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.