Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.
This post started off as a comment to Vaniver's post Value of Information: Four Examples. This post also heavily builds on Eliezer's post The 5-Second Level. The five second level is the idea that to develop a rationality skill, you need to automatically recognize a problem and then apply a stored, actionable procedural skill to deal with it, all in about five seconds or so. In here, I take the value of information concept and develop it into a five second skill, summarizing my thought process as I do so. Hopefully this will help others develop things into five second skills.
So upon reading this, I thought "the value of information seems like a valuable concept", but didn't do much more. A little later, I thought, "I want to make sure that I actually apply this concept when it is warranted. How do I make sure of that?" In other words, "how do I get this concept to the five second level?" Then I decided to document my thought process in the hopes of it being useful to others. This is quite stream-of-consciousness, but I hope that seeing my thought process helps to learn from it. (Or to offer me valuable criticism on how I should have thought.)
First off, "how do I apply this concept?" is too vague to be useful. A better question would be, "in what kinds of situations might this concept be useful?". With a bit of thought, it was easy to find at least three situations, ones where I am:
1. ...tempted to act now without gathering more information, despite the VoI being high.
2. ...tempted to gather more information, despite the VoI being low.
3. ...not sure of whether I should seek information or not.
#3 implies that I'm already reflecting on the situation, and am therefore relatively likely to remember VoI as a possible mental tool anyway. So developing a five-second level reaction for that one isn't as important. But in #1 and #2 I might just proceed by default, never realizing that I could do better. So I'll leave #3 aside, concentrating on #1 and #2.
Now in these situations, the relevant thing is that the VoI might be "high" or "low". Time to get more concrete - what does that mean? Looking at Vaniver's post, the VoI is high if 1) extra information is likely to make me choose B when I had intended on choosing A, and 2) there's a high payoff in choosing correctly between A and B. If at least 2 is false, VoI is low. The intermediate case is the one where 2 is true but 1 is false, in which case it depends on how extreme the values are. E.g. only a 1% chance of changing my mind given extra information might sometimes imply a high VoI, if the difference between the correct and incorrect choice is a million euros, say.
So sticking just to #1 for simplicity, and because I think that's a worse problem for me, I'd need to train myself to immediately notice and react if:
Recent brainstorming sessions at SIAI (with participants including Anna, Carl, Jasen, Divia, Will, Amy Willey, and Andrew Critch) have started to produce lists of rationality skills that we could potentially try to teach (at Rationality Boot Camp, at Less Wrong meetups, or similar venues). We've also been trying to break those skills down to the 5-second level (step 2) and come up with ideas for exercises that might teach them (step 3) although we haven't actually composed those exercises yet (step 4, where the actual work takes place).
The bulk of this post will mainly go into the comments, which I'll try to keep to the following format: A top-level comment is a major or minor skill to teach; upvote this comment if you think this skill should get priority in teaching. Sub-level comments describe 5-second subskills that go into this skill, and then third-level comments are ideas for exercises which could potentially train that 5-second skill. If anyone actually went to the work of composing a specific exercise people could run through, that would go to the fourth-level of commenting, I guess. For some major practicable arts with a known standard learning format like "Improv" or "Acting", I'll put the exercise at the top and guesses at which skills it might teach below. (And any plain old replies can go at any level.)
I probably won't be able to get to all of what we brainstormed today, so here's a PNG of the Freemind map that I generated during our session.
To develop methods of teaching rationality skills, you need to learn to focus on mental events that occur in 5 seconds or less. Most of what you want to teach is directly on this level; the rest consists of chaining together skills on this level.
As our first example, let's take the vital rationalist skill, "Be specific."
Even with people who've had moderate amounts of exposure to Less Wrong, a fair amount of my helping them think effectively often consists of my saying, "Can you give me a specific example of that?" or "Can you be more concrete?"
A couple of formative childhood readings that taught me to be specific:
"What is meant by the word red?"
"It's a color."
"What's a color?"
"Why, it's a quality things have."
"What's a quality?"
"Say, what are you trying to do, anyway?"
You have pushed him into the clouds. If, on the other hand, we habitually go down the abstraction ladder to lower levels of abstraction when we are asked the meaning of a word, we are less likely to get lost in verbal mazes; we will tend to "have our feet on the ground" and know what we are talking about. This habit displays itself in an answer such as this:
"What is meant by the word red?"
"Well, the next time you see some cars stopped at an intersection, look at the traffic light facing them. Also, you might go to the fire department and see how their trucks are painted."
-- S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action
"Beware, demon!" he intoned hollowly. "I am not without defenses."
"Oh yeah? Name three."
-- Robert Asprin, Another Fine Myth
And now, no sooner does someone tell me that they want to "facilitate communications between managers and employees" than I say, "Can you give me a concrete example of how you would do that?" Hayakawa taught me to distinguish the concrete and the abstract; and from that small passage in Asprin, I picked up the dreadful personal habit of calling people's bluffs, often using the specific phrase, "Name three."
But the real subject of today's lesson is how to see skills like this on the 5-second level. And now that we have a specific example in hand, we can proceed to try to zoom in on the level of cognitive events that happen in 5 seconds or less.