and losses expanded. She wasn’t keeping track of them herself, after the casino offered a line of credit to avoid carrying cash. Naturally, the losses exceeded the winnings on average, and as they scaled up she found she didn’t have enough money to pay bills, and then began borrowing money from her parents to keep the home running.

In 2001 she was going to the casino nearly every day, her debts hit $20,000, and after her parents cut her off she finally revealed them to her husband. They hired a bankruptcy attorney, cut up her credit cards, and took steps to plan for a more austere life. This worked for years, until both her parents died, and she gained a million dollar inheritance. She bought her family a new home with it, in a state where gambling wasn’t legal, but while picking up furniture, during a moment of pain, she elected to return to the casino, and gambled for hours after unloading to a manager.

The casino company, now known as Caesars Entertainment, operated an analytics-driven marketing system, which studied gamblers’ habits in order to identify how to encourage them to gamble more, using methods such as telemarketers calling them at home. A difference between problem gamblers and non-gamblers is that problem gamblers react habitually to a near-miss the same way they do to a win, whereas non-gamblers react by quitting before it gets worse, and they, like many other casinos and scratch cards, exploit this by artificially increasing the number of near misses and introducing small payouts that are less than the amount which went in.

Soon after Angie’s first return to the casino, despite knowing about the bankruptcy, the casino company began making phone calls offering her limos and flights to casinos, with free airfare and rooms for everyone who wanted to go. At first she resisted, but then she began accepting the offers, being amazed by ridiculously luxurious hotel rooms. At first she spent free credit offered in the casinos, but predictably ended up spending her own again, making trite rationalisations to justify it.

In a visit back to her hometown for her husband’s grandmother’s funeral, she visited her original casino again, and over the span of twelve hours lost $250,000. She didn’t tell her husband, because of the shame. The casino company kept calling, and she convinced herself she could win it back, because if you couldn’t win then surely gambling wouldn’t be legal.

When she was almost broke, Harrah offered her a line of credit to fly out anyway, and gambled on credit until the casino said no. She had taken out a line of credit on her home, so it had been lost as well. Her lawyer ultimately ended up arguing before the state’s highest court that she shouldn’t be held culpable for these losses because she gambled out of habit rather than choice. This argument failed.

 

In 2008, a man in Wales, Brian Thomas, killed his wife by strangulation directly after being asleep, before turning himself into the police, claiming that he had believed them to be an attacker. The man had had a history of sleepwalking, to the point that the house door was kept locked and he routinely slept in a different room to avoid disturbing the wife while at home. In court, they argued that they had been asleep at the time the crime was committed, and so was not culpable.

Sleepwalking occurs when the switch between being awake or asleep occurs incorrectly, leaving them incompletely paralysed, causing them to act while they dream. People act out complex habits without input from the brain’s more advanced regions. However, they usually avoid danger.

Sleep terrors, based on analysis of the brains of sleepwalkers, are something different. During a sleep terror, people seem to be in the grip of terrible anxiety, but are not dreaming. The only things active are the most primitive parts of the brain, leading to a brain which looks a lot like it is following a simple habit, except without the possibility of conscious intervention. The two most common sleep terror experiences are feeling threatened and feeling sexually aroused, and people respond to either by following the habits cued from that stimuli. Sleepwalking seems to permit enough involvement of higher brain functions that we avoid danger, or terrible actions; during sleep terrors people simply follow the habit loop wherever it leads.

A tendency towards sleep terrors seems to be present in some people, and over 150 criminals have avoided punishment using automatism as a defence, as Thomas did in this case.

 

The book argues that these differing verdicts are just, because once you know a habit exists, you have responsibility to change it, and this was the case in the former circumstance but not the latter, and states that to a large extent the point of the book is that it is possible.

William James, who died in 1910, hailed from an accomplished family, but had met with failure as an artist and at medical school. Despondent about their life, they decided that before doing anything rash they would do a yearlong experiment, during which they would force themselves to believe that they could change, and to believe that they had free will. And during that year they wrote in their diary as though it wasn’t in question, and things went well for them, and two years later they wrote a letter to the philosopher Charles Renouvier, who expounded at length on free will, thanking them.

The book expresses the standpoint that if you believe you can change, it makes change happen, and that habits are what we choose them to be, that they are the “water in which we exist” and that by making that water visible you gain power over it, and so can now “swim”.

Appendix: A Reader’s Guide To Using These Ideas

Using these ideas to change a habit boils down to four steps:

  • Identify the routine, to discover what it is you want to change
  • Experiment with replacement routines that offer various different rewards, introspecting on your feelings, in order to identify what the reward that routine is offering you actually is.
  • Isolate the cue, by looking for what is present every time the routine starts, looking at the following as candidates:
    • Location
    • Time
    • Emotional state
    • Other people’s presence/actions
    • Immediately preceding action
  • Create a plan for an alternative habit which will disrupt or replace the existing one. Expect to fall off the wagon a few times, but this should generally work.

A Whirlwind Tour of LW Rationality: 6 Books in 32 Pages – Becoming Stronger

(Back to “Mere Goodness”)

Becoming Stronger X: Yudkowsky’s Coming Of Age

Yudkowsky grew up in an environment which praised experience over intelligence as justification for everything, including religion. This led them to the opposite, an affective death spiral around intelligence as the solution to everything. They thought that being very intelligent meant being very moral. They tended to go too far the other way in reaction to someone else’s stupidity. (My Childhood Death Spiral)

Because previous definitions of intelligence had been lacking, they thought it could not be defined tidily. This led to avoiding premature answers. They believed the field of AI research was sick; this led to studying cognitive science. Errors which lead to studying more are better errors. (My Best And Worst Mistake) They regarded regulation of technology as bad, and this reduced attention to existential risks. When convinced risks existed, rather than reviewing mistakes, they just decided we needed AI first. (Raised In Technophilia)

They were good at refuting arguments, and felt they were winning the debate on whether intelligence implied morality. They had a rationale for proceeding with their best ideas, without resolving confusion. Reality does not care whether you are using your best ideas. You can’t rely on anyone giving you a flawless argument, and you can’t work around underlying confusion. (A Prodigy Of Refutation, The Sheer Folly Of Callow Youth)

An incongruous thought, coupled with some perfectionism, and viewing less than morally upright interactions as unacceptable, led to investigating seriously. Doing that, regardless of reason, led to pursuing a backup plan. (That Tiny Note Of Discord) That they were pursuing a backup plan gave them a line of retreat for their earlier views, but they only shifted gradually, without acknowledging fundamental errors. (Fighting A Rearguard Action Against The Truth)

They only saw the error when they realised that a mind was an optimisation process which pumps reality towards outcomes, and you could pump towards any outcomes. (My Naturalistic Awakening) They realised that they could have unrefuted arguments, and nature could still kill them if the choice was wrong. Their trust in following patterns broke, and they began studying rationality. (The Magnitude Of His Own Folly) We all need to lose our assumption of fairness. (Beyond The Reach Of God) They realised that an idea seeming very good didn’t permit being sure; it needed to be provably equivalent to any correct alternative, like Bayesian probability. (My Bayesian Enlightenment)

They recognise that there are people more formidable than them, and hope that their writings might find a younger one of them who can then exceed them. (The Level Above Mine)

Becoming Stronger Y: Challenging The Difficult

Wanting to become stronger means reacting to flaws by doing what you can to repair them rather than with resignation. Do not ritualistically confess your flaws unless you include what you intend to do about them. (Tsuyoku Naritai! (I Want To Become Stronger)) If you are ashamed of wanting to do better than others, you will not make a real effort to seek higher targets. You should always reach higher, without shame. (Tsuyoku Vs The Egalitarian Instinct)

The difference between saying that you are going to do something, and that you are going to try to do something, is that the latter makes you satisfied with a plan, rather than with success, and allows the part where the plan has to maximise your odds of success to get lost. Don’t try your best; either win or fail. (Trying To Try) People don’t make genuine efforts to win even for five minutes. (Use The Try Harder, Luke)

A desperate effort is a level above wanting to become stronger, where you try as though your life were at stake. And there is a step above that, an extraordinary effort; it requires being willing to go outside of a comfortable routine, tackle difficulties you don’t have a mental routine for, and bypass usual patterns, in order to achieve an outcome that is not the default that you care greatly about. It is riskier than even a desperate effort. (Make An Extraordinary Effort)

A problem being impossible sometimes only means that when we query our brain for a strategy, we can’t think of one. This is not the same as being proven to be impossible. Genuine effort over years can find routes forward. Reality can uncaringly demand the impossible. We should resist our urge to find rationalisations for why the problem doesn’t matter (On Doing The Impossible), and sometimes we should shut up and do the impossible; take success at the impossible as our goal and accept nothing less. (Shut Up And Do The Impossible!)

We need to ask ourselves what we want, what it will require to accomplish, and set out to do it with what we know. (Final Words)

Becoming Stronger Z: The Craft and the Community

The prevalence of religion, even in scientific circles, warns us that the baseline grasp of rationality is very low. Arguing against religion specifically fails to solve the underlying problem. We should also be trying to raise the sanity waterline. (Raising The Sanity Waterline)

A reason that people don’t want to learn more about rationality is that they don’t see people who know about it as happier or more successful. A large part of this is that even the people who know a lot about it still know very little, compared to experts in other fields; we have not systematised it as a field of study, subject to large-scale investment and experimentation. One reason for this is that traditional rationalists/skeptics do not see lack of visible formidability and say that we must be doing something wrong. We treat it as a mere hobby horse. (A Sense That More Is Possible) It can take more than an incremental step in the direction of rationality to get an incremental increase in winning. (Incremental Progress And The Valley)

Martial arts dojos suffer from epistemic viciousness; a treatment of the master as sacred, exaltation of historic knowledge over discovery, a lack of data, and a pretense that lack of data isn’t a real problem. Hypothetical rationality dojos risk the same problems. (Epistemic Viciousness) If an air of authority can substitute for evidence, traditions can proliferate and wield influence without evidence. (Schools Proliferating Without Evidence)

Verification methods can be stratified into three levels. Reputational verification is the basic practice of trying to ground reputations in some real world or competitive performance. Experimental verification is randomised, replicable testing, although this can involve very simple measures that are only correlated with the variables of interest. Organisational verification is that which, when everyone knows the process, is resistant enough to gaming to continue working. (3 Levels Of Rationality Verification)

Groups which do not concern themselves with rationality can praise agreement, encourage the less agreeing to leave, and enter an affective death spiral, which binds them all together and makes them cooperate. Typical rationalist groups do not cooperate; they speak and applaud disagreement but not agreement. If you are outperformed by irrational groups, then you are not rational, because rationality is about winning. Actual rationality should involve being better at coordinating, and we should work out how to be. Being half a rationalist is dangerous. (Why Our Kind Can’t Cooperate, Bayesians Vs Barbarians) Until atheist groups can outperform religious groups at mobilisation and output, any increase in atheism is a hollow victory. (Can Humanism Match Religion’s Output?) We need new models of community to replace the old, with new goals. (Church Vs Taskforce)

Do not punish people for being more patient than you; you should tolerate tolerance. (Tolerate Tolerance) We incentivise groups to improve by rejecting joining them if they don’t meet our standards. The non-conformist crowd tends to ask way too much. If joining a project is good, you should do it if the problems are not too distracting, or if you could fix the problems. If you don’t see a problem as worth putting in the time to fix, it is not worth avoiding a group for. If we want to get anything done, we need to move in the direction of joining groups and staying in them. (Your Price For Joining)

Many causes benefit from the spread of rationality. We should not think of other good causes as in competition for a limited pool of reasonable thinkers, but instead cooperate with them to increase the number of reasonable thinkers. We should think of ourselves as all part of one common project of human progress. (Rationality: Common Interest Of Many Causes) We are very bad at coordinating to fulfil aligned preferences of individuals. Large flows of money tend to be controlled by the incentives of organisations. (Helpless Individuals)

Donating time is inefficient compared to donating money. Allocating money is how we allocate resources. Money is the unit of caring. If you’ll never spend it, you don’t care. (Money: The Unit Of Caring) We enjoy having done kind things, but the things that bring us enjoyment often do much less good than calculated effort, and enjoyment and social status can be had much cheaper when you don’t try to achieve them through your giving. Get enjoyment, status, and results separately; purchase fuzzies and utilons separately. (Purchase Fuzzies And Utilons Separately)

The bystander effect is a bias in which a group is less likely to react to an emergency than a single individual. (Bystander Apathy) This applies to problems encountered over the Internet, where you are always observing them as part of a group of strangers. (Collective Apathy And The Internet)

When we write advice, we are not working from universal generalisations, but surface level tricks. This means it validly works for some people but not others. We should beware other-optimising, because we are not good at knowing what works for others, and beware assuming that other people are simply not trying what worked for us. (Beware Of Other-Optimizing) Practical advice based on established theories tends to be more generalisable. (Practical Advice Backed By Deep Theories)

The danger of underconfidence is missing opportunities and not making a genuine effort. Sticking to things you always win at is a way smart people become stupid. You should seriously try to win, but aim for challenges you might lose at. When considering a habit of thought, ask whether it makes you stronger or weaker. (The Sin Of Underconfidence)

There is more absent than present in these writings. Defeating akrasia and coordinating groups are particular absences. But, hopefully, there is enough to overcome the barriers to getting started in the matter of rationality without immediately going terribly wrong. The hope is that this art of answering confused questions will be enough to go and complete the rest. This will require drawing on many sources, and require having some specific motivating goal. Go forth and create the art, and return to tell others what you learned. (Go Forth And Create The Art!)


A Whirlwind Tour of LW Rationality: 6 Books in 32 Pages – Mere Goodness

(Back to “Mere Reality”)

Mere Goodness U: Fake Preferences

Human desires include preferences for how the world is, not just preferences for how they think the world is or how happy they are. (Not For The Sake Of Happiness Alone) People who claim their preferences reduce down to a single principle have some other process by which they choose what they want, and then find a rationalisation for how what they want is justified by that principle (Fake Selfishness). Simple utility functions fail to compress our values, and we suffer from anthropomorphic optimism about what they suggest. (Fake Utility Functions)

People who fear that humans would lack morality without an external threat, regard this as bad rather than liberating. This means they like morality, and aren’t just forced to abide by it. (Fake Morality)

The detached lever fallacy is the assumption that actions that trigger behaviour from one entity will trigger it from another, without any reason to think the mechanics governing the reaction are present in the second. The actions that make a human compassionate will not make a non-human AI so. (Detached Lever Fallacy) AI design is reducing the mental to the non-mental. Models of an intelligence which can’t predict what it will do other than by analogy to a human are incomplete. (Dreams Of AI Design) The space of possible minds is extremely large. Resist the temptation to generalise over all of mind design space. (The Design Space Of Minds-In-General)

Mere Goodness V: Value Theory

Justifying any belief leads to infinite regress. Rather than accepting any assumption, we should reflect on our mind’s trustworthiness using our current mind as best we can, and accept that. (Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom) Approach such questions from the standpoint of whether we should want ourselves or an AI using similar principles to change how they choose beliefs. We should focus on improvement, not justification, and expect to change our minds. Don’t exalt consistency in itself, but effectiveness. Separate asking “why” an approach works from whether it “does”. We should reason about our own mind the way we do about the rest of the world, and use all available information. (My Kind Of Reflection)

There are no arguments compelling to all possible minds. For any system processing information, there is a system with inverted output which makes the opposite conclusion. This applies to moral conclusions, and regardless of the intelligence of the system. (No Universally Compelling Arguments, Sorting Pebbles Into Correct Heaps) A mind must have a process that adds beliefs, and a process that acts, or no argument can convince it to believe or act. (Created Already In Motion)

Some properties can be either thought of as as taking two parameters and giving a result, or as a space of one-parameter functions, with different people using different ones. For example, ‘attractiveness(admirer, admired) -> result’ vs ‘attractiveness_1…9999(admired) -> result’. Currying specifies that a two parameter function is equivalent to a one parameter function returning another function, and unifies these. For example, ‘attractiveness(admirer) -> attractiveness_712(admired) -> result’. This reflects the ability to judge a measure independently of the user, but also that the measure used is variable. (2-Place And 1-Place Words)

If your moral framework is shown to be invalid, you can still choose to act morally anyway. (What Would You Do Without Morality?) It’s important to have a line of retreat to be able to seriously review your metaethics. (Changing Your Metaethics) You must start from a willingness to evaluate in terms of your moral intuition in order to find valid metaethics. (Could Anything Be Right?) What we consider to be right grows out of a starting point. To get a system that specifies what is right requires it fit that starting point, which we cannot define fully. (Morality As Fixed Computation) Concepts that we develop to describe good behaviour are very complex. Depictions of them have many possible concepts that fit them, and an algorithm would pick the wrong one.You cannot fix a powerful optimisation process optimising for the wrong thing with patches. (Magical Categories) Value is fragile; optimising for the wrong values creates a dull future. (Value Is Fragile) Our complicated values are the gift that we give to tomorrow. (The Gift We Give To Tomorrow)

The prisoner’s dilemma is a hypothetical in which two people can both either cooperate (C) or defect (D), and each one prefers (D, C) > (C, C) > (D, D) > (C, D). The typical example involves two totally selfish prisoners, but humans can’t imagine this. A better example would have the first entity as humans trying to save billions, vs an entity trying to maximise numbers of paperclips. (The True Prisoner’s Dilemma)

We understand others by simulating them with our brains, which creates empathy. It was evolutionarily useful to develop sympathy. An AI wouldn’t use either approach, an alien might. (Sympathetic Minds)

A world with no difficulty would be boring, We prefer real goals to fake ones. We need goals which we prefer working on to having finished, or which have no end state. (High Challenge) A utopia with no problems has no stories. Pain can be more intense than pleasure. Pleasure that scaled like pain would trap us. We can be rid of pain that breaks or grinds down people, and pointless sorrow, and keep what we value. Whether we will get rid of pain entirely someday, EY does not know. (Serious Stories)

Mere Goodness W: Quantified Humanism

Scope insensitivity is ignoring the number of people or animals or area affected, the scope, when deciding how important an action is. Groups were asked how much they would pay to save 2000 / 20000 / 200000 migrating birds from drowning in oil ponds, and answered $80, $78, and $88. We visualise a single bird, react emotionally, and cannot visualise scope. To be an effective altruist, we must evaluate the numbers. (Scope Insensitivity) Saving one life feels as good as many, but is not as good. We do not treat saving lives as a satisficed virtue, such that once you’ve saved one you ignore others. (One Life Against The World)

The certainty effect is a bias where going from 99% chance to near 100% chance of getting what we want is valued more than going from, say, 33% to 34%. This causes the allais paradox, where we prefer a fixed prize over a 33/34 chance of a bigger prize, but prefer a 33% chance of a larger prize to a 34% chance of a smaller prize. This cannot be explained by non-linear marginal utility of money, permits extracting money from you, and shows a failure of intuition to steer reality. (The Allais Paradox, Zut Allais!)

A certain loss feels worse than an uncertain one. By changing the point of comparison so the certain outcome is a loss rather than a gain, you reverse intuition. You must multiply out costs and benefits, or you will fail at directing reality. This reduces nice feelings, but they are not the point. (Feeling Moral)

Intuition is what morality is built on, but we must pursue reflective intuitions or we won’t accomplish anything due to circular preferences. (The Intuitions Behind Utilitarianism) Making up probabilities can trick you into thinking they’re more grounded than they are, and override working intuitions. (When (Not) To Use Probabilities)

Ends don’t justify the means among humans. We run on corrupted hardware; we rationalise using bad means, past the point that benefits us, let alone anyone else. Otherwise we wouldn’t have developed ethical injunctions. Follow them as a higher-level consequentialist strategy. (Ends Don’t Justify Means Among Humans, Ethical Injunctions)

To pursue rationality effectively, you must have a higher goal that it serves. (Something To ProtectNewcomb’s problem is a scenario in which an entity that can predict you perfectly offers two boxes, and says that box A contains $1000, and box B contains $1,000,000 if and only if they predicted you would only take box B. Traditional causal decision theory says you should take both boxes, as the money is either already in the box or not. Rationally, you should take only box B. Doing so makes you win more, and rationality is about winning, not about reasonableness or any particular ritual of thought. (Newcomb’s Problem And Regret Of Rationality)

(Continue with “Becoming Stronger”)


A Whirlwind Tour of LW Rationality: 6 Books in 32 Pages – Mere Reality

(Back to “The Machine In The Ghost”)

Mere Reality O: Lawful Truth

Apparently independent surface-level rules of reality follow from more basic common rules. This means you can’t have a consistent world in which some surface-level rules keep working for the same reasons they always worked and others don’t work. (Universal Fire)

The universe almost certainly runs on absolute laws with no exceptions, although we have a much greater degree of uncertainty as to what those laws are. This feels like an unreasonably uncompromising social move to people used to thinking about human or moral laws. (Universal Law)

Reality remains uncertain because we don’t know the laws, because it isn’t feasible to work out the exact consequences of the laws, and we don’t know which human in reality we will perceive ourselves as being. Reality is not fundamentally messy; only our perspective on it is. (Is Reality Ugly?)

Bayesian theorems are attractive because they’re laws, rather than because Bayesian methods are always the most practical tool. (Beautiful Probability) Mutual information is Bayesian evidence; anything which generates better than random beliefs must do so through processing Bayesian evidence. (Searching For Bayes-Structure)

A scientist who is not more selective in their beliefs outside the laboratory than a typical person has memorised rules to get by, but lacks understanding of what those rules mean. (Outside The Laboratory)

No part of a system can violate the first law of thermodynamics, conservation of energy, and so we reject systems claiming to. Liouville’s theorem says the space of possible states of a system is conserved; for any part whose state becomes more certain, another part becomes less certain.

The second law of thermodynamics, that total entropy cannot decrease, is a corollary. Maxwell’s demon is a hypothetical entity which lets only fast-moving gas molecules through a barrier without generating entropy, decreasing entropy. If you knew the state of the gas for free, you could create one. This means that knowing things about the universe without observing them and generating entropy in the process would be a violation of the second law of thermodynamics. (The Second Law Of Thermodynamics, And Engines Of Cognition)

When people try to justify something without evidence, they often construct theories complicated enough that they can make a mistake and miss it, similar to people designing perpetual motion machines. (Perpetual Motion Beliefs)

Mere Reality P: Reductionism 101

For some questions, we should, rather than trying to answer or prove them nonsensical, try to identify why we feel a question exists. The result should dissolve that feeling. (Dissolving The Question)

A cue that you’re dealing with a confused question is when you cannot imagine any observation that answers it. (Wrong Questions) One way forward is to ask “Why do I think <thing>?” rather than “Why <thing>?”. The new question will lead you to the entanglement of your beliefs with reality that generated the belief, if it is not confused, and an explanation of your mind otherwise. (Righting A Wrong Question)

The mind projection fallacy is treating properties of our perception of a thing as inherent attributes of it. (Mind Projection Fallacy) The probability of an event is a property of our perception, not the event. (Probability Is In The Mind) We call something chaotic when we can’t predict it, but miss that this is a fact about our ability to predict. This causes us to miss opportunities to improve. (Chaotic Inversion) Rather than viewing reality as weird, resist getting caught up in incredulity, and let intuition adjust to view reality as normal. (Think Like Reality)

Probability assignments are not well modelled as true or false, but as having a level of accuracy. Your beliefs about your own beliefs have different accuracy to those beliefs. Differing beliefs are only differing truths insofar as accurate statements about your own map differ; this is not accurate statements about reality differing between people, because the map is not the territory.  (Qualitatively Confused) The concept of a thing is not the same as the thing. If a person thinks a thing is two separate things, described by separate concepts, those concepts may differ despite referring to the same thing. (The Quotation is Not The Referent)

Reductionism is disbelief in a particular form of the mind projection fallacy. It is useful for us to use different models for different scales of reality, but this is an aspect of what is useful for us, not an aspect of the different scales of reality, and does not mean that they are governed differently. (Reductionism)

Explaining and explaining away are different. Non-fundamental things still exist. Explaining away something only removes it from the map; it was never in the territory. (Explaining Vs Explaining Away) A thing is only reduced if you know the explanation; knowing one exists only changes literary genre. (Fake Reductionism) We can tell human stories about humans. A non-anthropomorphic view of the world helps broader stories. (Savanna Poets)

Mere Reality Q: Joy In The Merely Real

You should be able to care about knowable, unmagical things. The alternative is existential ennui, because everything is knowable. (Joy In The Merely Real) Taking joy only in discovering something no one else knows makes joy scarce; instead, find joy in all discoveries. (Joy In Discovery)

By placing hope in and celebrating true things, you direct your emotions into reality rather than fiction. (Bind Yourself To Reality) If we lived in a world with magic, it would seem as mundane as science. If you can’t be excited by reality or put in great effort to change the world here, you wouldn’t there. (If You Demand Magic, Magic Won’t Help)

Many of our abilities, such as ‘vibratory telepathy’ (speech) and ‘psychometric tracing’ (writing) would be amazing magical powers if only a few had them. Even more so for the ‘Ultimate Power’; possessing a small imperfect echo of the universe, and searching through probability to find paths to a desired future. We shouldn’t think less of them for commonality. (Mundane Magic)

Settled science is as beautiful as new science. Textbooks will offer you careful explanations, examples, test problems, and likely true information. Pop science articles offer wrong explanations of results the author likely didn’t understand, and have a high chance of not replicating. You cannot understand the world if you only read science reporting. (The Beauty Of Settled Science, Amazing Breakthrough Day: April 1st)

Irreligious attempts to imitate religious trappings and hymns always suck. However, a sense of awe is not exclusive to religion. There are things which would have been a good idea even if religion had never existed to imitate that can be awe-inspiring, such as space shuttle launches. For those things, the awe remains when they are mundane and explained. (Is Humanism A Religion-Substitute?)

Things become more desirable as they become less attainable; this is scarcity. Similarly, forbidden information appears more important. When something is attained it stops being scarce, leading to frustration. (Scarcity) If Science was secret, it would become fascinating. (To Spread Science Keep It Secret, Initiation Ceremony)

Mysteriousness, faith, unique incommunicability, separation of domains, and experientialism shield from criticism, and declare the mundane boring. We shouldn’t have them. (The Sacred Mundane)

Mere Reality R: Physicalism 201

Concepts such as ‘your hand’, describe the same part of the world as lower level concepts, such as ‘your palm and fingers’. They do not vary independently, but still ‘exist’. (Hands Vs Fingers) Concepts such as ‘heat’ and ‘motion’, can also refer to the same thing, even if you can imagine a world where they refer to separate things. (Heat Vs Motion) Concepts note only that a cluster exists, and do not define it exactly. (Reductive Reference)

Understanding how higher-level things such as ‘anger’ are created by lower-level things requires discovering the explanation, not just assertion. (Angry Atoms) Rationality is not social rules; rationality is how our brain works. (A Priori) Reality is that which sometimes violates expectations and surprises you. (Reductive Reference again)

The brain is a complex organ made of neurons. (Brain Breakthrough! It’s Made Of Neurons!) Before we realised that thinking involved a complex organ, Animism was a reasonable error. (When Anthropomorphism Became Stupid) A proposed entity is supernatural if it is irreducibly complex. Because our brains are reducible, no set of expectations can require irreducible complexity, but some expectations make irreducibility more likely than others. (Excluding The Supernatural, Psychic Powers)

A zombie, in the philosophical sense, is a hypothetical being which looks and behaves exactly like a human, including talking about being conscious, but is not conscious. It is alleged that if it is a coherent hypothetical, consciousness must be extra-physical. It is not coherent if ‘process which causes talking about consciousness’ and ‘consciousness’ refer to the same part of the world. We should believe they do, because the alternative is more complex. (Zombies! Zombies?, Zombie Responses, Zombies: The Movie) It is correct to believe in unobservable things if and only if the most succinct model of reality predicts them. (Belief In The Implied Invisible)

The generalised anti-zombie principle is that any change we shouldn’t expect to change the reasons we talk about consciousness is one we should expect to leave us still conscious. (The Generalized Anti-Zombie Principle) Conceivably, one could replace a human with a giant look-up table (GLUT) which would seem to violate this principle, but the process which selected the GLUT to use would need to have been conscious and make all the same decision-making choices as you in doing so. (GAZP Vs GLUT)

Mere Reality S: Quantum Physics and Many Worlds

(This sequence is controversial; mean probability assigned to MWI was 56.5% in the 2011 survey)

Quantum mechanics is not intuitive; this is a flaw in intuition. (Quantum Explanations)

Reality is comprised of configurations with complex-valued amplitudes, and rules for calculating amplitude flows into other configurations. We cannot measure amplitudes directly, only the ratio of absolute squares of some configurations. (Configurations And Amplitude) You sum all amplitude flows into a configuration to get its amplitude. Amplitude flows that put the same types of particle in the same places flow into the same configuration, even if the particles came from different places. Which configurations are the same is observable fact. If amplitude flows have opposite sign, they can cancel out to zero. If either flow had been absent, the configuration would have had non-zero amplitude. (Joint Configurations)

A configuration is defined by all particles. If amplitude flows alter a particle’s state, then they cannot flow into the same configuration as amplitude flows which do not alter it. Thus, measuring amplitude flows stops them from flowing to the same configurations. (Distinct Configurations)

Collapse theories propose that at some point before a measurement reaches a human brain, there is a waveform collapse leaving only one random configuration with non-zero amplitude, discarding other amplitude flows. Many Worlds proposes that this doesn’t happen; configurations where we observe and don’t observe a measurement both exist with non-zero amplitude, too different from each other for their amplitude flows to flow into common configurations; we have macroscopic decoherence. Collapse would be very different to other physics. (Collapse Postulates) Living in multiple worlds is the same as living in one; we shouldn’t be unsettled by it. (Living In Many Worlds)

Decoherence is simpler (Decoherence Is Simple), while making the same predictions. (Decoherence Is Falsifiable And TestablePrivileging the hypothesis is selecting an unlikely hypothesis for attention, causing confirmation bias. Historical accident has privileged collapse theories (Privileging The Hypothesis, If Many-Worlds Had Come First, Many Worlds, One Best Guess) because people didn’t think of themselves as made of particles. (Where Philosophy Meets Science, Thou Art Physics) Declaring equations to be meaningless is wrong; there is something described. (Quantum Non-Realism)

Mere Reality T: Science and Rationality

Science is supposed to replace theories when experiments falsify them in favour of new theories, and is uninterested in simpler theories making the same predictions. This leads to different results than application of probability theory. (The Dilemma: Science or Bayes?) Science is this way because it doubts that flawed humans debating elegance will reach truth if not forced to experiment. Science distrusts your rationality. (Science Doesn’t Trust Your Rationality)

Science doesn’t help you get answers to questions that are not testable in the present day. It is incorrect to dismiss theories answering those questions because they’re scientifically unproven. You must try to use your reason. (When Science Can’t Help) Science does not judge your choice of hypothesis, and only requires you react to overwhelming evidence. It accepts slow, generational progress. You must have a private epistemic standard higher than the social one, or else you will waste a lot of time. (Science Isn’t Strict Enough)

It is a flaw that the teaching of Science doesn’t practice resolving confused ideas (The Failures Of Eld Science), probability theory, awareness of the need for causal entanglement of belief with reality, or rationality more broadly. (Do Scientists Already Know This Stuff?) Teaching probability theory alone would not correct this. (The Definition Of Science)

There is nothing that guarantees that you are not a fool, not even Science, not even trying to use probability theory. You don’t know your own biases, why the universe is simple enough to understand, what your priors are, or why they work. The formal math is intractable. To start as a rationalist requires losing your trust that following any prescribed pattern will keep you safe. (No Safe Defense, Not Even Science)

The bulk of work in progressing knowledge is in elevating the right hypotheses to attention, a process Science depends on but does not specify, relying on normal reasoning. (Faster Than Science) Einstein did this well. Most will fail, but it remains valuable to practice. (Einstein’s Speed) Geniuses are not separate from humanity; with grit and the right choice of problem and approach, not all but many have potential. (Einstein’s Superpowers, Class Project)

We do not use the evidence of sensory data anywhere near optimally. (That Alien Message) Possible minds can be extremely smarter than humans. Basing your ideals on hypothetical extremely intelligent minds, rather than merely the best humans so far, helps you not shy away from trying to exceed them. (My Childhood Role Model)

(Continue with “Mere Goodness”)


A Whirlwind Tour of LW Rationality: 6 Books in 32 Pages – The Machine In The Ghost

(Back to “How To Actually Change Your Mind”)

The Machine In The Ghost L: The Simple Math of Evolution

There are things which look purposeful in nature, which people historically treated as evidence of a designer. If you look at them without cherrypicking, you find parts which appear to be working at odds with other parts, inconsistent with the purposefulness you’d expect from a single designer. Similarly, you find a lot of the purposefulness seems cruel, inconsistent with benevolent design.

If evolution were able to explain anything, it would be useless. Evolution is consistent only with the kind of purposefulness which propagates a gene, with no filtering for kindness or any other kind of purposefulness. This is the kind of alien purposefulness we observe in nature. (An Alien God)

Evolution works incrementally. (The Wonder Of Evolution) Evolution is slow; a mutation multiplying the expected number of children by 1.03 has a 6% chance of reaching fixation, and takes an average of 768 generations to reach universality within a population of 100,000. The general formulae are 2 s for the chance of fixation, and 2 ln(N) / s for number of generations, where N is the population size, and s is the multiplier minus 1. Complex mutations take a very long time, as each step must reach fixation. (Evolutions Are Stupid (But Work Anyway))

Price’s Equation is a very general equation stating that the change in average characteristic is equal to the covariance of the characteristic and relative fitness. It operates only to the extent that characteristics are heritable across the generations. If characteristics aren’t passed down more than a few generations, you will only ever observe a few generations’ worth of selective pressure.

This means corporations do not significantly benefit from evolution. Similar for nanodevices with cryptographically protected replication instructions, as few changes would have high covariance. (No Evolutions For Corporations Or Nanodevices)

Selection being concerned only with competition between genes means genes that are better for the species can be outcompeted. Successful genes could make all descendants male, recursively, exist only to copy themselves, or cause the bystander effect. It is possible to evolve to extinction. (Evolving To Extinction)

Group selection overriding individual selection is generally mathematically implausible and was used to rationalise beliefs that outcomes would be what was better-for-the-species. (The Tragedy Of Group Selectionism)

Humans are very good at arguing that almost any optimisation criteria suggests almost any policy. Evolution is one of the few cases where we can examine what actually optimising for specific criteria with no rationalisation or bias would look like, in order to understand what that looks like. (Fake Optimization Criteria)

We don’t consciously have the deliberate goal of optimising for our genes’ genetic fitness; it was not genetically fit for that goal to be encoded in us. We are adaptation-executors, not fitness maximisers. (Adaption-Executers Not Fitness-Maximizers, Evolutionary Psychology) We want to optimise for other things. (Thou Art Godshatter)

Our psychological adaptations are tuned for success in the evolutionary environment. (An Especially Elegant Evpsych Experiment) The modern world contains things that match our desires more strongly than anything in the evolutionary environment. We call these superstimuli, and they may cause perverse behaviour. (Superstimuli And The Collapse Of Western Civilization)

The Machine In The Ghost M: Fragile Purposes

When observing an intelligent process, you can be certain about the expected end state while being uncertain about intermediary steps. This is because intelligence is an optimisation process. (Belief In Intelligence) We normally model intelligence by simulating it with our brain, and assume something analogous to our emotional architecture. This doesn’t work well for non-human intelligence. (Humans In Funny Suits)

Optimisation processes can find very small targets in large search spaces. Natural selection emerged accidentally, and is slow and stupid. Human brains are much better. Neither optimisation process is able to optimise itself. We could design an AI to do so. If the process did not require exponentially more optimisation power applied for each increase in optimisation power out, and the initial intelligence was sufficient, optimisation power could rise exponentially over time. (Optimization And The Singularity)

People tend to think of programming computers as if they contain a little ghost which reads and performs abstract instructions. Your instructions define the entirety of the logic performed. If you do not know how to define something in terms you can program, you cannot reference it. Conversely, there is no additional entity capable of deciding to not do what you defined. (Ghosts In The Machine) When we find a confusing gap in our knowledge, we should try to fill it rather than reason around it. (Artificial Addition)

Terminal values are ends, instrumental values are means. (Terminal Values And Instrumental Values) Any generalisations at the macroscopic level will have exceptions; they will be leaky abstractions. This extends to instrumental values. (Leaky Generalizations) We must make any sufficiently powerful and intelligent optimisation process optimise for our terminal values, as optimising for a described instrumental value may powerfully optimise for an easy exception we didn’t think of. (The Hidden Complexity Of Wishes)

Anthropomorphic optimism is where we expect non-human intelligent processes, such as natural selection, to choose a strategy that is one a human might choose, because we tend not to bring candidate strategies we know no person wants to the surface, and we’re good at rationalization. (Anthropomorphic Optimism)

Dysfunctional organisations incentivise many actions internally which are detached from any original purpose of the action, and this can be recognised. Civilisation in general does this. (Lost Purposes)

The Machine In The Ghost N: A Human’s Guide To Words

Statements are only entangled with reality if the process generating them made them so. (The Parable Of The Dagger)

The logical implications of a given definition of a word are the same in all conceivable universes, and so do not tell us anything about our universe. Correlations between attributes do, but only so far as observations and those correlations are reliable. (The Parable Of Hemlock)

If you define a word rigidly in terms of attributes, and then state that something is that word, you assert it has all those attributes. If you then go on to say say it thus has one of those attributes, you are simply repeating that assertion. The word only creates an illusion of inference. (Empty Labels)

If assigning a word a definition feels like it argues something, you may be making a hidden assertion of a connotation not in that definition. (Sneaking In Connotations) Alternatively, you may be incorrectly ignoring more direct evidence in favour of correlations between attributes represented by the words. (Arguing By Definition)

A concept is any rule for classifying things, and creates a category of things. The space of definable concepts is much larger than the space of describable things. We limit ourselves to relatively simple concepts in order to make their definition tractable. (Superexponential Conceptspace And Simple Words) Words are labels for concepts. (Words As Mental Paintbrush Handles)

Efficient communication uses shorter messages for common messages and longer messages for uncommon messages. We use shorter words for more common concepts and longer words for less common concepts. (Entropy And Short Codes) Creating a word defined by a list of attributes permits faster communication if and only if those attributes are correlated. Adding an uncorrelated attribute to a word means it takes more work to communicate accurately using that word than not using it, which will result in inaccurate communication. (Mutual Information And Density In Thingspace)

We automatically infer that the set of attributes that define a word are well correlated. We shouldn’t create definitions where that’s wrong. (Words As Hidden Inferences) Concepts can be misleading if they group things poorly. Using concepts that are similar to those used by others aids communication. (The Argument From Common Usage) Concepts dividing or excluding things on irrelevant criteria result in people assuming that there’s relevant differences correlated to those criteria. (Categorizing Has Consequences)

An intensional definition is a definition in terms of other words. An extensional definition is a definition provided by pointing at examples. The intension of a concept is the pattern in your brain that recognises it. The extension of a concept is everything matching that pattern. Neither type of definition fully describes its corresponding aspect.

Claiming that a concept with known extension includes a particular attribute ‘by definition’ hides the assertion that the things in its extension have that attribute. Claiming that a thing falls under a concept ‘by definition’ often hides the assertion that its attributes are typical of that concept. (Extensions And Intensions) Not all concept we have, have straightforward intensional definitions. Which concepts usefully divide the world is a question about the world. (Where To Draw The Boundary?)

You can think of any conceivable thing as described by a point in ‘thingspace’, whose dimensions include all possible attributes. Concepts describe clusters in thingspace. (The Cluster Structure Of Thingspace) These are similarity clusters. A dictionary is best thought as a set of hints for matching labels to these clusters. (Similarity Clusters) People regard some entities in these clusters as more or less typical of them. (Typicality And Asymmetric Similarity)

Asking if something ‘is’ in some category is a disguised query for whether it should be treated the way things in that category are treated, for some purpose. You may need to know that purpose to answer the question for atypical cases. (Disguised Queries)

You can reduce connections in a neural network design by introducing nodes for categories, then inferring attributes from categories and categories from attributes rather than all attributes from all other attributes. (Neural Categories) Our brain uses a structure like this. If only some attributes match a category, the way this feels from the inside is like there’s a permanently unresolved question of fact about whether the thing is ‘in’ or not ‘in’ the category, because the ‘node’ is unsettled. (How An Algorithm Feels From Inside)

Disputes over definitions are disputes over what cluster a given label points at, but feel like disputes over what properties the things in that cluster have. (Disputing Definitions) What intension is associated with what word feels like a fact about the wider world rather than just a fact about human brains. (Feel The Meaning)

If you are trying to discuss reality, and you find your meaning for a label differs from another person’s, you should taboo that concept and use others to communicate. (Taboo Your Words) You can also taboo concepts and try to describe the relevant parts of thingspace directly as an effective way to clarify anticipated experience and notice which aspects of the concepts are relevant. (Replace The Symbol With The Substance)

Our map of the world is necessarily smaller than the world, which means we necessarily must compress distinct things in reality into a single point in our map. From the inside, this feels like we’re observing only one thing, rather than that we’re observing multiple things and compressing them together. Noticing where splitting a category is necessary is a key challenge in reasoning about the world. A good hint is noticing a category with self-contradictory attributes. (Fallacies Of Compression) Correct statements about different things merged into a single point may be inconsistent with each other; this does not mean part of reality is inconsistent. (Variable Question Fallacies)

Two variables have mutual information if they are correlated, and are independent if not. Conditional independence is where mutual information is shared between three or more variables, and conditional on one of those variables, the other two become independent. Where we have mutual information between many possible attributes of a thing, we create concepts to represent mutual information between attributes, and then treat the attributes as conditionally independent once we know that something matches that concept, as a simplification.

If there is a great deal of mutual information remaining between attributes after knowing something matches a concept defined using those attributes, this is an error. (Conditional Independence And Naive Bayes)

Words can be defined wrongly, in many ways. (37 Ways That Words Can Be Wrong)

(Continue with “Mere Reality”)


A Whirlwind Tour of LW Rationality: 6 Books in 32 Pages – How To Actually Change Your Mind

(Back to “Map And Territory”)

How To Actually Change Your Mind E: Overly Convenient Excuses

Humility is a complicated virtue, and we should judge it by whether applying it makes us stronger or weaker, and by whether it is an excuse to shrug. To be correctly humble is to take action in anticipation of one’s own errors. (The Proper Use Of Humility)

A package deal fallacy is where you assume things traditionally grouped together must always be so. A false dilemma is presenting only two options where more exist. Justifications for noble lies are usually one of the two; it is preferable to seek a third alternative, which may be less convenient. (The Third Alternative)

Human hope is limited and valuable, and the likes of lotteries waste it. (Lotteries: A Waste Of Hope, New Improved Lottery) There is a bias in which extremely tiny chances are treated as more than tiny in implication, and justify proclaiming belief in them. There is a tendency to arbitrarily choose to ‘believe’ or not believe a thing rather than reacting to probabilities. (But There’s Still A Chance, Right?)

The fallacy of grey is to regard all imperfection and all uncertainty as equal. Wrong is relative. (The Fallacy Of Grey) There is a sizeable inferential distance from thinking of knowledge as absolutely true to understanding knowledge as probabilistic. (Absolute Authority) Eliezer says he would be convinced that 2 + 2 = 3 by the same processes that convinced him that 2 + 2 = 4; a combination of physical observation, mental visualization, and social agreement, such as observing that putting two more objects down beside two objects produced three objects. (How To Convince Me That 2+2=3)

Because of how evidence works, a probability of 100% or 0% corresponds to infinite certainty, and requires infinite evidence to correctly attain. As a result it is always incorrect. (Infinite Certainty) 0 and 1 are [in a sense] not probabilities. (0 And 1 Are Not Probabilities)

It is reasonable to care how other humans think, as part of caring about how the future and present look. This is somewhat dangerous, and so must be tempered by a solid commitment to respond to bad thinking only with argument. (Your Rationality Is My Business)

How To Actually Change Your Mind F: Politics and Rationality

Politics is the mind-killer. People cannot think clearly about politics close to them. In politics, arguments are soldiers. When giving examples, it is tempting to use contemporary politics. Avoid this if possible. If you are discussing something innately political, use an example from historic politics with minimal contemporary implications if possible. (Politics Is The Mind-Killer)

Policy debates should not appear one-sided. Actions with many consequences should not be expected to have exclusively positive or negative consequences. If they appear to, this is normally the result of bias. They may legitimately have lopsided costs and benefits. (Policy Debates Should Not Appear One-Sided)

Humans tend to treat debates as a contest between two sides, where any weakness in one side is a gain to the other and visa versa, and whoever wins is correct on everything and whoever loses is wrong on everything. This is correct behaviour for a single, strictly binary question, but an error for any more complicated debate. (The Scales Of Justice, The Notebook Of Rationality)

The fundamental attribution error is a tendency in people to overly attribute the actions of others to innate traits, while overly attributing their own actions to circumstance as opposed to differences in themselves. Most people see themselves as normal. (Correspondence Bias) Even your worst enemies are not innately evil, and usually view themselves as the heroes of their own story. (Are Your Enemies Innately Evil?)

Stupidity causes more random beliefs, not reliably wrong ones, so reversing the beliefs of the foolish does not create correct beliefs; reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Foolish people disagreeing does not mean that you are correct. (Reversed Stupidity Is Not Intelligence)

Authority can be a useful guide to truth before you’ve heard arguments, but is not so after arguments. (Argument Screens Off Authority) The more distant from the specific question evidence is, the weaker it is. You should try to answer questions using direct evidence- hug the query. Otherwise learning abstract arguments, including about biases, can make you less rather than more accurate. (Hug The Query)

Speakers may manipulate their phrasing to alter what aspects of a situation are noticed. (Rationality And The English Language) Simplifying language interferes with this, and allows you to recognise errors in your own speech. (Human Evil And Muddled Thinking)

How To Actually Change Your Mind G: Against Rationalization

Because humans are irrational to start with, more knowledge can hurt you. Knowledge of biases gives you ammunition to use against arguments, including knowledge of this one. (Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People)

Expect occasional opposing evidence for any imperfectly exact model. You should not look for reasons to reject it, but update incrementally as it suggests. If your model is good, you will see evidence supporting it soon. (Update Yourself Incrementally) You should not decide what direction to change your opinion in by comparing new evidence to old arguments; this double-counts evidence. (One Argument Against An Army)

The sophistication with which you construct arguments does not improve your conclusions; that requires choosing what to argue in a manner that entangles your choice with the truth. (The Bottom Line)

Reaction to evidence that someone is filtering must include reacting to knowledge of the filtering. Knowing what is true can require looking at evidence from multiple parties. (What Evidence Filtered Evidence?)

Rationalization is determining your reasoning after your conclusion, and runs in the opposite direction to rationality. (Rationalization) You cannot create a rational argument this  way, whatever you cite. (A Rational Argument)

Humans tend to consider only the critiques of their position that they know they can defeat. (Avoiding Your Belief’s Real Weak Points) A motivated skeptic asks if the evidence compels them to believe; a motivated credulist asks if the evidence allows them to believe. Motivated stopping is ceasing the search for opposing evidence earlier when you agree, and motivated continuation is searching longer when you don’t. (Motivated Stopping And Motivated Continuation)

Fake justification is searching for a justification for a belief which is not the one which led you to originally hold it. (Fake Justification) Justifications for rejecting a proposition are often not the person’s true objection, which when dispelled would result in the proposition being accepted. (Is That Your True Rejection?)

Facts about reality are often entangled with each other. (Entangled Truths, Contagious Lies, Of Lies And Black Swan Blowups) Maintaining a false belief often requires other false beliefs, including deception about evidence and rationality themselves. (Dark Side Epistemology)

How To Actually Change Your Mind H: Against Doublethink

In doublethink, you forget then forget you have forgotten. In singlethink, you notice yourself forgetting an uncomfortable thought and recall it. (Singlethink)

If you watch the risks of doublethink enough to do it only when useful, you cannot do it. If you do not, you will do it where it harms you. Doublethink is either not an option or harmful. (Doublethink (Choosing To Be Biased))

The above on doublethink not be a dispassionate reporting of the facts; Eliezer admits that they may have been tempted into trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. They then say that it may be wise to at least tell yourself that you can’t self-deceive, so that you aren’t tempted to try. (Don’t Believe You’ll Self-Deceive)

It is possible to lead yourself to think you believe something without believing it. Believing that a belief is good can lead you to false belief-in-belief. (No, Really, I’ve Deceived MyselfBelief In Self-Deception) We often do not separate believing a belief from endorsing a belief. Belief-in-belief can create apparently contradictory beliefs. (Moore’s Paradox)

How To Actually Change Your Mind I: Seeing With Fresh Eyes

Anchoring is a behaviour in which we take a figure we’ve recently seen and adjust it to answer questions, making results depend on the initial anchor. A strategy for countering it might be to dwell on an alternative anchor if you notice an initial guess is implausible. (Anchoring And Adjustment)

Priming is an aspect of our brain’s architecture. Concepts related to ideas we’ve recently had in mind are recalled faster. This means that completely irrelevant observations influence estimates and decisions. This is known as contamination. It supports confirmation bias; having an idea in our head makes compatible ideas come to mind more easily, making us more receptive to confirming than disconfirming evidence for our beliefs. (Priming And Contamination)

Some evidence suggests that we tend to initially believe statements, then adjust to reject false ones. Being distracted makes us more likely to believe statements explicitly labeled as false. (Do We Believe Everything We’re Told?)

The hundred-step rule is the principle that because neurons in the human brain are slow, any hypothesised operation can be very parallel but must complete in under a hundred sequential neuron spikes. It is a good guess that human cognition consists mostly of cache lookups.

We incorporate the thoughts of others into this cache, and alone could not regenerate all the ideas we’ve collected in a single lifetime. We tend to incorporate and then repeat or act on cached thoughts without thinking about their source or credibility. (Cached Thoughts)

“Outside the box” thinking is a box of its own, and along with stated efforts at originality and subversive thinking follows predictable patterns; genuine originality requires thinking. (The “Outside The Box” Box) When a topic seems to have nothing to be said, it can mean we do not have any related cached thoughts, and find generating new ones difficult. (Original Seeing)

The events of history would sound extremely strange described to someone prior to them. (Stranger Than History) We tend to treat fiction as history which happened elsewhere. This causes us to favour hypotheses which fit into fun narratives, over other hypotheses that might be likely. (The Logical Fallacy Of Generalization From Fictional Evidence)

A model which connects all things contains the same information as a model that connects none. Information is contained in selectiveness about connections, and the more fine-grained this is the more information is contained. The virtue of narrowness is the definition and use of narrow terms and ideas rather than broad ones. (The Virtue Of Narrowness)

One may sound deep by coherently expressing cached thoughts that the listener hasn’t heard yet. One may be deep by attempting to see for yourself rather than following standard patterns. (How To Seem And Be Deep)

We change our mind less often than we think, and are resistant to it. A technique to mitigate against this is to hold off on proposing solutions as long as possible. (We Change Our Minds Less Often Than We Think, Hold Off On Proposing Solutions)

Because of confirmation bias, we should be suspicious of ideas that originally came from sources whose output was not entangled with the truth. However, to disregard other evidence entirely in favour of judging the original source would be the genetic fallacy. (The Genetic Fallacy)

How To Actually Change Your Mind J: Death Spirals and the Cult Attractor

The affect heuristic is when subjective impressions of goodness/badness act as a heuristic. It causes the manner in which a problem is stated and irrelevant aspects of a situation to change the decisions we make. (The Affect Heuristic) The halo effect is this applied to people; when our subjective impression of a person in one regard, such as appearance, alters our judgement of them in others. (The Halo Effect)

We overestimate the altruism of those who run less risk compared to those who run more, and attribute less virtue to people who are generous for lesser as well as greater need. (Superhero Bias) We lionize messiahs for whom doing great things is easy over those for whom it is hard. (Mere Messiahs)

We tend to evaluate things against nearby points of comparison. (Evaluability And Cheap Holiday Shopping) When we lack a bounded scale to put our estimates within, we make one up, inconsistently between people. (Unbounded Scales, Huge Jury Awards, And Futurism)

An affective death spiral is a scenario in which a strong positive impression assigned to one idea causes us to improve our impressions of related ideas, which we then treat as confirmation of the original idea in a self-sustaining cycle. (Affective Death Spirals) We can diminish the effect of positive impressions enough to prevent this by splitting big ideas into smaller ones we treat independently, reminding ourselves of the conjunctive bias and considering each additional claim to be a burdensome detail, and following the suggestions in the Against Rationalization sequence. (Resist The Happy Death Spiral)

Considering it morally wrong to criticise an idea accelerates an affective death spiral. (Uncritical SupercriticalityEvaporative cooling of group beliefs is a scenario in which as a group becomes more extreme, moderates leave, and as they are no longer acting as a brake, the group becomes yet more extreme, in a cycle. This is another reason why tolerating dissent is important. (Evaporative Cooling Of Group Beliefs)

A spiral of hate is the mirror image of an affective death spiral, in which a strong negative impression of a thing causes us to believe related negative ideas, which we then treat as strengthening the original impression. You can correspondingly observe it become morally wrong to urge restraint or to object to a criticism. It, too, leads to poor choice of action. (When None Dare Urge Restraint)

Humans, once divided into opposing groups, will naturally form positive and negative stereotypes of the two groups and engage in conflict. (The Robbers Cave Experiment) Every cause has a natural tendency for its supporters to become focused on defending their group, even if they declare ‘rationality’ to be their goal. (Every Cause Wants To Be A Cult)

Beware being primarily a guardian of the truth rather than primarily a seeker of it. (Guardians Of The Truth) The Nazis can be understood as would-be guardians of the gene pool. (Guardians Of The Gene Pool)

There are things we know now which earlier generations could not have known, which means that from our perspective we should expect elementary errors even in our historic geniuses. This is a defining attribute of scientific disciplines. It feels unfair to consider things they could not have known to be flaws in their ideas, but nevertheless they are. It is foolish to declare a system of ideas to be closed to further development. We already have examples of people who declared themselves to be about being Rational who fell into that trap in history. (Guardians Of Ayn Rand)

Two ideas for countering a tendency towards affective death spirals around a group are to prefer using and describing techniques over citing authority, and to deliberately look foolish to reduce the positive affect you give to the techniques you describe, so they are judged on their own merits. (Two Cult Koans)

We tend to conform to the beliefs of those around us, and are especially inclined to avoid being the first dissenter, for social reasons. Being the first dissenter is thus a valuable service. (Asch’s Conformity Experiment) It can be correct if you do not believe you have any special advantage to believe that the majority opinion is more likely to be the true one, but it remains important to express your concerns . Doing so is  generally just as socially discouraged as outright disagreement. (On Expressing Your Concerns)

Lonely dissent is often just a role people play in defined patterns. When it is real, it requires bearing the incomprehension of the people around you and discussing ideas that are not forbidden but outside bounds which aren’t even thought about. Doing this without a single other person is terrifying. Being different for its own sake is a bias like any other. (Lonely Dissent)

Cults vary from sincere but deluded and expensive groups, to “love bombing”, sleep deprivation, induced fatigue, distant communes, and daily meetings to confess impure thoughts. Lists of cult characteristics include things which describe other organisations, like political parties and corporations. The true defining aspect is the affective death spiral, which should be fought in any group, and judged independently of how weird the group is in other respects. (Cultish Countercultishness)

How To Actually Change Your Mind K: Letting Go

If we only admit small, local errors, we only make small, local improvements. Big improvements require admitting big errors. Rather than grudgingly admitting the smallest errors possible, be willing to consider that you may have made fundamental mistakes. (The Importance Of Saying “Oops”)

Reinterpreting your mistakes to make it so that you were right ‘deep down’, or morally right, or half-right, avoids the opportunity to see large errors in the route you are on and adjust. (The Crackpot Offer) Being ready to admit you lost lets you avoid turning small mistakes into bigger ones. (Just Lose Hope Already)

A doubt exists to potentially destroy a particular belief, on the basis of some specific justification. A doubt that fails to either be destroyed or destroy its belief may as well not have existed at all. Wearing doubts as attire does not make you more rational. (The Proper Use Of Doubt)

You can face reality. What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it any worse. (You Can Face Reality)

Criticising yourself from a sense of duty leaves you wanting to have investigated, not wanting to investigate. This leads to motivated stopping. There is no substitute for genuine curiosity, so attempt to cultivate it. Conservation of expected evidence means any process you think may confirm your beliefs you must also think may disconfirm them. If you do not, ask whether you are looking at only the strong points of your belief. (The Meditation On Curiosity)

The laws governing evidence and belief are not social, but aspects of reality. They are not created by rationalists, but merely guessed at. No one can excuse you from them, any more than they may excuse you from the laws of gravity, regardless of how unfair they are in either case. (No One Can Exempt You From Rationality’s Laws)

When you have a cherished belief, ask yourself what you would do, assuming that it was false. Visualise the world in which it is false, without challenging that assumption. Answering this grants yourself a line of retreat– a calm, tolerable path forward- enabling you to consider the question. (Leave A Line Of Retreat)

When you are invested heavily and emotionally in a long-lived belief which is surrounded by arguments and refutations, it can be desirable to attempt to instigate a real crisis of faith about it, one that could go either way, as it will take more than an ordinary effort to displace if false. (Crisis Of Faith, The Ritual)

(Continue with “The Machine In The Ghost”)


A Whirlwind Tour of LW Rationality: 6 Books in 32 Pages – Map And Territory

(Back to Introduction)

Map and Territory A: Predictably Wrong

Epistemic rationality is using new evidence to improve the correspondence between your mental map and the world. Instrumental rationality is effectively accomplishing your goals. (What Do We Mean By Rationality?)

Rationality does not conflict with having strong feelings about true aspects of the world. (Feeling Rational)

Epistemic rationality is useful if you are curious, if you want to be effective, or if you regard it as a moral duty, the last of which can be problematic. (Why Truth? And…) A bias is an obstacle to epistemic rationality produced by the ‘shape’ of our mental machinery. We should be concerned about any obstacle. (…What’s A Bias, Again?)

We use an availability heuristic to judge the probability of something by how easily examples of it come to mind. This is imperfect, creating the availability bias. Selective reporting is a major cause. (Availability)

We use a judgement of representativeness to judge the probability of something by how typical it sounds. This suffers from the conjunctive bias, where adding more details increases perceived probability. (Burdensome Details)

We tend to examine only the scenario where things go according to plan. This suffers from the planning fallacy, in which difficulties and delays are underestimated. (Planning Fallacy)

We use our own understanding of words to evaluate how others will understand them. This underestimates differences in interpretation, leading to the illusion of transparency. (Illusion Of Transparency: Why No One Understands You)

Inferential distance is the amount of explanation needed to communicate one person’s reasoning to another. We routinely underestimate it. This is because our background knowledge differs a lot more now than it used to in the past. (Expecting Short Inferential Distances)

A metaphor for the human brain is a flawed lens that can see its own flaws. (The Lens That Sees Its Flaws)

Map and Territory B: Fake Beliefs

A belief should be something that tells you what you expect to see; it should be an anticipation-controller. (Making Beliefs Pay Rent (In Anticipated Experiences))

Taking on a belief can acquire social implications, and this results in a variety of compromises to truth seeking. (A Fable Of Science And Politics) It is possible to believe you have a belief while still truly expecting to see the opposite; this is belief-in-belief. (Belief In Belief, Bayesian Judo) Holding a neutral position on a question is a position on it like any other. (Pretending To Be Wise)

Religious claims to be non-disprovable metaphor are a socially-motivated backdown from what were originally beliefs about the world, with claims to ethical authority remaining because they have not become socially disadvantageous. (Religion’s Claim To Be Non-Disprovable) At other times, we can see socially-motivated claims of extreme beliefs, as a way to cheer for something. (Professing And Cheering)

Belief as attire is belief that is professed in order to show membership of a group. (Belief As Attire)

Some statements exist simply to tell the audience to applaud and do not actually express any belief; we call these applause lights. (Applause Lights)

Map and Territory C: Noticing Confusion

When uncertain, we want to focus our anticipation into the outcome which will actually happen as much as possible. (Focus Your Uncertainty)

It means exactly what you think it means for a statement to be true. Evidence is an event, entangled by cause and effect, with what you want to know about. Things that react to that event can become entangled with what you want to know about in turn. Beliefs should be determined in a way that makes them entangled, as this is what makes them accurate. You must be conceivably able to believe otherwise given different observations. (What Is Evidence?)

Scientific evidence and legal evidence are subsets of rational evidence. (Scientific Evidence, Legal Evidence, Rational Evidence)

The amount of entanglement needed to justify a strong belief depends on how improbable the hypothesis was to begin with, which is related to the number of possible hypotheses. (How Much Evidence Does It Take?, Einstein’s Arrogance)

Occam’s Razor is the principle that the correct explanation is the simplest that fits the facts. The simplest explanation must be defined as the shortest length it takes to fully specify a program that simulates the explanation/a universe that performs the explanation rather than English sentence length. Solomonoff Induction is a formalisation of this; one variant predicts sequences by assigning a base probability to programs of 2-<bit length> and then weights based on how their predictions fit. This definition reduces probability of an explanation equally to the extent to which it simply embeds a copy of the observations, and only so rewards explanations which are compressed relative to the observations. (Occam’s Razor)

Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to notice confusion; your sense that your explanation feels forced. (Your Strength As A Rationalist)

Absence of evidence is evidence of absence. If something being present increases your probability of a claim being true, then its absence must decrease it, in amounts depending on how likely the presence was in either case. (Absence Of Evidence Is Evidence Of Absence) There is conservation of expected evidence. (Conservation Of Expected Evidence)

We have a hindsight bias which makes us think we already believed something when we read it. (Hindsight Devalues Science)

Map and Territory D: Mysterious Answers

A fake explanation is an explanation that can explain any observation. (Fake Explanations) Using scientific-sounding words in one is using science as attire, and not actually adhering to science. (Science As Attire) After seeing a thing happen, we tend to come up with explanations for how it was caused by a phenomenon, even when we couldn’t have predicted it ahead of time from our knowledge of that phenomenon. This is fake causality and made hard to notice by the hindsight bias. The hindsight bias is caused by failing to exclude the evidence we get from seeing a claim when evaluating how likely we thought it was before we saw it. (Fake Causality)

Positive bias is attempting to confirm rather than disconfirm theories, which fails to properly test them. (Positive Bias: Look Into The Dark)

There is a normal human behaviour when asked to proffer an explanation where we pull out phrases and offer them without a coherent model. We call this guessing the teacher’s password. (Guessing The Teacher’s Password) A good way to examine whether you truly understand a fact rather than have it memorised as a password answer is to ask whether you could regenerate it if forgotten. (Truly Part Of You)

It is not necessary to counter irrationality with irrationality, or randomness with randomness, despite this being the intuitive thing to do as a human. (Lawful Uncertainty)

A fake explanation often serves as a sign to end further examination despite containing no real understanding, in which case it is a semantic stopsign or curiosity-stopper. (Semantic Stopsigns) We should not expect answers to be ‘mysterious’, even for ‘mysterious questions’, such as the cause of fire or life. (Mysterious Answers To Mysterious Questions)  Any time humans encounter a phenomenon, they can choose to try to explain it, worship it, or ignore it. (Explain/Worship/Ignore?)

The term ‘emergence’ is a contemporary fake explanation and semantic stopsign. (The Futility Of Emergence) The word ‘complexity’ in the sense of a desired addition can also be so. It is tempting to assign fake explanations to mysterious parts when trying to understand something. This must be resisted. (Say Not Complexity)

Eliezer failed at this in his earlier days, despite knowing to reject the standard ‘fake explanations’; it takes a lot of improvement to not simply find new, interesting mistakes instead of the old ones. (My Wild And Reckless Youth) Solving a mystery should make it feel less confusing, but it is difficult to learn what believing the old fake explanations felt like to recognise new ones. (Failing To Learn From History) Trying to visualise believing in ideas like “elan vital”, without being able to immediately see your error, may help. (Making History Available)

Explanations like ‘Science’ can serve as curiosity-stoppers, by telling us that someone else knows the answer. (“Science” As Curiosity-Stopper)

(Continue with “How To Actually Change Your Mind”)


A Whirlwind Tour of LW Rationality: 6 Books in 32 Pages – Introduction

(Base PDF Version, Current Version 1.0.0, 32 page count does not include the title and introduction.)

(Single Page Edition of this document)

(Feedback very welcome; I’m not the best writer, and contributions from anyone who has better ways to phrase things or even wants to rewrite entire sections are very welcome and I’d be happy to credit them. The best approach is probably to add comments to the source Google Document, or email me if you want to clear a larger bit of work before starting. The email address is “john”, at this website’s domain, excluding the subdomain.)

This is an attempt to summarise the propositions of the online ‘rationalist’ community, originally centred around Overcoming Bias and LessWrong, now largely dispersed to various communities and organisations like Slatestarcodex, the Center for Applied Rationality, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Effective Altruism movement, amongst others.

I have held off on writing this in the past out of a suspicion that I would not do it justice, but have decided that it is better done badly than not at all. My apologies to Eliezer Yudkowsky for mangling their work. I have reservations in parts, but I agree with or find it plausible in gist.

The structure is that of a whirlwind tour, with little narrative beyond ordering of the propositions, with citations to the source post for each, to permit drilling down into interesting or contentious parts and reading existing critique by the community.

This is to enable useful examination of the ideas and their assumptions by people who have things to do other than reading millions of words on the topic, to permit those who have picked up ideas from the community to see their surrounding context and related ideas, and to serve as an index to enable those who disagree to identify their points of departure.

Hurrying Along, What Is “LW Rationality”?

  • An empiricist, methodologically reductionist, materialist, atheist set of beliefs about epistemology, decision theory, cognition in general, and human cognition in particular, with proposed limitations and common errors resulting from the use of imperfect heuristics.
  • A set of beliefs about how reductionism and materialism are grounded in epistemology.
  • A set of beliefs about human values, in particular the belief that our true preferences are consequentialist, and that we pursuit our preferences ineffectively.
  • A partial set of strategies for mitigating or avoiding proposed errors in human cognition.
  • A very partial set of strategies for more effectively achieving our values.
  • A coined jargon of labels for these beliefs, limitations, errors, and strategies, used to reference them quickly and debate them and their further implications.

So, roughly a mixture of analytic philosophy and pop cognitive science. The basic attitude to human cognition is that of Kanheman’s Thinking Fast And Slow, which I recommend. The consensus reference to LW rationality itself is Eliezer Yudkowsky’s core Sequences, blog posts with examples and stories of a transhumanist, speculative flavour. They have since been collected into the book Rationality: AI to Zombies, which is available for free and is the best place to start if seeking a fuller understanding of the propositions here. A description of how it compares to and connects with academia, with references to related works and research, was written by lukeprog.

Some parts of these are relatively well accepted; others proved controversial with the community. The tour follows, roughly a page per sequence, using the book’s ordering of the sequences.

(Continue with “Map And Territory”)


A Whirlwind Tour of LW Rationality: 6 Books in 32 Pages – Single Page Edition

(Base PDF Version, Current Version 1.0.0, 32 page count does not include the title and introduction.)

(Split Version of this tour, spread over seven shorter posts, for people who don’t like scrolling or want to be able to more easily link to parts of it)

(Feedback very welcome; I’m not the best writer, and contributions from anyone who has better ways to phrase things or even wants to rewrite entire sections are very welcome and I’d be happy to credit them. The best approach is probably to add comments to the source Google Document, or email me if you want to clear a larger bit of work before starting. The email address is “john”, at this website’s domain, excluding the subdomain.)

This is an attempt to summarise the propositions of the online ‘rationalist’ community, originally centred around Overcoming Bias and LessWrong, now largely dispersed to various communities and organisations like Slatestarcodex, the Center for Applied Rationality, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Effective Altruism movement, amongst others.

I have held off on writing this in the past out of a suspicion that I would not do it justice, but have decided that it is better done badly than not at all. My apologies to Eliezer Yudkowsky for mangling their work. I have reservations in parts, but I agree with or find it plausible in gist.

The structure is that of a whirlwind tour, with little narrative beyond ordering of the propositions, with citations to the source post for each, to permit drilling down into interesting or contentious parts and reading existing critique by the community.

This is to enable useful examination of the ideas and their assumptions by people who have things to do other than reading millions of words on the topic, to permit those who have picked up ideas from the community to see their surrounding context and related ideas, and to serve as an index to enable those who disagree to identify their points of departure.

Hurrying Along, What Is “LW Rationality”?

  • An empiricist, methodologically reductionist, materialist, atheist set of beliefs about epistemology, decision theory, cognition in general, and human cognition in particular, with proposed limitations and common errors resulting from the use of imperfect heuristics.
  • A set of beliefs about how reductionism and materialism are grounded in epistemology.
  • A set of beliefs about human values, in particular the belief that our true preferences are consequentialist, and that we pursuit our preferences ineffectively.
  • A partial set of strategies for mitigating or avoiding proposed errors in human cognition.
  • A very partial set of strategies for more effectively achieving our values.
  • A coined jargon of labels for these beliefs, limitations, errors, and strategies, used to reference them quickly and debate them and their further implications.

So, roughly a mixture of analytic philosophy and pop cognitive science. The basic attitude to human cognition is that of Kanheman’s Thinking Fast And Slow, which I recommend. The consensus reference to LW rationality itself is Eliezer Yudkowsky’s core Sequences, blog posts with examples and stories of a transhumanist, speculative flavour. They have since been collected into the book Rationality: AI to Zombies, which is available for free and is the best place to start if seeking a fuller understanding of the propositions here. A description of how it compares to and connects with academia, with references to related works and research, was written by lukeprog.

Some parts of these are relatively well accepted; others proved controversial with the community. The tour follows, roughly a page per sequence, using the book’s ordering of the sequences.

Map and Territory A: Predictably Wrong

Epistemic rationality is using new evidence to improve the correspondence between your mental map and the world. Instrumental rationality is effectively accomplishing your goals. (What Do We Mean By Rationality?)

Rationality does not conflict with having strong feelings about true aspects of the world. (Feeling Rational)

Epistemic rationality is useful if you are curious, if you want to be effective, or if you regard it as a moral duty, the last of which can be problematic. (Why Truth? And…) A bias is an obstacle to epistemic rationality produced by the ‘shape’ of our mental machinery. We should be concerned about any obstacle. (…What’s A Bias, Again?)

We use an availability heuristic to judge the probability of something by how easily examples of it come to mind. This is imperfect, creating the availability bias. Selective reporting is a major cause. (Availability)

We use a judgement of representativeness to judge the probability of something by how typical it sounds. This suffers from the conjunctive bias, where adding more details increases perceived probability. (Burdensome Details)

We tend to examine only the scenario where things go according to plan. This suffers from the planning fallacy, in which difficulties and delays are underestimated. (Planning Fallacy)

We use our own understanding of words to evaluate how others will understand them. This underestimates differences in interpretation, leading to the illusion of transparency. (Illusion Of Transparency: Why No One Understands You)

Inferential distance is the amount of explanation needed to communicate one person’s reasoning to another. We routinely underestimate it. This is because our background knowledge differs a lot more now than it used to in the past. (Expecting Short Inferential Distances)

A metaphor for the human brain is a flawed lens that can see its own flaws. (The Lens That Sees Its Flaws)

Map and Territory B: Fake Beliefs

A belief should be something that tells you what you expect to see; it should be an anticipation-controller. (Making Beliefs Pay Rent (In Anticipated Experiences))

Taking on a belief can acquire social implications, and this results in a variety of compromises to truth seeking. (A Fable Of Science And Politics) It is possible to believe you have a belief while still truly expecting to see the opposite; this is belief-in-belief. (Belief In Belief, Bayesian Judo) Holding a neutral position on a question is a position on it like any other. (Pretending To Be Wise)

Religious claims to be non-disprovable metaphor are a socially-motivated backdown from what were originally beliefs about the world, with claims to ethical authority remaining because they have not become socially disadvantageous. (Religion’s Claim To Be Non-Disprovable) At other times, we can see socially-motivated claims of extreme beliefs, as a way to cheer for something. (Professing And Cheering)

Belief as attire is belief that is professed in order to show membership of a group. (Belief As Attire)

Some statements exist simply to tell the audience to applaud and do not actually express any belief; we call these applause lights. (Applause Lights)

Map and Territory C: Noticing Confusion

When uncertain, we want to focus our anticipation into the outcome which will actually happen as much as possible. (Focus Your Uncertainty)

It means exactly what you think it means for a statement to be true. Evidence is an event, entangled by cause and effect, with what you want to know about. Things that react to that event can become entangled with what you want to know about in turn. Beliefs should be determined in a way that makes them entangled, as this is what makes them accurate. You must be conceivably able to believe otherwise given different observations. (What Is Evidence?)

Scientific evidence and legal evidence are subsets of rational evidence. (Scientific Evidence, Legal Evidence, Rational Evidence)

The amount of entanglement needed to justify a strong belief depends on how improbable the hypothesis was to begin with, which is related to the number of possible hypotheses. (How Much Evidence Does It Take?, Einstein’s Arrogance)

Occam’s Razor is the principle that the correct explanation is the simplest that fits the facts. The simplest explanation must be defined as the shortest length it takes to fully specify a program that simulates the explanation/a universe that performs the explanation rather than English sentence length. Solomonoff Induction is a formalisation of this; one variant predicts sequences by assigning a base probability to programs of 2-<bit length> and then weights based on how their predictions fit. This definition reduces probability of an explanation equally to the extent to which it simply embeds a copy of the observations, and only so rewards explanations which are compressed relative to the observations. (Occam’s Razor)

Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to notice confusion; your sense that your explanation feels forced. (Your Strength As A Rationalist)

Absence of evidence is evidence of absence. If something being present increases your probability of a claim being true, then its absence must decrease it, in amounts depending on how likely the presence was in either case. (Absence Of Evidence Is Evidence Of Absence) There is conservation of expected evidence. (Conservation Of Expected Evidence)

We have a hindsight bias which makes us think we already believed something when we read it. (Hindsight Devalues Science)

Map and Territory D: Mysterious Answers

A fake explanation is an explanation that can explain any observation. (Fake Explanations) Using scientific-sounding words in one is using science as attire, and not actually adhering to science. (Science As Attire) After seeing a thing happen, we tend to come up with explanations for how it was caused by a phenomenon, even when we couldn’t have predicted it ahead of time from our knowledge of that phenomenon. This is fake causality and made hard to notice by the hindsight bias. The hindsight bias is caused by failing to exclude the evidence we get from seeing a claim when evaluating how likely we thought it was before we saw it. (Fake Causality)

Positive bias is attempting to confirm rather than disconfirm theories, which fails to properly test them. (Positive Bias: Look Into The Dark)

There is a normal human behaviour when asked to proffer an explanation where we pull out phrases and offer them without a coherent model. We call this guessing the teacher’s password. (Guessing The Teacher’s Password) A good way to examine whether you truly understand a fact rather than have it memorised as a password answer is to ask whether you could regenerate it if forgotten. (Truly Part Of You)

It is not necessary to counter irrationality with irrationality, or randomness with randomness, despite this being the intuitive thing to do as a human. (Lawful Uncertainty)

A fake explanation often serves as a sign to end further examination despite containing no real understanding, in which case it is a semantic stopsign or curiosity-stopper. (Semantic Stopsigns) We should not expect answers to be ‘mysterious’, even for ‘mysterious questions’, such as the cause of fire or life. (Mysterious Answers To Mysterious Questions)  Any time humans encounter a phenomenon, they can choose to try to explain it, worship it, or ignore it. (Explain/Worship/Ignore?)

The term ‘emergence’ is a contemporary fake explanation and semantic stopsign. (The Futility Of Emergence) The word ‘complexity’ in the sense of a desired addition can also be so. It is tempting to assign fake explanations to mysterious parts when trying to understand something. This must be resisted. (Say Not Complexity)

Eliezer failed at this in his earlier days, despite knowing to reject the standard ‘fake explanations’; it takes a lot of improvement to not simply find new, interesting mistakes instead of the old ones. (My Wild And Reckless Youth) Solving a mystery should make it feel less confusing, but it is difficult to learn what believing the old fake explanations felt like to recognise new ones. (Failing To Learn From History) Trying to visualise believing in ideas like “elan vital”, without being able to immediately see your error, may help. (Making History Available)

Explanations like ‘Science’ can serve as curiosity-stoppers, by telling us that someone else knows the answer. (“Science” As Curiosity-Stopper)

How To Actually Change Your Mind E: Overly Convenient Excuses

Humility is a complicated virtue, and we should judge it by whether applying it makes us stronger or weaker, and by whether it is an excuse to shrug. To be correctly humble is to take action in anticipation of one’s own errors. (The Proper Use Of Humility)

A package deal fallacy is where you assume things traditionally grouped together must always be so. A false dilemma is presenting only two options where more exist. Justifications for noble lies are usually one of the two; it is preferable to seek a third alternative, which may be less convenient. (The Third Alternative)

Human hope is limited and valuable, and the likes of lotteries waste it. (Lotteries: A Waste Of Hope, New Improved Lottery) There is a bias in which extremely tiny chances are treated as more than tiny in implication, and justify proclaiming belief in them. There is a tendency to arbitrarily choose to ‘believe’ or not believe a thing rather than reacting to probabilities. (But There’s Still A Chance, Right?)

The fallacy of grey is to regard all imperfection and all uncertainty as equal. Wrong is relative. (The Fallacy Of Grey) There is a sizeable inferential distance from thinking of knowledge as absolutely true to understanding knowledge as probabilistic. (Absolute Authority) Eliezer says he would be convinced that 2 + 2 = 3 by the same processes that convinced him that 2 + 2 = 4; a combination of physical observation, mental visualization, and social agreement, such as observing that putting two more objects down beside two objects produced three objects. (How To Convince Me That 2+2=3)

Because of how evidence works, a probability of 100% or 0% corresponds to infinite certainty, and requires infinite evidence to correctly attain. As a result it is always incorrect. (Infinite Certainty) 0 and 1 are [in a sense] not probabilities. (0 And 1 Are Not Probabilities)

It is reasonable to care how other humans think, as part of caring about how the future and present look. This is somewhat dangerous, and so must be tempered by a solid commitment to respond to bad thinking only with argument. (Your Rationality Is My Business)

How To Actually Change Your Mind F: Politics and Rationality

Politics is the mind-killer. People cannot think clearly about politics close to them. In politics, arguments are soldiers. When giving examples, it is tempting to use contemporary politics. Avoid this if possible. If you are discussing something innately political, use an example from historic politics with minimal contemporary implications if possible. (Politics Is The Mind-Killer)

Policy debates should not appear one-sided. Actions with many consequences should not be expected to have exclusively positive or negative consequences. If they appear to, this is normally the result of bias. They may legitimately have lopsided costs and benefits. (Policy Debates Should Not Appear One-Sided)

Humans tend to treat debates as a contest between two sides, where any weakness in one side is a gain to the other and visa versa, and whoever wins is correct on everything and whoever loses is wrong on everything. This is correct behaviour for a single, strictly binary question, but an error for any more complicated debate. (The Scales Of Justice, The Notebook Of Rationality)

The fundamental attribution error is a tendency in people to overly attribute the actions of others to innate traits, while overly attributing their own actions to circumstance as opposed to differences in themselves. Most people see themselves as normal. (Correspondence Bias) Even your worst enemies are not innately evil, and usually view themselves as the heroes of their own story. (Are Your Enemies Innately Evil?)

Stupidity causes more random beliefs, not reliably wrong ones, so reversing the beliefs of the foolish does not create correct beliefs; reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Foolish people disagreeing does not mean that you are correct. (Reversed Stupidity Is Not Intelligence)

Authority can be a useful guide to truth before you’ve heard arguments, but is not so after arguments. (Argument Screens Off Authority) The more distant from the specific question evidence is, the weaker it is. You should try to answer questions using direct evidence- hug the query. Otherwise learning abstract arguments, including about biases, can make you less rather than more accurate. (Hug The Query)

Speakers may manipulate their phrasing to alter what aspects of a situation are noticed. (Rationality And The English Language) Simplifying language interferes with this, and allows you to recognise errors in your own speech. (Human Evil And Muddled Thinking)

How To Actually Change Your Mind G: Against Rationalization

Because humans are irrational to start with, more knowledge can hurt you. Knowledge of biases gives you ammunition to use against arguments, including knowledge of this one. (Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People)

Expect occasional opposing evidence for any imperfectly exact model. You should not look for reasons to reject it, but update incrementally as it suggests. If your model is good, you will see evidence supporting it soon. (Update Yourself Incrementally) You should not decide what direction to change your opinion in by comparing new evidence to old arguments; this double-counts evidence. (One Argument Against An Army)

The sophistication with which you construct arguments does not improve your conclusions; that requires choosing what to argue in a manner that entangles your choice with the truth. (The Bottom Line)

Reaction to evidence that someone is filtering must include reacting to knowledge of the filtering. Knowing what is true can require looking at evidence from multiple parties. (What Evidence Filtered Evidence?)

Rationalization is determining your reasoning after your conclusion, and runs in the opposite direction to rationality. (Rationalization) You cannot create a rational argument this  way, whatever you cite. (A Rational Argument)

Humans tend to consider only the critiques of their position that they know they can defeat. (Avoiding Your Belief’s Real Weak Points) A motivated skeptic asks if the evidence compels them to believe; a motivated credulist asks if the evidence allows them to believe. Motivated stopping is ceasing the search for opposing evidence earlier when you agree, and motivated continuation is searching longer when you don’t. (Motivated Stopping And Motivated Continuation)

Fake justification is searching for a justification for a belief which is not the one which led you to originally hold it. (Fake Justification) Justifications for rejecting a proposition are often not the person’s true objection, which when dispelled would result in the proposition being accepted. (Is That Your True Rejection?)

Facts about reality are often entangled with each other. (Entangled Truths, Contagious Lies, Of Lies And Black Swan Blowups) Maintaining a false belief often requires other false beliefs, including deception about evidence and rationality themselves. (Dark Side Epistemology)

How To Actually Change Your Mind H: Against Doublethink

In doublethink, you forget then forget you have forgotten. In singlethink, you notice yourself forgetting an uncomfortable thought and recall it. (Singlethink)

If you watch the risks of doublethink enough to do it only when useful, you cannot do it. If you do not, you will do it where it harms you. Doublethink is either not an option or harmful. (Doublethink (Choosing To Be Biased))

The above on doublethink not be a dispassionate reporting of the facts; Eliezer admits that they may have been tempted into trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. They then say that it may be wise to at least tell yourself that you can’t self-deceive, so that you aren’t tempted to try. (Don’t Believe You’ll Self-Deceive)

It is possible to lead yourself to think you believe something without believing it. Believing that a belief is good can lead you to false belief-in-belief. (No, Really, I’ve Deceived MyselfBelief In Self-Deception) We often do not separate believing a belief from endorsing a belief. Belief-in-belief can create apparently contradictory beliefs. (Moore’s Paradox)

How To Actually Change Your Mind I: Seeing With Fresh Eyes

Anchoring is a behaviour in which we take a figure we’ve recently seen and adjust it to answer questions, making results depend on the initial anchor. A strategy for countering it might be to dwell on an alternative anchor if you notice an initial guess is implausible. (Anchoring And Adjustment)

Priming is an aspect of our brain’s architecture. Concepts related to ideas we’ve recently had in mind are recalled faster. This means that completely irrelevant observations influence estimates and decisions. This is known as contamination. It supports confirmation bias; having an idea in our head makes compatible ideas come to mind more easily, making us more receptive to confirming than disconfirming evidence for our beliefs. (Priming And Contamination)

Some evidence suggests that we tend to initially believe statements, then adjust to reject false ones. Being distracted makes us more likely to believe statements explicitly labeled as false. (Do We Believe Everything We’re Told?)

The hundred-step rule is the principle that because neurons in the human brain are slow, any hypothesised operation can be very parallel but must complete in under a hundred sequential neuron spikes. It is a good guess that human cognition consists mostly of cache lookups.

We incorporate the thoughts of others into this cache, and alone could not regenerate all the ideas we’ve collected in a single lifetime. We tend to incorporate and then repeat or act on cached thoughts without thinking about their source or credibility. (Cached Thoughts)

“Outside the box” thinking is a box of its own, and along with stated efforts at originality and subversive thinking follows predictable patterns; genuine originality requires thinking. (The “Outside The Box” Box) When a topic seems to have nothing to be said, it can mean we do not have any related cached thoughts, and find generating new ones difficult. (Original Seeing)

The events of history would sound extremely strange described to someone prior to them. (Stranger Than History) We tend to treat fiction as history which happened elsewhere. This causes us to favour hypotheses which fit into fun narratives, over other hypotheses that might be likely. (The Logical Fallacy Of Generalization From Fictional Evidence)

A model which connects all things contains the same information as a model that connects none. Information is contained in selectiveness about connections, and the more fine-grained this is the more information is contained. The virtue of narrowness is the definition and use of narrow terms and ideas rather than broad ones. (The Virtue Of Narrowness)

One may sound deep by coherently expressing cached thoughts that the listener hasn’t heard yet. One may be deep by attempting to see for yourself rather than following standard patterns. (How To Seem And Be Deep)

We change our mind less often than we think, and are resistant to it. A technique to mitigate against this is to hold off on proposing solutions as long as possible. (We Change Our Minds Less Often Than We Think, Hold Off On Proposing Solutions)

Because of confirmation bias, we should be suspicious of ideas that originally came from sources whose output was not entangled with the truth. However, to disregard other evidence entirely in favour of judging the original source would be the genetic fallacy. (The Genetic Fallacy)

How To Actually Change Your Mind J: Death Spirals and the Cult Attractor

The affect heuristic is when subjective impressions of goodness/badness act as a heuristic. It causes the manner in which a problem is stated and irrelevant aspects of a situation to change the decisions we make. (The Affect Heuristic) The halo effect is this applied to people; when our subjective impression of a person in one regard, such as appearance, alters our judgement of them in others. (The Halo Effect)

We overestimate the altruism of those who run less risk compared to those who run more, and attribute less virtue to people who are generous for lesser as well as greater need. (Superhero Bias) We lionize messiahs for whom doing great things is easy over those for whom it is hard. (Mere Messiahs)

We tend to evaluate things against nearby points of comparison. (Evaluability And Cheap Holiday Shopping) When we lack a bounded scale to put our estimates within, we make one up, inconsistently between people. (Unbounded Scales, Huge Jury Awards, And Futurism)

An affective death spiral is a scenario in which a strong positive impression assigned to one idea causes us to improve our impressions of related ideas, which we then treat as confirmation of the original idea in a self-sustaining cycle. (Affective Death Spirals) We can diminish the effect of positive impressions enough to prevent this by splitting big ideas into smaller ones we treat independently, reminding ourselves of the conjunctive bias and considering each additional claim to be a burdensome detail, and following the suggestions in the Against Rationalization sequence. (Resist The Happy Death Spiral)

Considering it morally wrong to criticise an idea accelerates an affective death spiral. (Uncritical SupercriticalityEvaporative cooling of group beliefs is a scenario in which as a group becomes more extreme, moderates leave, and as they are no longer acting as a brake, the group becomes yet more extreme, in a cycle. This is another reason why tolerating dissent is important. (Evaporative Cooling Of Group Beliefs)

A spiral of hate is the mirror image of an affective death spiral, in which a strong negative impression of a thing causes us to believe related negative ideas, which we then treat as strengthening the original impression. You can correspondingly observe it become morally wrong to urge restraint or to object to a criticism. It, too, leads to poor choice of action. (When None Dare Urge Restraint)

Humans, once divided into opposing groups, will naturally form positive and negative stereotypes of the two groups and engage in conflict. (The Robbers Cave Experiment) Every cause has a natural tendency for its supporters to become focused on defending their group, even if they declare ‘rationality’ to be their goal. (Every Cause Wants To Be A Cult)

Beware being primarily a guardian of the truth rather than primarily a seeker of it. (Guardians Of The Truth) The Nazis can be understood as would-be guardians of the gene pool. (Guardians Of The Gene Pool)

There are things we know now which earlier generations could not have known, which means that from our perspective we should expect elementary errors even in our historic geniuses. This is a defining attribute of scientific disciplines. It feels unfair to consider things they could not have known to be flaws in their ideas, but nevertheless they are. It is foolish to declare a system of ideas to be closed to further development. We already have examples of people who declared themselves to be about being Rational who fell into that trap in history. (Guardians Of Ayn Rand)

Two ideas for countering a tendency towards affective death spirals around a group are to prefer using and describing techniques over citing authority, and to deliberately look foolish to reduce the positive affect you give to the techniques you describe, so they are judged on their own merits. (Two Cult Koans)

We tend to conform to the beliefs of those around us, and are especially inclined to avoid being the first dissenter, for social reasons. Being the first dissenter is thus a valuable service. (Asch’s Conformity Experiment) It can be correct if you do not believe you have any special advantage to believe that the majority opinion is more likely to be the true one, but it remains important to express your concerns . Doing so is  generally just as socially discouraged as outright disagreement. (On Expressing Your Concerns)

Lonely dissent is often just a role people play in defined patterns. When it is real, it requires bearing the incomprehension of the people around you and discussing ideas that are not forbidden but outside bounds which aren’t even thought about. Doing this without a single other person is terrifying. Being different for its own sake is a bias like any other. (Lonely Dissent)

Cults vary from sincere but deluded and expensive groups, to “love bombing”, sleep deprivation, induced fatigue, distant communes, and daily meetings to confess impure thoughts. Lists of cult characteristics include things which describe other organisations, like political parties and corporations. The true defining aspect is the affective death spiral, which should be fought in any group, and judged independently of how weird the group is in other respects. (Cultish Countercultishness)

How To Actually Change Your Mind K: Letting Go

If we only admit small, local errors, we only make small, local improvements. Big improvements require admitting big errors. Rather than grudgingly admitting the smallest errors possible, be willing to consider that you may have made fundamental mistakes. (The Importance Of Saying “Oops”)

Reinterpreting your mistakes to make it so that you were right ‘deep down’, or morally right, or half-right, avoids the opportunity to see large errors in the route you are on and adjust. (The Crackpot Offer) Being ready to admit you lost lets you avoid turning small mistakes into bigger ones. (Just Lose Hope Already)

A doubt exists to potentially destroy a particular belief, on the basis of some specific justification. A doubt that fails to either be destroyed or destroy its belief may as well not have existed at all. Wearing doubts as attire does not make you more rational. (The Proper Use Of Doubt)

You can face reality. What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it any worse. (You Can Face Reality)

Criticising yourself from a sense of duty leaves you wanting to have investigated, not wanting to investigate. This leads to motivated stopping. There is no substitute for genuine curiosity, so attempt to cultivate it. Conservation of expected evidence means any process you think may confirm your beliefs you must also think may disconfirm them. If you do not, ask whether you are looking at only the strong points of your belief. (The Meditation On Curiosity)

The laws governing evidence and belief are not social, but aspects of reality. They are not created by rationalists, but merely guessed at. No one can excuse you from them, any more than they may excuse you from the laws of gravity, regardless of how unfair they are in either case. (No One Can Exempt You From Rationality’s Laws)

When you have a cherished belief, ask yourself what you would do, assuming that it was false. Visualise the world in which it is false, without challenging that assumption. Answering this grants yourself a line of retreat– a calm, tolerable path forward- enabling you to consider the question. (Leave A Line Of Retreat)

When you are invested heavily and emotionally in a long-lived belief which is surrounded by arguments and refutations, it can be desirable to attempt to instigate a real crisis of faith about it, one that could go either way, as it will take more than an ordinary effort to displace if false. (Crisis Of Faith, The Ritual)

The Machine In The Ghost L: The Simple Math of Evolution

There are things which look purposeful in nature, which people historically treated as evidence of a designer. If you look at them without cherrypicking, you find parts which appear to be working at odds with other parts, inconsistent with the purposefulness you’d expect from a single designer. Similarly, you find a lot of the purposefulness seems cruel, inconsistent with benevolent design.

If evolution were able to explain anything, it would be useless. Evolution is consistent only with the kind of purposefulness which propagates a gene, with no filtering for kindness or any other kind of purposefulness. This is the kind of alien purposefulness we observe in nature. (An Alien God)

Evolution works incrementally. (The Wonder Of Evolution) Evolution is slow; a mutation multiplying the expected number of children by 1.03 has a 6% chance of reaching fixation, and takes an average of 768 generations to reach universality within a population of 100,000. The general formulae are 2 s for the chance of fixation, and 2 ln(N) / s for number of generations, where N is the population size, and s is the multiplier minus 1. Complex mutations take a very long time, as each step must reach fixation. (Evolutions Are Stupid (But Work Anyway))

Price’s Equation is a very general equation stating that the change in average characteristic is equal to the covariance of the characteristic and relative fitness. It operates only to the extent that characteristics are heritable across the generations. If characteristics aren’t passed down more than a few generations, you will only ever observe a few generations’ worth of selective pressure.

This means corporations do not significantly benefit from evolution. Similar for nanodevices with cryptographically protected replication instructions, as few changes would have high covariance. (No Evolutions For Corporations Or Nanodevices)

Selection being concerned only with competition between genes means genes that are better for the species can be outcompeted. Successful genes could make all descendants male, recursively, exist only to copy themselves, or cause the bystander effect. It is possible to evolve to extinction. (Evolving To Extinction)

Group selection overriding individual selection is generally mathematically implausible and was used to rationalise beliefs that outcomes would be what was better-for-the-species. (The Tragedy Of Group Selectionism)

Humans are very good at arguing that almost any optimisation criteria suggests almost any policy. Evolution is one of the few cases where we can examine what actually optimising for specific criteria with no rationalisation or bias would look like, in order to understand what that looks like. (Fake Optimization Criteria)

We don’t consciously have the deliberate goal of optimising for our genes’ genetic fitness; it was not genetically fit for that goal to be encoded in us. We are adaptation-executors, not fitness maximisers. (Adaption-Executers Not Fitness-Maximizers, Evolutionary Psychology) We want to optimise for other things. (Thou Art Godshatter)

Our psychological adaptations are tuned for success in the evolutionary environment. (An Especially Elegant Evpsych Experiment) The modern world contains things that match our desires more strongly than anything in the evolutionary environment. We call these superstimuli, and they may cause perverse behaviour. (Superstimuli And The Collapse Of Western Civilization)

The Machine In The Ghost M: Fragile Purposes

When observing an intelligent process, you can be certain about the expected end state while being uncertain about intermediary steps. This is because intelligence is an optimisation process. (Belief In Intelligence) We normally model intelligence by simulating it with our brain, and assume something analogous to our emotional architecture. This doesn’t work well for non-human intelligence. (Humans In Funny Suits)

Optimisation processes can find very small targets in large search spaces. Natural selection emerged accidentally, and is slow and stupid. Human brains are much better. Neither optimisation process is able to optimise itself. We could design an AI to do so. If the process did not require exponentially more optimisation power applied for each increase in optimisation power out, and the initial intelligence was sufficient, optimisation power could rise exponentially over time. (Optimization And The Singularity)

People tend to think of programming computers as if they contain a little ghost which reads and performs abstract instructions. Your instructions define the entirety of the logic performed. If you do not know how to define something in terms you can program, you cannot reference it. Conversely, there is no additional entity capable of deciding to not do what you defined. (Ghosts In The Machine) When we find a confusing gap in our knowledge, we should try to fill it rather than reason around it. (Artificial Addition)

Terminal values are ends, instrumental values are means. (Terminal Values And Instrumental Values) Any generalisations at the macroscopic level will have exceptions; they will be leaky abstractions. This extends to instrumental values. (Leaky Generalizations) We must make any sufficiently powerful and intelligent optimisation process optimise for our terminal values, as optimising for a described instrumental value may powerfully optimise for an easy exception we didn’t think of. (The Hidden Complexity Of Wishes)

Anthropomorphic optimism is where we expect non-human intelligent processes, such as natural selection, to choose a strategy that is one a human might choose, because we tend not to bring candidate strategies we know no person wants to the surface, and we’re good at rationalization. (Anthropomorphic Optimism)

Dysfunctional organisations incentivise many actions internally which are detached from any original purpose of the action, and this can be recognised. Civilisation in general does this. (Lost Purposes)

The Machine In The Ghost N: A Human’s Guide To Words

Statements are only entangled with reality if the process generating them made them so. (The Parable Of The Dagger)

The logical implications of a given definition of a word are the same in all conceivable universes, and so do not tell us anything about our universe. Correlations between attributes do, but only so far as observations and those correlations are reliable. (The Parable Of Hemlock)

If you define a word rigidly in terms of attributes, and then state that something is that word, you assert it has all those attributes. If you then go on to say say it thus has one of those attributes, you are simply repeating that assertion. The word only creates an illusion of inference. (Empty Labels)

If assigning a word a definition feels like it argues something, you may be making a hidden assertion of a connotation not in that definition. (Sneaking In Connotations) Alternatively, you may be incorrectly ignoring more direct evidence in favour of correlations between attributes represented by the words. (Arguing By Definition)

A concept is any rule for classifying things, and creates a category of things. The space of definable concepts is much larger than the space of describable things. We limit ourselves to relatively simple concepts in order to make their definition tractable. (Superexponential Conceptspace And Simple Words) Words are labels for concepts. (Words As Mental Paintbrush Handles)

Efficient communication uses shorter messages for common messages and longer messages for uncommon messages. We use shorter words for more common concepts and longer words for less common concepts. (Entropy And Short Codes) Creating a word defined by a list of attributes permits faster communication if and only if those attributes are correlated. Adding an uncorrelated attribute to a word means it takes more work to communicate accurately using that word than not using it, which will result in inaccurate communication. (Mutual Information And Density In Thingspace)

We automatically infer that the set of attributes that define a word are well correlated. We shouldn’t create definitions where that’s wrong. (Words As Hidden Inferences) Concepts can be misleading if they group things poorly. Using concepts that are similar to those used by others aids communication. (The Argument From Common Usage) Concepts dividing or excluding things on irrelevant criteria result in people assuming that there’s relevant differences correlated to those criteria. (Categorizing Has Consequences)

An intensional definition is a definition in terms of other words. An extensional definition is a definition provided by pointing at examples. The intension of a concept is the pattern in your brain that recognises it. The extension of a concept is everything matching that pattern. Neither type of definition fully describes its corresponding aspect.

Claiming that a concept with known extension includes a particular attribute ‘by definition’ hides the assertion that the things in its extension have that attribute. Claiming that a thing falls under a concept ‘by definition’ often hides the assertion that its attributes are typical of that concept. (Extensions And Intensions) Not all concept we have, have straightforward intensional definitions. Which concepts usefully divide the world is a question about the world. (Where To Draw The Boundary?)

You can think of any conceivable thing as described by a point in ‘thingspace’, whose dimensions include all possible attributes. Concepts describe clusters in thingspace. (The Cluster Structure Of Thingspace) These are similarity clusters. A dictionary is best thought as a set of hints for matching labels to these clusters. (Similarity Clusters) People regard some entities in these clusters as more or less typical of them. (Typicality And Asymmetric Similarity)

Asking if something ‘is’ in some category is a disguised query for whether it should be treated the way things in that category are treated, for some purpose. You may need to know that purpose to answer the question for atypical cases. (Disguised Queries)

You can reduce connections in a neural network design by introducing nodes for categories, then inferring attributes from categories and categories from attributes rather than all attributes from all other attributes. (Neural Categories) Our brain uses a structure like this. If only some attributes match a category, the way this feels from the inside is like there’s a permanently unresolved question of fact about whether the thing is ‘in’ or not ‘in’ the category, because the ‘node’ is unsettled. (How An Algorithm Feels From Inside)

Disputes over definitions are disputes over what cluster a given label points at, but feel like disputes over what properties the things in that cluster have. (Disputing Definitions) What intension is associated with what word feels like a fact about the wider world rather than just a fact about human brains. (Feel The Meaning)

If you are trying to discuss reality, and you find your meaning for a label differs from another person’s, you should taboo that concept and use others to communicate. (Taboo Your Words) You can also taboo concepts and try to describe the relevant parts of thingspace directly as an effective way to clarify anticipated experience and notice which aspects of the concepts are relevant. (Replace The Symbol With The Substance)

Our map of the world is necessarily smaller than the world, which means we necessarily must compress distinct things in reality into a single point in our map. From the inside, this feels like we’re observing only one thing, rather than that we’re observing multiple things and compressing them together. Noticing where splitting a category is necessary is a key challenge in reasoning about the world. A good hint is noticing a category with self-contradictory attributes. (Fallacies Of Compression) Correct statements about different things merged into a single point may be inconsistent with each other; this does not mean part of reality is inconsistent. (Variable Question Fallacies)

Two variables have mutual information if they are correlated, and are independent if not. Conditional independence is where mutual information is shared between three or more variables, and conditional on one of those variables, the other two become independent. Where we have mutual information between many possible attributes of a thing, we create concepts to represent mutual information between attributes, and then treat the attributes as conditionally independent once we know that something matches that concept, as a simplification.

If there is a great deal of mutual information remaining between attributes after knowing something matches a concept defined using those attributes, this is an error. (Conditional Independence And Naive Bayes)

Words can be defined wrongly, in many ways. (37 Ways That Words Can Be Wrong)

Mere Reality O: Lawful Truth

Apparently independent surface-level rules of reality follow from more basic common rules. This means you can’t have a consistent world in which some surface-level rules keep working for the same reasons they always worked and others don’t work. (Universal Fire)

The universe almost certainly runs on absolute laws with no exceptions, although we have a much greater degree of uncertainty as to what those laws are. This feels like an unreasonably uncompromising social move to people used to thinking about human or moral laws. (Universal Law)

Reality remains uncertain because we don’t know the laws, because it isn’t feasible to work out the exact consequences of the laws, and we don’t know which human in reality we will perceive ourselves as being. Reality is not fundamentally messy; only our perspective on it is. (Is Reality Ugly?)

Bayesian theorems are attractive because they’re laws, rather than because Bayesian methods are always the most practical tool. (Beautiful Probability) Mutual information is Bayesian evidence; anything which generates better than random beliefs must do so through processing Bayesian evidence. (Searching For Bayes-Structure)

A scientist who is not more selective in their beliefs outside the laboratory than a typical person has memorised rules to get by, but lacks understanding of what those rules mean. (Outside The Laboratory)

No part of a system can violate the first law of thermodynamics, conservation of energy, and so we reject systems claiming to. Liouville’s theorem says the space of possible states of a system is conserved; for any part whose state becomes more certain, another part becomes less certain.

The second law of thermodynamics, that total entropy cannot decrease, is a corollary. Maxwell’s demon is a hypothetical entity which lets only fast-moving gas molecules through a barrier without generating entropy, decreasing entropy. If you knew the state of the gas for free, you could create one. This means that knowing things about the universe without observing them and generating entropy in the process would be a violation of the second law of thermodynamics. (The Second Law Of Thermodynamics, And Engines Of Cognition)

When people try to justify something without evidence, they often construct theories complicated enough that they can make a mistake and miss it, similar to people designing perpetual motion machines. (Perpetual Motion Beliefs)

Mere Reality P: Reductionism 101

For some questions, we should, rather than trying to answer or prove them nonsensical, try to identify why we feel a question exists. The result should dissolve that feeling. (Dissolving The Question)

A cue that you’re dealing with a confused question is when you cannot imagine any observation that answers it. (Wrong Questions) One way forward is to ask “Why do I think <thing>?” rather than “Why <thing>?”. The new question will lead you to the entanglement of your beliefs with reality that generated the belief, if it is not confused, and an explanation of your mind otherwise. (Righting A Wrong Question)

The mind projection fallacy is treating properties of our perception of a thing as inherent attributes of it. (Mind Projection Fallacy) The probability of an event is a property of our perception, not the event. (Probability Is In The Mind) We call something chaotic when we can’t predict it, but miss that this is a fact about our ability to predict. This causes us to miss opportunities to improve. (Chaotic Inversion) Rather than viewing reality as weird, resist getting caught up in incredulity, and let intuition adjust to view reality as normal. (Think Like Reality)

Probability assignments are not well modelled as true or false, but as having a level of accuracy. Your beliefs about your own beliefs have different accuracy to those beliefs. Differing beliefs are only differing truths insofar as accurate statements about your own map differ; this is not accurate statements about reality differing between people, because the map is not the territory.  (Qualitatively Confused) The concept of a thing is not the same as the thing. If a person thinks a thing is two separate things, described by separate concepts, those concepts may differ despite referring to the same thing. (The Quotation is Not The Referent)

Reductionism is disbelief in a particular form of the mind projection fallacy. It is useful for us to use different models for different scales of reality, but this is an aspect of what is useful for us, not an aspect of the different scales of reality, and does not mean that they are governed differently. (Reductionism)

Explaining and explaining away are different. Non-fundamental things still exist. Explaining away something only removes it from the map; it was never in the territory. (Explaining Vs Explaining Away) A thing is only reduced if you know the explanation; knowing one exists only changes literary genre. (Fake Reductionism) We can tell human stories about humans. A non-anthropomorphic view of the world helps broader stories. (Savanna Poets)

Mere Reality Q: Joy In The Merely Real

You should be able to care about knowable, unmagical things. The alternative is existential ennui, because everything is knowable. (Joy In The Merely Real) Taking joy only in discovering something no one else knows makes joy scarce; instead, find joy in all discoveries. (Joy In Discovery)

By placing hope in and celebrating true things, you direct your emotions into reality rather than fiction. (Bind Yourself To Reality) If we lived in a world with magic, it would seem as mundane as science. If you can’t be excited by reality or put in great effort to change the world here, you wouldn’t there. (If You Demand Magic, Magic Won’t Help)

Many of our abilities, such as ‘vibratory telepathy’ (speech) and ‘psychometric tracing’ (writing) would be amazing magical powers if only a few had them. Even more so for the ‘Ultimate Power’; possessing a small imperfect echo of the universe, and searching through probability to find paths to a desired future. We shouldn’t think less of them for commonality. (Mundane Magic)

Settled science is as beautiful as new science. Textbooks will offer you careful explanations, examples, test problems, and likely true information. Pop science articles offer wrong explanations of results the author likely didn’t understand, and have a high chance of not replicating. You cannot understand the world if you only read science reporting. (The Beauty Of Settled Science, Amazing Breakthrough Day: April 1st)

Irreligious attempts to imitate religious trappings and hymns always suck. However, a sense of awe is not exclusive to religion. There are things which would have been a good idea even if religion had never existed to imitate that can be awe-inspiring, such as space shuttle launches. For those things, the awe remains when they are mundane and explained. (Is Humanism A Religion-Substitute?)

Things become more desirable as they become less attainable; this is scarcity. Similarly, forbidden information appears more important. When something is attained it stops being scarce, leading to frustration. (Scarcity) If Science was secret, it would become fascinating. (To Spread Science Keep It Secret, Initiation Ceremony)

Mysteriousness, faith, unique incommunicability, separation of domains, and experientialism shield from criticism, and declare the mundane boring. We shouldn’t have them. (The Sacred Mundane)

Mere Reality R: Physicalism 201

Concepts such as ‘your hand’, describe the same part of the world as lower level concepts, such as ‘your palm and fingers’. They do not vary independently, but still ‘exist’. (Hands Vs Fingers) Concepts such as ‘heat’ and ‘motion’, can also refer to the same thing, even if you can imagine a world where they refer to separate things. (Heat Vs Motion) Concepts note only that a cluster exists, and do not define it exactly. (Reductive Reference)

Understanding how higher-level things such as ‘anger’ are created by lower-level things requires discovering the explanation, not just assertion. (Angry Atoms) Rationality is not social rules; rationality is how our brain works. (A Priori) Reality is that which sometimes violates expectations and surprises you. (Reductive Reference again)

The brain is a complex organ made of neurons. (Brain Breakthrough! It’s Made Of Neurons!) Before we realised that thinking involved a complex organ, Animism was a reasonable error. (When Anthropomorphism Became Stupid) A proposed entity is supernatural if it is irreducibly complex. Because our brains are reducible, no set of expectations can require irreducible complexity, but some expectations make irreducibility more likely than others. (Excluding The Supernatural, Psychic Powers)

A zombie, in the philosophical sense, is a hypothetical being which looks and behaves exactly like a human, including talking about being conscious, but is not conscious. It is alleged that if it is a coherent hypothetical, consciousness must be extra-physical. It is not coherent if ‘process which causes talking about consciousness’ and ‘consciousness’ refer to the same part of the world. We should believe they do, because the alternative is more complex. (Zombies! Zombies?, Zombie Responses, Zombies: The Movie) It is correct to believe in unobservable things if and only if the most succinct model of reality predicts them. (Belief In The Implied Invisible)

The generalised anti-zombie principle is that any change we shouldn’t expect to change the reasons we talk about consciousness is one we should expect to leave us still conscious. (The Generalized Anti-Zombie Principle) Conceivably, one could replace a human with a giant look-up table (GLUT) which would seem to violate this principle, but the process which selected the GLUT to use would need to have been conscious and make all the same decision-making choices as you in doing so. (GAZP Vs GLUT)

Mere Reality S: Quantum Physics and Many Worlds

(This sequence is controversial; mean probability assigned to MWI was 56.5% in the 2011 survey)

Quantum mechanics is not intuitive; this is a flaw in intuition. (Quantum Explanations)

Reality is comprised of configurations with complex-valued amplitudes, and rules for calculating amplitude flows into other configurations. We cannot measure amplitudes directly, only the ratio of absolute squares of some configurations. (Configurations And Amplitude) You sum all amplitude flows into a configuration to get its amplitude. Amplitude flows that put the same types of particle in the same places flow into the same configuration, even if the particles came from different places. Which configurations are the same is observable fact. If amplitude flows have opposite sign, they can cancel out to zero. If either flow had been absent, the configuration would have had non-zero amplitude. (Joint Configurations)

A configuration is defined by all particles. If amplitude flows alter a particle’s state, then they cannot flow into the same configuration as amplitude flows which do not alter it. Thus, measuring amplitude flows stops them from flowing to the same configurations. (Distinct Configurations)

Collapse theories propose that at some point before a measurement reaches a human brain, there is a waveform collapse leaving only one random configuration with non-zero amplitude, discarding other amplitude flows. Many Worlds proposes that this doesn’t happen; configurations where we observe and don’t observe a measurement both exist with non-zero amplitude, too different from each other for their amplitude flows to flow into common configurations; we have macroscopic decoherence. Collapse would be very different to other physics. (Collapse Postulates) Living in multiple worlds is the same as living in one; we shouldn’t be unsettled by it. (Living In Many Worlds)

Decoherence is simpler (Decoherence Is Simple), while making the same predictions. (Decoherence Is Falsifiable And TestablePrivileging the hypothesis is selecting an unlikely hypothesis for attention, causing confirmation bias. Historical accident has privileged collapse theories (Privileging The Hypothesis, If Many-Worlds Had Come First, Many Worlds, One Best Guess) because people didn’t think of themselves as made of particles. (Where Philosophy Meets Science, Thou Art Physics) Declaring equations to be meaningless is wrong; there is something described. (Quantum Non-Realism)

Mere Reality T: Science and Rationality

Science is supposed to replace theories when experiments falsify them in favour of new theories, and is uninterested in simpler theories making the same predictions. This leads to different results than application of probability theory. (The Dilemma: Science or Bayes?) Science is this way because it doubts that flawed humans debating elegance will reach truth if not forced to experiment. Science distrusts your rationality. (Science Doesn’t Trust Your Rationality)

Science doesn’t help you get answers to questions that are not testable in the present day. It is incorrect to dismiss theories answering those questions because they’re scientifically unproven. You must try to use your reason. (When Science Can’t Help) Science does not judge your choice of hypothesis, and only requires you react to overwhelming evidence. It accepts slow, generational progress. You must have a private epistemic standard higher than the social one, or else you will waste a lot of time. (Science Isn’t Strict Enough)

It is a flaw that the teaching of Science doesn’t practice resolving confused ideas (The Failures Of Eld Science), probability theory, awareness of the need for causal entanglement of belief with reality, or rationality more broadly. (Do Scientists Already Know This Stuff?) Teaching probability theory alone would not correct this. (The Definition Of Science)

There is nothing that guarantees that you are not a fool, not even Science, not even trying to use probability theory. You don’t know your own biases, why the universe is simple enough to understand, what your priors are, or why they work. The formal math is intractable. To start as a rationalist requires losing your trust that following any prescribed pattern will keep you safe. (No Safe Defense, Not Even Science)

The bulk of work in progressing knowledge is in elevating the right hypotheses to attention, a process Science depends on but does not specify, relying on normal reasoning. (Faster Than Science) Einstein did this well. Most will fail, but it remains valuable to practice. (Einstein’s Speed) Geniuses are not separate from humanity; with grit and the right choice of problem and approach, not all but many have potential. (Einstein’s Superpowers, Class Project)

We do not use the evidence of sensory data anywhere near optimally. (That Alien Message) Possible minds can be extremely smarter than humans. Basing your ideals on hypothetical extremely intelligent minds, rather than merely the best humans so far, helps you not shy away from trying to exceed them. (My Childhood Role Model)

Mere Goodness U: Fake Preferences

Human desires include preferences for how the world is, not just preferences for how they think the world is or how happy they are. (Not For The Sake Of Happiness Alone) People who claim their preferences reduce down to a single principle have some other process by which they choose what they want, and then find a rationalisation for how what they want is justified by that principle (Fake Selfishness). Simple utility functions fail to compress our values, and we suffer from anthropomorphic optimism about what they suggest. (Fake Utility Functions)

People who fear that humans would lack morality without an external threat, regard this as bad rather than liberating. This means they like morality, and aren’t just forced to abide by it. (Fake Morality)

The detached lever fallacy is the assumption that actions that trigger behaviour from one entity will trigger it from another, without any reason to think the mechanics governing the reaction are present in the second. The actions that make a human compassionate will not make a non-human AI so. (Detached Lever Fallacy) AI design is reducing the mental to the non-mental. Models of an intelligence which can’t predict what it will do other than by analogy to a human are incomplete. (Dreams Of AI Design) The space of possible minds is extremely large. Resist the temptation to generalise over all of mind design space. (The Design Space Of Minds-In-General)

Mere Goodness V: Value Theory

Justifying any belief leads to infinite regress. Rather than accepting any assumption, we should reflect on our mind’s trustworthiness using our current mind as best we can, and accept that. (Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom) Approach such questions from the standpoint of whether we should want ourselves or an AI using similar principles to change how they choose beliefs. We should focus on improvement, not justification, and expect to change our minds. Don’t exalt consistency in itself, but effectiveness. Separate asking “why” an approach works from whether it “does”. We should reason about our own mind the way we do about the rest of the world, and use all available information. (My Kind Of Reflection)

There are no arguments compelling to all possible minds. For any system processing information, there is a system with inverted output which makes the opposite conclusion. This applies to moral conclusions, and regardless of the intelligence of the system. (No Universally Compelling Arguments, Sorting Pebbles Into Correct Heaps) A mind must have a process that adds beliefs, and a process that acts, or no argument can convince it to believe or act. (Created Already In Motion)

Some properties can be either thought of as as taking two parameters and giving a result, or as a space of one-parameter functions, with different people using different ones. For example, ‘attractiveness(admirer, admired) -> result’ vs ‘attractiveness_1…9999(admired) -> result’. Currying specifies that a two parameter function is equivalent to a one parameter function returning another function, and unifies these. For example, ‘attractiveness(admirer) -> attractiveness_712(admired) -> result’. This reflects the ability to judge a measure independently of the user, but also that the measure used is variable. (2-Place And 1-Place Words)

If your moral framework is shown to be invalid, you can still choose to act morally anyway. (What Would You Do Without Morality?) It’s important to have a line of retreat to be able to seriously review your metaethics. (Changing Your Metaethics) You must start from a willingness to evaluate in terms of your moral intuition in order to find valid metaethics. (Could Anything Be Right?) What we consider to be right grows out of a starting point. To get a system that specifies what is right requires it fit that starting point, which we cannot define fully. (Morality As Fixed Computation) Concepts that we develop to describe good behaviour are very complex. Depictions of them have many possible concepts that fit them, and an algorithm would pick the wrong one.You cannot fix a powerful optimisation process optimising for the wrong thing with patches. (Magical Categories) Value is fragile; optimising for the wrong values creates a dull future. (Value Is Fragile) Our complicated values are the gift that we give to tomorrow. (The Gift We Give To Tomorrow)

The prisoner’s dilemma is a hypothetical in which two people can both either cooperate (C) or defect (D), and each one prefers (D, C) > (C, C) > (D, D) > (C, D). The typical example involves two totally selfish prisoners, but humans can’t imagine this. A better example would have the first entity as humans trying to save billions, vs an entity trying to maximise numbers of paperclips. (The True Prisoner’s Dilemma)

We understand others by simulating them with our brains, which creates empathy. It was evolutionarily useful to develop sympathy. An AI wouldn’t use either approach, an alien might. (Sympathetic Minds)

A world with no difficulty would be boring, We prefer real goals to fake ones. We need goals which we prefer working on to having finished, or which have no end state. (High Challenge) A utopia with no problems has no stories. Pain can be more intense than pleasure. Pleasure that scaled like pain would trap us. We can be rid of pain that breaks or grinds down people, and pointless sorrow, and keep what we value. Whether we will get rid of pain entirely someday, EY does not know. (Serious Stories)

Mere Goodness W: Quantified Humanism

Scope insensitivity is ignoring the number of people or animals or area affected, the scope, when deciding how important an action is. Groups were asked how much they would pay to save 2000 / 20000 / 200000 migrating birds from drowning in oil ponds, and answered $80, $78, and $88. We visualise a single bird, react emotionally, and cannot visualise scope. To be an effective altruist, we must evaluate the numbers. (Scope Insensitivity) Saving one life feels as good as many, but is not as good. We do not treat saving lives as a satisficed virtue, such that once you’ve saved one you ignore others. (One Life Against The World)

The certainty effect is a bias where going from 99% chance to near 100% chance of getting what we want is valued more than going from, say, 33% to 34%. This causes the allais paradox, where we prefer a fixed prize over a 33/34 chance of a bigger prize, but prefer a 33% chance of a larger prize to a 34% chance of a smaller prize. This cannot be explained by non-linear marginal utility of money, permits extracting money from you, and shows a failure of intuition to steer reality. (The Allais Paradox, Zut Allais!)

A certain loss feels worse than an uncertain one. By changing the point of comparison so the certain outcome is a loss rather than a gain, you reverse intuition. You must multiply out costs and benefits, or you will fail at directing reality. This reduces nice feelings, but they are not the point. (Feeling Moral)

Intuition is what morality is built on, but we must pursue reflective intuitions or we won’t accomplish anything due to circular preferences. (The Intuitions Behind Utilitarianism) Making up probabilities can trick you into thinking they’re more grounded than they are, and override working intuitions. (When (Not) To Use Probabilities)

Ends don’t justify the means among humans. We run on corrupted hardware; we rationalise using bad means, past the point that benefits us, let alone anyone else. Otherwise we wouldn’t have developed ethical injunctions. Follow them as a higher-level consequentialist strategy. (Ends Don’t Justify Means Among Humans, Ethical Injunctions)

To pursue rationality effectively, you must have a higher goal that it serves. (Something To ProtectNewcomb’s problem is a scenario in which an entity that can predict you perfectly offers two boxes, and says that box A contains $1000, and box B contains $1,000,000 if and only if they predicted you would only take box B. Traditional causal decision theory says you should take both boxes, as the money is either already in the box or not. Rationally, you should take only box B. Doing so makes you win more, and rationality is about winning, not about reasonableness or any particular ritual of thought. (Newcomb’s Problem And Regret Of Rationality)

Becoming Stronger X: Yudkowsky’s Coming Of Age

Yudkowsky grew up in an environment which praised experience over intelligence as justification for everything, including religion. This led them to the opposite, an affective death spiral around intelligence as the solution to everything. They thought that being very intelligent meant being very moral. They tended to go too far the other way in reaction to someone else’s stupidity. (My Childhood Death Spiral)

Because previous definitions of intelligence had been lacking, they thought it could not be defined tidily. This led to avoiding premature answers. They believed the field of AI research was sick; this led to studying cognitive science. Errors which lead to studying more are better errors. (My Best And Worst Mistake) They regarded regulation of technology as bad, and this reduced attention to existential risks. When convinced risks existed, rather than reviewing mistakes, they just decided we needed AI first. (Raised In Technophilia)

They were good at refuting arguments, and felt they were winning the debate on whether intelligence implied morality. They had a rationale for proceeding with their best ideas, without resolving confusion. Reality does not care whether you are using your best ideas. You can’t rely on anyone giving you a flawless argument, and you can’t work around underlying confusion. (A Prodigy Of Refutation, The Sheer Folly Of Callow Youth)

An incongruous thought, coupled with some perfectionism, and viewing less than morally upright interactions as unacceptable, led to investigating seriously. Doing that, regardless of reason, led to pursuing a backup plan. (That Tiny Note Of Discord) That they were pursuing a backup plan gave them a line of retreat for their earlier views, but they only shifted gradually, without acknowledging fundamental errors. (Fighting A Rearguard Action Against The Truth)

They only saw the error when they realised that a mind was an optimisation process which pumps reality towards outcomes, and you could pump towards any outcomes. (My Naturalistic Awakening) They realised that they could have unrefuted arguments, and nature could still kill them if the choice was wrong. Their trust in following patterns broke, and they began studying rationality. (The Magnitude Of His Own Folly) We all need to lose our assumption of fairness. (Beyond The Reach Of God) They realised that an idea seeming very good didn’t permit being sure; it needed to be provably equivalent to any correct alternative, like Bayesian probability. (My Bayesian Enlightenment)

They recognise that there are people more formidable than them, and hope that their writings might find a younger one of them who can then exceed them. (The Level Above Mine)

Becoming Stronger Y: Challenging The Difficult

Wanting to become stronger means reacting to flaws by doing what you can to repair them rather than with resignation. Do not ritualistically confess your flaws unless you include what you intend to do about them. (Tsuyoku Naritai! (I Want To Become Stronger)) If you are ashamed of wanting to do better than others, you will not make a real effort to seek higher targets. You should always reach higher, without shame. (Tsuyoku Vs The Egalitarian Instinct)

The difference between saying that you are going to do something, and that you are going to try to do something, is that the latter makes you satisfied with a plan, rather than with success, and allows the part where the plan has to maximise your odds of success to get lost. Don’t try your best; either win or fail. (Trying To Try) People don’t make genuine efforts to win even for five minutes. (Use The Try Harder, Luke)

A desperate effort is a level above wanting to become stronger, where you try as though your life were at stake. And there is a step above that, an extraordinary effort; it requires being willing to go outside of a comfortable routine, tackle difficulties you don’t have a mental routine for, and bypass usual patterns, in order to achieve an outcome that is not the default that you care greatly about. It is riskier than even a desperate effort. (Make An Extraordinary Effort)

A problem being impossible sometimes only means that when we query our brain for a strategy, we can’t think of one. This is not the same as being proven to be impossible. Genuine effort over years can find routes forward. Reality can uncaringly demand the impossible. We should resist our urge to find rationalisations for why the problem doesn’t matter (On Doing The Impossible), and sometimes we should shut up and do the impossible; take success at the impossible as our goal and accept nothing less. (Shut Up And Do The Impossible!)

We need to ask ourselves what we want, what it will require to accomplish, and set out to do it with what we know. (Final Words)

Becoming Stronger Z: The Craft and the Community

The prevalence of religion, even in scientific circles, warns us that the baseline grasp of rationality is very low. Arguing against religion specifically fails to solve the underlying problem. We should also be trying to raise the sanity waterline. (Raising The Sanity Waterline)

A reason that people don’t want to learn more about rationality is that they don’t see people who know about it as happier or more successful. A large part of this is that even the people who know a lot about it still know very little, compared to experts in other fields; we have not systematised it as a field of study, subject to large-scale investment and experimentation. One reason for this is that traditional rationalists/skeptics do not see lack of visible formidability and say that we must be doing something wrong. We treat it as a mere hobby horse. (A Sense That More Is Possible) It can take more than an incremental step in the direction of rationality to get an incremental increase in winning. (Incremental Progress And The Valley)

Martial arts dojos suffer from epistemic viciousness; a treatment of the master as sacred, exaltation of historic knowledge over discovery, a lack of data, and a pretense that lack of data isn’t a real problem. Hypothetical rationality dojos risk the same problems. (Epistemic Viciousness) If an air of authority can substitute for evidence, traditions can proliferate and wield influence without evidence. (Schools Proliferating Without Evidence)

Verification methods can be stratified into three levels. Reputational verification is the basic practice of trying to ground reputations in some real world or competitive performance. Experimental verification is randomised, replicable testing, although this can involve very simple measures that are only correlated with the variables of interest. Organisational verification is that which, when everyone knows the process, is resistant enough to gaming to continue working. (3 Levels Of Rationality Verification)

Groups which do not concern themselves with rationality can praise agreement, encourage the less agreeing to leave, and enter an affective death spiral, which binds them all together and makes them cooperate. Typical rationalist groups do not cooperate; they speak and applaud disagreement but not agreement. If you are outperformed by irrational groups, then you are not rational, because rationality is about winning. Actual rationality should involve being better at coordinating, and we should work out how to be. Being half a rationalist is dangerous. (Why Our Kind Can’t Cooperate, Bayesians Vs Barbarians) Until atheist groups can outperform religious groups at mobilisation and output, any increase in atheism is a hollow victory. (Can Humanism Match Religion’s Output?) We need new models of community to replace the old, with new goals. (Church Vs Taskforce)

Do not punish people for being more patient than you; you should tolerate tolerance. (Tolerate Tolerance) We incentivise groups to improve by rejecting joining them if they don’t meet our standards. The non-conformist crowd tends to ask way too much. If joining a project is good, you should do it if the problems are not too distracting, or if you could fix the problems. If you don’t see a problem as worth putting in the time to fix, it is not worth avoiding a group for. If we want to get anything done, we need to move in the direction of joining groups and staying in them. (Your Price For Joining)

Many causes benefit from the spread of rationality. We should not think of other good causes as in competition for a limited pool of reasonable thinkers, but instead cooperate with them to increase the number of reasonable thinkers. We should think of ourselves as all part of one common project of human progress. (Rationality: Common Interest Of Many Causes) We are very bad at coordinating to fulfil aligned preferences of individuals. Large flows of money tend to be controlled by the incentives of organisations. (Helpless Individuals)

Donating time is inefficient compared to donating money. Allocating money is how we allocate resources. Money is the unit of caring. If you’ll never spend it, you don’t care. (Money: The Unit Of Caring) We enjoy having done kind things, but the things that bring us enjoyment often do much less good than calculated effort, and enjoyment and social status can be had much cheaper when you don’t try to achieve them through your giving. Get enjoyment, status, and results separately; purchase fuzzies and utilons separately. (Purchase Fuzzies And Utilons Separately)

The bystander effect is a bias in which a group is less likely to react to an emergency than a single individual. (Bystander Apathy) This applies to problems encountered over the Internet, where you are always observing them as part of a group of strangers. (Collective Apathy And The Internet)

When we write advice, we are not working from universal generalisations, but surface level tricks. This means it validly works for some people but not others. We should beware other-optimising, because we are not good at knowing what works for others, and beware assuming that other people are simply not trying what worked for us. (Beware Of Other-Optimizing) Practical advice based on established theories tends to be more generalisable. (Practical Advice Backed By Deep Theories)

The danger of underconfidence is missing opportunities and not making a genuine effort. Sticking to things you always win at is a way smart people become stupid. You should seriously try to win, but aim for challenges you might lose at. When considering a habit of thought, ask whether it makes you stronger or weaker. (The Sin Of Underconfidence)

There is more absent than present in these writings. Defeating akrasia and coordinating groups are particular absences. But, hopefully, there is enough to overcome the barriers to getting started in the matter of rationality without immediately going terribly wrong. The hope is that this art of answering confused questions will be enough to go and complete the rest. This will require drawing on many sources, and require having some specific motivating goal. Go forth and create the art, and return to tell others what you learned. (Go Forth And Create The Art!)

And A Few Third-Party Sequences and Primers

Yvain has a primer to game theory. Lukeprog has a sequence on scientifically-backed advice for winning at life, to the extent to which it is available. Orthnonormal has a primer on decision theory and the motivation for discussing alternative decision theories, and their implications, such as acausal trade. These three areas were popular topics for further discussion on Less Wrong.