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"Epiphany addiction"

51 Post author: cousin_it 03 August 2012 05:52PM

LW doesn't seem to have a discussion of the article Epiphany Addiction, by Chris at succeedsocially. First paragraph:

"Epiphany Addiction" is an informal little term I came up with to describe a process that I've observed happen to people who try to work on their personal issues. How it works is that someone will be trying to solve a problem they have, say a lack of confidence around other people. Somehow they'll come across a piece of advice or a motivational snippet that will make them have an epiphany or a profound realization. This often happens when people are reading self-help materials and they come across something that stands out to them. People can also come up with epiphanies themselves if they're doing a lot of writing and reflecting in an attempt to try and analyze their problems.

I like that article because it describes a dangerous failure mode of smart people. One example was the self-help blog of Phillip Eby (pjeby), where each new post seemed to bring new amazing insights, and after a while you became jaded. An even better, though controversial, example could be Eliezer's Sequences, if you view them as a series of epiphanies about AI research that didn't lead to much tangible progress. (Please don't make that statement the sole focus of discussion!)

The underlying problem seems to be that people get a rush of power from neat-sounding realizations, and mistake that feeling for actual power. I don't know any good remedy for that, but being aware of the problem could help.

Comments (92)

Comment author: pjeby 03 August 2012 10:55:08PM 32 points [-]

One example was the self-help blog of Phillip Eby (pjeby), where each new post seemed to bring new amazing insights, and after a while you became jaded.

Er, you do realize I stopped most of my blogging for more or less that reason, right?

Around that time, I started pushing for a (partly LW-inspired) greater focus on empirical improvement in my work, because there was just too much randomness in how long the effects of my then-current techniques would last. Some things were permanent or nearly-so, and others might only last a few days or weeks... and I had no reliable way to predict what the outcome of a particular instance of application would be.

It was a tough shift, because at the time I also had no way to know for sure that anything more reliable or predictable in fact existed, but unlike the more "faith-based" self-help folks, I couldn't just keep ignoring the anomalies in my results.

The good news is I got over that hump and developed more reliable methods. The bad news is that it didn't involve brilliant simple epiphanies, but lots and lots of little hard-won insights and the correlation of tons of practical knowledge.

(And one of those bits of practical knowledge is how to avoid stopping at the "epiphany" phase of a given insight.)

Anyway, I quit blogging about it (at least to the general public) because once you're no longer dealing in simple epiphanies, there starts to be too much inferential distance to be able to talk about anything meaningful, short of creating my own Sequences to reconstruct the inferential chains... one mini-epiphany at a time.

Comment author: cousin_it 03 August 2012 11:25:45PM *  14 points [-]

Phillip, I apologize for using you as an example, but will still keep it in the post because it's such a nice example :-) It's very good to hear that you came to similar conclusions eventually, I didn't know that!

Comment author: pjeby 04 August 2012 04:15:09AM 21 points [-]

it's such a nice example :-)

Perhaps it would become an even better example, then, by adding a link to the relevant post, e.g. "and after a while you became jaded, until even he realized it was a loop". ;-)

Comment author: bbleeker 04 August 2012 12:32:38PM *  16 points [-]

creating my own Sequences

Please do!

Comment author: Thinkchronous 14 November 2013 05:31:55PM 0 points [-]

Hoping to find more epiphanies?

Comment author: Incorrect 03 August 2012 09:47:59PM 31 points [-]

And then you move on to meta-epiphanies…

Comment author: cousin_it 03 August 2012 10:07:57PM *  20 points [-]

Wow, it's scary how quickly my mind reacted to protect this particular meta-epiphany from being lumped with the others, even though I've known it for years.

Comment author: shminux 03 August 2012 06:42:46PM 9 points [-]

people get a rush of power from neat-sounding realizations, and mistake that feeling for actual power

How do you tell the difference?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 August 2012 06:59:11PM 4 points [-]

For my own part: it's power if it actually causes a state-change in the system, and not otherwise.

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 August 2012 07:22:42PM *  8 points [-]

Yeah. It's realising that epiphany is an aesthetic experience, and requires results before it's the life-change it labels itself as. Epiphanies can in fact be just another way to fool yourself.

Comment author: roystgnr 04 August 2012 04:56:23AM 4 points [-]

It's hard to define "results" here, though, isn't it?

Example: I once encountered someone who just "knew" that the raises they were getting were proof that their religion was true. They were less successful, then they prayed for years like they were taught, then they were more successful. Results, right?

But when you look at the census data: between accumulation of human capital and just-plain inflation, the median retiree has seen their income go up by an order of magnitude over their life time. Getting raise after raise and watching your salary go up ten-fold was the default life experience, not proof of divine intervention.

So to see "results" you can't always just compare "before" vs. "after". Even if you see results of your epiphanies, does that mean the epiphanies get the credit, or might you have seen the same improvement from the same amount of life experience, epiphany-free? Or even if the epiphanies did help: which ones? If you're seeking out epiphanies, odds are you're not just testing out one new idea at a time then waiting to rigorously analyze the independent results of each.

To reuse my example: even though income increase was a lousy metric, on other evidence I would actually say that their religion was providing many adherents with "actual power", on net: buying the whole package wasn't nearly as beneficial as picking out the value from the dross would have been, but it was better than the also-mixed-bag of beliefs that most competing religions and secular ideologies offered.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 03 August 2012 07:38:47PM 2 points [-]

I think epiphanies are best thought of as fuel that gives you a short burst of "actual power", whatever that means.

Comment author: David_Gerard 04 August 2012 04:51:25PM *  0 points [-]

Reminding you to get off your arse, yeah. I have a few favourites (e.g.) that I find useful for this.

I enjoy LW and it does remind me to try not to be stupid. As I've noted, I'm not entirely sure the outside view would see any practical effects.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 04 August 2012 09:21:18AM 1 point [-]

How do you tell the difference?

Measure a proxy for the relevant improvement in yourself that should result from said "realization". Graph the results in a few weeks/months/years (but decide what the graph would look like if you were achieving "actual power" before you look). That's what I do anyway.

Comment author: lukeprog 04 August 2012 02:21:36AM *  19 points [-]

When I was young I was known as "the shy one," and I was awkward around girls. So I started reading instructional books on dating. A few chapters in, each book said "The most important thing is that you put down this book right now and go practice the thing I just told you to do." But I just kept reading, because I was learning so much, and having all those epiphanies felt like getting stronger.

After two years of epiphany addiction and no sex, I finally took some liquid courage and went out and actually talked to women. And then I started to become stronger.

If CFAR and the JDM community can invent an applied rationality that reliably makes people more powerful, it won't be because they've written lots of epiphany-producing writing. It will be because they've discovered teachable rationality skills that can be practiced day after day.

Comment author: aelephant 04 August 2012 03:51:56AM 4 points [-]

Analysis is essential, but it has a time & place.

In the PUA community they even have a term for people stuck in the Analysis mode: "Keyboard Jockeys".

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 06 August 2012 12:45:47PM *  2 points [-]

That advice fights the natural tendency to read forward. It's always hard to get people to stop and do the exercises.

Are there ways they could? Hmm... First, you could advise the reader to read through one time, then come back and do the advised exercises. That way they're not fighting the urge to read through... but then they're fighting the urge to put down the book.

You could structure it kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure, with the choices being how your encounter went. That way, there is no one, natural place to go next. Could help, but it would be obnoxious.

Third: get all the epiphanies done with early on. Throw them all at you. Part 2 is applications. It has zero epiphanies, and it should be dry, perhaps even boring, so you can go out and do things. Basically like the first idea, but with the two runs optimized for their respective purposes.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 August 2012 02:30:07PM 2 points [-]

Third: get all the epiphanies done with early on. Throw them all at you. Part 2 is applications. It has zero epiphanies, and it should be dry, perhaps even boring, so you can go out and do things. Basically like the first idea, but with the two runs optimized for their respective purposes.

This means (if my experience is at all typical) that the second section is unlikely to be read.

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 August 2012 07:21:10PM 20 points [-]

Think of it as superstimulus to the cool-idea sensor.

Thought exercise: could all the LW/CFAR-favoured model of epistemic rationality be ineffective, even though it sounds really good and make sense? What would the world look like in this case? What would you expect if LW rationality didn't actually work, except to convince its fans that it did work? (For a value of "work" that is defined before examining the results.)

Comment author: cousin_it 03 August 2012 07:38:52PM *  10 points [-]

I sympathize with the statement, which you may or may not have implied, that that world would look a lot like our world. But maybe we should make the question more concrete. What benefits do people honestly expect from LW rationality? Are they actually getting those benefits?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 04 August 2012 02:36:12PM 7 points [-]

Hard to say. My life would look completely different. I was honestly, for the most part, much happier before getting involved, but I'm certainly more effective now, to the point of not really occupying the same reference class in any useful sense.

Comment author: David_Gerard 04 August 2012 04:49:09PM 4 points [-]

Have you written up how you got it to work for you? If not, then please do!

Comment author: [deleted] 30 September 2012 07:15:19PM 2 points [-]

I was honestly, for the most part, much happier before getting involved, but I'm certainly more effective now.

Perhaps you have a metavalue favoring effectiveness over happiness: you value valuing effectiveness. But isn't happiness the terminal value, effectiveness the instrumental value?

Usually people don't expressly strive for happiness because doing so tends to defeat the project (as Bertrand Russell pointed out in his book about achieving happiness), but it doesn't change that happiness (almost by definition) is what they (and you) ultimately strive for.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 07 October 2012 10:27:38PM 4 points [-]

In so far as happiness is what we strive for by definition the statement is vacant, and what is described as 'happiness' doesn't closely match the natural language meaning of the word.

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 August 2012 10:27:09PM *  7 points [-]

I'm here because and while it's enjoyable - LW is marked as part of the Internet-as-TV time budget. That said, I feel more rational, I think because I'm paying attention to my thoughts. But e.g. I'm not actually richer and don't have a string of interesting new achievements under my belt. The outside view shows nothing.

If your answer is "it would look like the world is now" - then what would the world look like if it was effective and did work, for whatever value of "work"? (I'm thinking a value something like "what one would expect trying a new thing like this and wanting to get tangible self-improvement value out of it", though I'm open to other possible values I haven't thought of.)

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 04 August 2012 05:38:35AM 2 points [-]

What benefits do people honestly expect from LW rationality?

Fewer intellectual and personal cul-de-sacs.

Are they actually getting those benefits?

The former, absolutely -- and it's great! The latter... I actually live in a cul-de-sac right now.

Comment author: CarlShulman 03 August 2012 10:16:24PM *  31 points [-]

could all the LW/CFAR-favoured model of epistemic rationality be ineffective, even though it sounds really good and make sense?

Effective at what? I agree with Yvain that:

I think it may help me succeed in life a little, but I think the correlation between x-rationality and success is probably closer to 0.1 than to 1. Maybe [higher] in some businesses like finance, but people in finance tend to know this and use specially developed x-rationalist techniques on the job already without making it a lifestyle commitment.

Hard work, intelligence, social skill, attractiveness, risk-taking, need for sleep, height, and enormous amounts of noise go into life success as measured by something like income or occupational status. So unless there were a ludicrously large effect size of hanging around Less Wrong, differences in life success between readers and nonreaders would be overwhelmingly driven by selection effects. Now, in fact those selection effects put the LW population well above average (lots of college students, academics, software engineers, etc) but don't speak much to positive effects of their reading habits.

To get a good picture of that you would need a randomized experiment, or at least a 'natural experiment.' CFAR is going to tack some outcomes on the attendees of its minicamps, after using randomized admission among applicants above a certain cutoff. Due to the limited sample size, I think this only has enough power to detect insanely massive intervention effects, i.e. a boost of a large fraction of a standard deviation from a few days at a workshop. So I think it won't show positive effects there. It does seem plausible to me, however, that there will be positive effects on narrow measures closer to the intervention, e.g. performance on some measures of cognitive bias from the psychology literature.

In the same way, a scheduling system like Getting Things Done will probably not have visibly significant effects on career outcomes within a year on a small sample size, but would be more likely to do so on a measure like "projects delivered on time" or "average time-to-response for emails."

For someone interested in personal success, a more relevant standard would be whether n hours spent studying or practicing 'rationality exercises' would increase income or other success measures more than taking an extra programming class at Udacity, or working out at the gym, or reading up about financial planning and investment. Here, I'm less certain about the outcome, although my intuition is that rationality exercises would come out behind. The educational literature shows that transfer learning is generally poor, so better to do focused work on the areas of interest, which may include domain-specific heuristics of rational behavior.

And that is for exercises selected to be relatively useful in everyday life. Looking at Eliezer Yudkowsky's sequences much of the content is very far from that: meta-ethics, philosophy of mind, avoiding verbal disputes, an account of welfare for future utopias or dystopias, quantum mechanics (the connection to cryonics at the end is dubious, and a small expected benefit that can't be pinned down today), determinism, much of the sequence on avoiding merely verbal disputes, and so forth. I wouldn't expect big improvements in everyday life from those any more than I would from reading pop-science articles or philosophy textbooks.

If there are big effects from exercises on epistemic rationality, I would expect to see them in areas that normally aren't the subject of much effort, or are the subject of active self-deception, like self-assessments of driving skill, or avoiding asymmetric ("myside") judgments of media bias, or noticing flaws in one's theology. That may help improve aggregate outcomes in areas like politics or charity where people more often indulge in epistemic irrationality for pleasure, laziness, or signalling, but won't be earthshaking on an individual level. But even here, most new lesson plans don't work well, students don't retain that much, and the interventions in the academic literature show mostly modest effect sizes. So I would expect these gains to be small-to-moderate.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 04 August 2012 02:26:53PM 4 points [-]

Carl, you name a lot of factors as going into income and occupational status. What are your estimates for their respective effect sizes and correlations? I'm skeptical of the 'enormous amounts of noise' claim remaining the case after your list plus initial socio-economic endowment, health, specific skills and possibly a few other factors are accounted for. In fact, I'd expect the uncertainty due noise to be far less than the uncertainty in between person estimates of occupational status, a variable which different groups would measure quite differently from one-another.

Also, estimates of the causal relationships between the factors in success would be nice.

Comment author: CarlShulman 04 August 2012 06:41:38PM 13 points [-]

I'm skeptical of the 'enormous amounts of noise' claim

Trivially, look at the wealth of Bill Gates vs Steve Jobs. Most of Peter Thiel's wealth relative to other past tech CEOs comes from one great hit at Facebook. Even entrepreneurs who have succeeded at past VC-backed startups are only moderately more likely to succeed (acquisition, IPO, large size) than new ones. Financiers vary hugely in lifetime career success based on market conditions on Wall Street when they finished school, on which product groups have ups and downs when, and which risky bets happen to blow up before or after they move on.

Within a given size of social circle and selective filter, happening to have the right friends with the right contacts (Jobs and Wozniak) at the right time is critical. Who else produces a similar startup at the same time and how good are they? Do key patents and lawsuits get decided in one's favor? What new scientific and technological innovations enhance or destroy the position of one's company?

At a smaller scale: when do you fall in love and get married? What geographical constraints does that place on you? Do you get hit by a car or infectious disease or cancer, and when? Do you get through noisy hiring processes in tight labor markets, e.g. tenure in academia, getting a first job on Wall Street? Do you click with the person deciding on your medical residency of choice?

We could quibble, but I'd leave it at that.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 04 August 2012 10:15:19PM 5 points [-]

So Jobs ended up with what, $6.7 Billion, http://www.forbes.com/profile/steve-jobs/ making him the 99.99999th percentile among Americans, after not bothering to become the 99.999995th percentile by cashing some options. Meanwhile, Gates started at the 98th or 99th percentile instead of the 60th or 80th percentile and, with a much higher IQ and much greater strategic ability but somewhat lesser over-all talent, rose by the same factor. The idea that Jobs had unusual luck by having one highly technically skilled friend (given Jobs' social skills no less), and by only having to compete head to head with Microsoft, is also faintly amusing. Point mine, I think. Regarding Gates, yes, it's true that a key lawsuit hurt his net worth, but not his wealth rank-order.

Thiel likewise would only have a billion or two instead of three or four (depending on estimates of his non-public holdings like Palantir) without Facebook, lowering his average annual investment returns during the last decade, from about 50% (vs. nothing for the market) to about 40%. This fits with my general impression, and that of the world, that there's a significant absolute amount of luck in investment returns, enough to impact expected outcomes by a factor of 2 or so over a decade and thus a factor of 4 over a career. That makes a big impact in a retirement plan, but not in a business career.

While we're on VC returns, if I'm not mistaken, the best VC firms often have >50% hit rates, and there aren't all that many VC firms.

On a smaller scale, luck determines a very large part of life outcomes, but simply put, that's because most people do nothing with their lives, they simply drift on the wind and let social forces blow them around. If you control for the impact of one's effort applied to decisions, by not trying to make decisions in any deliberate manner but simply going with social pressure, you unsurprisingly find that random factors and not effortful decisions are the major driver of life outcomes.

Comment author: lukeprog 03 August 2012 11:06:24PM 6 points [-]

For the record, I agree with all this.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 04 August 2012 02:33:48PM 1 point [-]

What EV calculations do you come up with? Also, same question as to Carl? Finally, what do your social circle think?

Comment author: lukeprog 04 August 2012 04:51:36PM 0 points [-]

EV of what in particular?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 04 August 2012 09:45:51PM 1 point [-]

Less Wrong sequences and related materials, their content, etc.

Comment author: lukeprog 05 August 2012 01:09:39AM 2 points [-]

That sounds like a very large analysis project. Maybe there's a simpler question I can answer? What's the final question you'd like to get at?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 05 August 2012 05:28:44PM 5 points [-]

Something like, if you were to direct community members to spend their time on activities other than making money for the purpose of donating it, what distribution of activities would you direct them to?

Comment author: lukeprog 06 August 2012 12:19:41AM 14 points [-]

That's a difficult question, but a potentially valuable one to have answered. Here's a long list of thoughts I came up with, written not to Michael Vassar but to a regular supporter of SI:

  • Donations are maximally fungible and require no overhead or supervision. From the outside, you may not see how a $5000 donation to SI changes the world, but I sure as hell do. An extra $5000 means I can print 600 copies of a paperback of the first 17 chapters of HPMoR and ship one copy each to the top 600 most promising young math students (on observable indicators, like USAMO score) in the U.S. (after making contact with them whenever possible). An extra $5000 means I can produce nicely-formatted Kindle and PDF versions of The Sequences, 2006-2009 and Facing the Singularity. An extra $5000 means I can run a nationwide essay contest for the best high school essay on the importance of AI safety (to bring the topic to the minds of AI-interested high schoolers, and to find some good writers who care about AI safety). An extra $5000 means I can afford a bit more than a month of work from a new staff researcher (including salary, health coverage, and taxes).

  • Remember that a good volunteer is hard to find. After about a year of interacting with people who claim to want to volunteer, I can say this: If somebody approaches me who (1) has obvious skills that can produce value for SI, (2) claims they have 10+ hours/week available, and (3) claims they really want to help out, then I can predict with 60% confidence that they won't do any valuable volunteer work for SI in the next three months. Because of this, an enormous amount of overhead goes into chunking tasks so that volunteers can do them, then handing one task to Volunteer #1, waiting for them to watch TV instead, then handing that task to Volunteer #2, waiting for them to watch TV instead, then handing that task to Volunteer #3, etc. Of course, this means that if you're one of the volunteers doing actual work, you are a rare gem and we thank you mucho.

  • CFAR can generally make better use of volunteers than SI can. My guesses as to why this is the case: (1) CFAR work is more emotionally motivating work because you're producing visible effects in human lives now rather than very slightly increasing the chances that trillions of future people will have the opportunity to live out happy lives. (2) SI volunteer-doable tasks tend to either be things that (a) anyone could do, or (b) almost nobody can do because of the amount of domain knowledge required. There's nobody to do tasks of type (b), and few people like to do tasks of type (a) because it doesn't require their special skills. In contrast, CFAR has many volunteer-doable tasks that can be done by lots of people but not just anyone — i.e. tasks that make use of special skills in a way that is more motivating than others. (3) CFAR has some habits that motivate volunteers that SI hasn't been able to mimic yet.

  • People generally become more useful to SI/CFAR when they move to one of the major SI/LW/CFAR hubs of people: the Bay Area or NYC. I suspect this is because (1) regular in-person contact with us reminds people of stuff we're doing that they care about, is viscerally motivating, and allows for more opportunities to be involved than are available remotely, and because (2) LWers tend to become happier when they move to a place where lots of other aspiring rationalists are doing cool stuff. (See: The Good News of Situationist Psychology.)

  • Obviously, the most valuable-to-SI activity that someone can do (besides making money and donating it) will vary from person to person. I'll give some examples below.

  • Examples of useful SI volunteer activites: help to moderate LW; contribute to the LW wiki; run an LW meetup group; help to translate Facing the Singularity into other languages; join our "document production team" to assist with porting The Sequences and research papers into pretty LaTeX templates; sign up for the Singularity Institute affinity card; sign up to be a Singularity Institute volunteer advisor; help us distribute Singularity Summit flyers at science and technology events in the Bay Area (contact malo@intelligence.org); tell people about the Summmit and encourage them to buy their tickets before the August 15th price increase. We are currently building a new "volunteer intake system" so that we can more efficiently direct incoming volunteers to useful tasks they will feel good about helping us with.

  • Make yourself stronger and gain influence in the world, so as to pivot the world in strategic ways when it becomes much clearer which particular pivots would reduce AI risk. E.g. become prestigious in math, AI, or physics so you can spread x-risk memes. Work toward becoming a policy-maker that would influence the spending of research money for technology projects so that you can assist in differential technological development. Become an editor at important media outlets so that you can help x-risk and rationality content see the light of day. Etc.

  • If you're a researcher in math, compsci, or formal philosophy, find ways to take up research projects that both advance your career and are useful for x-risk reduction. So You Want to Save the World can help you think about potential research projects of that type, and Eliezer's forthcoming sequence on "Open Problems in Friendly AI" will also help.

I could list random thoughts on the subject for hours, but... I doubt I can answer your question. It depends too much on individual details about their skills, experience, availability, other opportunities, etc.

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 06 August 2012 02:08:58AM 3 points [-]

print 600 copies of a paperback of the first 17 chapters of HPMoR and ship one copy each to the top 600 most promising young math students

This might be appropriate for promoting CFAR (at least HPMoR talks about rationality), but surely not for promoting SI.

Comment author: Alicorn 06 August 2012 12:58:45AM 1 point [-]

(3) CFAR has some habits that motivate volunteers that SI hasn't been able to mimic yet.

What are these habits?

Comment author: David_Gerard 04 August 2012 07:26:33AM 5 points [-]

OK ... If someone asked you "So, there's a million words of these Sequences that you think I should read. What do I get out of reading them?" then what's the answer to that? You seem to be saying "we don't think they actually do anything much." Surely that's not the case.

Comment author: CarlShulman 04 August 2012 06:30:24PM *  10 points [-]

Major elements to consider:

  • Mostly standard arguments, often with nonstandard examples and lively presentation, for a related cluster of philosophical views: physicalism, the appearance of free will as outgrowth of cognitive algorithm, his brand of metaethics, the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics, the irrelevance of verbal disputes, etc.

  • A selective review of the psychology heuristics and biases literature, with entertaining examples and descriptions

  • A bunch of suggested heuristics, based on personal experience and thought, for debiasing, e.g. leaving a line of retreat to reduce resistance

  • Some thoughtful exposition of applications of intro probability and Bayes' theorem, e.g. conservation of expected evidence

  • Interesting reframings and insights into a number of philosophical problems using the Solomonoff Induction framework, and the "how could this intuition emerge from an algorithm?" approach

  • Debate about AI with Robin, a science fiction story, a bunch of meta posts, and assorted minor elements

"So, there's a million words of these Sequences that you think I should read. What do I get out of reading them?" then what's the answer to that?

The large chunks that are review of existing psychology and philosophy would be hard to get from one or a few books (as they are extracted from far and wide), although those would then be less filtered. They may be more enjoyable and addictive than an organized study program, i.e. as popular science/philosophy, so folk who wouldn't undertake the former alone find themselves doing the latter, and then perhaps also doing the former. This would depend on how they felt about the writing style, their own habits, and so forth. The other elements would have to be evaluated more idiosyncratically.

Now, because of the online forum element of Less Wrong, there is another big benefit in selectively attracting a very unusual audience, and providing common background knowledge and norms that help discussion on most (if not all) discussions to be relatively truth-seeking compared to most online fora.

You seem to be saying "we don't think they actually do anything much." Surely that's not the case.

Well, for one thing, I'm speaking only for myself, and I'm more skeptical of the novelty and impact per reader (as mentioned above) than others.

But I do think that reading the sequences on probability, changing your mind, and other core topics (as opposed to quantum mechanics) causes some improvement in quality of argumentation, readiness to accede to evidence, and similar metrics (as judged by 3rd party raters). I don't think the effect is enormous, i.e. well-read physics or philosophy grad students will have garnered most of the apparent benefits from other sources, but it's there. And interest, enjoyment, and accessibility aren't peanuts either.

Comment author: lukeprog 05 August 2012 02:20:48AM 4 points [-]

Also see one mathematician's opinion: Yes, a blog.

Comment author: magfrump 04 August 2012 10:38:03AM 3 points [-]

It's an enjoyable read, which helps establish some good community norms? I'd value reading the sequences more than, say, a randomly selected novel (though maybe not randomly selected from novels that I have actually read.)

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 04 August 2012 06:25:33PM 5 points [-]

It's an enjoyable read

Funny, I thought they were for hazing new pledges.

Comment author: David_Gerard 04 August 2012 10:49:38AM 1 point [-]

So, the Sequences and LessWrong in general are purely for entertainment purposes? That's fine, but that certainly wasn't the original idea, which was to be practical.

Comment author: magfrump 04 August 2012 11:28:12AM 2 points [-]

Yeah I am not sure how much practicality the sequences contain (although some other posts here have been practical) but that wouldn't stop me from recommending them.

Comment author: Jonii 04 August 2012 04:10:31PM 2 points [-]

Sequences contain a rational world view. Not a comprehensive one, but still, it gives some idea about how to avoid thinking stupid and how to communicate with other people that are also trying to find out what's true and what's not. It gives you words by which you can refer to problems in your world view, meta-standards to evaluate whether whatever you're doing is working, etc. I think of it as an unofficial manual to my brain and the world that surrounds me. You can just go ahead and figure out yourself what works, without reading manuals, but reading a manual before you go makes you better prepared.

Comment author: David_Gerard 04 August 2012 04:34:42PM 4 points [-]

That's asserting the thing that the original question asked to examine: how do we know that this is a genuinely useful manual, rather than something that reads like the manual and makes you think "gosh, this is the manual!" but following it doesn't actually get you anywhere much? What would the world look like if it was? What would the world look like if it wasn't?

Note that there are plenty of books (particularly in the self-help field) that have been selected by the market for looking like the manual to life, at the expense of actually being the manual to life. This whole thread is about reading something and going "that's brilliant!" but actually it doesn't do much good.

Comment author: HBDfan 04 August 2012 04:26:46PM *  0 points [-]

[struck]

Comment author: aaronsw 05 August 2012 12:42:03PM 2 points [-]

Yvain's argument was that "x-rationality" (roughly the sort of thing that's taught in the Sequences) isn't practically helpful, not that nothing is. I certainly have read lots of things that have significantly helped me make better decisions and have a better map of the territory. None of them were x-rational. Claiming that x-rationality can't have big effects because the world is too noisy, just seems like another excuse for avoiding reality.

Comment author: CarlShulman 07 August 2012 02:12:53AM 4 points [-]

I certainly have read lots of things that have significantly helped me make better decisions and have a better map of the territory.

What effect size, assessed how, against what counterfactuals? If it's just "I read book X, and thought about it when I made decision Y, and I estimate that decision Y was right" we're in testimonial land, and there are piles of those for both epistemic and practical benefits (although far more on epistemic than practical). Unfortunately, those aren't very reliable. I was specifically talking about non-testimonials, e.g. aggregate effects vs control groups or reference populations to focus on easily transmissible data.

Claiming that x-rationality can't have big effects because the world is too noisy, just seems like another excuse for avoiding reality.

Imagine that we try to take the best general epistemic heuristics we can find today, and send them back in book form to someone from 10 years ago. What effect size do you think they would have on income or academic productivity? What about 20 years? 50 years? Conditional on someone assembling, with some additions, a good set of heuristics what's your distribution of effect sizes?

Comment author: Zaine 04 August 2012 02:36:32PM *  0 points [-]

I'm wondering: how many people have noticed changes in the quality of their interpersonal reactions after becoming 'more rational' than they were before learning about applied rationality? How would those changes in quality be judged from both outside and inside views?

(I use quotes, as each person will have a different metric by which they will judge an increase in rationality - and I can't think of a standard metric everyone can use for purposes of answering this query. To mitigate this variable, please state the metric you're using.)

Comment author: magfrump 04 August 2012 10:47:31AM 2 points [-]

I would expect the following things to have failed:

  • Good community norms (this is a difficult problem that LW has solved admirably)
  • Using advice from LW to improve my social skills (this is actually sort of a subpoint of "if someone else does it better, LW points you to them")
  • Promotion of thinking about pet issues (this one failed by less than the others--the sequences pretty much cleaned out the god-hating but I'm constantly annoyed at people who don't have good epistemology)

there's plenty more that is substantially less tangible, and YMMV, but those first two points have created a large amount of value for me personally.

Comment deleted 04 August 2012 01:01:43AM *  [-]
Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 August 2012 07:42:00PM -1 points [-]

It seems to me that most of your comments on LW are about the same thing. This predictability makes them boring.

It's like -- oh, here is some discussion about a possible problem; I bet PM will soon come and write a reply saying "yes, your worst fears are all true, and it is actually much worse".

At least for me, the predictable pattern suggests that I should ignore such comments. There is no point in paying attention individually to comments that were generated by a pattern. I perceive them all as one comment, repeated on LW endlessly.

Comment deleted 04 August 2012 09:08:32PM *  [-]
Comment author: cousin_it 05 August 2012 12:00:06AM *  9 points [-]

For what it's worth, I agree with the spirit of your comment, but am also a little tired of seeing endless variations of it. LW needs better contrarians, but being a good contrarian takes effort. Maybe you could write a discussion post that lays out the strongest form of your arguments? I volunteer to read and comment on drafts, if you wish.

Comment deleted 05 August 2012 06:27:27AM *  [-]
Comment author: cousin_it 06 August 2012 12:41:43AM *  2 points [-]

LW is itself contrarian, for nth time. All it needs is to look outside itself.

Ignoring definitions of words for the moment, it seems to me that you consider "contrarian" comments worth writing, otherwise you wouldn't write them. All I'm saying is if they're worth writing, they're worth writing well.

Comment author: CarlShulman 04 August 2012 11:08:53PM 3 points [-]

Yes, you have a point that success in other fields would be good sign. But your example is a careless one.

You know, Einstein also invented a fridge

According to this io9 article, he did that in his late 40s to early 50s, after his great physics work was over. He was born in 1879 and worked on the fridge with Szilard from 1926 or after. It made the two physicists a bit of money but was not very practically useful. It certainly wasn't something you could have used to predict his physics success in advance, or that he did on the side while occupied with full-time physics.

Despite filing more than 45 patent applications in six different countries, none of Einstein and Szilard's alternative designs for refrigerators ever became a consumer product, although several were licensed, thereby providing a tidy bit of extra income for the scientists over the years. And the Einstein/Szilard pump proved useful for cooling breeder reactors. The prototypes were not energy efficient, and the Great Depression hit many potential manufacturers hard. But it was the introduction of a new non-toxic refrigerant, freon, in 1930 that spelled doom for the Einstein/Szilard refrigerator. The economics supported the freon-based mechanical compressor technology, and that's what most folks still use today.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 04 August 2012 02:42:00PM 5 points [-]

Nothing works if people don't actually change their behavior, so the place to start, IMHO, is looking into who actually changes their behavior after encountering new information. Figuring out what causes that would take you very far. My vague impression is that it's closely related to distrust of authority. If one trusts authority, any change takes you farther away from a trusted safe state and thus carries a large hidden cost.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 05 August 2012 07:24:09AM *  14 points [-]

My vague impression is that it's closely related to distrust of authority. If one trusts authority, any change takes you farther away from a trusted safe state and thus carries a large hidden cost.

On the other hand, unless you have the enormously rare constellation of talent and circumstances to give you a realistic chance to rise to the very top, too little trust in authority leads to a state of frightened paralysis or downright self-destruction. What you need for success is the instinct to recognize when you should obey the powers-that-be with your heart and your mind, and when to ignore, defy, or subvert them.

The ability to conform to the official norms and trust the official dogma with full honesty when it's optimal to do so is just as important as the ability to ignore, defy, and subvert them in other cases. Otherwise your distrust of authority will lead you either to cower in fear of it or to provoke its wrath and be destroyed. A well-calibrated unconscious strategic instinct to switch between conformity and non-conformity is, in my opinion, one of the main things that sets apart greatly successful people from others.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 05 August 2012 05:40:32PM 10 points [-]

It seems to me that the decision theory generally favors acting as if one has rare talent and circumstances, as opposed to the alternative, more likely hypothesis, which is probably the contrarian hypothesis of being a simulation in any event. Attempts to justify common sense, treated honestly, generally end up as justifications of novel contrarian hypotheses instead.

Also, one who tries to conform to official norms rather than to ubiquitous surrounding behavioral patterns will rapidly find oneself under attack, nominally for violating official norms. I think that the way to go is usually to conform but also to recognize that the standards to which one is conforming do not correspond to explicit beliefs at all, or even to implicit decision theories.

Treat social reality as a liquid in which one swims, not an intellectual authority, but don't attack a liquid without some very heavy ammo, and generally don't attack it even if one has such ammo, it's not an enemy, an agent, or a person.

Comment author: bbleeker 06 August 2012 08:24:00AM 0 points [-]

Also, one who tries to conform to official norms rather than to ubiquitous surrounding behavioral patterns will rapidly find oneself under attack, nominally for violating official norms.

Can you give an example, please? I can easily imagine the first part, but the last part seems to be saying that if you drive at the speed limit in a place where everyone drives a little faster, you'll get a speeding ticket.

Comment author: gwern 05 August 2012 03:55:06PM 5 points [-]

What you need for success is the instinct to recognize when you should obey the powers-that-be with your heart and your mind, and when to ignore, defy, or subvert them.

One of my favorite quotes from Hamming's 'You and Your Research' was on just this topic (C-f the sections around 'Another personality defect is ego assertion').

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 04 August 2012 05:58:10PM 2 points [-]

The relationship is probably vague, or at least I think a lot of my problem feels like resistance against being told what to do.

What happened to Microsoft-- an account of people with tremendous authority who didn't get past their habits. (Possibly not relevant, but a really cool article.)

Fear of making mistakes and/or having a lot of background anxiety might be better general explanations.

"Go outside habits" might be a distinctive neurological state.

Comment author: torekp 03 August 2012 11:39:25PM 5 points [-]

An alternative hypothesis would be adaptation:

According to adaptation theory, individuals react to events, but quickly adapt back to baseline levels of subjective well-being. To test this idea, the authors use data from a 15-year longitudinal study of over 30 000 individuals to examine the effects of marital transitions on life satisfaction. On average, individuals reacted to events and then adapted back towards baseline levels. However, there were substantial individual differences in this tendency.

Perhaps some of the epiphanies really are transformative. But the individuals may quickly settle back toward a happiness set-point.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 August 2012 07:21:03PM 7 points [-]

I independently invented a similar concept, "epiphany junkies", but didn't get around to posting it yet. A couple of points that would've been in that post:

  • Achieving an amazing insight about your past suffering (especially other people hurting you somehow), is probably not worth much. The past is past, and unreachable; five seconds ago is as far away as forever. You shouldn't even have been chewing that cud in the first place.
  • You probably need a lot of small, nondramatic life optimizations more than you need any particular big huge insight. Besides the addictive quality, a problem with being an epiphany junkie is that it trains you to think that progress comes in the form of dramatic, self-justifying insights about your mother, instead of realizing that you need to stop thinking about all the things wrong with an email after you send it.
Comment author: cousin_it 06 August 2012 12:25:45AM *  7 points [-]

If you use Gmail, you can enable the "undo send" feature in settings. I use it a lot, with the longest possible timeout (30 seconds), and think the timeout should be even longer, like 5 minutes.

Comment author: Alicorn 06 August 2012 12:57:05AM 1 point [-]

I love that feature. I notice typos right after sending all the time and then I can undo.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 August 2012 05:24:07PM 3 points [-]

True, but not always. Sometimes people need to realize that the suffering that other people have caused them isn't the only way life with people can be.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 11 August 2012 05:53:25PM 1 point [-]

a problem with being an epiphany junkie is that it trains you to think that progress comes in the form of dramatic, self-justifying insights

I found this particularly in regards to dealing with my depression. No big personal revelations can make it better, just learning to implement coping techniques, remembering to take my medication and exercise, etc.

Comment author: laakeus 18 August 2012 01:31:21PM *  3 points [-]

A related note is that the neurophysiological effect of the epiphany wears out really quickly. I haven't studied which neurotransmitters exactly produce the original good feeling, but I remember reading (apologies for not having a source here) that the effect is pretty strong for the first time, but fails to produce pretty much any neurological effect after just few repeats. By repeats, I mean thinking about the concept or idea and perhaps writing about it.

In another words, say you get a strong epiphany and subsequent strong feeling that some technique, for an example Pomodoro technique, will make you more efficient. After mulling over this idea or concept for a while, the epiphany and the related feeling fades out. You might still think that the technique would help you, but you lose the feeling. Without the feeling, it is unlikely you will do anything in practice. After losing the feeling, you might even start to doubt that the technique could help you at all. When in fact all that has changed is the neurological feedback because you have repeatedly been processing the idea.

I think this is particularly relevant related to instrumental rationality, because I have not found this to have much effect on how I understand things in general. In the case of some behavioral change, I think it requires a certain amount of such "neurotransmitter-based motivation" in order to have any chance of being implemented. I have pretty successfully implemented a couple of behavioral changes which at the time produced a strong epiphanic feeling, but which nowadays don't evoke pretty much any feeling. I implemented them pretty instantaneously (because they were easy to implement) and had them running before the feeling wore out.

One minor exception to this is that you get a new dose of epiphany if you happen to make a new, novel connection related to the technique you're mulling over. This way you can keep the feeling alive longer, but there are only so many of such new connections and they too wear out eventually.

This is why I think that not only do you have to do something about the epiphany in practice, but you have to do it pretty quickly.

Comment author: chaosmosis 05 August 2012 07:34:11PM *  3 points [-]

It's demonstrative that my first reaction to reading this was a feeling of epiphany, and that if I could only internalize this lesson all my problems would be solved. The problem is very pervasive. Becoming aware of it initially actually just made things worse, so I'm commenting to point it out to make sure that no one else risks falling into that trap.

There's also the possibility of infinite regress here, funnily enough. Don't do that either.

I'm amused by the creativity of my cognitive glitches, sometimes.

Comment author: Incorrect 04 August 2012 03:46:27PM 3 points [-]

Epiphanies are not necessarily useless or wrong, but cannot effect anything unless they are part of a system created already in motion. You can no more apply an epiphany to an unfocused, inactive human than you can apply it to a rock.

Comment author: Dorikka 03 August 2012 06:48:20PM 3 points [-]

I've had similar experiences to what the quote describes. I'm in a bit of a rush and have not actually read the link, but here's my thoughts:

Is the epiphany purely in a way of thinking about things, or does it lead to some material change? In other words, is it actionable? For example, if I come up with new way to frame work for extra motivation, I don't put much stock in it, because I know that my mental state is highly variable and it sometimes just won't work. I write it down, and think about it, and see how long it lasts, but I don't expect it to have a huge impact. I'll put higher stock in things that create some system or make some physical change in the world, like finding out about GTD, nootropics, etc. -- there is a much wider set of mental states in which they will likely work.

Comment author: sark 30 September 2012 10:51:07AM 2 points [-]

I don't think we have got the right explanation for our epiphany addiction here. We are "addicted" to epiphanies because that is what our community rewards its members. Even if the sport is ostensibly about optimizing one's life, the actual sport is to come up with clever insights into how to optimize one's life. The incentive structure is all wrong. The problem ultimately comes down to us being rewarded more status for coming up with and understanding epiphanies than for such epiphanies having a positive impact on our lives.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 30 September 2012 01:14:48PM 3 points [-]

Even if the sport is ostensibly about optimizing one's life, the actual sport is to come up with clever insights into how to optimize one's life.

Nature of the medium, surely? This is a discussion forum, so what happens here is discussion. Actually improving one's life is something that necessarily happens away from here. At most, it can be reported on here.

Comment author: roland 04 August 2012 08:18:31AM 2 points [-]

Great point! One of the problems here is that people think that just knowing about something is going to give them the power but this is not the case. Rationality is a skillset like bicycle riding or playing chess and the only way to get good at it is by practicing a lot. You can read lots of books of chess and get great insights but when it comes down to actually playing at the board what matters is what you have internalized through practice.

Comment author: billswift 04 August 2012 01:05:47PM 1 point [-]

Even worse, unlike your examples, rationality isn't a single, focussed "skillset", but a broad collection of barely related skills. Learning to avoid base rate neglect helps little if at all with avoiding honoring sunk costs which helps little with avoiding the narrative fallacy. You need to tackle them almost independently. That is one reason why I tend to emphasize the need to stop and think, when you can. Even if you have not mastered the particular fallacy that may be about to trip you up, you are more likely to notice a potential problem if you get in the habit of thinking through what you are doing.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 04 August 2012 08:03:39AM 5 points [-]

Related:

"Understanding is the booby prize."

Said during a personal development course I've done.

And an outside view of what not getting stuck in epiphanies looks like:

In principle, it’s simple. You’re looking for people who are

Smart, and
Get things done.

Joel Spolsky

Comment author: MichaelVassar 05 August 2012 05:41:13PM 1 point [-]

And that is why I'm not likely to take personal development courses.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 06 August 2012 07:48:46AM *  4 points [-]

The point being made was that understanding isn't enough. One must do something with it. And if you can't, it wasn't much of an understanding.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 August 2012 04:21:56PM *  0 points [-]

Ironically, I had an epiphany while reading this post.

Comment author: mordechai_calibanian 04 August 2012 01:14:32AM 1 point [-]

Yes, I am very familiar with this kind of experience. I think the point about singular epiphanies of this sort is that they are always too brittle and inflexible to carry you on in any meaningful, long-term sort of way. Two further comments:

  1. The realization of "epiphany addiction" it itself a sort of epiphany, in the same sense that this discussion is talking about. I'm not sure what the punchline of -that- should be, except maybe to say, there doesn't seem to ever be any such "magic bullets" in terms of personal understanding ... <this point included>. Yes, this may seem strange.

  2. This whole idea and discussion draw to mind some closely related ideas from eastern (buddhistic) philosophy and thinking, which considers in detail the process of self-growth (ideally, samadhi) by means of self-consideration (generally, meditation). Within those lines of thought, there seems to be a general emphasis on this point in terms of attachment and detachment fallacies; the human being naturally tends to attach to certain dogmas, beliefs, fears, etc. always forgetting the fact that such things are not really real in the same sense that objective reality is real. Thus they are largely illusionary and fallacious in nature. I think a buddhist might probably look at this article and say, "oh, yes I agree," and then promptly forget all about it.

Comment author: billswift 04 August 2012 02:19:56AM *  3 points [-]

they are always too brittle and inflexible to carry you on in any meaningful, long-term sort of way.

What you need to do is to capture it, then use it to help you take the next step; then keep taking those next steps.

The very first thing you need to do is to STOP reading, write down whatever caused your epiphany, and think about the next step. Too much of the self-help and popular psychological literature are written like stories, which, while make them more readable and more likely to be read, tends to encourage readers to keep on reading through it all. If you are reading for change, you need to read it like a textbook, for the information, rather than entertainment.

Comment author: pjeby 04 August 2012 04:29:48AM 9 points [-]

Too much of the self-help and popular psychological literature are written like stories, which, while make them more readable and more likely to be read, tends to encourage readers to keep on reading through it all. If you are reading for change, you need to read it like a textbook, for the information, rather than entertainment.

This is why most of the successful self-help gurus pack their books full of stories and insights, but leave the actual training for in-person workshops, or at least for higher-bandwidth or interactive media. Most of the challenges people will have in applying almost anything can't be listed in a book, without creating an unreadable (or at least unsellable) book.

While this is also the most financially beneficial way to do it, I have personally observed over and over that there are certain classes of mental mistake that you simply CANNOT reliably correct in non-interactive media, because the person making the mistake simply can't tell they're making the mistake unless you point out an example of it in their own behavior or thinking. Otherwise, the connection between the pattern of mistake and the instance of it remains opaque to them. People are much better at pattern-matching cognitive errors in other people than they are in themselves.

See, for example, lukeprog's comment, wherein he wrote:

A few chapters in, each book said "The most important thing is that you put down this book right now and go practice the thing I just told you to do." But I just kept reading, because I was learning so much, and having all those epiphanies felt like getting stronger.

I can't think of any combination of symbols placed on paper that would have bypassed Luke's filters here... and a few years back, I spent one hell of a lot longer time than five minutes trying with all my might to think of one!

Essentially, this means that a properly consequentialist self-help author who wishes to do the most good for the most people is pretty much required to write their book in such a way that it functions as a huge commercial to get people into some sort of higher-bandwidth communication channel where the real learning can take place. (Much the way that HP:MOR can be considered a huge commercial for CFAR, despite the strong informational content.)

Ideally, there will also be plenty enough practical information that more independent thinkers will be able to apply on their own; but it's not at all realistic to assume that an "information only" textbook presentation will result in any actual follow-through from most people.

Comment author: David_Gerard 04 August 2012 04:43:46PM 1 point [-]

I have personally observed over and over that there are certain classes of mental mistake that you simply CANNOT reliably correct in non-interactive media, because the person making the mistake simply can't tell they're making the mistake unless you point out an example of it in their own behavior or thinking.

I know I don't really get a given cognitive bias unless I can think of an example of me doing it and feel stupid at the realisation. (I have previously generalised from myself on this point, but I'll try to refrain from that.)

Comment author: cousin_it 04 August 2012 04:34:34PM 1 point [-]

I can't think of any combination of symbols placed on paper that would have bypassed Luke's filters here...

Maybe the combination of symbols could tell Luke to do some trivially easy thing, then ramp up the difficulty.

Comment author: pjeby 04 August 2012 05:44:35PM 3 points [-]

Maybe the combination of symbols could tell Luke to do some trivially easy thing, then ramp up the difficulty.

Maybe you should ask Luke whether he thinks that would have worked.

My guess is, that's exactly what the books he read, actually did.

Really, asking someone in that state to even stop reading long enough to answer some questions mentally, even without writing them down, is not going to work. You might be able to get some hurried answers, but not much deep thought. They're too excited about what else they might "learn" next.

I even know one guru who continually emphasizes how "it's not learning until your behavior changes"... and seen his audiences dutifully nod and write down this Great Insight... and then patiently wait for the next insight to be spoon-fed. ;-)

Actually, that particular guru is an interesting case in point: I found attending his workshops in person to be valuable, because they're structured in such a way that they more or less force you to actually do the written exercises, because two minutes later you're going to be showing your work to another audience member.

However, despite knowing that his exercises are valuable, I still find it difficult to make myself do them when merely watching a recording of one of his workshops. Either the recording seems too boring to pay attention in the first place, or the exercise seems boring compared to skipping forward to the next insight. I'm much more likely to skim quickly through the exercise in my head, and not write anything down, while convincing myself that I'll definitely get to it later.

But in person, there's nothing else to do but write something down, right then. Apparently, spending money on a conference, hotel, and airfare, plus blocking out the time away, equals a very effective precommitment device... one that books and recordings just can't match.