Overton Gymnastics: An Exercise in Discomfort

What better way to bond with strangers than to tell them your most controversial viewpoints right off the bat? It’s basically like Cards Against Humanity for rationalists. More specifically, for the Less Wrong Community Weekend in Berlin, all participants were asked to come up with one session to run for their fellow participants. Overton Gymnastics was born from an interest in exploring how we can stretch our Overton windows. Then I got the stomach flu and couldn’t attend the meetup…

But people were psyched about the idea! So here are some iterative takes on how to run a session of Overton Gymnastics. If you end up trying it, I’d be excited to hear how it was for you in the comments. Also, as this is a new idea, please do just take it where you’d like. Some variants will be more useful than others, and we can all learn from your experiences!

The Initial Idea

The following was the initial write up of Overton Gymnastics for the LWCW in Berlin.

Stretch our Overton windows! One person starts by saying something controversial they believe. Someone then volunteers to counter them. First you provide an Ideological Turing Test (ITT) of the controversial claim, then your counter, and then you provide your own controversial claim. The goal is to practice tolerating uncomfortable viewpoints and ITT’ing them accurately.

We’ll first review some failure modes that became apparent when trying to run the exercise as described, followed by three possible variants you could run.

Possible Failure Modes

The two greatest challenges during Overton Gymnastics are generating controversial viewpoints and avoiding discussions during the exercise. To help people come up with controversial viewpoints it is useful to prime them with examples of claims that are controversial to different social groups. The goal of the exercise is to come up with claims that are controversial to the current group, but if people struggle with this, then they can be prompted to volunteer more generally controversial claims compared to mainstream culture.

To avoid discussion during the exercise, it’s best to prepare participants for how tempted they might be to launch in to debate. Additionally, the facilitator should proactively take on a moderation role across groups, listening in to detect discussions as they pop up and gently remind the group to return to the exercise format.

How to Run the Exercise

After running the session at the LWCW, Sam Brown & omark provided feedback and improvements on the format. The ITT step turned out to be the most contentious item. Some people loved this element while others found it frustrating. Below is one variant with the ITT step including and two (untested) variants that skip ITT’ing the controversial claims all together.

Variant 1: Ideological Turing Test

This variant is the most conducive to building empathy and understanding for the viewpoints of others because the ITT step puts a strong focus on perspective taking. On the other hand, this variant is also the most challenging as participants will be more heavily tempted to debate each claim.

  • Explain to the group what an Overton Window is. Give examples of opinions that break various Overton Windows.

  • Explain the Ideological Turing Test (ITT).

  • Give everyone 5 minutes to write down 3 of their opinions that they suspect will break the Overton Window of some people in the group.

  • Split up into groups of 6-8 people.

  • Have each group elect a moderator. The moderator is in charge of redirecting participants from discussions back to the exercise.

  • One person starts by sharing a controversial opinion and offers some background and reasoning to support it.

  • Other people in the group ask as many questions as necessary to understand the first person’s position well. It’s a collaborative process leading to the ITT.

  • One person volunteers to deliver the ITT.

  • If the first speaker agrees with the ITT then the person who delivered the ITT shares a controversial opinion of their own.

  • Rinse and repeat till everyone has shared all their claims or the time is up.

Variant 2: Centralized Whiteboard

Another way to run this is in a centralized, whiteboard format. This opens up more space for discussion of statements afterward.

  • Explain to the group what an Overton Window is. Give examples of opinions that break various Overton Windows.

  • Give everyone three post-it notes.

  • Take 5 minutes for everyone to write one controversial statement on each of their post-it notes.

  • Gather around a whiteboard and take turns sticking one post-it note on the board. Say your controversial statement out loud before sitting down again.

  • If something like your controversial statement is already on the board, then put your post-it close to it. This should result in clusters of similar topics.

  • Repeat till all post-it notes are on the board.

  • Everyone gets a sharpie and can add one vote to a post-it. Vote on which statement you personally find the most uncomfortable/​controversial to discuss.

  • The person who submitted the top voted statement gets praised as winner! (maybe add a mock prize for bravery?)

Debate round:

  • Review the clusters of statements from large to small. Is the largest cluster even controversial? Why (not)?

  • Sort into groups to discuss the different clusters. Split discussions groups to 3-4 people each, and merge any groups that are too small.

  • Give people 10 minutes to discuss

  • Reconvene to check in how everyone felt.

Variant 3: Controversial Competition

  • Explain to the group what an Overton Window is. Give examples of opinions that break various Overton Windows.

  • Give everyone 5 minutes to write down 3 of their opinions that they suspect will break the Overton Window of some people in the group.

  • Split up in to groups of 6-8 people.

  • Everyone sits in a circle and holds their phone/​notepad with their statements.

  • One person starts by saying one of their statements out loud.

  • Everyone who disagrees raises their hands

  • The current speaker picks their next speaker from the people who have their hand raised. If no one raised their hand, then they say their next controversial statement. If they have no more controversial statements, then they put their notepad/​phone down in front of them, and pass the turn to the person to their right who is still in the game.

  • This process repeats till the last person has read all their statements.

Concluding Remarks

Overton Gymnastics is a concept for a new rationality exercise and as such, the first variant is the only one that has been run so far. If you end up trying out the exercise, let us know how you find it. If you end up creating a new variant yourself, it would be great if you could share it below. May it lead to much discomfort and mental growth.