Goal Factoring

Epistemic status: Anecdotally strong

The goal factoring technique as taught by CFAR is not derived from any particular body of psych research, but is instead a straightforward and general application of the principle of reductionism. It was developed and refined through iteration, and has been useful to large numbers of alumni.


Imagine that you are sitting at home at the end of a long, hard week, preparing to make plans for the evening. One of your friends is throwing a party, and has urged you to come. At the same time, there are delicious leftovers in the fridge and a movie you’ve been hoping to watch, and you’re feeling pretty lethargic.

When making this sort of decision, most people do some form of weighing— whether explicitly, with System 2, or viscerally/​intuitively, with System 1— comparing the pros and cons of each option and selecting the one with the highest net “goodness.” You may consider things like who is likely to be at the party, or whether your friend would be offended if you didn’t show up; you may do some internal measuring of your energy levels, to see if you’re in dire need of some rest and relaxation. The decision might come from balancing a bunch of little things, or be based on one crucial factor.


Ultimately, though, most people end up picking one or the other—we either go out, or stay in. Occasionally, we might come up with a sort of com- promise option—such as going to the party for half an hour and then coming back home—but we rarely reach outside of the A, B, or A&B framework.

The goal factoring technique asks that we approach these sorts of problems a little differently. Instead of simply comparing one choice to another, goal factoring encourages us to adopt a “third path” mentality—to assume, for the sake of argument, that there might be a way to get everything we want, and achieve all of the good with none of the bad.


The Parable of the Orange

Sometimes, of course, there is no way to get everything. Sometimes, we really are constrained, and have to make tradeoffs and compromises. But we tend to feel constrained more often than we really are, thanks to social imperatives and longstanding habits and assumed entanglements between various obligations. Often, there’s a lot of wiggle room that we aren’t aware of, especially if it’s been a while since we stepped back and took a fresh look from a broader perspective.

In the parable of the orange, two individuals both reached for the last orange at the market, and thus began an argument. On the surface, this appeared to be a classic A-or-B situation; the orange was going to go with one person or the other (and a compromise, such as cutting the orange in half, would leave both individuals dissatisfied).

However, when the farmer asked the question “What do you want the orange for?” the situation suddenly changed. “Want orange” is not an atomic, fundamental drive, after all—a person’s desire for an orange is usually instrumental in some way or another. Most likely the two individuals wanted to eat it, yes—but maybe they wanted to make juice, or to get seeds for planting, or to use the zest in a recipe; there are any number of other possibilities that are actually reasonably likely.


As it happened, one of the would-be buyers was hoping to make mulled wine, which requires an orange peel, but not the actual flesh of the fruit. Since the other buyer simply wanted to eat, it was possible for both of them to get all of what they wanted, by dividing the orange appropriately.

Had the farmer not spoken up, though—had the three of them not investigated the possibility of a third path—the situation would have ended with at least one person being disappointed.

Goal factoring asks that we play the role of the farmer in our own decision-making—that we set aside our assumptions for a little while, and explore the possibility that there might not be an unavoidable tradeoff, that perhaps we can simply win outright, without compromises. There are times when this will turn out to be false, but unless we actually check, we’ll never know which was which.


Case study: the preoccupied professor

In the early days of CFAR, cofounder Valentine Smith was simultaneously working as a teacher, writing dissertations, and developing and running rationality seminars, all while commuting back and forth between two cities and trying to maintain a long-term relationship. Given the amount of time pressure he was under, the hours spent grading his students’ work began to feel like they were being wasted.

This led him to apply the LEGO principle, and ask: what is grading for? What deeper goals was the act of grading supporting? If he could identify all of them, that might be a step on the path toward finding other, less costly means to achieve the same ends.


Having identified what seemed like all of the reasons why grading was important (plus a few of its costs, shown at the top of the graph with blocking arrows), he then proceeded with a button test: if he could push a magical button and get feedback for his students, measure his teaching effectiveness, signal caring, signal competence, and provide motivation, all without ever grading a single paper, would he do it? Would there be any reason to hesitate?

As it turned out, there was some hesitation, and after a little more thinking, he added two more factors to his graph:


Another button test seemed to confirm that this really was the whole story—that those six factors represented, to within a rounding error, all of the good that the act of grading was supposed to produce.

At that point, the question became: was there any way to get all of the good of grading, without paying any of the costs? In other words, was it possible that there was a universe in which he did not have to grade, but nevertheless fulfilled all six subgoals?

It’s important to note that Val was making no assumptions as to the out- come of this process. He wasn’t seeking justification for giving up grading; instead, he was simply exploring the possibility. In order to see the whole situation clearly, both grading and not-grading had to be conceivable outcomes. His thinking could be summed up in the following statement:

“If the most efficient way to achieve all of my goals is grading, then I want to recognize that, and do it. If the most efficient way to achieve all of my goals is something else, then I want to recognize and do that, instead.”

The next step, then, was to try to generate possible alternatives, and compare them with his six subgoals. During this process, he made a deliberate effort to think outside the box (since the inside-the-box solutions were already well-understood). He didn’t require himself to be Good, or Practical, or even Sane, but instead simply let the ideas flow:

  • He could pay someone else to do the grading for him, and separately do polls to get feedback on his teaching.

  • He could switch to automatic grading systems such as multiple choice or online testing.

  • He could give students grades equal to their current average plus a point or two, or just give everyone the same grade.

  • He could cap his class sizes to reduce the grading burden, or fail students out, or make the class so hard that half of them would quit.

  • He could assign grades completely at random, and see if dealing with individual complaints took less time.

  • He could stop grading work, and base grades solely on attendance or participation.

  • He could switch to teaching content from the rationality seminars he was developing, so that grading wouldn’t detract from his other goals.

  • He could arrange to have only students who already knew all of the material sign up for his classes, so that it would be very easy to grade their work (since all of it would be correct).

  • He could allow students to decide their own grades, or have them grade their own work, or grade one another’s work.

While none of those ideas were perfect, they were all possible to one degree or another, each with its own costs and benefits, and each taking a very different approach to the core problem. In the process of thinking through them, Val realized that another issue he had with grading was that the feedback loops were slow—it took much longer than it might for both he and his students to get data on whether they were on the right track.

This led him to try out a system wherein his students would grade themselves during the test. He would give the students the first problem, and have them do their work in black pen. Then, after ten minutes or so, he would have them set aside their black pen and pick up their red pen, and project the solution onto the board. They would correct their work and grade themselves, then switch back to the black pen for the next problem.

It took a few iterations to work out all of the bugs, but in the end, this new system avoided the tradeoffs that Val had previously been making, hitting all six subgoals and greatly reducing the three major costs. It was a strict improvement over all of the “Option A or option B” choices of his pre-goal-factoring model.


The Goal Factoring algorithm

1. Choose an action

  • Something you already do, or are considering starting

  • Something that happens frequently, or is costly in other ways

  • Something that seems like it could be optimized, or that you aren’t really sure why you’re doing in the first place

2. Prepare to accept all worlds

  • Try to release any hesitation you might have about achieving victory without doing the action itself. Remember that if you do encounter hesitation, it can be used to uncover an unacknowledged hidden goal of the action, which you can address separately.

  • Remind yourself that you are interested in the true best answer, whatever it may happen to be.

  • Remember that you are not committing yourself to doing something that “feels wrong.” If all of the answers you come up with feel wrong, you simply won’t do any of them—don’t let that stop you from running the search properly in the first place!

3. Factor the action out into goals

  • Remember that there is a difference between wanting to do/​be X, and wanting to appear to do/​be X. Write down the one you actually want.

  • Don’t forget about goals pertaining to things like social standing, interpersonal connection, and your own sense of self.

  • Query your System 1 (e.g. with a button test) to confirm that you haven’t missed anything important.

4. Brainstorm possible replacement actions

  • Focus on your goals one at a time (i.e. don’t expect yourself to come up with a complete strategy in one step).

  • After you have finished brainstorming for all goals, look for ways to combine them, whether through a single streamlined plan or through a combination of lots of little plans.

5. Reality check

  • Vividly imagine instituting your new plan. Are you satisfied? Do you notice unmet goals that need to be addressed?

  • Run the Murphyjitsu algorithm or some other similar process. Do you expect you will actually follow your new plan? Which parts of it seem unpleasant, aversive, duty-flavored, or otherwise hard to motivate yourself to do? What revisions can you put into place to improve the odds of success?


Goal Factoring—Further Resources

Human behavior is commonly goal-directed, rather than proceeding aimlessly, but people are far from systematic in how they pursue their goals. For example, a person might put a lot of effort into saving $50 in one context, while wasting hundreds of dollars in another context, because they consider each decision in isolation (focusing only on the information that is immediately at hand). Kahneman (2003) calls this problem “narrow framing” of decisions, and recommends taking a broader view by considering many re- lated decisions at once (e.g., those related to trading off effort and money) and choosing a set of actions across those decisions.

A review article on heuristics and biases research, including narrow framing: Kahneman, D. (2003). A perspective on judgment and choice: Mapping bounded rationality. American Psychologist, 58, 697-720. http://​​tinyurl.com/​​kahneman2003


Sheldon and Kasser (1995) have investigated the relationship between people’s lower-level goals (what motivates your day-to-day activities) and their higher-level goals (what you’d like to do with your life). They found that a closer alignment between lower-level goals and higher-level goals is associated with psychological well-being:

Sheldon, K. M., & Kasser, T. (1995). Coherence and congruence: Two aspects of personality integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 531-543. http://​​goo.gl/​​7R1AO


The skill of divergent thinking or novel idea generation is one that improves quickly with deliberate practice, and is central to instrumental rationality. In their book, George Land and Beth Jarman describe a longitudinal study they conducted on 1600 children, in which they were asked to perform tasks like thinking of all of the possible uses for a paperclip. When asked in kindergarten, 98% of the children were in the “creative genius” category (able to think of more than a hundred uses); by fourth grade, only 32% were in that category, and by ninth grade, only 10%. Other tests showed that only 2% of adults over the age of twenty five qualified as creative geniuses.

Land, George & Jarman, Beth (1998). Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today. New York: Harper Business. http://​​goo.gl/​​jJgNf2


A TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, recommending educational reform based on Land and Jarman’s research: https://​​goo.gl/​​FbJzFe

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