Rational Groups Kick Ass

Re­ply to: Ex­treme Ra­tion­al­ity: It’s Not That Great
Be­la­bor­ing of: Ra­tional Me Or We?
Re­lated to: A Sense That More Is Possible

The suc­cess of Yvain’s post threw me off com­pletely. My ex­pe­rience has been op­po­site to what he de­scribes: x-ra­tio­nal­ity, which I’ve been work­ing on since the mid-to-late nineties, has been cen­trally im­por­tant to suc­cessses I’ve had in busi­ness and fam­ily life. Yet the LessWrong com­mu­nity, which I greatly re­spect, broadly en­dorsed Yvain’s ar­gu­ment that:

There seems to me to be ap­prox­i­mately zero em­piri­cal ev­i­dence that x-ra­tio­nal­ity has a large effect on your prac­ti­cal suc­cess, and some anec­do­tal em­piri­cal ev­i­dence against it.

So that left me pon­der­ing what’s differ­ent in my ex­pe­rience. I’ve been work­ing on these things longer than most, and am more skil­led than many, but that seemed un­likely to be the key.

The differ­ence, I now think, is that I’ve been lucky enough to spend huge amounts of time in deeply ra­tio­nal­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions and groups—the com­pa­nies I’ve worked at, my mar­riage, my cir­cle of friends.

And ra­tio­nal groups kick ass.

An in­di­vi­d­ual can un­pack free will or figure out that the Copen­hagen in­ter­pre­ta­tion is non­sense. But I agree with Yvain that in a lonely ra­tio­nal­ist’s in­di­vi­d­ual life, the ex­tra oomph of x-ra­tio­nal­ity may well be drowned in the noise of all the other fac­tors of suc­cess and failure.

But groups! Groups mag­nify the im­por­tance of ra­tio­nal think­ing tremen­dously:

  • Whereas a ra­tio­nal in­di­vi­d­ual is still limited by her in­di­vi­d­ual in­tel­li­gence, cre­ativity, and charisma, a ra­tio­nal group can pro­mote the sin­gle best idea, leader, or method out of hun­dreds or thou­sands or mil­lions.

  • Groups have pow­er­ful feed­back loops; small dys­func­tions can grow into dis­aster by re­peated re­flec­tion, and small pos­i­tives can cas­cade into mas­sive suc­cess.

  • In a par­tic­u­larly pow­er­ful feed­back pro­cess, groups can se­lect for and pro­mote ex­cep­tional mem­bers.

  • Groups can es­tab­lish rules/​norms/​pat­terns that 1) di­rectly im­prove mem­bers and 2) coun­ter­act mem­bers’ weak­nesses.

  • Groups of­ten op­er­ate in spaces where small differ­ences are cru­cial. Com­pa­nies with slightly bet­ter risk man­age­ment are cur­rently prepar­ing to dom­i­nate the fi­nan­cial space. Coun­tries with slightly more ra­tio­nal sys­tems have gen­er­ated the 0.5% of ex­tra an­nual growth that leads, over cen­turies, to dra­mat­i­cally im­proved ways of life. Even in fam­ily life, a bit more ra­tio­nal­ity can eas­ily be the differ­ence be­tween grad­ual di­ver­gence and grad­ual con­ver­gence.

And we’re not even talk­ing about the ex­tra power of x-ra­tio­nal­ity. Imag­ine a cou­ple that truly un­der­stood Au­mann, a com­pany that grokked the Plan­ning Fal­lacy, a polity that con­sis­tently tried Pul­ling the Rope Side­ways.

When it comes to groups—sized from two to a billion—Yvain couldn’t be more wrong.

Up­date: Orthonor­mal points out that I don’t provide many con­crete ex­am­ples; I only link to three above. I’ll try to put more here as I think of them:

  • In Bet­ter, Atul Gawande talks about ways in which some groups of doc­tors have dra­mat­i­cally im­proved by be­com­ing more group-ra­tio­nal, in­clud­ing OB stand­bys like keep­ing score and hav­ing sen­si­tive dis­cus­sions pri­vately (and thus more openly).

  • Google seems like an ex­tremely ra­tio­nal place for a pub­lic com­pany. Two strong sig­nals are that they are ex­tremely data-driven and have used pre­dic­tion mar­kets. To be painfully clear, I’m not claiming that Google’s suc­cess is due to the use of pre­dic­tion mar­kets, merely that these dat­a­points help demon­strate Google’s over­all ra­tio­nal­ity.

  • As AlanCrowe points out in the com­ments, War­ren Buffett and Char­lie Munger have a ra­tio­nal­ist ap­proach.