Hammertime Final Exam

Link post

This is part 30 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

One of the overarching themes from CFAR, related to The Strategic Level, is that what you learn at CFAR is not a specific technique or set of techniques, but the cognitive strategy that produced those techniques. It follows that if I learned the right lessons from CFAR, then I would be able to produce qualitatively similar – if not as well empirically tested – new principles and approaches to instrumental rationality.

After CFAR, I wanted to design a test to see if I had learned the right lessons. Hammertime was that sort of test for me. Now here’s that same test for you.

The Final Exam

I will give three essay prompts and three difficulty levels. Original ideas would be great, but shining a new light on old hammers is also welcome!


  1. Design a instrumental rationality technique.

  2. Introduce a rationality principle or framework.

  3. Describe a cognitive defect, bias, or blindspot.

Difficulty Levels

Bronze Mace mode. Write one essay on one of the topics above.

Steel Cudgel of the Lion mode. Write two of three.

Vorpal Dragonscale Sledgehammer of the Whale mode. Write all three. For each essay, give yourself five minutes to brainstorm and five minutes to write.

Here are my answers.

1. Cooperate First

There’s an old story about a famous painter of the Realist school who spent a whole year of his training painting still lives of eggs. Each day, he would draw a single egg over and over. He must have produced thousands of sketches and paintings of eggs. His teacher knew exactly how important fundamentals are.

This same motif is deeply embedded in stories all over the world:

Return to fundamentals. Practice your fundamentals.

The iterated prisoner’s dilemma is one of the fundamental lessons of rationality. The world is more like a number of iterated prisoner’s dilemmas than you’d think. Human beings are more like tit-for-tat players than you’d think. It follows:

Cooperate First!

The first move you make in any interaction with a new acquaintance should be a cooperate, even if you expect them to defect. Perhaps even if you observe them defecting already.

Here’s a lesson I learned from meditating on the maxim Cooperate First:

Cooperating First feels like accepting an unfair game from the inside. There will be many situations in life where things are framed in a slightly but noticeably unfair way towards you initially. Err on the side of accepting these games anyway!

2. Below the Object Level

One of my main complaints about rationalists (myself included) is our tendency to escalate to the meta-level too often. For example, in any given discussion, arguments over general discussion norms get much more heated and lively than any discussion of the underlying subject matter. We need to spend more time at the object level, touching reality, making experiments, testing our hypotheses.

The move I use to combat the tendency to escalate meta, I call looking below the object level.

Looking below the object level is like the move HPMOR_Harry does to achieve partial transfiguration: continually upping the magnification on your mental microscope to actually stare at the detail in reality. Reality is so exorbitantly detailed it’s overwhelming to take it all in. Try.

Look at the folds in your clothes, the way light and shadow play off each other. The way threads interweave. Pinch the cloth and watch the creases reorganize under your fingers.

Now reflect on this fact: falling water is attracted to both positive and negative charges.


There’s so much going on under what we think of as the object level.

3. Pre-Excuses

Pre-hindsight is a version of Murphyjitsu where you query your mind for what you will learn from an action in hindsight. Pre-excuses are an unproductive cousin that often derail my work.

As a serial procrastinator, I notice a fairly regular pattern of thinking that appears the couple days before I have to meet a professor, and especially before meeting my thesis adviser. My mind is already spinning excuses on overdrive. Here’s what my mind sounds like a full day before I have to meet my adviser, when I think about the meeting:

Sorry, this paper took longer than I expected to read.

Sorry, I was busy from other classes, so I didn’t do as much paper-writing as I’d planned to.

Sorry, I got sidetracked by this research problem, so I didn’t finish the homework.

That’s right, I’m having these thoughts about how to apologize for not doing work even though I still have plenty of time to do the work. Even worse, I have these pre-excuse thoughts regularly even if I’ve done the work expected of me – it feels something like cushioning the fall in case it turns out I did it poorly.

And they’re usually not even good excuses.