Checklist of Rationality Habits

As you may know, the Cen­ter for Ap­plied Ra­tion­al­ity has run sev­eral work­shops, each teach­ing con­tent similar to that in the core se­quences, but made more prac­ti­cal, and more into fine-grained habits.
Below is the check­list of ra­tio­nal­ity habits we have been us­ing in the mini­camps’ open­ing ses­sion. It was co-writ­ten by Eliezer, my­self, and a num­ber of oth­ers at CFAR. As men­tioned be­low, the goal is not to as­sess how “ra­tio­nal” you are, but, rather, to de­velop a per­sonal shop­ping list of habits to con­sider de­vel­op­ing. We gen­er­ated it by ask­ing our­selves, not what ra­tio­nal­ity con­tent it’s use­ful to un­der­stand, but what ra­tio­nal­ity-re­lated ac­tions (or think­ing habits) it’s use­ful to ac­tu­ally do.
I hope you find it use­ful; I cer­tainly have. Com­ments and sug­ges­tions are most wel­come; it re­mains a work in progress. (It’s also available as a pdf.)
This check­list is meant for your per­sonal use so you can have a wish-list of ra­tio­nal­ity habits, and so that you can see if you’re ac­quiring good habits over the next year—it’s not meant to be a way to get a ‘how ra­tio­nal are you?’ score, but, rather, a way to no­tice spe­cific habits you might want to de­velop. For each item, you might ask your­self: did you last use this habit...
  • Never

  • To­day/​yesterday

  • Last week

  • Last month

  • Last year

  • Be­fore the last year

  1. Re­act­ing to ev­i­dence /​ sur­prises /​ ar­gu­ments you haven’t heard be­fore; flag­ging be­liefs for ex­am­i­na­tion.

    1. When I see some­thing odd—some­thing that doesn’t fit with what I’d or­di­nar­ily ex­pect, given my other be­liefs—I suc­cess­fully no­tice, pro­mote it to con­scious at­ten­tion and think “I no­tice that I am con­fused” or some equiv­a­lent thereof. (Ex­am­ple: You think that your flight is sched­uled to de­part on Thurs­day. On Tues­day, you get an email from Trav­e­loc­ity ad­vis­ing you to pre­pare for your flight “to­mor­row”, which seems wrong. Do you suc­cess­fully raise this anomaly to the level of con­scious at­ten­tion? (Based on the ex­pe­rience of an ac­tual LWer who failed to no­tice con­fu­sion at this point and missed their plane flight.)

    2. When some­body says some­thing that isn’t quite clear enough for me to vi­su­al­ize, I no­tice this and ask for ex­am­ples. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Eliezer: A math­e­mat­ics stu­dent said they were study­ing “stacks”. I asked for an ex­am­ple of a stack. They said that the in­te­gers could form a stack. I asked for an ex­am­ple of some­thing that was not a stack.) (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: Cat said that her boyfriend was very com­pet­i­tive. I asked her for an ex­am­ple of “very com­pet­i­tive.” She said that when he’s driv­ing and the per­son next to him revs their en­g­ine, he must be the one to leave the in­ter­sec­tion first—and when he’s the pas­sen­ger he gets mad at the driver when they don’t re­act similarly.)

    3. I no­tice when my mind is ar­gu­ing for a side (in­stead of eval­u­at­ing which side to choose), and flag this as an er­ror mode. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: No­ticed my­self ex­plain­ing to my­self why out­sourc­ing my clothes shop­ping does make sense, rather than eval­u­at­ing whether to do it.)

    4. I no­tice my mind flinch­ing away from a thought; and when I no­tice, I flag that area as re­quiring more de­liber­ate ex­plo­ra­tion. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: I have a failure mode where, when I feel so­cially un­com­fortable, I try to make oth­ers feel mis­taken so that I will feel less vuln­er­a­ble. Pul­ling this thought into words re­quired re­peated con­scious effort, as my mind kept want­ing to just drop the sub­ject.)

    5. I con­sciously at­tempt to wel­come bad news, or at least not push it away. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Eliezer: At a brain­storm­ing ses­sion for fu­ture Sin­gu­lar­ity Sum­mits, one is­sue raised was that we hadn’t re­ally been ask­ing for money at pre­vi­ous ones. My brain was offer­ing re­sis­tance, so I ap­plied the “bad news is good news” pat­tern to rephrase this as, “This point doesn’t change the fixed amount of money we raised in past years, so it is good news be­cause it im­plies that we can fix the strat­egy and do bet­ter next year.”)

  2. Ques­tion­ing and an­a­lyz­ing be­liefs (af­ter they come to your at­ten­tion).

    1. I no­tice when I’m not be­ing cu­ri­ous. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: When­ever some­one crit­i­cizes me, I usu­ally find my­self think­ing defen­sively at first, and have to vi­su­al­ize the world in which the crit­i­cism is true, and the world in which it’s false, to con­vince my­self that I ac­tu­ally want to know. For ex­am­ple, some­one crit­i­cized us for pro­vid­ing in­ad­e­quate prior info on what statis­tics we’d gather for the Ra­tion­al­ity Mini­camp; and I had to vi­su­al­ize the con­se­quences of [ex­plain­ing to my­self, in­ter­nally, why I couldn’t have done any bet­ter given ev­ery­thing else I had to do], vs. the pos­si­ble con­se­quences of [vi­su­al­iz­ing how it might’ve been done bet­ter, so as to up­date my ac­tion-pat­terns for next time], to snap my brain out of defen­sive-mode and into should-we-do-that-differ­ently mode.)

    2. I look for the ac­tual, his­tor­i­cal causes of my be­liefs, emo­tions, and habits; and when do­ing so, I can sup­press my mind’s search for jus­tifi­ca­tions, or set aside jus­tifi­ca­tions that weren’t the ac­tual, his­tor­i­cal causes of my thoughts. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: When it turned out that we couldn’t rent the Mini­camp lo­ca­tion I thought I was go­ing to get, I found lots and lots of rea­sons to blame the per­son who was sup­posed to get it; but re­al­ized that most of my emo­tion came from the fear of be­ing blamed my­self for a cost over­run.)

    3. I try to think of a con­crete ex­am­ple that I can use to fol­low ab­stract ar­gu­ments or proof steps. (Clas­sic ex­am­ple: Richard Feyn­man be­ing dis­turbed that Brazilian physics stu­dents didn’t know that a “ma­te­rial with an in­dex” meant a ma­te­rial such as wa­ter. If some­one talks about a proof over all in­te­gers, do you try it with the num­ber 17? If your thoughts are cir­cling around your room­mate be­ing messy, do you try check­ing your rea­son­ing against the speci­fics of a par­tic­u­lar oc­ca­sion when they were messy?)

    4. When I’m try­ing to dis­t­in­guish be­tween two (or more) hy­pothe­ses us­ing a piece of ev­i­dence, I vi­su­al­ize the world where hy­poth­e­sis #1 holds, and try to con­sider the prior prob­a­bil­ity I’d have as­signed to the ev­i­dence in that world, then vi­su­al­ize the world where hy­poth­e­sis #2 holds; and see if the ev­i­dence seems more likely or more speci­fi­cally pre­dicted in one world than the other (His­tor­i­cal ex­am­ple: Dur­ing the Amanda Knox mur­der case, af­ter many hours of po­lice in­ter­ro­ga­tion, Amanda Knox turned some cartwheels in her cell. The pros­e­cu­tor ar­gued that she was cel­e­brat­ing the mur­der. Would you, con­fronted with this ar­gu­ment, try to come up with a way to make the same ev­i­dence fit her in­no­cence? Or would you first try vi­su­al­iz­ing an in­no­cent de­tainee, then a guilty de­tainee, to ask with what fre­quency you think such peo­ple turn cartwheels dur­ing de­ten­tion, to see if the like­li­hoods were skewed in one di­rec­tion or the other?)

    5. I try to con­sciously as­sess prior prob­a­bil­ities and com­pare them to the ap­par­ent strength of ev­i­dence. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Eliezer: Used it in a con­ver­sa­tion about ap­par­ent ev­i­dence for para­psy­chol­ogy, say­ing that for this I wanted p < 0.0001, like they use in physics, rather than p < 0.05, be­fore I started pay­ing at­ten­tion at all.)

    6. When I en­counter ev­i­dence that’s in­suffi­cient to make me “change my mind” (sub­stan­tially change be­liefs/​poli­cies), but is still more likely to oc­cur in world X than world Y, I try to up­date my prob­a­bil­ities at least a lit­tle. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: Real­ized I should some­what up­date my be­liefs about be­ing a good driver af­ter some­one else knocked off my side mir­ror, even though it was legally and prob­a­bly ac­tu­ally their fault—even so, the ac­ci­dent is still more likely to oc­cur in wor­lds where my bad-driver pa­ram­e­ter is higher.)

  3. Han­dling in­ner con­flicts; when differ­ent parts of you are pul­ling in differ­ent di­rec­tions, you want differ­ent things that seem in­com­pat­i­ble; re­sponses to stress.
    1. I no­tice when I and my brain seem to be­lieve differ­ent things (a be­lief-vs-an­ti­ci­pa­tion di­ver­gence), and when this hap­pens I pause and ask which of us is right. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: Jump­ing off the Strato­sphere Ho­tel in Las Ve­gas in a wire-guided fall. I knew it was safe based on 40,000 data points of peo­ple do­ing it with­out sig­nifi­cant in­jury, but to per­suade my brain I had to vi­su­al­ize 2 times the pop­u­la­tion of my col­lege jump­ing off and sur­viv­ing. Also, my brain some­times seems much more pes­simistic, es­pe­cially about so­cial things, than I am, and is al­most always wrong.)

    2. When fac­ing a difficult de­ci­sion, I try to re­frame it in a way that will re­duce, or at least switch around, the bi­ases that might be in­fluenc­ing it. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna’s brother: Try­ing to de­cide whether to move to Sili­con Valley and look for a higher-pay­ing pro­gram­ming job, he tried a re­frame to avoid the sta­tus quo bias: If he was liv­ing in Sili­con Valley already, would he ac­cept a $70K pay cut to move to Santa Bar­bara with his col­lege friends? (An­swer: No.))

    3. When fac­ing a difficult de­ci­sion, I check which con­sid­er­a­tions are con­se­quen­tial­ist—which con­sid­er­a­tions are ac­tu­ally about fu­ture con­se­quences. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Eliezer: I bought a $1400 mat­tress in my quest for sleep, over the In­ter­net hence much cheaper than the mat­tress I tried in the store, but non-re­turn­able. When the new mat­tress didn’t seem to work too well once I ac­tu­ally tried sleep­ing nights on it, this was mak­ing me re­luc­tant to spend even more money try­ing an­other mat­tress. I re­minded my­self that the $1400 was a sunk cost rather than a fu­ture con­se­quence, and didn’t change the im­por­tance and scope of fu­ture bet­ter sleep at stake (oc­cur­ring once per day and a large effect size each day).

  4. What you do when you find your thoughts, or an ar­gu­ment, go­ing in cir­cles or not get­ting any­where.

    1. I try to find a con­crete pre­dic­tion that the differ­ent be­liefs, or differ­ent peo­ple, definitely dis­agree about, just to make sure the dis­agree­ment is real/​em­piri­cal. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Michael Smith: Some­one was wor­ried that ra­tio­nal­ity train­ing might be “fake”, and I asked if they could think of a par­tic­u­lar pre­dic­tion they’d make about the re­sults of run­ning the ra­tio­nal­ity units, that was differ­ent from mine, given that it was “fake”.)

    2. I try to come up with an ex­per­i­men­tal test, whose pos­si­ble re­sults would ei­ther satisfy me (if it’s an in­ter­nal ar­gu­ment) or that my friends can agree on (if it’s a group dis­cus­sion). (This is how we set­tled the run­ning ar­gu­ment over what to call the Cen­ter for Ap­plied Ra­tion­al­ity—Ju­lia went out and tested al­ter­nate names on around 120 peo­ple.)

    3. If I find my thoughts cir­cling around a par­tic­u­lar word, I try to taboo the word, i.e., think with­out us­ing that word or any of its syn­onyms or equiv­a­lent con­cepts. (E.g. won­der­ing whether you’re “smart enough”, whether your part­ner is “in­con­sid­er­ate”, or if you’re “try­ing to do the right thing”.) (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: Ad­vised some­one to stop spend­ing so much time won­der­ing if they or other peo­ple were jus­tified; was told that they were try­ing to do the right thing; and asked them to taboo the word ‘try­ing’ and talk about how their thought-pat­terns were ac­tu­ally be­hav­ing.)

  5. Notic­ing and flag­ging be­hav­iors (habits, strate­gies) for re­view and re­vi­sion.

    1. I con­sciously think about in­for­ma­tion-value when de­cid­ing whether to try some­thing new, or in­ves­ti­gate some­thing that I’m doubt­ful about. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Eliezer: Order­ing a $20 ex­er­cise ball to see if sit­ting on it would im­prove my alert­ness and/​or back mus­cle strain.) (Non-re­cent ex­am­ple from Eliezer: After sev­eral months of pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and due to Anna nag­ging me about the value of in­for­ma­tion, fi­nally try­ing out what hap­pens when I write with a paired part­ner; and find­ing that my writ­ing pro­duc­tivity went up by a fac­tor of four, liter­ally, mea­sured in words per day.)

    2. I quan­tify con­se­quences—how of­ten, how long, how in­tense. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: When we had Ju­lia take on the task of figur­ing out the Cen­ter’s name, I wor­ried that a cer­tain per­son would be offended by not be­ing in con­trol of the loop, and had to con­sciously eval­u­ate how im­prob­a­ble this was, how lit­tle he’d prob­a­bly be offended, and how short the offense would prob­a­bly last, to get my brain to stop wor­ry­ing.) (Plus 3 real cases we’ve ob­served in the last year: Some­one switch­ing ca­reers is afraid of what a par­ent will think, and has to con­sciously eval­u­ate how much emo­tional pain the par­ent will ex­pe­rience, for how long be­fore they ac­cli­mate, to re­al­ize that this shouldn’t be a dom­i­nant con­sid­er­a­tion.)

  6. Re­vis­ing strate­gies, form­ing new habits, im­ple­ment­ing new be­hav­ior pat­terns.

    1. I no­tice when some­thing is nega­tively re­in­forc­ing a be­hav­ior I want to re­peat. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: I no­ticed that ev­ery time I hit ‘Send’ on an email, I was vi­su­al­iz­ing all the ways the re­cip­i­ent might re­spond poorly or some­thing else might go wrong, nega­tively re­in­forc­ing the be­hav­ior of send­ing emails. I’ve (a) stopped do­ing that (b) in­stalled a habit of smil­ing each time I hit ‘Send’ (which pro­vides my brain a jolt of pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment). This has re­sulted in strongly re­duced pro­cras­ti­na­tion about emails.)

    2. I talk to my friends or de­liber­ately use other so­cial com­mit­ment mechanisms on my­self. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: Us­ing grapefruit juice to keep up brain glu­cose, I had some juice left over when work was done. I looked at Michael Smith and jok­ingly said, “But if I don’t drink this now, it will have been wasted!” to pre­vent the sunk cost fal­lacy.) (Ex­am­ple from Eliezer: When I was hav­ing trou­ble get­ting to sleep, I (a) talked to Anna about the dumb rea­son­ing my brain was us­ing for stay­ing up later, and (b) set up a sys­tem with Luke where I put a + in my daily work log ev­ery night I show­ered by my tar­get time for get­ting to sleep on sched­ule, and a — ev­ery time I didn’t.)

    3. To es­tab­lish a new habit, I re­ward my in­ner pi­geon for ex­e­cut­ing the habit. (Ex­am­ple from Eliezer: Mul­ti­ple ob­servers re­ported a long-term in­crease in my warmth /​ nice­ness sev­eral months af­ter… 3 re­peats of 4-hour writ­ing ses­sions dur­ing which, in pass­ing, I was re­warded with an M&M (and smiles) each time I com­pli­mented some­one, i.e., re­mem­bered to say out loud a nice thing I thought.) (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: Yes­ter­day I re­warded my­self us­ing a smile and happy ges­ture for notic­ing that I was do­ing a string of low-pri­or­ity tasks with­out do­ing the metacog­ni­tion for putting the top pri­ori­ties on top. Notic­ing a mis­take is a good habit, which I’ve been train­ing my­self to re­ward, in­stead of just feel­ing bad.)

    4. I try not to treat my­self as if I have magic free will; I try to set up in­fluences (habits, situ­a­tions, etc.) on the way I be­have, not just rely on my will to make it so. (Ex­am­ple from Ali­corn: I avoid learn­ing poli­ti­ci­ans’ po­si­tions on gun con­trol, be­cause I have strong emo­tional re­ac­tions to the sub­ject which I don’t en­dorse.) (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: I bribed Carl to get me to write in my jour­nal ev­ery night.)

    5. I use the out­side view on my­self. (Re­cent ex­am­ple from Anna: I like to call my par­ents once per week, but hadn’t done it in a cou­ple of weeks. My brain said, “I shouldn’t call now be­cause I’m busy to­day.” My other brain replied, “Out­side view, is this re­ally an un­usu­ally busy day and will we ac­tu­ally be less busy to­mor­row?”)