POSITION: Design and Write Rationality Curriculum

Update March 2012: We are still accepting and processing applications for this work on an ongoing basis.

Imagine trying to learn baseball by reading essays about baseball techniques. [1]

We’re trying to make the jump to teaching people rationality by, metaphorically speaking, having them throw, catch, and hit baseballs in the company of friends. And as we develop curriculum to do that, we’re noticing that we often improve quite a lot ourselves in the course of coming up with 20 examples of the sunk cost fallacy. This suggests that the best of us have a lot to gain from practicing basic skills more systematically. Quoth Anna Salamon:

There are huge numbers of basic, obviously useful rationality habits that I do about 10% as often as it would be useful to do them. Like “run cheap experiments/​tests often”, and “notice mental flinches, and track down the thought you’re avoiding”.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, Anna Salamon, several others paid on an hourly basis, and a few volunteers, have been designing exercises and exercise-sets for a rationality curriculum. Our current working point is on the exercises for “Motivated Cognition”. Currently the only completed session is “Sunk Costs”, which is still being tested—yes, we’re actually testing these things repeatedly as we build them. The main purpose of the sessions is to be performed in person, not read online, but nonetheless the current version of the Sunk Costs material—presentation and exercise booklets—is available as a sample: [0] [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]. This is a presentation on sunk costs in which background explanations are interspersed with “do as many of these exercises as you can in 3 minutes”, followed by “now pair up with others to do the ‘transfer step’ parts where you look for instances in your past life and probable future life.”

We’re looking for 1-2 fulltime employees who can help us build more things like that (unless the next round of tests shows that the current format doesn’t work), and possibly a number of hourly contractors (who may be local or distant). We will definitely want to try your work on an hourly or monthly basis before making any full-time hires.

The complete labor for building a rationality kata—we are not looking for someone who can do all of this work at once, we are looking for anyone who can do one or more steps—looks something like this:

Select an important rationality skill and clearly perceive the sort of thinking that goes into executing it. Invent several new exercises which make people’s brains execute that type of thinking. Compose many instances of those exercises. Compose any background explanations required for the skills. Figure out three things to tell people to watch out for, or do, over the next week. Turn all of that into a complete 90-minute user experience which includes random cute illustrations for the exercise booklets, designing graphics for any low-level technical points made, building a presentation, testing it in front of a live naive audience, making large changes, and testing it again.

We are not looking only for people who can do all of this labor simultaneously. If you think you can help on one or more of those steps, consider applying — for a full-time job, a part-time hourly gig (perhaps from a distance), or as a volunteer position. We will want anyone hired to try hourly work or a trial month before making any full-time hires. Salary will be SIAI-standard, i.e. $3K/​month, but if you do strong work and Rationality-Inst takes off your salary will eventually go much higher. Very strong candidates who can do large amounts of work independently may request higher salaries. You will be working mostly with Anna Salamon and will report to her (although in the short term you may also be working directly with Eliezer on the “isolate a useful skill and invent new exercises to develop it” phase).

If you think you have the idea for a complete rationality kata and want to develop the entire thing on your own, send us a short email about your idea—we’re open to setting a lump-sum price.

Skills needed:

We need folks with at least one of the following skills (do not feel you need them all; you’ll be part of a team; and repeated experience shows that the people we end up actually hiring, report that they almost didn’t contact us because they thought they weren’t worthy):

  • Catchy professional writing. We need folks who can take rough-draft exercises and explanations, and make them fun to read — at the level of published books.

  • Curriculum design. We need folks who can zoom in on the component skills for rationality (the analogs of throwing, catching, keeping your eye on the ball), and who can invent new exercises that systematically practice those components. E.g., the thought process that goes from “sunk cost fallacy” to “transform a sunk cost to a purchased option”.

  • Example generation. Given an exercise, we need someone who can think of lots of specific examples from real life or important real-world domains, which illustrate the exact intended point and not something almost-like the intended point. E.g., turn “Sunk cost fallacy” into 20 story snippets like “Lara is playing poker and has bet $200 in previous rounds...” (Our experience shows that this is a key bottleneck in writing a kata, and a surprisingly separate capacity from coming up with the first exercise.)

  • Teaching or tutoring experience in whichever subjects (e.g., math /​ programming /​ science, martial arts /​ sports /​ dance, cognitive behavioral therapy, corporate trainings, social skills, meditation);

  • Technical diagram design. We need someone who can be asked for “A diagram that somehow represents the human tendency to overweight near pains relative to distant pains”, understand the concept that is being conveyed, and invent a new diagram that conveys it.

  • Presentation design. The current intended form of a rationality kata involves a visual presentation with accompanying spoken words.

  • Powerpoint and Photoshop polishing. See above.

  • Illustration /​ cartooning. It would be nice if the exercises were accompanied by small, whimsical drawings. These drawings should prime the reader to both: (a) feel warmly toward the characters in the story-snippets (who will generally be struggling with rationality errors); (b) notice how ridiculous those characters, and the rest of us, are.

  • Social initiative enough to gather guinea pigs and run many practice trials of draft curriculum, while collecting data.


  • Skill at running scientific literature searches; knowledge of the heuristics and biases literature, the literature on how to teach critical thinking or rationality, neuroscience literature, or other literatures that should inform our curriculum design;

  • Background in game design, curriculum design, or in other disciplines that help with designing exercises that are fun and conducive to learning;

  • Having read and understood the core Sequences; having a serious interest in learning and teaching rationality.

If this project appeals to you and you think you may have something to add, apply using this short form or just shoot us an email. Please err on the side of applying; so many freaking amazing people have told us that they waited months before applying because they “didn’t want to waste our time”, or didn’t think they were good enough. This project needs many sorts of talents, and volunteers also welcome — so if you’d like to help launch an awesome curriculum, send us an email. Your email doesn’t have to be super-detailed or polished — just tell us how you might be able to contribute, and any experience we should know about.

[1] If the baseball analogy seems far-fetched, consider algebra. To learn algebra, one typically drills one subskill at a time — one spends a day on exponent rules, for example, understanding why x^a * x^b = x^(a+b) and then practicing it bunches of times, in bunches of algebra problems, until it is a part of your problem-solving habits and reflexes, a step you can do fluently while attending to larger puzzles. If there were a world in which algebra had been learned only through reading essays, without subskill-by-subskill practice, it would not be surprising if the world’s best algebra practitioners could be outperformed by an ordinary student who worked diligently through the exercises in a standard textbook. We’d like you to help us build that first textbook.