Monthly Meta: Referring is Underrated

For the next n months I’ll be pick­ing an is­sue within the com­mu­nity that I think is es­pe­cially im­por­tant to high­light. LW2.0 is not just a new site, but also an op­por­tu­nity to do things differ­ently and to ask our­selves how they could be bet­ter.

We all know that ra­tio­nal­ity is sup­posed to be about win­ning, but what does this mean? Let’s as­sume that you already have some idea of what your prob­lems are, but if you don’t, then we can put not know­ing what your prob­lems are down as the first item on the list.

For each prob­lem, there are gen­er­ally two seper­ate strate­gies that we can take: 1) an­swer­ing the prob­lem by tel­ling you how you can solve it or 2) refer­ring you to other re­sources that can an­swer your ques­tion far bet­ter than we can. Of course, some­times a com­bi­na­tion of the two will work best, but this works well enough as a sim­ple model.

A lot of ra­tio­nal­ity has been work­ing to­wards get­ting bet­ter at an­swer­ing. All of the dis­cus­sion about bi­ases and de­ci­sion the­ory and psy­chol­ogy al­low us to of­ten give some pretty good an­swers.

Un­for­tu­nately, im­prov­ing our abil­ity to re­fer has re­cieved a lot less fo­cus. Part of this may be re­lated to sta­tus—if you are good at an­swer­ing all of the credit flows to you, but if you are good at refer­ring most of the credit goes to the per­son whose work you have referred them to. I sus­pect that im­prov­ing refer­als is se­ri­ously un­der­rated as ra­tio­nal­ity is of limited use if you don’t have any con­crete skills to util­ise. If you want to start a busi­ness or im­prove your so­cial skills or learn maths, then the main way that we can help you win is by point­ing you to a great re­source. And there’s a valid ques­tion about how much the com­mu­nity wants to get into this, but if we’re try­ing to sys­temise win­ning, it’s not re­ally some­thing we can avoid.

Per­haps the lack of fo­cus could be defended by ques­tion­ing how eas­ily tractable it is, but I’m not con­vinced that it has re­cieved enough at­ten­tion yet for us to draw that con­clu­sion. At the mo­ment, we tend to solve this prob­lems by sort­ing com­ments by the num­ber of votes. As I pointed out in a pre­vi­ous post, this is far from the only way of do­ing this and one of the other tech­niques could be bet­ter.

While I listed a few ideas in that post, I re­ally don’t have a solid idea of what can be done about this prob­lem. In­stead, I’m just go­ing to list some of the fac­tors that make this is­sue so difficult and hope that peo­ple have ideas in the com­ments:

  • Sub­jec­tivity: There’s no ob­jec­tively best book on im­prov­ing your pub­lic speak­ing or im­prov­ing your motivation

  • Con­text-de­pen­dence: Even if some­one perfectly shared your view of what makes a book or video good, what worked for them might not work for you if your situ­a­tion is different

  • Trust: It’s hard to know how trust­wor­thy some­one’s recom­men­da­tion is un­less you already know them or you’ve tried some of their other recommendations