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Rationality Market Research

59 Post author: Raemon 14 July 2011 07:41PM

Several weeks ago, the NYC  Rationality Meetup Group began discussing outreach, both for  rationality in general and the group in particular. A lot of interesting problems were brought up. Should we be targeting the average person, or sticking to the cluster of personality-types that Less Wrong already attracts? How quickly should we introduce people to our community? What are the most effective ways to spread the idea of  rationality, and what are the most effective ways of actually encouraging people to undertake rational actions?

Those are all complex questions with complex answers, which are beyond the scope of this post. I ended up focusing on the question: "Is ' Rationality' the word we want to use when we're pitching ourselves?" I do not think it's worthwhile to try and change the central meme of the Less Wrong community, but it's not obvious that the new, realspace communities forming need to use the same central meme. 

This begat a simpler question: "What does the average person think of when they hear the word ' Rationality?' What positive or negative connotations does it have?" Do they think of straw vulcans and robots? Do they think of effective programmers or businessmen? Armed with this knowledge, we can craft a rationalist pitch that is likely to be effective at the average person, either by challenging their conception of  rationality or by bypassing keywords that might set off memetic immune systems.

This question has an empirical answer. A few weeks ago I made some effort to answer it. I did not get a huge array of data, but I got enough that I thought I should share it, and I'd encourage others to go out and find their own data points. Ideally someone would make a website that somehow sorts that data (and in the process hopefully get a more structured experimental setup, since mine was rather freeform.)

I work in a tall office building in NYC. Each day, I ride an elevator up to the 30th floor. At least some of those times, I find myself alone with people for 30 seconds. I started asking those people what they thought about " Rationality." My first encounter went like this:

 

 

Subject: Female Asian Approx 30
Me: "Excuse me, I was wondering, when I say the word " Rationality" what images and feelings immediately come to mind?
Woman: (Neutral but curious expression) " Rationality?"
Me: If someone were to describe themselves as a Rationalist, what would you assume about them?
Woman: Well Rationalism sounds like a particular philosophy I haven't heard of, but  Rationality just sounds like... (doesn't use a word but has an expression that seemed to indicate " Rationality is common sense, everyone uses that")
Me: That's pretty much it. A rationalist is just someone trying their best to act Rational.
Woman: "Oh." (Elevator opens, she departed with an expression suggesting neutral-postive-ish feelings, confused as to why the question was a big deal)

Over the next few subjects, I adjusted my starter-question to get to the point faster. I'm including all the data for completeness sake, but if other people want to help with this, I recommend using the question I eventually settled on. The rest of my encounters went as follows (if the conversation ends abruptly, assume the elevator door opened and the person stepped out). Afterwards I'll share some thoughts.

Subject: Female, 70s, White
(This is my conversation with my Grandmother, a musician and therapist who was helping me write a Rational Humanist song. We'd just had a lengthy conversation about my beliefs. I asked her to pretend we hadn't had that conversation and answer the question)
Me: What do you think of when you hear the word  Rationality? What would you think of someone who identified as a Rationalist?
Her: I mostly think of clients [in Therapy] who try too hard to distance themselves from their emotions. 
Me: Does it remind you of "Spock" from Star Trek?
Her: He's not really what comes to my mind, but I think people who obsess over  rationality are out of touch with their emotions.
(In this particular case I had the time to discuss the issue in detail and clarify that  rationality can mean being more, not less, in touch with your emotions)

Subject: Male, early 30s (Italian? There's a cluster of ethnicities I have trouble distinguishing between. Not sure if it matters anyway)
(The man had a slight smile on his face most of the time, with a mixture of complex expressive details. I know just enough facial recognition to know that I had no idea what he was thinking the whole time)
Me: "I'm just curious, if someone were to describe themselves as a Rationalist to you, what thoughts and images would come to your mind:
Man: "Rationalist?" 
Me: "Yeah. What stereotypes would come to mind?"
Man: "Hmm. Pragmatic. But a little naive."
Me: Interesting. What do you mean?
Man: "I just don't think you can realistically expect people to act rationally."

Subject: Male, early 40s, White
Me: "I'm just curious, if someone were to describe themselves as a Rationalist to you, what stereotypes would come to your mind about that person?
Man: "Heh. Normal. Clear headed. Rational. I dunno. Why? Someone call you that?
Me: "Heh, no. Well, yeah. I'm part of a group whose looking into branding issues and getting a sense of general reactions to the word."
Man: "Yeah, well anyone who doesn't like the word is being irrational."

Subject: Woman, 50s, White
Me: "I'm just curious, if someone were to describe themselves as a Rationalist to you, what stereotypes would come to your mind about that person?
Woman: "Hmm. Conservative. Practical."
Me: "Conservative. Do you mean politically?"
Woman. "Yeah. Well, in every way really. Politically conservative, practically conservative."
Woman exits.
I didn't have time to figure out whether for her, "conservative" was a word with positive or negative implications. (My guess was positive, with 65% probability).

Subject: Man, 60s-70s, White
Me: "I'm just curious, if someone were to describe themselves as a Rationalist to you, what stereotypes would come to your mind about that person?
Man. "I don't know. I  think when people rationalize they end up slipping down a path that ends up making bad decisions."
Me: "Do you see a difference between  Rationality and Rationalization?"
I can't remember exactly how he responded but it basically amounted to "no." On one hand, this guy is probably out of our demographic bracket, but I expect this particular problem to come up a lot. 

Subject: Female, late 20s, White
Me: "I'm just curious, if someone were to describe themselves as a Rationalist to you, what stereotypes would come to your mind about that person?
Woman: "I can't answer that."
30 seconds of awkward silence.

Subject: Woman, Approx 30s, White

(Standard intro: "what stereotypes come to mind")


Woman: "Realistic"
Me: "Oh?"
Woman: "Yeah. Why?"
Me: "We're doing some  market  research and trying to see what gut reactions we'd get if we used a particular name. Like some people hear the world Rationalist and they think 'cold and emotionless'"
Woman, "No, I don't think that at all. Just able to look realistically at things."
(As a rule of thumb I'm not sure I should explain myself in as much detail, especially not leaving people with the specific phrase "cold and emotionless" in case they weren't already thinking it. But in this case it worked out)

Subject: 
 Male, 50ish
Man: "Someone who likes to break things down to a [ground?] level" (can't recall his exact phrasing).
Me: "And is that a good or bad thing?"
Man: Could be either. Some people break things down just to be an asshole. Other people actually are trying to get something done."
Me: "Ah"
Man: "And sometimes you don't want someone to break things down, sometimes you want someone who doesn't lose track [of the big picture?]" (can't remember exact phrasing)
Me: Well  Rationality doesn't necessarily mean you lose track of the big picture....
(door opens, guy gets off, I feel like I messed up a bit there.)

Closing Thoughts
I felt like I had a lot of data, and that I had overall gotten a fairly positive response. I wasn't sure  Rationality was the most effective word for outreach, but I thought that the benefits of "reclaiming" the word as something with positive connotations outweighed the lukewarm responses I sometimes got.
Then I looked back and realized I'd only actually talked to 9 people. Which is not a lot. I stopped doing it for a while but I'll try and get some more data. I invite others to either help with this particular question, or to start forming other questions and getting some feedback on them. I did my questioning in one specific building, which I think had a decent cross section of people, but was still heavily tilted towards upper-middle-class, middle-aged white people, working in central Manhattan. We'll want more variety than that.
I'm sure many of you spend time standing in lines, waiting in elevators or otherwise hanging around other people in awkward silence. This is an opportunity to take that time and convert it into useful information. Most of those people will never see you again, so there's little risk of losing status.
If you are someone who shies away from social encounters, this would probably be a good experience for you. It requires a bit of courage, but it's a fear you can overcome, and helps develop the skill of initiating conversations with strangers. (It does NOT necessarily teach you good conversation techniques, since you're asking specific questions that do not make good "traditional" smalltalk, but if you have trouble initiating in the first place, it's probably more important to work on that than to worry about specific ways of conversing).
So far I've deliberately avoided asking people when there was more than one person there. Partly this was because was still a little scared and the bigger groups were even more intimidating. Partly because I was concerned about the group influencing the individual responses. (This is easy to avoid if you're in an elevator, less easy if you're waiting in a line. Not sure what I recommend there). 
Some things this was lacking:
1) A control group. "Positive" responses may have just been polite, regardless of the subject matter. At this point I don't think the effort and consequences of a control group are really worth it, but we should at least acknowledge the issue. 
2) More consistent followup statements/questions, so that all the data is based on similar input.
3) Later on, a variety of DIFFERENT statements/questions, so we can see how much has to do with  rationality and how much has to do with our phrasing. Also, just come up with new questions in general.
4) It's been suggested that I record people's responses with a hidden camera, then ask permission to use it after the fact. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It'd definitely be useful to have the real responses rather than my recollections of them, but this requires a bit more courage than I feel like I have. Hidden microphone might be more workable (I recently discovered that iPhones have pretty awesome voice memo capabilities. Which makes sense, given that audio-input is their original function). This has the added benefit of giving you feedback on your communication skills as well.
5) I mentioned before: it'd be great if someone could set up a website designed to sort this data, and it'd be even better if it was designed to handle a variety of related topics as well. Obviously the free form responses don't lend themselves well to sorting, but I think we can at least sort by:
a) demographics of the subject
b) subjective impression of how "positive" the subject was towards  rationality
c) somehow cluster responses by keywords

If the conversation has time to go anywhere, it'll be important to have an actual, good, positive definition of rationality to give to people. (Using a particular phrase can tie in with point 2 above, so we have an easier time comparing conversations). The new intro on the front page of Less Wrong is pretty good but a little too long. My recommended definition for a short, casual conversation: 
"Rationality is the study of making good decisions. We're trying to improve our understanding of how the world works and what we can do to achieve our goals."
Edit:
Does anyone know if I set up a Google Docs form, can I make it public? 
If so I can actually get a repository for the data up pretty soon, but it leaves me with a new question: Outside of a America, what's the typical breakdowns for racial background? (i.e. in America you generally say "African American" which is just silly in a potentially international audience, or "Black" which is accurate but has come to sound a bit unprofessional)
Edit 2: 
I created a Google Docs form. It should be available here.  Let me know if you have any comments/critiques.

Comments (86)

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 14 July 2011 06:49:05AM 25 points [-]

Upvoted for actually going out and asking real people.

Comment author: dripgrind 14 July 2011 08:47:42PM 2 points [-]

Putting up a poll on Livejournal would also constitute "asking real people". Obviously an LJ poll isn't going to deliver a representative sample or actionable information - but then again, neither is asking 9 people who work in your building in New York.

Comment author: dripgrind 14 July 2011 08:40:56PM 20 points [-]

It's definitely a good idea to do this.

But the way you've set about doing it isn't going to produce any worthwhile data.

I'm no expert on branding and market research, but I'm pretty sure that the best practice in the field isn't having conversations with 9 non-random strangers in a lift (asking different leading questions each time) then bunging it in Google Docs and getting other people to add more haphazard data in the hope that someone will make a website that sorts it all out.

First you need to define the question you're asking. Exactly which sub-population are you interested in? You start off asking about "the average person"'s attitude to rationality, suggesting that maybe you want to gauge attitudes across the whole (US?) population. But then you decide that the 60+ man is "outside our demographic bracket", although your 70+ grandmother apparently isn't.

Either way, the set of [people who work in your office building plus your grandmother] might not constitute a representative sample of the population of the USA, let alone everyone in the world. Getting people who frequent Less Wrong to ask people they cross paths with isn't going to be a representative sample of all people - you can see that, right?

The most efficient way to answer your question is likely to be piggybacking on existing polling organisations. Now, it's probably true that corporate marketing/branding "researchers" have a bias towards confirming what the bosses want to hear - I was just reading this Robin Hanson article about how people don't evaluate the quality of predictions after the fact: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2011/07/13/robin-hanson/who-cares-about-forecast-accuracy/ - but still, I think it would be better to at least consider that there are organisations whose job it is to find the general public reaction to a "brand".

You could find someone who works for such an organisation and suborn them to add an extra question to a proper survey. That way you could gather the reactions of 1000 or 10,000 demographically-representative people in a single action. Let's not waste our time dicking around uploading meaningless data to Google Docs.

A good target in the UK would be YouGov.

I also think it's pointless to worry about a concise definition of rationality until it's been determined that "rationality" is in fact a good brand for public consumption. What if it turns out that the term "rationality" makes 60% of people instantly hostile? Do the research first, then start proselytising.

I find it interesting that the response to this article hasn't overwhelmingly been about criticising Raemon's methodology. Is that because LessWrong members fallaciously assume that attempting to measure the public's subjective, irrational responses to a word doesn't need to be carried out in an objective, rational manner? Or is it, as I increasingly suspect as I edit and re-edit this comment, that I'm a total dick?

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 09:44:19PM *  7 points [-]

I actually mostly agree with you. I hesitated a long time before posting this because I didn't think I had enough/the-right-kind of work done to justify sharing. But ultimately, the reason I posted it is the same reason I still think it's a good idea: Action is better than inaction, and a big problem I think people in our demographic face is overthinking and underdoing. Michaelos' recent post in another thread strikes me as very true. (It may not, in fact, be true, but it definitely matches up with other things I know). If I'm taking actions to solve a problem, I can learn from my mistakes, get feedback and try new approaches. (Thank you for your feedback, by the way.)

There are already half-baked efforts to "expand the rationality movement" underway. A half-baked attempt to figure out if that's even the right goal is not ideal, but I think it's better than nothing.

I didn't spend otherwise important, productive time doing this. I was converting useless time in an elevator into:

1) Some new information about what people think about rationality 2) Some new information about how to ask people questions and get productive answers 3) Practice at talking to random people in general 4) Practice talking about rationality without evangelizing (yes, I realize I didn't do a great job at it, but it's something that I can only improve at with practice)

(I didn't see the definition as important so I could start deliberately evangelizing, but so that if the conversation went in a particular direction we'd have something ready to say)

I DID spend "potential productive" time writing up this report and setting up the google doc, but that was time that taught me how to write up a Less Wrong post and your feedback has given me things to think about to improve for next time, so thank you for that.

We talked about hiring real researchers at our meetups. We didn't end up doing it, mostly because from everything we knew, the official channels to do so were expensive and we had no idea what nonofficial channels we might successfully work with. If you do have recommendations on how to actually go about this, that'd be great.

But regardless, I think this is was a useful exercise for me and I think it would be a useful exercise for many people here. The current data set is near useless, but the experience acquiring it was not, and I think as I/we got better at acquiring data it could become less useless. Even if we got a more scientifically useful polling company to answer the specific question "What do people think about the word rationality?" I think it would still be useful for us to practice talking to people about it.

Writing everything down on a google doc might not actually be useful for the purpose of evaluating the information accurately, but it gets us into the practice of recording and checking over data.

Comment author: dripgrind 14 July 2011 10:46:56PM 12 points [-]

Action can be way worse than inaction, if what you end up doing is misleading yourself or doing harm to your cause.

I don't think what you've done is necessarily misleading or harmful, as long as you don't consider it anything more than incomplete, qualitative research into the range of responses the word "rationality" gets from random people.

But you really, really need to decide what the point of this exercise is. Are you trying to gather useful data, or make people feel more positive about rationality, or just get comfortable talking to random people? It kind of seems like at the moment, you mainly want to find post-hoc reasons why the exercise was "useful".

Here's my suggestion: if you're trying to do a survey, decide on your demographic(s) of interest. Get everyone on Less Wrong to ask around until they find a sympathiser who works in a branding/marketing survey organisation, and can slip in an extra question in a survey, asking how people respond to the term "rationality".

Failing that, collaboratively draw up a proper survey protocol and get Less Wrongers to administer it to a random sample of a people. Think it through before you do it: e.g. stopping people outside on the street would be more representative than limiting it to a certain building. You could signal that you're an official survey person by carrying a clipboard (not by wielding a recording device). You could improve participation by stating initially that you only have one question which will take 15 seconds, then not trying to start a discussion. You could improve participation among younger women by making it clear that you're doing a survey, so they're not concerned you're trying to start an abstract philosophical conversation as a pretext to get them into bed.

I think this could have great potential, especially if you comparatively test alternative terms to "rationality". Richard Dawkins tried to popularise the term "Brights" for people who don't believe in the supernatural. If he'd done even the amount of field testing you have already done, he would have realised it sounds unsufferably smug. So I think your impulse to do market research is a good one.

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 11:16:37PM *  2 points [-]

It kind of seems like at the moment, you mainly want to find post-hoc reasons why the exercise was "useful".

I did use all of those reasons to justify why I thought I should do it beforehand. But I have noticed myself repeating those reasons to make myself feel more justified. (Also possible that my primary motivation in doing so in the first place was the social-skill development one)

In any case, I think your recommendations for how to proceed are good ones.

Comment author: dripgrind 14 July 2011 11:41:00PM 2 points [-]

Another idea - if you can't find someone skilled in market research to do this for you at a discount or free, read a textbook about how to assess potential new brands to help with designing the survey.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 15 July 2011 03:56:03PM 1 point [-]

I agree that it looks useful in the sense of poking around to find out what sort of questions you want to ask in a more formal survey.

Comment author: JackEmpty 15 July 2011 01:07:52PM 0 points [-]

Or is it, as I increasingly suspect as I edit and re-edit this comment, that I'm a total dick?

Upvoted for having a very good point, downvoted for being a dick, then upvoted again for having attempted to edit out dickishness :D

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 14 July 2011 09:03:10PM 17 points [-]

Just a note about analyzing this sort of data: almost anything you do can affect responses one way or another. The inflection of your voice, facial expressions, etc, let alone who is asking the subject. I've helped run an economic experiment where we recruited subjects in a shopping mall. Both the person who recruited the subject (we had two recruiters) and the person who read the instructions (we had two instructors as well, distinct from the recruiters) were significantly associated with the response, both more so than any other covariate.

I don't bring this up to say that what your doing is worthless, just to say be careful what conclusions you draw, especially if you don't have a standardized procedure across all subjects.

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 09:45:15PM 0 points [-]

Agreed.

Comment author: Spurlock 17 July 2011 07:24:05PM 14 points [-]

There's a skill I learned in a creative writing class once: the ability to shut up completely and accept feedback. If someone said they felt your character was unsympathetic, you weren't allowed to explain the deeper aspects of his/her personality you were hinting at, or accuse the reader of missing the point. The reason being that in general authors don't get a chance to argue with their readers: your writing stands or falls on its own merit. So hearing a person's unmassaged reaction was useful and valuable feedback that you could use to actually improve the text and do better next time. Trying to change their mind was a waste of everybody's time.

The only reason I bother relating the whole anecdote is that I think it generalizes to a useful life skill. My specific point is just that I think it would be good to keep separate the attempt to discover a person's natural reaction to the word 'rationality' and the attempt to change their conception of it. Obviously changing a person's mind about rationality is something we'll want to get better at eventually, but we should first focus on learning what our starting point is. Resist the urge to defend rationality, and focus on getting as much useful information as possible about just what we're up against.

Lastly, as others have noted, props for actually going out and getting data. Arguing is fun, but empiricism is a much greater ally.

Comment author: jasonkostempski 15 July 2011 04:21:44AM *  13 points [-]

What if the question were phrased "I'm doing some market research. What thoughts come to mind when you hear the word 'rationality'?". Honest and to the point. To me the phrase "I'm just curious" leads immediately to suspicion (i.e. You're not 'just curious', you have a reason for asking. What is that reason? ... (drifting thoughts of your reasons for asking)). "If someone were to describe themselves as a Rationalist...", my first thought, "You mean yourself, don't you?". "what stereotypes would come to your mind about that person?" immediately puts me in a negative mindset since I already associate the word 'stereotype' with negative characteristics of a certain group. I know 'stereotype' doesn't always mean 'negative stereotype' but, to me, it signals an inaccurate map warning, and I think most people first associate that word with something like "Asians can't drive" instead of "Asians are really good at math".

Comment author: JoshuaZ 15 July 2011 04:10:56PM *  7 points [-]

This seems like a good approach to get data on what the actual connotations are. There do seem to be two small concerns: First, if a stranger came up to me and asked what I thought about when I heard a certain word and that word was sufficiently abstract, I'd assign a very high probability that it was some religious or ideological group trying to missionize. That could alter how people respond, although I'm not sure exactly how it will do so. The other issue is that if someone asks about a specific word, they probably have a positive view of that word, so desire for politeness might cause one to be more positive when describing what you think.

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 14 July 2011 09:20:46PM *  7 points [-]

This is pretty cool stuff. Upvoted for multiple reasons.

If I may please make a suggestion: I'd avoid suggesting the answers to your subjects. If they don't mention Spock (or some other stereotype you're prepared to knock down), you don't need to mention Spock. Just listen to what they actually are saying, even (especially?) when it's something you didn't predict.

Also, you probably already know this, but at least two of your cases kinda felt like that so I'll say it anyway: avoid being a Jehova's Witness. Or at least a clumsy JW. By this I mean, in my experience they start with "what do you think about [some world/morality issue x]?" and jump too quickly to telling you that they have the answers. Most people probably don't walk away feeling positively about your message if you give them the impression that you only pretended to be interested in what they actually thought, but merely wanted to preach.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in any of the sciences or professions that would make me qualified to opine on things like this. The above is just what seems to make sense to me.

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 09:25:46PM 4 points [-]

Definitely agree with your points.

I did realize the "don't use negative words when they haven't mentioned them yet" but kept doing it by accident, and I was very much aware of the clumsy JW issue. Dealing with those issues requires me to override some natural tendencies which can only be done with practice.

Comment author: Darmani 14 July 2011 06:23:01PM 7 points [-]

I'm curious how varying the "opener" will affect the responses. Here are a few off the top of my head:

Opener #1: "Hey, what would you think of someone who calls themselves a rationalist? I was interviewing this guy the other day, and I asked him what words he'd use to describe himself, and that was the first thing out of his mouth. I've never heard that response before, and don't know what to think."

Opener #2: "Hey, so, I met this guy the other day, and he was going on and on about how he was a huge rationalist. That's not really something I've seen anyone do. What would you make of someone like that?"

Opener #3: "So, I have a friend who's thinking about joining/starting a 'Rationality Club.' I don't really know what to say about that, other than that it sounds a bit [pause] unique. What kind of people would you expect at a 'Rationality club?'"

These are designed to do several things. First, by describing a specific incident, it puts them in near mode, and gets them to imagine what they'd actually think. Second, they have a livelier and more conversational phrasing, which should help in getting people to open up. Third, by distancing yourself from the label, it makes them free to not be polite to the word.

These are completely untested, though I might give them a try tonight.

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 06:42:51PM *  5 points [-]

In general I like this idea, although this feels a little weirder to me as a way to start a conversation with a random person I don't know. And not just in a "people don't normally talk like that" way, but a "people don't normally talk like that and therefore this guy smells fishy to me.... why is he suddenly talking to me about this guy he was interviewing?"

Comment author: Darmani 14 July 2011 08:58:34PM 1 point [-]

I look way too young to be interviewing people, so I personally would not use that one; it would indeed "smell fishy," and, seeing as I actually don't interview people, I would not be able to do it naturally. Otherwise, it would be fairly normal to talk about interview candidates if they're on your mind; just a few months ago, a professor called me as I walked by his office and started wondering aloud whether to hire a guy (though the professor was very much not a stranger).

On the other hand, it's actually true that I hear people talking about joining a rationality club or being rationalists, so I could probably use the other two off fairly naturally.

I'd agree though with your overall concerns; these might work better as the first thing you say after "Hi, I'm Ray" (in a context where that's appropriate) than as true openers. I've nonetheless definitely seen these kinds of lines work in starting conversations with random strangers.

Comment author: bojangles 15 July 2011 09:41:46PM 6 points [-]

I do it in a roundabout way. I've gotten far fewer people started off by trying to teach them about biases directly than by saying "dude check out this fanfic it's awesome HARRY'S A SCIENTIST," or by showing them Crab Canon from Godel Escher Bach and telling them the rest of the book's just as much fun, or by showing them the game of life. Once they're hooked on these marvelous new ways of thinking, I show them the blog.

Comment author: Raemon 15 July 2011 10:02:10PM 4 points [-]

The goal here isn't to spread the rationality meme - it's to figure out whether "rationality" is a good word to use to describe the set of ideas contained within the rationality meme.

Methods of Rationality and the Game of Life are only interesting to a narrow portion of the population. My dad's a rational guy and I thought he'd like Methods of Rationality - he hated it. The people who've liked it that I've shown it to are almost exactly in my demographic - 20 something males who already nerdy, geeky, and have similar sense of humor to me.

I think Rationality is important enough that we should not be limiting ourselves to that demographic. At the very least it warrants our consideration.

I'm thinking of doing a followup post that takes a step back and talks about the questions I set aside in my first paragraph, to discuss the overall problem more thoroughly before getting too attached to particular solutions.

Comment author: lythrum 18 July 2011 08:19:30PM 1 point [-]

I've had mostly negative reactions to Methods of Rationality from 20-something males (and a few females) who are nerdy and geeky and mostly already like GEB, so I agree that this community needs other methods of marketing.

Comment author: Nornagest 18 July 2011 09:04:54PM *  6 points [-]

Reaction to Methods seems highly polarized: almost every review of it I've seen either falls over itself to gush or sees it as pretentious and self-indulgent. Age and gender seem to matter less, by that stage, than contrarian tendencies and tolerance for what tvtropes calls an author tract, but the demographics of fanfiction readers are weighted heavily towards people in their teens and twenties already, so samples of older readers are small. The particular characteristics of Methods do probably push it towards the older end of the scale.

Since that's more or less the demographic that LW attracts already, I'd say that Methods, and the rational fic meme more generally, are effective as advertising but ineffective in broadening the site's appeal.

Comment author: lythrum 18 July 2011 11:00:20PM 2 points [-]

Your first paragraph rings true to me: the complaints I've heard are basically those you mentioned.

My friends are mostly fairly contrarian late-twenties male engineering, computing science and math people. I think that apart from not enjoying Methods, they're pretty much the usual LW demographic. That's part of the reason I was surprised when they didn't like Methods. There are lots of possible reasons for this (to me) surprising result. Maybe they thought I didn't like it, and wanted to mirror that back. Maybe they're a group already biased against LW. Maybe they actually just dislike the writing style. Who knows? If they don't enjoy Eliezer's writing style, then maybe LW is not a good place for them to hang out, so it doesn't matter that it didn't work as advertising on them.

Do you think that LW doesn't need other methods of marketing?

Comment author: Raemon 20 July 2011 05:26:51AM 0 points [-]

There are people on Less Wrong who dislike Methods. But I suspect Eliezer's other book will do a decent job of attracting those that don't like cock!Harry.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 18 July 2011 10:20:16PM 0 points [-]

I'm a 50-something woman, and pretty fond of Methods. I like the earlier (more contrarian) parts best.

Comment author: taryneast 18 July 2011 11:53:03AM *  0 points [-]

20 something males who already nerdy, geeky, and have similar sense of humor to me.

You can add 20-30-something females that are nerdy, geeky and probably have a similar sense of humour to you ;)

I have a minimum of two data points for that demographic ;)

That being said - I agree it should not be our only avenue or our only target demographic. But even if we expand readership/membership in just the geek demographic we can considerably improve our numbers.

Comment author: bojangles 15 July 2011 09:55:52PM 2 points [-]

From such experience, this might be a fruitful approach to trying to shift the gender imbalance in the community. It's unfortunate that describing oneself as a rationalist can have the potential to come across as having a superiority complex, and doubly unfortunate is how common-place is the meme of rationality being a "men's" thing (all women are slaves to their bleeding vaginas, amirite?)

A possible consequence of this is that, when it's phrased explicitly as such, the idea of a "rationality community" conjures up images of boorish men talking about how "you're irrational if you get offended when I say women are sluts who always cheat! IT'S SCIENCE!", which is not at all an inviting atmosphere.

Stuff like that is something that does itself need to be combated, but in the meantime, books like GEB perfectly illustrate how whimsical and fun - AND WELCOMING - real rationality can be, introducing important concepts and making the reader feel brilliant and excited to learn, without the triggering the defensiveness that can occur through the implication that, if I want to teach you rationality it must mean I think you're "not good enough" the way you are.

Comment author: taryneast 18 July 2011 11:56:46AM *  2 points [-]

Totally agree. I'll also add the invalid sterotype of "rationality is emotionless" slams smack bang into the equally invalid stereotype of "women are supposed to be emotional beings"... which doesn't help.

Comment author: Michelle_Z 16 July 2011 01:15:41AM 2 points [-]

What does "GEB" stand for?

So far I've encountered that people think rationalists are "smarter" and perhaps "intellectual snobs." I have not come across anyone saying they would disapprove of a rationalist community, but so far have not found anyone that thinks the idea of being around those people would be a good thing. I think the exact quote would be "they would analyze everything I say." or something to that effect.

The intellectual snob bit needs to be weeded out, along with the idea that it's not a welcoming place to discuss ideas.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 July 2011 01:21:29AM *  2 points [-]
Comment author: Michelle_Z 16 July 2011 08:37:25PM 0 points [-]

It looks interesting. I will pick it up and read it.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 15 July 2011 03:15:45PM *  6 points [-]

Each day, I ride an elevator up to the 30th floor. At least some of those times, I find myself alone with people for 30 seconds. I started asking those people what they thought about " Rationality."

I never engage strangers in situations in which the stranger cannot escape because their reactions in that situation are much less helpful than otherwise, but perhaps you are much better at putting people at their ease than I am. ADDED. Replace "engage" above with "initiate conversations with".

Comment author: Raemon 15 July 2011 03:51:40PM 2 points [-]

You never engage period, or you think that it's a bad plan for market research in particular?

I generally don't bother people on subways because they'll be trapped with me for 10+ minutes, which can be uncomfortable/intimidating. I don't think it's as big an issue on an elevator. By the time they've determined that they don't want to talk to me, it's not much longer before they get off. I don't think the 30 seconds of awkward silence ruined the woman's day in the third-to-last example.

(I also just greet people in the elevator in general when I'm not doing rationality-market research. I generally get good responses, and when I don't I just shrug and let them be. I could be persuaded that this is overall bad-for-the-world, but I doubt it)

As for the actual market-research effectiveness, it'd take a lot of data to see if people tend to have different responses in elevators vs. on the street. I'd be interested in seeing the difference, but most of the responses I got on the elevator matched up with my assumptions about the types of responses I'd be getting.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 16 July 2011 01:24:06PM *  1 point [-]

You never engage period, or you think that it's a bad plan for market research in particular?

I never initiate conversations with strangers in elevators period.

. . . subways . . .

I can recall at least 3 times that I have initiated conversations with strangers on what passes for subways in the Bay Area (Bay Area Rapid Transit) during non-commute hours. It is always easy for a non-handicapped person on what passes for subways out here during non-commute hours to walk to the next train.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 15 July 2011 01:11:00AM 6 points [-]

For what it's worth, although I used to have the impression that folks in the LW cluster were especially impressive, I don't have that impression any more. My impression is that the LW cluster represents a very small fraction of the folks who have our median level of innate intelligence and rationality--seems likely that you could do just as well picking random proficient computer programmers, and much better by, say, picking computer programmers who work for tech companies with highly selective hiring processes.

I also think it's worthwhile for us on LW to try to find the best quality people we can to infect with our rationality meme.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 16 July 2011 11:06:05PM 2 points [-]

Yes. Beware self-selection in general is a good heuristic. I question how much more effective LW is making anyone vs LW self selecting for people who are already generally good at the sorts of behaviors LW encourages.

OTOH this isn't necessarily a bad thing, gathering successful people under a common banner is useful.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 15 July 2011 03:58:14PM 1 point [-]

Why did you think LW would have a high proportion of the smart and rational people?

Comment author: JackEmpty 14 July 2011 01:01:46PM 6 points [-]

I think I'll start doing this.

And regarding #4, I think that a phone recording audio in a shirt pocket to aid later transcription wouldn't be amiss. Maybe putting the audio up online would, but in the news/reporting field it's pretty standard practice to have audio going while interviewing.

Also, if you [have/know somone with] a fairly "official-looking" camera with an externally attachable interview-style microphone, then you can go around and do some street spots with less awkwardness. When people see somone talking to a person on the street like that, they get the impression it's one-on-one. And if you approach someone, they'll be more likely to be comfortable with an interview-style conversation.

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 01:12:26PM 2 points [-]

Also, if you [have/know somone with] a fairly "official-looking" camera with an externally attachable interview-style microphone, then you can go around and do some street spots with less awkwardness. When people see somone talking to a person on the street like that, they get the impression it's one-on-one. And if you approach someone, they'll be more likely to be comfortable with an interview-style conversation.

This sounds accurate.

Comment author: juliawise 10 August 2011 01:43:48AM 5 points [-]

When I tried to explain Less Wrong to my father (60ish white man), his response was, "I bet a lot of those people don't have cars." From which I think he meant that "rationalists" meant "people who are eccentric in the same ways you are".

Comment author: Raemon 24 October 2011 05:19:18PM 2 points [-]

Well, most of the people in the NYC group do not, in fact, have cars, but that's probably largely because... we live in NYC.

Comment author: [deleted] 14 July 2011 02:08:12PM *  5 points [-]

Here's two more samples for you. Both subjects are Indian, male, late twenties, highly educated and fluent in English. These are chat transcripts (used with permission):

Roshni: if someone were to describe themselves as a Rationalist to you, what stereotypes would come to your mind about that person?
X:Logical ?
Roshni: anything else?
X: Analytical ?
Roshni: would that be positive or negative?
X: Grey area... positive in some case - but in extreme cases, it can be negative
Roshni: if some one person identified that way, which part of the spectrum would you place him on?
X: I need more info
Roshni: let's say there's a club
called the Rationality club
and a group of people attend it twice in a month to discuss various things, do various club activities together etc
X:I'll term them crazy
But I consider most of these stuff as crazy
So I can be wrong
Roshni: there's no right or wrong answer, i'm looking for general impressions only
so negative
X:Yes
..................................................

Roshni:if someone were to describe themselves as a Rationalist to you, what stereotypes would come to your mind about that person?
V:ayn rand first
Roshni:what else?
V: that's about it i suppose. all that would be in my mind is "this is one person i can get along with easily"
Roshni: what if they told you they thought Ayn Rand was a nutcase? well, not a nutcase, just wrong mostly
V: sure
don't matter
Roshni :what if they told you they belong to a Rationality Club
first impressions on the club?
V:........i would really wonder if such a place really adds any value to anyone..........i would consider going to a rationality club albeit with a lot of skepticism
<snip>
Roshni: figuring out if 'rationality' has a negative connotation to people who hear it
V:nah, rationality has no negative connotation to me. i love the idea.
the negative connotation for me is with the word "club"

Comment author: FiftyTwo 14 July 2011 07:53:55PM 1 point [-]

Personally club has implications similar to clique and social group to me, it implies the people identify themselves as similar. Whereas I would think something like "Rationality class," "rationalism training" (or dojo) implies that the people are working towards a goal within a structure. [Compare the implications of 'book club' and 'literature class']

Comment author: JackEmpty 14 July 2011 02:17:06PM 0 points [-]

I don't know one way or the other if explicitly mentioning a group of rationalists is a good idea or not, so bear that in mind...

But I'm think of ways to spin it that might sound better than "club", while still being accurate: "Rationalist association" "rationalist society" "rationalist fellowship" "community" "fraternity" "(semi-official) group of rationalist individuals who meet regularly for discussion"

Comment author: jimrandomh 14 July 2011 02:53:00PM 3 points [-]

But I'm think of ways to spin it that might sound better than "club", while still being accurate

I've gotten positive responses to "rationality dojo" the few times I've used the phrase.

Comment author: [deleted] 15 July 2011 06:05:04AM *  2 points [-]

I like 'dojo' too. But considering that I'd heard the word for the first time on LW, I'll probably need to find some equivalent Indian word - and I'll have to think some two or three differnt words for people from different parts of the country (speaking different languages). Well, that itself is an interesting exercise. :)

Comment author: Pavitra 15 July 2011 08:56:12AM 2 points [-]

'Ashram' leaps immediately to mind, but that's probably mostly wrong.

Comment author: [deleted] 15 July 2011 09:12:12AM *  3 points [-]

I thought of 'Gurukul', but that gives the sense of a much more intense involvement with the 'club' than we want ppl to think. 'Kalari' works for Malayalam and a lot of south Indians, esp those familiar with Kalarippayattu and means exactly the same thing as dojo. But "Kalari for Rationality" sounds really ugly.

For Hindi, I donno.. Pathshaala? Too pompous. Sangham? :)

And the trouble with Rationalists Association etc are there already are organizations called that and they immediately evoke thoughts of 'atheism', 'anti-godmen' etc.

Comment author: falenas108 14 July 2011 10:24:27PM *  2 points [-]

Society and fraternity seem to have the same negative connotations as club. Association and community seem fairly neutral, but association seems overly formal (to me).

I think we might want to use the stranger terms, like fellowship or dojo just to give off the impression that this is not a meeting of Spocks. However, fellowship might lead people to think it's a gathering of Lord of the Rings fans. Dojo is my personal favorite too.

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 02:27:16PM 1 point [-]

I refer to us as a "Group" or "Community." I think it's probably a good idea to include a question about that, since one of our potential goals IS to use this information to build communities.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 14 July 2011 08:56:50PM *  4 points [-]

Subject: Female, late 20s, White

Me: "I'm just curious, if someone were to describe themselves as a Rationalist to you, what stereotypes would come to your mind about that person?

Woman: "I can't answer that."

30 seconds of awkward silence.

This is comedy gold.

Comment author: Friendly-HI 15 July 2011 04:55:42PM 6 points [-]

Sounds almost like she thought you're a pickup-artist and try coming on to her with a shitty opener :D

Comment author: PhilGoetz 15 July 2011 07:08:03PM 1 point [-]

But, who else but a rationalist would answer in that way?

Comment author: byrnema 14 July 2011 11:52:13AM *  3 points [-]

Well, I'll ask my dad.

.. he said the his associations with rationality are, 'being correct, logic, having wisdom, science and knowledge'. I confirmed 'no negative connotations?' and he said, 'no'.

A friend said something similar, that he associates the word with logic, being scientific,making empirical observations ... but especially logic. No negative associations. .

Comment author: Michelle_Z 14 July 2011 11:09:15PM 2 points [-]

This is a pretty good idea, actually. Before I started reading posts on Less Wrong, I didn't have a negative view of rationality, and saw it as "common sense," or "logic." I did see it as ignoring the emotional bits and focusing wholly on the facts, though. (I became interested in Less Wrong after reading through Harry Potter and the MOR, finding the theories etc. in it fascinating, and eventually meandering over to this site, which I have been browsing for several months now.)

I'll be on campus in about a month and a half and I'll make sure to casually ask my classmates. It's been added to my mental to-do list. Though it will be a bit difficult to ask it in the exact same way without sounding artificial, and I don't want to ask it differently each time since that would not be very accurate.

Comment author: handoflixue 14 July 2011 05:57:20PM *  2 points [-]

Is it just me, or is the word "rationality" highlighted with a yellow background for this post, and only this post? I'm finding it a very distracting effect, and I'm not seeing it anyplace but this one post.

(Firefox 5.0 and Windows XP, in case it's relevant. I'm assuming it's post formatting, but no one else seems to have commented on it, and it seems sufficiently odd to merit mention)

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 06:04:47PM 1 point [-]

It's not just you, and I have no idea why it happened or how to get rid of it.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 14 July 2011 06:51:03PM 4 points [-]

My conjecture is that you didn't prepare the post on LessWrong, emailed it to yourself, and then used a search engine to find it in your inbox. The search engine "helpfully" hi-lighted your search terms in the post, which you then copy-pasted into LessWrong.

You can probably fix it by going into the LessWrong post editor, clicking on HTML, and removing whatever weird tags are causing the problem.

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 06:53:47PM *  0 points [-]

Ah, yes, that sounds about right. I just went to try and fix it... and honestly it's painfully tedious and I think there's more valuable things I can be doing with my time. I will bear this in mind for next time though.

Comment author: Alicorn 14 July 2011 07:15:44PM 4 points [-]

I got it for you.

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 07:51:31PM *  0 points [-]

Thank you. Did you do a "find" search or something else with special moderator powers? (it just occurred to me I could have probably have done that)

Comment author: Alicorn 14 July 2011 08:01:34PM 2 points [-]

I copied the raw HTML into my favorite text editor, found-replaced the tags that were highlighting the word, and pasted the edited text into the LW editor.

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 08:03:49PM 2 points [-]

Gotcha. That was within my power to figure out and I shouldn't have given up so easily. Thanks again.

Comment author: tes 15 July 2011 12:55:26PM 0 points [-]

This seems to have resulted in an extra space before the word "rationality".

Comment author: JackEmpty 14 July 2011 06:29:15PM 0 points [-]

IE8 (work machine) and XP.

And yes, I see it too. Odd.

Comment author: Khaled 14 July 2011 03:44:53PM 2 points [-]

Could that be of any value: trends

Maybe using social network websites could generate a better turnover in the short term

Comment author: FiftyTwo 14 July 2011 08:01:31PM *  2 points [-]

Quick ananlysis: * Main search terms are variants on empiricism and philosophy

  • News stories seem to use it positively in political contexts.

  • Interestingly there seem to be fairly consistent peaks and troughs in this, possibly correlating with academic year?

  • US geography shows high polarisation between states, don't know enough about US demographics to guess why, maybe universities?

  • Worldwide Philippines is highest, no idea why...

Comment author: Friendly-HI 15 July 2011 03:18:19PM *  1 point [-]

I've already made that comment somewhere else a few times, but public outreach would best be handled by incorporating rationality "classes/lessons" into the standard curriculum of schools. All other public outreach initiatives pale in terms of reach and effectiveness in comparison to making it "mandatory" for students. School is the holy grail of public outreach.

Getting something into the curriculum isn't easy obviously, but it can be done and one easy way in which I can see this implemented is by making a series of well-presented videos on rationality by a charismatic teacher and putting them up on youtube. Not too nerdy/technical, just lighthearted and entertaining/educational stuff.

First point of attack would be getting this stuff into the Khan Academy curriculum, which is a very promising new way of digital learning that is rapidly incorporated by many teachers and students. Personally I project, that Khan Academy (or something like it) will be very successful in the future and is the precursor of what the future of digital education will look like. Khan Academy being the current leader in this field (it's also being backed by Bill Gates and google) is obviously a much easier target for rationality-infusion than the rigid traditional education system.

We would just need someone who is able to represent and teach rationality lessons in an appropriate way. Volunteers should take a step forward. I'm sure if we play our cards right we might get Khan to adopt our lessons.

PS: In case you've spent last year in a cave, here's what Khan Academy is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM95HHI4gLk

Comment author: Raemon 15 July 2011 03:59:36PM 2 points [-]

I think the future of education will be a cross between Khan Academy and RSA Animate. Khan Academy bugs me whenever he takes time to slowly write down the words that he just said. RSA is basically a polished version that I find much more engaging, it just needs to the structure that Khan Academy has.

I agree that getting rationality courses in public schools would be the most effective way to promote it. I have no idea how to accomplish that, and having optional videos you can find online is... not very different from Less Wrong. (An RSA Animate style series based on the sequences might be very effective).

Comment author: Friendly-HI 15 July 2011 04:33:56PM *  0 points [-]

Yes, the primitive way Khan uses his "virtual chalkboard" bothers me too, but I think the lessons will be updated eventually.

Personally I don't find that RSA Animate adds that much value in terms of communicating something more efficiently - I find myself occasionally distracted by the illustration process. Personally I think the best way to teach topics like math and all the natural sciences from biology to physics would be a virtual reality setting... imagine putting on glasses and being totally immersed in a kind of virtual reality, where you can see molecules and electrons and where you can manipulate them or take notes in the air (imagine xbox kinect implemented in your glasses, facing outward and tracking your hands).

Not everything would need to be interactive though, the lectures could be 10-15m long and drive home a point with maximum force. (In a way a virtual chalkboard couldn't). So yes, Khan Academy needs to evolve - but RSA animate style lectures wouldn't be the most effective for retention and interest, compared to other forms of presenting and interacting with things that could be implemented nowadays if the money and interest was present.

Comment author: Raemon 15 July 2011 04:55:52PM 1 point [-]

This is going to vary from person to person, and I have no idea what will turn out to work best for the most people. But I strongly prefer RSA - I find it engaging, and the visuals help reinforce concepts through multiple avenues in my brain. Simple podcasts leave me bored, but the visual/audio combo keeps giving me new information at just the right rate.

Interactivity would allow for kinesthetic learning as well. An education program for iPad that incorporated audio/visual/kinesthetic learning styes and could adapt itself to the student's preferences would probably be ideal.

Comment author: Friendly-HI 15 July 2011 05:07:02PM *  0 points [-]

I'd still strongly suspect virtual reality glasses like these http://www.vuzix.com/consumer/products_wrap310xl.html would be preferable to just tablets (glasses + tablets combo would perhaps be best). Don't underestimate the value of being "isolated" while watching a lecture.

Monkey don't see and hear no people -> monkey don't talk to people. To that end virtual glasses would be very powerful for focusing attention and certainly better than simply switching the paper for tablets. With glasses students would be isolated and could focus better than if distracted by everything that's going on in the classroom. The teacher still can and should of course regularly employ group-work as a counterweight, but right now students just talk way too fucking much about everything that's not related to learning and a tablet wouldn't counter that trend.

Comment author: Raemon 15 July 2011 05:14:30PM 1 point [-]

I'm not discounting VR, I just have no experience with it so I can't really endorse it yet. I can imagine what an individual or group with an iPad learning application would look like and make predictions about how it would work. I really don't have a frame of reference for VR goggles.

I certainly support the experimentation though.

Comment author: Friendly-HI 15 July 2011 05:40:01PM 2 points [-]

Word.

Comment author: [deleted] 14 July 2011 02:06:05PM *  1 point [-]

Duplicate post

Comment author: HMeyer 17 August 2011 04:17:45PM 0 points [-]

Late to this discussion, but I wonder, have you considered how "Rational" is defined under the Myers-Briggs system?

I score in MBTI as an INTJ -- Rational Mastermind -- so I inherently understand the meaning, but there may be other personality types who express a high degree of rationality.

Have any of you taken the test? I'm sure there must be a preponderance of INTJs here.

Comment author: gwern 17 August 2011 06:20:21PM 3 points [-]

From what I've read, Myers-Briggs seems pretty worthless. Big Five on the other hand sounds a lot better. (I keep hoping lukeprog or someone will read the literature for me and explain in detail why Big Five pwns Myers-Briggs or why I am wrong in thinking that.)

Comment author: komponisto 17 August 2011 06:51:31PM 2 points [-]

If I recall correctly, Michael Vassar thinks Myers-Briggs is superior to Big Five. I wish I could remember his reasoning.

Comment author: rysade 17 July 2011 05:34:27AM 0 points [-]

The form seems to be broken at the City field. There is an open parenthesis, but nothing inside it and no closing parenthesis.

Comment author: Raemon 17 July 2011 06:30:33AM 0 points [-]

I had meant to include info on what to do if the interview was online (which was to list to website where the discussion was prompted from). Fixed now.

Comment author: wtroyw 14 July 2011 10:15:35PM 0 points [-]

How did you get 65%?

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 11:23:17PM *  1 point [-]

Intuition. Not necessarily accurate.

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 01:22:24PM *  0 points [-]

I've created a google doc form people can fill out. If someone knows of a better way to handle this, let me know. For now, if you want to help and have a gmail account, send me a PM and I can share the doc with you.

Edit: It should be available here:

Comment author: XFrequentist 14 July 2011 01:49:12PM *  0 points [-]

You could also simply post the link and change the settings to "open to anyone with the link". Click on the "private" link at the top of the form to access this option, I think.

Comment author: Raemon 14 July 2011 02:15:01PM 0 points [-]

Thanks.