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Personal Psychiatric Analysis

1 pscheyer 29 January 2014 06:02AM

Imagine reading about the following result buried in a prestigious journal:


We administered [Drug X] to 10,000 patients 80+ years of age selected to be a statistical representation of the populace. None had exhibited any prior medical history to suggest unusual conditions, outside of the normal range of issues collected over a lifetime. 1/3 of the patients were selected as a control group, and the others were entered into a longitudinal study of [Drug X] in which they were given varying doses over a 30 year timespan. [Please read charitably and flesh this out to be a good, well run longitudinal study by your personal standards. The important thing is the number of patients involved.] 

Of the patients administered [drugx] 1x/month for 10 years, we found that there was an increase of average lifespan by 1 year compared to normal actuarial tables. We are unsure of the cause of this. We also had one patient who has yet to die after 30 years and shows no signs of aging. Our drug has effectively demonstrated its properties as a medication designed to reduce cholesterol and will proceed to be approved for normal prescription.

Now, personally, reading this I would be completely uninterested in the normal result and fascinated by the one, crazy, outlier. Living to the age of 110 is abnormal enough that within 6,666 people selected as a statistical representation of the population, it is extremely unlikely that anyone would live that long, much less continue performing at the apparent health of an 80 year old.

How small would the sample size have to be before you would consider trying the drug yourself, just to see if you, too, lived forever as long as you took it? What adverse effects and hassles would you go through to try it? Would these factors interact to influence your decision (Mild headaches and a pill 4x/day in exchange for maybe apparent eternal life? Sign me up!)


This example is an oversimplification to make a point- often in clinical trials there are odd outliers in the results. Patients who went into full remission, or had a full recovery, or were cured of schizophrenia completely.

In the example above, if the sample size had been 10 people, 9 of whom had no adverse effects and one who lived forever, I would take it. I have been known to try nootropics with little or no proven effect, because there are outliers in their samples who have claimed tremendously helpful effects and few people with adverse effects, and i want to see if I get lucky. I think that if even the right placebo could cause changes which improve my effectiveness, it would be worth a shot.

As far as I know, psychiatrists cannot reliably predict that a given drug will improve a patient's long-term diagnosis, and psychiatrists/psychologists cannot even reliably agree on what condition a patient is manifesting. Mental disorders appear to resist diagnosis and solution, unlike, say, a broken leg or a sucking chest wound. I have learned that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has consistent results against a number of disorders, so I have endeavored to learn and apply CBT to my own life without a psychologist or psychiatrist. It has proven extremely effective and worthwhile.

Here is the topic for discussion:  should we trust psychiatric analysis using frequentist statistics and ignore the outliers, or should we individually analyze psychiatric studies to see if they contain outliers who show symptoms which we personally desire? Should we act differently when seeking nootropics to improve performance than we do when seeking medication for crippling OCD? Should we trust our psychiatrists, who are probably not very statistically savvy and probably don't read the cases of the outliers?

Where are the holes in my logic, which suggests that psychiatrists who think like medical doctors/general practitioners have a completely incorrect perspective (the law of averages) for finding and testing potential solutions for the extremely personalized medicinal field of psychotherapy/psychiatry (in which everyone is, actually, an extremely unique snowflake.).


This is more of a thought-provoking prompt than a well-researched post, so please excuse any apparent assertions in the above, all of which is provided for the sake of argument and arises from anecdata.

Should We Tell People That Giving Makes Them Happier?

11 peter_hurford 04 September 2013 09:22PM

Why do people give to charity?

It seems strange to even ask. Most people would point to the fact that they’re altruistic and want to make a difference. Others are concerned with inequality and justice. Another group points to the concept of “paying it forward” or repaying a debt to society. Other explanations cite various religious or social reasons.

Not too many people cite the fact that giving makes them happier. Even if people agree this is true, I don’t often hear it as people’s main reason. Instead, it’s more like a beneficial side effect. In fact, it seems pretty odd to me to hear someone boldly proclaim that they give only because it makes them happier, even if it might be true.


But if it’s true that giving does make people happier, should we be promoting that publicly and loudly?  Luke's article "Optimal Philanthropy for Human Beings" suggests that we should tell people to enjoy the happiness that giving brings.  Perhaps it might make a great opportunity to tap into groups who wouldn’t consider giving otherwise or have misconceptions that giving would make them miserable?

However, I’m a bit worried about how it might affect people’s incentives.  In this essay, I follow the evidence provided in the Harvard Business School working paper "Feeling Good About Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior" by Lalin Anik, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton, and Elizabeth W. Dunn. Overall, in light of potential incentive effects, I think caution and further investigation is warranted when promoting the happiness side of giving.


Giving and Happiness

Giving What We Can has published its own review of research on happiness and giving and find a pretty strong connection. And it’s true -- lots of evidence confirms the connection and even indicates that it’s a causal relationship rather than a misleading correlation. In fact, it goes in both directions -- giving makes people happier and happier people are more likely to give[1].

Neurological studies of people found that people experienced pleasure when they saw money go to charity, even when it wasn’t their own, but experienced even more pleasure when they gave to charity directly[2], a conclusion that has been backed up with revealed preference tests in the lab[3, 4].

This connection has also been backed up in numerous experimental studies. Asking people to commit random acts of kindness can significantly increase self-reported levels of happiness compared to a control group[5]. Further research found that the amount people spent on gifts for others and donations to charity correlates with their self-reported happiness, while the amount they spent on bills, expenses, and gifts for themselves did not[6]. Additionally, people given money and randomly assigned to spend money on others were happier than those randomly assigned to spend the same amount of money on themselves[7].


Altering Incentives

People generally believe that spending on themselves will make them much happier than spending on others[6], which, given that this isn’t the case, means there is plenty of room for changing people’s minds. However, any social scientist or avid reader of Freakonomics knows that altering incentives can create unintended effects. So is there a potential harm in getting people to do more giving via advertising self-interested motive?

The classic example is that of the childcare center that had problems with parents who were late to pick up their children. They reasoned that if they charged fines, parents would stop being late, because they would have an economic incentive not to. They found instead, however, that introducing a fine actually created even more tardiness[8], presumably because what once was seen as rude and bad faith now could be made up for with a small economic cost. More surprisingly, the amount of lateness did not return to pre-fine levels even after the owners stopped the policy[9].

Other studies have found similar effects. A study of 3-5 year old nursery students who all initially seemed intrinsically interested in various activities were randomly put into three groups. One group made a pre-arranged deal to do a one of the activities in which they seemed interested in exchange for a reward, another group was surprised with a reward after doing the activity in question, and the third group was not rewarded at all. Those who were given an award upfront ended up significantly less intrinsically interested in the task than the other groups after the study was finished[10]. A similar study found that students who were interested in solving puzzles stopped solving those puzzles after a period ended where they were paid to solve puzzles[11].


In general, money and reminders of money tend to make people less pro-social[12]. This has also been found to some degree specifically in the world of charity. In a randomized field experiment, donors were encouraged to donate to disaster relief in the US and were randomly either enticed with an offer of donation matching or not. The study found that while people donated more often with the promise of donation matching, their contributions after the donation matching dropped below the control group, ending with a negative net effect overall[13].

Another study found that when gifts were sent out to donors, larger gifts resulted in a larger response rate of returned donations, but yielded a smaller average donation[14], though I suppose this could just be because more people who usually would give nothing were giving a small amount, bringing the average down. More importantly, this study found no net decrease in future donations after gifts were no longer sent out; instead, donations returned to their normal levels[14].

And certainly it’s worth noting some times when appeals to self-interest are successful. I couldn’t find any studies where this was the case. However, there is one anecdotal example: as Nick Cooney points out in "Self-Interest Can Make the World a Better Place -- For Animals, At Least", reduction in people eating factory farmed meat is coming almost entirely from people motivated not by concern for animal cruelty, but concern for their own health. Could advocating self-interested donations be the same as advocating health-motivated vegetarianism?


Opportunities for Further Investigation

It’s not very good to just let things be unclear if they don’t have to be, and I think we can resolve this issue with more scientific study. For example, one could randomly select one group to receive information about giving and happiness, another group to receive other standard arguments for giving, and a control group to receive no arguments or information about giving at all, and track their donation habits in a longitudinal study. This study would have it’s complications for sure, but could help see if information about giving and happiness backfires or not.

Or perhaps one could perform a field experiment. You could set up a booth asking people to donate to your cause and randomly include information about giving and happiness or not in your pitch and see how this affects immediate and long-term contributions. Doing this would have added advantages of being much quicker to run and not leading to people donating only because they think they’re being observed.



[1]: Anik, Lalin, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton, Elizabeth W. Dunn. 2009. “Feeling Good about Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior”. Harvard Business School Working Paper 10-012.

[2]: Harbaugh, William T. 2007. "Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations." Science 316: 1622-1625.

[3]: Andreoni, James, William T. Harbaugh, and Lise Vesterlund. 2007. "Altruism in Experiments". New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics.

[4]: Mayr, Ulrich, William T. Harbaugh , and Dharol Tankersley. 2008. "Neuroeconomics of Charitable Giving and Philanthropy". In Glimcher, Paul W., Ernest Fehr, Colin Camerer, and Russel Alan Poldrack (eds.) 2009. Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain. Academic Press: London.

[5]: Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade. 2005. "Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change." Review of General Psychology 9 (2): 111–131.

[6]: Akin, Lara B., et. al. 2010. "Pro-social Spending And Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal." National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper #16415.

[7]: Dunn, Elizabeth W., Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton. 2008. “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness.” Science 319: 1687-1688.

[8]: Gneezy, Uri and Aldo Rustichini. 2000a. “A fine is a price.” Journal of Legal Studies 29: 1-18.

[9]: Gneezy, Uri and Aldo Rustichini. 2000b. “Pay enough or don't pay at all.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 115: 791-810.

[10]: Lepper, Mark R., David Greene, and Richard E. Nisbett. 1973. “Undermining Children's Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Reward: A Test of the ‘Overjustification’ Hypothesis.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28(1): 129-137.

[11]: Deci, Edward L. 1971. “Effects of Externally Mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 18(1): 105-115.

[12]: Vohs, Kathleen D., Nicole L. Mead, and Miranda R. Goode. 2006. “The Psychological Consequences of Money”. Science 17 (314): 1154-1156.

[13]: Meier, Stephan. 2007. “Do Subsidies Increase Charitable Giving in the Long Run? Matching Donations in a Field Experiment”. Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper #06-18.

[14]: Falk, Armin. 2005. “Gift Exchange in the Field”. University of Bonn.


(This essay is also cross-posted on the Giving What We Can blog and my blog.)

For Happiness, Keep a Gratitude Journal

22 peter_hurford 15 July 2013 09:11PM

Want to be happier than you already are?  Many people look to self-help books as a way to become happy.  Sometimes they give good advice and sometimes they dont.  However, one of the most robust, enduring findings from psychological studies of increasing people's happiness has been that happiness can be found from journaling, especially when you keep a regular journal of what you're grateful for.



Gratitude is defined as the reliable emotional response that one has to receiving benefits<sup>1</sup>.  Gratitude is also known to correlate with subjective levels of happiness1,2,3,4,5, as well as pro-social behavior, self-efficacy, and self-worth6,7.  Moreover, this connection with happiness is found in both student and non-student populations, and persists even when controlling for extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness8,9.  Gratitude also fights stress, materialism, and negative self-comparisons7.

But what if you're not already grateful?  Well, there is a solution.  Regular practice of gratitude has theological origins -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all consider it a virtue and prescribe approaches for practicing10.

And it appears that religion is right on this one -- gratitude can be trained, and one way to do so is the gratitude journal.  And by training in gratitude, one can become lastingly happier.


Writing as a Cure

Studies have found that while talking about one's problems doesn't help one to feel better about them, even if it seems like the talk helped at the time11, writing about the problem does help.  In one study, participants who had been recently laid off from work were asked to spend a few minutes each day writing a diary about their feelings regarding the lay off.  Doing so produced boosts in happiness, self-esteem, health, and psychological and physical well-being12.  Other similar studies found similar results13.

But one doesn't need trauma in order to get these beneficial results.  Another study had people assigned to write for 20 minutes a day for four days about one of four topics at random -- either a traumatic life event, their best possible future self, both, or a nonemotional control.  A follow up five months later found that writing about either trauma or a positive future lead to reduced illness and increased subjective well-being compared to controls, though writing about trauma induced a short-term negative mood14.  Another follow up study found that reduced illness and increased subjective well-being resulted even from writing about intensely positive events15.

Affectionate writing is another type of regular journaling, where you write in your journal about affection for friends, family, or romantic partners.  This too has been found to have beneficial effects, such as lower cholesterol16.  Another study involved writing a letter of affection to someone and personally delivering it to them, which was found to decrease depressive symptoms for a few months17, but then had no further longer-term effects.


The Gratitude Journal

But suppose you're not recovering from a recent serious problem, but instead just want to boost your happiness in your everyday life.  What should you do?  Instead, you can get the same benefit of journaling by focusing on gratitude.

In another study, three groups of college students were asked to keep short, daily diaries -- one group would write about what they were grateful for in that day, the second group would write about what annoyed them, and the third group was asked just to keep track of events from a neutral perspective.

Those who kept careful track of what they were grateful for were more happy, more optimistic, and healthier than the other two groups at the end of the study18 after two weeks of journaling and a three-week follow up period.  This study was then replicated among another college population19 and replicated a third time among college populations17.  Researchers also tested the theory beyond college students -- in middle school classrooms20, among adults with neuromuscular disease18, and among Korean healthcare professionals21.  Each time, they found that gratitude journaling produced reliable increases in happiness.



So what should we do if we want to start a gratitude journal?  Well, get a journal and start writing!  I've been keeping mine on my blog, but you could keep your wherever you like.  However, here are some tips to make the implementation better:

It won't work for everyone.  These effects only appear in the aggregate.  So far, little research has been done to find moderating effects of gratitude journaling, but it is known to work better for women than for men, though it still works for men just fine4,5,7.  It's possible that journaling won't work for certain people.  Beware of other-optimizing.

It won't work if it annoys you. If you find the journaling tedious or annoying, you'll lose the happiness boost19, so it's important you find some way to keep it fresh.  In one experiment, college students were assigned to do a gratitude journal either daily or once a week.  While both groups showed a boost, the once-a-week group actually found a higher boost in happiness19, presumably because they didn't get bored with the journal.

Thinking about the subtraction of positive events produces an even bigger boost.  While one gains a boost in happiness from reflecting on being grateful for, say, wildflowers, one can get an even higher boost in happiness if instructed to also try and imagine a world where wildflowers don't exist7.

Think about what caused these good events. Thinking not just about what you're grateful for but why things turned out the way they did to inspire gratitude also had better effects17.


It's not all that often that science hands us a definitive self-help practice that has been this well vetted.  Maybe it works for you; maybe it doesn't.  Maybe it's worth your time; maybe you are happy enough that you can forgo the effort.  But it's hopefully at least worth thinking about.

After all, I'm grateful that positive psychology exists.


(This was also cross-posted on my blog.)



(Note: Links are to PDF files.)

1: McCullough, Michael E., Jo-Ann Tsang, and Robert. A. Emmons. 2004. "Gratitude in Intermediate Affective Terrain: Links of Grateful Moods to Individual Differences and Daily Emotional Experience". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 86: 295–309.

2: Wood, Alex M., Jeffrey J. Froh, and Adam W. A. Geraghty. 2010. "Gratitude and Well-Being: A Review and Theoretical Integration". Clinical Psychology Review 30 (7): 890-905.

3: Park, Nansook, Christopher Peterson, and Martin E. P. Seligman. 2004. "Strengths of Character and Well-Being". Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 23 (5): 603-619.

4: Watkins, Phillip C., Katherine Woodward, Tamara Stone, and Russel K. Kolts. 2003. "Gratitude and Happiness: Development of a Measure of Gratitude, and Relationships with Subjective Well-Being". Social Behavior and Personality 31 (5): 431-452.

5: Kashdan, Todd B., Gitendra Uswatteb, and Terri Julian. 2006. "Gratitude and Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being in Vietnam War Veterans". Behaviour Research and Therapy 44: 177–199.

6: Grant, Adam M. and Francesca Gino. 2010. "A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98 (6): 946–955.

7: Emmons, Robert A. and Anjali Mishra. 2011. "Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need to Know" in Kennon M. Sheldon, Todd B. Kashdan, Michael F. Stenger (Eds.). Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward, 248-262. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

8: McCullough, Michael E., Jo-Ann Tsang, and Robert. A. Emmons. 2002. "The Grateful Disposition: A Conceptual and Empirical Topography". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82 (1): 112–127.

9: Wood, Alex M., Stephen Joseph, and John Maltby. 2009. "Gratitude Predicts Psychological Well-Being Above the Big Five Facets"</a>. Personality and Individual Differences 46 (4): 443–447.

10: Emmons, Robert A. and Cheryl A. Crumpler. 2000. "Gratitude as a Human Strength: Appraising the Evidence". Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 19 (1): 56-69

11: Lyubomirsky, Sonja and Chris Tkach. 2003. "The Consequences of Dysphoric Rumination" in Costas Papageorgiou and Adrian Wells (Eds.). Depressive Rumination: Nature, Theory and Treatment, 21-41.  Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.

12: Spera, Stephanie P., Eric D. Buhrfeind, and James W. Pennebaker. 1994. "Expressive Writing and Coping with Job Loss". Academy of Management Journal 3, 722–733.

13: Lepore, Stephen J. and Joshua Morrison Smyth (Eds.) 2002. The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

14: King, Laura A. 2001. "The Health Benefits of Writing About Life Goals". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27: 798–807.

15: Burton, Chad M and Laura A. King. 2004. "The Health Benefits of Writing about Intensely Positive Experiences". Journal of Research in Personality 38: 150–163.

16: Floyd, Kory, Alan C. Mikkelson, Colin Hesse, and Perry M. Pauley. 2007. "Affectionate Writing Reduces Total Cholesterol: Two Ranomized, Controlled Trials". Human Communication Research 33: 119–142.

17: Seligman, Martin E. P., Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park, and Christopher Peterson. "Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions". American Psychologist 60: 410-421.

18: Emmons, Robert A. and Michael E. McCullough. 2003. "Counting Blessings versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84: 377–389.

19: Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade. 2005. "Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change"Review of General Psychology 9 (2): 111-131.

20: Froh, Jeffrey J., William J. Sefick, and Robert A. Emmons. 2008. "Counting Blessings in Early Adolescents: An Experimental Study of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being". Journal of School Psychology 46 (2): 213-233.

21: Ki, Tsui Pui. 2009. "Gratitude and Stress of Health-Care Professionals in Hong Kong". Unpublished thesis.

An attempt to dissolve subjective expectation and personal identity

35 Kaj_Sotala 22 February 2013 08:44PM

I attempt to figure out a way to dissolve the concepts of 'personal identity' and 'subjective expectation' down to the level of cognitive algorithms, in a way that would let one bite the bullets of the anthropic trilemma. I proceed by considering four clues which seem important: 1) the evolutionary function of personal identity, 2) a sense of personal identity being really sticky, 3) an undefined personal identity causing undefined behavior in our decision-making machinery, and 4) our decision-making machinery being more strongly grounded in our subjective expectation than in abstract models. Taken together, these seem to suggest a solution.

I ended up re-reading some of the debates about the anthropic trilemma, and it struck me odd that, aside for a few references to personal identity being an evolutionary adaptation, there seemed to be no attempt to reduce the concept to the level of cognitive algorithms. Several commenters thought that there wasn't really any problem, and Eliezer asked them to explain why the claim of there not being any problem regardless violated the intuitive rules of subjective expectation. That seemed like a very strong indication that the question needs to be dissolved, but almost none of the attempted answers seemed to do that, instead trying to solve the question via decision theory without ever addressing the core issue of subjective expectation. rwallace's I-less Eye argued - I believe correctly - that subjective anticipation isn't ontologically fundamental, but still didn't address the question of why it feels like it is.

Here's a sketch of a dissolvement. It seems relatively convincing to me, but I'm not sure how others will take it, so let's give it a shot. Even if others find it incomplete, it should at least help provide clues that point towards a better dissolvement.

Clue 1: The evolutionary function of personal identity.

Let's first consider the evolutionary function. Why have we evolved a sense of personal identity?

The first answer that always comes to everyone's mind is that our brains have evolved for the task of spreading our genes, which involves surviving at least for as long as it takes to reproduce. Simpler neural functions, like maintaining a pulse and having reflexes, obviously do fine without a concept of personal identity. But if we wish to use abstract, explicit reasoning to advance our own interests, we need some definition for exactly whose interests it is that our reasoning process is supposed to be optimizing. So evolution comes up with a fuzzy sense of personal identity, so that optimizing the interests of this identity also happens to optimize the interests of the organism in question.

That's simple enough, and this point was already made in the discussions so far. But that doesn't feel like it would resolve our confusion yet, so we need to look at the way that personal identity is actually implemented in our brains. What is the cognitive function of personal identity?

Clue 2: A sense of personal identity is really sticky.

Even people who disbelieve in personal identity don't really seem to disalieve it: for the most part, they're just as likely to be nervous about their future as anyone else. Even advanced meditators who go out trying to dissolve their personal identity seem to still retain some form of it. PyryP claims that at one point, he reached a stage in meditation where the experience of “somebody who experiences things” shattered and he could turn it entirely off, or attach it to something entirely different, such as a nearby flower vase. But then the experience of having a self began to come back: it was as if the brain was hardwired to maintain one, and to reconstruct it whenever it was broken. I asked him to comment on that for this post, and he provided the following:

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How about testing our ideas?

31 [deleted] 14 September 2012 10:28AM

Related to:  Science: Do It Yourself, How To Fix Science, Rationality and Science posts from this sequence, Cargo Cult Science, "citizen science"

You think you have a good map, what you really have is a working hypothesis

You did some thought on human rationality, perhaps spurred by intuition or personal experience. Building it up you did your homework and stood on the shoulders of other people's work giving proper weight to expert opinion. You write an article on LessWrong, it gets up voted, debated and perhaps accepted and promoted as part of a "sequence". But now you'd like to do that thing that's been nagging you since the start, you don't want to be one of those insight junkies consuming fun plausible ideas forgetting to ever get around to testing them. Lets see how the predictions made by your model hold up! You dive into the literature in search of experiments that have conveniently already tested your idea.

It is possible there simply isn't any such experimental material or that it is unavailable. Don't get me wrong, if I had to bet on it I would say it is more likely there is at least something similar to what you need than not. I would also bet that some things we wish where done haven't been so far and are unlikely to be for a long time. In the past I've wondered if we can in the future expect CFAR or LessWrong to do experimental work to test many of the hypotheses we've come up with based on fresh but unreliable insight, anecdotal evidence and long fragile chains of reasoning. This will not happen on its own.

With mention of CFAR, the mind jumps to them doing expensive experiments or posing long questionnaires with small samples of students and then publishing papers, like everyone else does. It is the respectable thing to do and it is something that may or may not be worth their effort. It seems doable. The idea of LWers getting into the habit of testing their ideas on human rationality beyond the anecdotal seems utterly impractical. Or is it?

That ordinary people can band together to rapidly produce new knowledge is anything but a trifle

How useful would it be if we had a site visited by thousands or tens of thousands solving forms or participating in experiments submitted by LessWrong posters or CFAR researchers? Something like this site. How useful would it be if we made such a data set publicly available? What if we could in addition to this data mine how people use apps or an online rationality class? At this point you might be asking yourself if building knowledge this way even possible in fields that takes years to study. A fair question, especially for tasks that require technical competence, the answer is yes.

I'm sure many at this point, have started wondering about what kinds of problems biased samples might create for us. It is important to keep in mind what kind of sample of people you get to participate in the experiment or fill out your form, since this influences how confident you are allowed to be about generalizations. Learning things about very specific kinds of people is useful too. Recall this is hardly a unique problem, you can't really get away from it in the social sciences. WEIRD samples aren't weird in academia. And I didn't say the thousands and tens of thousands people would need to come from our own little corner of the internet, indeed they probably couldn't. There are many approaches to getting them and making the sample as good as we can. Sites like yourmorals.org tried a variety of approaches we could learn from them. Even doing something like hiring people from Amazon Mechanical Turk can work out surprisingly well

LessWrong Science: We do what we must because we can

The harder question is if the resulting data would be used at all. As we currently are? I don't think so. There are many publicly available data sets and plenty of opportunities to mine data online, yet we see little if any original analysis based on them here. We either don't have norms encouraging this or we don't have enough people comfortable with statistics doing so. Problems like this aren't immutable. The Neglected Virtue of Scholarship noticeably changed our community in a similarly profound way with positive results. Feeling that more is possible I think it is time for us to move in this direction.

Perhaps just creating a way to get the data will attract the right crowd, the quantified self people are not out of place here. Perhaps LessWrong should become less of a site and more of a blogosphere. I'm not sure how and I think for now the question is a distraction anyway. What clearly can be useful is to create a list of models and ideas we've already assimilated that haven't been really tested or are based on research that still awaits replication. At the very least this will help us be ready to update if relevant future studies show up. But I think that identifying any low hanging fruit and design some experiments or attempts at replication, then going out there and try to perform them can get us so much more. If people have enough pull to get them done inside academia without community help great, if not we should seek alternatives.

Bayes for Schizophrenics: Reasoning in Delusional Disorders

88 Yvain 13 August 2012 07:22PM

Related to: The Apologist and the Revolutionary, Dreams with Damaged Priors

Several years ago, I posted about V.S. Ramachandran's 1996 theory explaining anosognosia through an "apologist" and a "revolutionary".

Anosognosia, a condition in which extremely sick patients mysteriously deny their sickness, occurs during right-sided brain injury but not left-sided brain injury. It can be extraordinarily strange: for example, in one case, a woman whose left arm was paralyzed insisted she could move her left arm just fine, and when her doctor pointed out her immobile arm, she claimed that was her daughter's arm even though it was obviously attached to her own shoulder. Anosognosia can be temporarily alleviated by squirting cold water into the patient's left ear canal, after which the patient suddenly realizes her condition but later loses awareness again and reverts back to the bizarre excuses and confabulations.

Ramachandran suggested that the left brain is an "apologist", trying to justify existing theories, and the right brain is a "revolutionary" which changes existing theories when conditions warrant. If the right brain is damaged, patients are unable to change their beliefs; so when a patient's arm works fine until a right-brain stroke, the patient cannot discard the hypothesis that their arm is functional, and can only use the left brain to try to fit the facts to their belief.

In the almost twenty years since Ramachandran's theory was published, new research has kept some of the general outline while changing many of the specifics in the hopes of explaining a wider range of delusions in neurological and psychiatric patients. The newer model acknowledges the left-brain/right-brain divide, but adds some new twists based on the Mind Projection Fallacy and the brain as a Bayesian reasoner.

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Thinking and Deciding: a chapter by chapter review

35 Vaniver 09 May 2012 11:52PM

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of Thinking and Deciding by Jonathan Baron (UPenn, twitter). It won't be a detailed summary like badger's excellent summary of Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment, in part because this is a 600-page textbook and so a full summary would be far longer that I want to write here. I'll try to provide enough details that people can seek out the chapters that they find interesting, but this is by no means a replacement for reading the chapters that you find interesting. Every chapter is discussed below, with a brief "what should I read?" section if you know what you're interested in.

We already have a thread for textbook recommendations, but this book is central enough to Less Wrong's mission that it seems like it's worth an in-depth review. I'll state my basic impression of the whole book up front: I expect most readers of LW would gain quite a bit from reading the book, especially newer members, as it seems like a more focused and balanced introduction to the subject of rationality than the Sequences.

Baron splits the book into three sections: Thinking in General, Probability and Belief, and Decisions and Plans.

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Things you are supposed to like

68 PhilGoetz 22 October 2011 02:04AM

I'm trying to like Beethoven's Great Fugue.

"This piece alone completely changed my life and how I perceive and appreciate music."

"Those that claim to love Beethoven but not this are fakers, frauds, wannabees, but most of all are people who are incapable of stopping everything for 10 minutes and reveling in absolute beauty, absolute perfection. Beethoven at his finest."

"This is the absolute peak of Beethoven."

"It's now my favorite piece by Beethoven."

These are some of the comments on the page.  Articulate music lovers with excellent taste praise this piece to heaven.  Plus, it was written by Beethoven.

It bores me.

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Calibrate your self-assessments

68 Yvain 09 October 2011 11:26PM

When I moved to Ireland, I knew that their school system, and in particular their examinations, would be different from the ones I was used to. I educated myself on them and by the time I took my first exam I thought I was reasonably prepared.

I walked out of my first examination almost certain I had failed. I remember emailing my parents, apologizing to them for my failure and promising I would do better when I repeated the class.

Then I got my results back, and learned I had passed with honors.

This situation repeated itself with depressing regularity over the next few semesters. Took exam, walked out in tears certain I had failed, made angsty complaints and apologies, got results back, celebrated. Eventually I decided that I might as well skip steps two to five and go straight to the celebrations.

This was harder than I expected. Just knowing that my feelings of abject failure usually ended out all right did not change those feelings of abject failure. I still walked out of each exam with the same gut certainty of disaster I had always had. What I did learn to do was ignore it: to force myself to walk home with a smile on my face and refuse to let myself dwell on the feelings of failure or take them seriously. And in this I was successful, and now the feelings of abject failure produce only a tiny twinge of stress.

In LW terminology, I am calibrating my self-assessment of examination success1.

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Morality is not about willpower

9 PhilGoetz 08 October 2011 01:33AM

Most people believe the way to lose weight is through willpower.  My successful experience losing weight is that this is not the case.  You will lose weight if you want to, meaning you effectively believe0 that the utility you will gain from losing weight, even time-discounted, will outweigh the utility from yummy food now.  In LW terms, you will lose weight if your utility function tells you to.  This is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy (the effective kind of therapy), which tries to change peoples' behavior by examining their beliefs and changing their thinking habits.

Similarly, most people believe behaving ethically is a matter of willpower; and I believe this even less.  Your ethics is part of your utility function.  Acting morally is, technically, a choice; but not the difficult kind that holds up a stop sign and says "Choose wisely!"  We notice difficult moral choices more than easy moral choices; but most moral choices are easy, like choosing a ten dollar bill over a five.  Immorality is not a continual temptation we must resist; it's just a kind of stupidity.

This post can be summarized as:

  1. Each normal human has an instinctive personal morality.
  2. This morality consists of inputs into that human's decision-making system.  There is no need to propose separate moral and selfish decision-making systems.
  3. Acknowledging that all decisions are made by a single decision-making system, and that the moral elements enter it in the same manner as other preferences, results in many changes to how we encourage social behavior.

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