Designing Rationalist Projects

Related to: Lessons from Latter-day Saints, Building Rationalist Communities overview, Holy Books (Or Rationalist Sequences) Don’t Implement Themselves

My thesis:

It doesn’t matter what ideas are conveyed on Less Wrong, or in LW meetings—the subset that matters is what group members resolved to do. Discussion of these ‘resolves’, and people’s experience doing them, is useful in creating an expectation that people level up their skills.

Intelligent discussion of ideas is always refreshing. But translating that into action is more difficult.

Our learned reflexes are deep. They need to be overridden. How? Practice.

One woman I taught in India, we’ll call her Girija, was 35 years old, extremely intelligent and really wanted to change her life but had incredibly low levels of self-confidence. Every time we met Girija, we’d have a really sharp discussion, followed by her pouring her heart out to us. It was the same every time, and though we enjoyed the visits, and the food she would feed us, she never seemed to be getting anywhere.

If she really wanted to fundamentally change her life, our weekly meetings weren’t enough. (Similarly, weekly meetups are a good start, but if you really want to be learning rationality you should be practicing every day.)

We felt that if Girija spent some time every day with her 9 year old daughter and live-in boyfriend, reading the scriptures together, they would be happier. We explained this to her frequently, and she said she would start—but she never did it.

One week, through cleverly calling Girija and chatting for 10 minutes every day, we got her to do it. After the week was over, we asked her how it went.

“You know, it was really good,” she said. “Sandeep and I have been getting along a lot better this week because we did that.”

It was like a light had turned on in her head. Because we followed up, she did it, and was far more motivated to do more things afterwards.[1]

Let me give two simple examples of goal, project, and follow-up.[2]

  • GOAL: To become better at noticing logical fallacies as they are being uttered

  • PROJECT: A certain Less Wrong group could watch a designated hour of C-SPAN—or a soap opera, or a TV show—and try to note down all the fallacies.

  • FOLLOW-UP: Discuss this on a designated thread. Afterwards, compile the arguments and link to the file, so that anyone in the LW community can repeat this on their own and check against your conclusions. Reflect communally at your next LW meeting.

  • GOAL: To get into less arguments about definitions.

  • PROJECT: “Ask, “Can you give me a specific example of that?” or “Can you be more concrete?” in everyday conversations.” Make a challenging goal about how much you will do this – this is pretty low-hanging fruit.

  • FOLLOW-UP: Write instances in your journal. Share examples communally at your next LW meeting.

I came up with these in about five minutes. Having spent more time in the community than me, you will all be able to generate more and better possibilities.

Some points about Projects:

  • Here are some ideas that can easily be made into Projects. Thanks commenters on the last post.

  • Projects don’t have to be group-based, but groups motivate doing stuff.

  • Projects should be more short than the above linked posts. The above Goal/​Project/​Follow-Up kernels are 85 and 57 words, respectively. Brevity is key to implementation.

  • There is currently no central database of Rationality Projects or people’s experiences trying to implement them. (Correct me if I’m wrong here.)

  • Feedback on implementation is essential for improving practices.

Finally, a really ‘low-cost’ way to make a project and follow up. Right before the conclusion of a Less Wrong group, give everyone a slip of paper and ask them to write down one thing they are going to do differently next week as a result of the discussion. For two minutes (total) at the beginning of the next meeting, let people tell what they did.

Some notes and warnings:

Doing this in a fraternalistic manner, not a paternalistic manner, will be a key to success.[3] Community agreement that We Should Do This is important before launching a Project.

Beware of the following tradeoff:

  • implementing Projects will alienate some people. Even if projects are determined by consensus, there will be some people who don’t want to do any Project, and they will feel marginalized and excluded.

  • not implementing Projects, people will improve their Rationality skills at a far slower pace. [4] You will thus run afoul of Bhagwat’s Law of Commitment: “The degree to which people identify with your group is directly proportional to the amount of stuff you tell them to do that works.” But ultimately, commitment drives growth. More leadership to organize stuff, more people bringing friends, and so on.

I will discuss this more later, along with possible solutions. Latter-day Saints, with a large emphasis on doing things, have high levels of commitment; however, there are definitely people who would come to church more if they were expected to do less.

Please post any ideas you have for Projects in the comments.

[1] Even subtracting the religious element, common goals reduce conflict.

[2] Here are some keys to following up that I learned. In two years, I probably applied this on about 600 people:

  • Following up is mere nagging (and equally ineffective) unless the person/​group actually wanted to do the task in the first place.

  • Congratulating people when they did do something was far more important than expressing disappointment when they didn’t do it – the 8020 rule applies.

  • I often felt afraid to ask someone if they had done what they promised to do, because they probably hadn’t, and I didn’t know what I should say then.

  • But awkwardness is contagious; if you act awkward when talking to someone, the other person will feel awkward too. Be genuinely excited, and they will also reflect this.

  • It’s all about how you ask the question. “How did you like reading X?” is far better than “Did you read X?”. Use humor and make the task seem easy to do.

  • Don’t be self-righteous; actively deprecate yourself if necessary.

  • Each person has different ways they like – and don’t like – being followed-up with.

[3] Coming from my experience as a Latter-day Saint missionary, my personal examples are all fairly paternalistic. With tweaks, they can all be made fraternalistic. The sentiment has been expressed that “I don’t like people telling me what to do”; this will avoid that pitfall.

[4] I say ‘far slower’ based on my missionary experience. When people were dedicated to specific projects, they seemed to improve a lot faster.