Why Don’t Rationalists Win?

Here are my thoughts on the “Why don’t ra­tio­nal­ists win?” thing.


I think it’s pretty clear that ra­tio­nal­ity helps peo­ple do a bet­ter job of be­ing… less wrong :D

But se­ri­ously, I think that ra­tio­nal­ity does lead to very no­table im­prove­ments in your abil­ity to have cor­rect be­liefs about how the world works. And it helps you to cal­ibrate your con­fi­dence. Th­ese abil­ities are use­ful. And I think ra­tio­nal­ity de­serves credit for be­ing use­ful in this area.

I’m not re­ally elab­o­rat­ing here be­cause I as­sume that this is some­thing that we agree on.

How­ever, I should note that ra­tio­nal­ists aren’t re­ally mak­ing new and in­no­va­tive dis­cov­er­ies (the non-su­per­star ones any­way), and that this may in­crease the “why don’t ra­tio­nal­ists win?” thing. I think that a big rea­son for this lack of progress is be­cause a) we think about re­ally re­ally re­ally difficult things! And b) we beat around the bush a lot. Big top­ics are of­ten brought up, but I rarely see peo­ple say, “Ok, this is a huge topic so in or­der to make progress, we’re go­ing to have to sit down for many hours and be de­liber­ate about this. But I think we could do it!“. In­stead, these con­ver­sa­tions seem to be just peo­ple hav­ing fun, pro­cras­ti­nat­ing, and never in­vest­ing enough time to make real progress.


I also think that ra­tio­nal­ity is do­ing a great job in helping peo­ple to do a bet­ter job at be­ing al­tru­is­tic. Another thing that:

  • I’m go­ing to as­sume that we mostly agree on, and thus not re­ally elab­o­rate.

  • I think de­serves to be noted and given credit.

  • Is use­ful.

For peo­ple with al­tru­is­tic goals, ra­tio­nal­ity is helping them to achieve their goals. And I think it’s do­ing a re­ally good job at this. But I also think that it doesn’t quite feel like the gains be­ing made here are so big. I think that a ma­jor rea­son for this is be­cause the gains are so:

  1. High level.

  2. Likely to be re­al­ized far in the fu­ture.

  3. Are the sort of thing that you don’t per­son­ally ex­pe­rience (think: buy­ing a poor per­son lunch vs. donat­ing money to peo­ple in Africa).

But we all know that (1), (2), and (3) don’t ac­tu­ally make the gains smaller, it just makes them feel smaller. I get the im­pres­sion that the fact that the gains feel smaller re­sults in an un­jus­tified in­crease in the “ra­tio­nal­ists don’t win” feel­ing.


I get the im­pres­sion that lack of suc­cess plays a big role in the “why don’t ra­tio­nal­ists win?” thing.

I guess an op­er­a­tional defi­ni­tion of suc­cess for this sec­tion could be “pro­fes­sional, fi­nan­cial, per­sonal goals, be­ing awe­some...“.

I don’t know much about this, but I would think and hope that ra­tio­nal­ity helps peo­ple to be no­tably more suc­cess­ful than they oth­er­wise would be. I don’t think ra­tio­nal­ity is at the point yet where it could make ev­ery­one mil­lion­aires (metaphor­i­cally and/​or liter­ally). But I think that a) it could get there, and b) we shouldn’t triv­ial­ize the fact that it does (I’m as­sum­ing) make peo­ple no­tably more suc­cess­ful than they oth­er­wise would be.

But still, I think that there are a lot of other fac­tors that de­ter­mine suc­cess, and given their difficulty/​rar­ity, even with ra­tio­nal­ity in your toolbox, you won’t achieve that much suc­cess with­out these things.

  1. Plain old hard work. I’m a huge be­liever in work­ing smart, but I also think that given a pretty low and rel­a­tively suffi­cient level of smart­ness in your work, it’s mostly a mat­ter of how hard you work. You may ask your­self, “Take some­one who stud­ies re­ally hard, but is lack­ing big time when it comes to ra­tio­nal­ity—wouldn’t they not be suc­cess­ful?“. I think an im­por­tant (and sad) point to make is that at this point in his­tory, you could be very suc­cess­ful with do­main spe­cific knowl­edge, but no ra­tio­nal­ity. And so peo­ple who work re­ally hard but don’t have an ounce of ra­tio­nal­ity of­ten end up be­ing very good at what they do, and very suc­cess­ful. I think we’ll reach a point where things progress enough and ra­tio­nal­ity does in fact be­come nec­es­sary (the peo­ple with do­main spe­cific knowl­edge but no ra­tio­nal­ity will fail).

  2. Ap­ti­tude/​start­ing early. I’m not sure the ex­tent to which ap­ti­tude is ac­tu­ally a thing. I sense that a big part of it is sim­ply how early on you started. When your brain was at that “sponge-stage”. Re­gard­less, ap­ti­tude/​start­ing early seems to be pretty im­por­tant. Some­one who works hard but started too late will cer­tainly be at a dis­ad­van­tage.

  3. Op­por­tu­nity. In one sense, not much will help you if you have to work 3 jobs to sur­vive (you won’t have much time for self-im­prove­ment or other nec­es­sary in­vest­ments of time). In an­other sense, there’s the idea that “you are who you sur­round your­self with”. So peo­ple who are for­tu­nate enough to grow up around other smart and hard work­ing peo­ple will have had the op­por­tu­nity to be so­cially pres­sured into do­ing the same. I think this is very un­der­rated, but also very over­commable. In an­other sense, some peo­ple are ex­tremely for­tu­nate and are born into a situ­a­tion where they have a lot of money and con­nec­tions.

  4. Am­bi­tion/​con­fi­dence. Ex­am­ple: imag­ine a web de­vel­oper who has ra­tio­nal­ity + (1) + (2) + (3) but doesn’t have (4). He’ll prob­a­bly end up be­ing a good web de­vel­oper. But he might not end up be­ing a great web de­vel­oper. The rea­son for that is be­cause he might not have the am­bi­tion or con­fi­dence to think to pur­sue cer­tain skills. He may think, “that stuff is for truly smart peo­ple, I’m just not one of those peo­ple”. And he may not have the con­fi­dence to pur­sue the goal of be­ing a great soft­ware en­g­ineer (more gen­eral and wide-rang­ing). He may not have the con­fi­dence to learn C and other stuff. Note that there’s a differ­ence be­tween not hav­ing the con­fi­dence to try, and not hav­ing the con­fi­dence to even think to try. I think that the lat­ter is a lot more com­mon, and blends into “am­bi­tion ter­ri­tory”. On that note, this hy­po­thet­i­cal per­son may not think to pur­sue in­no­va­tive ideas, or get into UX, or start a startup and do some­thing big­ger.

My point in this sec­tion is that ra­tio­nal­ity can help with suc­cess, but 1-4 are also ex­tremely im­por­tant, and prob­a­bly act as a limit­ing fac­tor for most of us (I’d guess that most peo­ple here are ra­tio­nal enough such that 1-4 prob­a­bly acts as a bar­rier to their suc­cess, and marginal in­creases in ra­tio­nal­ity prob­a­bly won’t have too big a marginal im­pact).
(I also bet that 1-4 is in­suffi­cient and that there are im­por­tant things I’m miss­ing.)


I get the im­pres­sion that lack of hap­piness plays a big role in the “why don’t ra­tio­nal­ists win?” thing.

Luke talked about the cor­re­lates of hap­piness in How to Be Happy:

Fac­tors that don’t cor­re­late much with hap­piness in­clude: age,7 gen­der,8 par­ent­hood,9 in­tel­li­gence,10 phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness,11 and money12 (as long as you’re above the poverty line). Fac­tors that cor­re­late mod­er­ately with hap­piness in­clude: health,13 so­cial ac­tivity,14 and re­li­gios­ity.15 Fac­tors that cor­re­late strongly with hap­piness in­clude: ge­net­ics,16 love and re­la­tion­ship satis­fac­tion,17 and work satis­fac­tion.18

One thing I want to note is that ge­net­ics seem to play a huge role, and that plus the HORRIBLE he­do­nic adap­ta­tion thing makes me think that we don’t ac­tu­ally have that much con­trol over our hap­piness.

Mov­ing for­ward… and this is what mo­ti­vated me to write this ar­ti­cle… the big de­ter­mi­nants of hap­piness seem like things that are sort of out­side ra­tio­nal­ity’s sphere of in­fluence. I don’t be­lieve that, and it kills me to say it, but I thought it’d make more sense to say it first and then amend it (a writ­ing tech­nique I’m play­ing around with and am op­ti­mistic about). What I re­ally be­lieve is:

  • Things like so­cial and ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships are tremen­dously im­por­tant fac­tors in one’s hap­piness. So is work satis­fac­tion (in brief: au­ton­omy, mas­tery and pur­pose).

  • Th­ese are things that you could cer­tainly get with­out ra­tio­nal­ity. Non-ra­tio­nal­ists, have set a some­what high bar for us to beat.

  • Ra­tion­al­ity cer­tainly COULD do won­ders in this area.

  • But the art hasn’t pro­gressed to this point yet. Do­ing so would be difficult. Peo­ple have been try­ing to figure out the se­crets of hap­piness for 1000s of years, and though I think we’ve made some progress, we still have a long way to go.

  • Cur­rently, I’m afraid that ra­tio­nal­ity might be act­ing as a memetic im­mune di­s­or­der. There’s a huge fo­cus on our flaws and how to miti­gate them, and this leads to a lot of men­tal en­ergy be­ing spent think­ing about “bad” things. I think (and don’t know where the sources are) that a pos­i­tive/​op­ti­mistic out­look plays a huge role in hap­piness. “Fo­cus­ing on the good.” Ra­tion­al­ity seems to fo­cus a lot on “the bad”. Ra­tion­al­ity also seems to make peo­ple feel un­pro­duc­tive and wrong for not spend­ing enough time fo­cus­ing on and fix­ing this “bad”, and I fear that this is overblown and leads to un­nec­es­sary un­hap­piness. At the same time, fo­cus­ing on “the bad” is im­por­tant: if you want to fix some­thing, you have to spend a lot of time think­ing about it. Per­son­ally, I strug­gle with this, and I’m not sure where the equil­ibrium point re­ally is.


So­cially, LessWrong seems to be a rather large suc­cess to me. My un­der­stand­ing is that it started off with Eliezer and Robin just blog­ging… and now there are thou­sands of peo­ple hav­ing meet-ups across the globe. That amazes me. I can’t think of any ex­am­ples of some­thing similar.

Fur­ther­more, the so­cial con­nec­tions LW has helped cre­ate seem pretty valuable to me. There seem to be a lot of us who are in­cred­ibly un­satis­fied with nor­mal so­cial in­ter­ac­tion, or some­times just plain old don’t fit in. But LW has brought us to­gether, and that seems in­cred­ible and very valuable to me. So it’s not just “it helps you meet some cool peo­ple”. It’s “it’s taken peo­ple who were pre­vi­ously empty, and has made them fulfilled”.

Still though, I think there’s a lot more that could be done. Ra­tion­al­ist dat­ing web­site?* Ra­tion­al­ist pen pals (some­thing that en­courages the de­vel­op­ment of deeper 1-on-1 re­la­tion­ships)? A more gen­eral place that “en­courages peo­ple to let their guard down and con­fide in each other”? Per­sonal men­tor­ship? This is ven­tur­ing into a differ­ent area, but per­haps there could be some sort of pro­fes­sional net­work­ing?

*As some­one who con­stantly thinks about star­tups, I’m lik­ing the idea of “dat­ing web­site for so­cial group X that has a hard time re­lat­ing to the rest of so­ciety”. It could start off with X = 1, and ex­pand, and the par­ent busi­ness could run all of it.


So, are we a failure? Is ev­ery­thing moot be­cause “ra­tio­nal­ists don’t win”?

I don’t think so. I think that ra­tio­nal­ity has had a lot of im­pres­sive suc­cesses so far. And I think that it has


of po­ten­tial (did I for­get any other in­di­ca­tors of vi­sual weight there? it wouldn’t let me add color). But it cer­tainly hasn’t made us su­per hu­mans. I get an im­pres­sion that be­cause ra­tio­nal­ity has so much promise, we hold it to a crazy high stan­dard and some­times lose sight of the great things it pro­vides. And then there’s also the fact that it’s only, what, a few decades old?

(Sorry for the bits of straw man­ning through­out the post. I do think that it lead to more effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion at times, but I also don’t think it was op­ti­mal by any means.)