Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

4 Common Prediction Failures and How to Fix Them [LINK]

21 Peter_McIntyre 10 February 2015 01:34AM

A post I wrote on CFAR's blog about the errors we make in hedonic prospecting, based on Gilbert and Wilson's 2007 review article of the topic. Let me know what you think! Reposting from the discussion in case anyone missed it. :) 


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.

Emotional regulation Part II: research summary

23 Swimmer963 19 March 2012 09:51PM

Abstract: Emotional regulation is a topic currently being studied in the field of psychology. Five different types of emotional regulation strategies have been identified, distinguished by the stage of the emotion-response process in which they occur. To drastically simplify, this strategies are: situation selection, situation modification, deployment of attention, changes in cognition, and modulation of responses. 



This is a follow-up to my previous post about my problem with emotional regulation. This is also my first outside-of-the-classroom foray into scholarship, lukeprog style. Mainly what I found is that it’s surprisingly time-consuming and frustrating. I suffered a lot of akrasia, compared to my usual, while writing this post–mainly because I kept thinking ‘oh my god, and then I have to cite my sources!’ This may be an area where I need more practice...

continue reading »

Emotional regulation, Part I: a problem summary

10 Swimmer963 05 March 2012 11:10PM

I have a problem with emotions.

I’ve known this for a long time. It’s a very specific problem, one that only affects me a small percentage of the time: most people I know don’t describe me as an emotional person. I’m lucky enough to have been born with the sort of brain that keeps my overall mood on an even keel, no matter how many annoying things I force myself to do.

From my (less than rigorous) comparisons between myself and other people, I think that have good luminosity: almost all of the time, I can trace back the reasons why I feel a certain way and explain it to others in a way that is consistent with my behaviour. I think I know myself pretty well-I don’t like unpredictable situations, I have sucky reaction times, and my brain does not operate at full capacity when under pressure and tends to succumb to the most obvious biases when making decisions. I like to please people, even though I try to give off an impression of not caring what other people think. I have an overactive conscience, and in order to be happy with myself, I need to at least feel like I’m working harder than average. The flip side of my sometimes-rigidity is that I’m not at all impulsive. I may be awful at changing plans in the heat of the moment, but I’m very good at deliberating on my long-term life plan and then carrying it out. Etc. 

I suspect that the reason I’m not considered an emotional person is that my moment-to-moment emotional experience isn’t (usually) very intense. I feel annoyance and frustration, even anger, but not strongly enough to alter already made plans or cause me to do something I’ll later regret. I like analyzing myself, and so most of my basic emotions are accompanied by thoughts about those emotions, and I suspect that this process of deliberate analysis causes the actual emotions to be less intense. I don’t experience joy that often, or that strongly, but most of the time I’m experiencing satisfaction with my life, or thinking about things I find interesting, or taking pleasure in what I’m doing at the moment or what I anticipate doing in the near future.

But there’s one exception to the rule, one area where my emotions are anything but muted, and where years of introspection have failed to help me. It’s like a switch flips in my brain, and I’m pretty familiar now with what specific inputs will flip that switch...but being aware of it doesn’t stop it, meta-analysis of the process makes it worse, and although I can prevent almost all incidents by not doing the things that trigger it, many of those things I would otherwise want to do. Avoidance works in the short term, and I’ve used it in the past, but I don’t want to be the kind of person who has to avoid scary things.

The usual characteristics of this switch-flip are the following: a deep sense of despair, helplessness, and lack of control, accompanied by the knowledge that I’m helpless and out of control because I’m not good enough, because I’m incapable of things that other people find easy, etc. My usual method for dealing with emotions, i.e. a detailed analysis, fails because it triggers a feedback loop of negativity. More recently, I’m often aware during one of these episodes that the ‘evidence’ does not indicate all the bad things I’m thinking about myself, and that my thinking it does is a temporary state (usually lasting only a few minutes), but I can’t force myself out of the state. The best I can do is stop thinking about it...but as I’m sure most of you know, deliberately not thinking about something is easier said than done.


The usual causes of the switch-flip: some kind of competition pressure. Any situation where I want to or am expected to win against other people, rather than just meeting a certain standard, is likely to be a trigger. Failing at something, or letting someone down, is another trigger. My thoughts very quickly escalade into “it’s not fair that I’m worse than everyone else at X” and “I’m never going to be the sort of person that I want to be, because I’m bad at X,” and then my brain goes into a feedback loop of coming up with examples why I’m worse than everyone else X, intensifying the initial despair, which then makes it easier to think of examples.

The other condition, which is necessary to go from a state of silent suffering to one of full-on meltdown, is any kind of social pressure for me not to have a meltdown. Not wanting to embarrass myself, especially if it’s in front of people whose opinions I care about, has almost always had the opposite effect. Being asked to justify why I’m upset makes me more upset, because once in this state I literally can’t explain, usually just because crying gets in the way of talking.

Nowadays, once the state wears off, it has pretty much no effect on me. In hindsight, I’m perfectly aware that I was being silly. Having had a meltdown doesn’t leave me with an aversion to the context that caused it, or cause any particular anxiety about putting myself in that circumstance again. There’s a small aversive effect of having embarrassed myself and not wanting to look stupid again, but I’m pretty stubborn about not letting myself care what others think, so the simple fact of having meltdowns doesn’t nowadays stop me from doing any given activity.

However, in the past the aversive effect was much stronger. My emotional outbursts are the main reason that I left competitive swimming. There was too much cognitive dissonance involved between wanting to meet my coaches’ expectations and knowing that I simply wasn’t physically talented enough to get any faster, and having that dissonance in my head all the time meant a lot of meltdowns. I left swimming in a very negative mental state, and to this day I can’t think clearly about it–I get pulled back under a mild cloud of despair. 

In this case, I allowed my emotions to make my decisions for me. Had I been making the same decision now, I don’t think I would have quit. I had plenty of good reasons to swim other than wanting to make the Olympic team: it kept me fit, involved spending time with people I liked, provided me with endorphins after practice, etc. The only time I’ve come close to being depressed was the year I quit swimming and was faced with sudden exercise withdrawal. I would have liked to have been still fast enough to make the university swim team, whether or not I could expect to win a lot of races for them. Etc. 

Since starting taekwondo nine months ago, the first sport I've attempted since leaving swimming, I’ve had one running-out-of-the-room-in-tears meltdown, one occasion that I remember when I started crying but didn’t run away, and a few other times where my ‘switch’ flipped but where I managed to stick to silent suffering. I find this a huge improvement over my swim team experience. My instructor thinks that it’s my biggest problem. About a month ago, after one particularly silly episode (after an already frustrating class, I had missed the 8:10 bus because class ended at about 8:11, and I had to wait another forty minutes for the next one, which seemed like an incredibly big deal at the time), he gave me a lecture. This made it worse by forcing me to keep my attention focused on the meltdown for twenty straight minutes rather than letting it wear off naturally. He also taught me a meditation breathing exercise, which has been unhelpful so far–again, it keeps my attention focused on ‘I’m doing a breathing exercise right now because I’m about to burst into tears otherwise’, and makes it more likely that sooner or later I'll notice all the people looking at me and I will burst into tears. Giving him a more detailed description of my problem afterwards, when I was in a state that allowed me to talk, failed to elicit any more specific suggestions. My brain, concluding that “obviously he has no idea what he’s talking about,” got ready to move on.

On the bus ride home, though, when I could safely think about dangerous topics in the privacy of my jacket hood, I was forced to conclude that my instructor not knowing how to teach me not to have meltdowns is not actually a full-on excuse to stop searching. Even if my problem is specific, rather than a general lack of emotion-management skills, it’s still going to limit me in some things. (For example, it was a problem for the first four months or so of my current relationship). And there probably is a way out there to solve it.

In spirit of the virtue of scholarship, I’m in the process of doing the most thorough research project that I’ve ever done ‘for fun’. It may end up being more extensive than anything I’ve done for school, too. I’ve already started, but I’m posting this basic description in order to get recommendations for sources I should consult. So far I’ve searched a couple of online databases available through my university library, using keywords such as ‘emotional regulation’, ‘emotional control’, ‘stress management’, and various combinations. I’ve come up with several dozen articles, which I am working my way through to summarize. If there’s anything else I should look for, or if there are any books that I might find useful to consult, please let me know. Likewise, if anyone has ever experienced something similar, I'll take your advice on how you ended up dealing with it. 

Part II will be coming in a few weeks, hopefully, depending on how extensive my research ends up being. 


Knowledge is Worth Paying For

45 lukeprog 21 September 2011 06:09PM

Have you ever asked a store manager if you can use their bathroom and been told that you must order something first? Even if it's obviously worth $1 to not wet your pants, you feel a bit resentful about having to buy the Arizona iced tea. You're so used to using other stores' bathrooms for free that you actually considered not paying.

Wikipedia, Google Books, and the Pirate Bay have trained many people to expect that knowledge should always be zero-cost. I used to feel that way, too. I would try half a dozen techniques to get some set of highly compressed knowledge (a textbook or review article) for free, and if that failed, my brain felt a bit indignant, and I would move on to something else.

One of the most important lessons I ever learned about the neglected virtue of scholarship is this: Sometimes, knowledge is worth paying for.

How much do you value your time, and how much do you value understanding a certain thing? After reading lots of research and many book excerpts, I learned that Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis (2010) was the best overview available on how the brain encodes value and makes decisions. But I couldn't find it for free. I had a hunch that coming to understand the subject without reading the best overview available would take at least a dozen extra hours. The Kindle price for Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis was only $55. Easy choice: I bought it.

continue reading »

Scholarship: How to Do It Efficiently

114 lukeprog 09 May 2011 10:05PM

Scholarship is an important virtue of rationality, but it can be costly. Its major costs are time and effort. Thus, if you can reduce the time and effort required for scholarship - if you can learn to do scholarship more efficiently - then scholarship will be worth your effort more often than it previously was.

As an autodidact who now consumes whole fields of knowledge in mere weeks, I've developed efficient habits that allow me to research topics quickly. I'll share my research habits with you now.


Review articles and textbooks are king

My first task is to find scholarly review (or 'survey') articles on my chosen topic from the past five years (the more recent, the better). A good review article provides:

  1. An overview of the subject matter of the field and the terms being used (for scholarly googling later).
  2. An overview of the open and solved problems in the field, and which researchers are working on them.
  3. Pointers to the key studies that give researchers their current understanding of the topic.

If you can find a recent scholarly edited volume of review articles on the topic, then you've hit the jackpot. (Edited volumes are better than single-author volumes, because when starting out you want to avoid reading only one particular researcher's perspective.) Examples from my own research of just this year include:

If the field is large enough, there may exist an edited 'Handbook' on the subject, which is basically just a very large scholarly edited volume of review articles. Examples: Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (2007), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2009), Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience (2009), Handbook of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (2008), Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics (2011), Handbook of Relationship Intitiation (2008), and Handbook of Implicit Social Cognition (2010). For the humanities, see the Blackwell Companions and Cambridge Companions.

If your questions are basic enough, a recent entry-level textbook on the subject may be just as good. Textbooks are basically book-length review articles written for undergrads. Textbooks I purchased this year include:

Use Google Books and Amazon's 'Look Inside' feature to see if the books appear to be of high quality, and likely to answer the questions you have. Also check the textbook recommendations here. You can save money by checking Library Genesis and library.nu for a PDF copy first, or by buying used books, or by buying ebook versions from Amazon, B&N, or Google.

continue reading »

Costs and Benefits of Scholarship

40 lukeprog 22 March 2011 02:19AM

Scholarship is excellent, but it is also expensive. It takes a long time to catch up to the state of the art, even for a narrow subject.

I recently read 90% of the literature on machine ethics, a recent and small field of inquiry, and it took me about 40 hours to find all the literature, acquire it, and read (or skim) through it. Doing the same thing for an older and larger subject will take far more time than that. And of course most of the literature on any subject is not valuable.

Other times, you get lucky. Let's say you want to figure out how to beat procrastination. You could introspect your way to a plausible solution, but you might end up being wrong. So, you check Wikipedia. Not very useful. Next, you search Google Scholar for "procrastination." An article on the first page looks like what you want: an overview of the scientific research on procrastination. It's called "The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure," and it's available online! As it turns out, you can do a pretty decent job of catching up on the science of procrastination just by reading one article. (Of course it's not that easy. You should be more thorough, and explore alternate perspectives. Psychology is not settled chemistry.)

And in machine ethics, it turns out that most of what you'd want to know is summarized nicely in a single book: Moral Machines (2009).

But on other topics, you won't be so lucky. Suppose you want to study the neuroscience of how desire works. You check Wikipedia, and it has a section on the psychology and neurology of desire. But it doesn't tell you much. A Google Scholar search is even worse. You check the index of a large neuroscience textbook for "desire," and come up with basically nothing. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on desire is pretty good, but it barely touches on neuroscience. It does point you to two good resources, though: the book Three Faces of Desire, which sounds like it will cover the neuroscience, and the work of neuroscientist Kent Berridge. Now, because I have studied the neuroscience of desire, let me spoil the surprise at this point: this research project is not going to be so easy. You have a very long "literature slog" ahead of you.

So I won't argue that scholarship is always or even usually the instrumentally rational thing to do when you want to make progress on a certain problem. Sometimes the costs of scholarship outweigh the benefits.

But to make that judgment, it will help to know just what those costs and benefits are.

continue reading »

Scientific Self-Help: The State of Our Knowledge

138 lukeprog 20 January 2011 08:44PM
Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life

Some have suggested that the Less Wrong community could improve readers' instrumental rationality more effectively if it first caught up with the scientific literature on productivity and self-help, and then enabled readers to deliberately practice self-help skills and apply what they've learned in real life.

I think that's a good idea. My contribution today is a quick overview of scientific self-help: what professionals call "the psychology of adjustment." First I'll review the state of the industry and the scientific literature, and then I'll briefly summarize the scientific data available on three topics in self-help: study methods, productivity, and happiness.

The industry and the literature

As you probably know, much of the self-help industry is a sham, ripe for parody. Most self-help books are written to sell, not to help. Pop psychology may be more myth than fact. As Christopher Buckley (1999) writes, "The more people read [self-help books], the more they think they need them... [it's] more like an addiction than an alliance."

Where can you turn for reliable, empirically-based self-help advice? A few leading therapeutic psychologists (e.g., Albert Ellis, Arnold Lazarus, Martin Seligman) have written self-help books based on decades of research, but even these works tend to give recommendations that are still debated, because they aren't yet part of settled science.

Lifelong self-help researcher Clayton Tucker-Ladd wrote and updated Psychological Self-Help (pdf) over several decades. It's a summary of what scientists do and don't know about self-help methods (as of about 2003), but it's also more than 2,000 pages long, and much of it surveys scientific opinion rather than experimental results, because on many subjects there aren't any experimental results yet. The book is associated with an internet community of people sharing what does and doesn't work for them.

More immediately useful is Richard Wiseman's 59 Seconds. Wiseman is an experimental psychologist and paranormal investigator who gathered together what little self-help research is part of settled science, and put it into a short, fun, and useful Malcolm Gladwell-ish book. The next best popular-level general self-help book is perhaps Martin Seligman's What You Can Change and What You Can't.

continue reading »

The Best Textbooks on Every Subject

167 lukeprog 16 January 2011 08:30AM

For years, my self-education was stupid and wasteful. I learned by consuming blog posts, Wikipedia articles, classic texts, podcast episodes, popular books, video lectures, peer-reviewed papers, Teaching Company courses, and Cliff's Notes. How inefficient!

I've since discovered that textbooks are usually the quickest and best way to learn new material. That's what they are designed to be, after all. Less Wrong has often recommended the "read textbooks!" method. Make progress by accumulation, not random walks.

But textbooks vary widely in quality. I was forced to read some awful textbooks in college. The ones on American history and sociology were memorably bad, in my case. Other textbooks are exciting, accurate, fair, well-paced, and immediately useful.

What if we could compile a list of the best textbooks on every subject? That would be extremely useful.

Let's do it.

There have been other pages of recommended reading on Less Wrong before (and elsewhere), but this post is unique. Here are the rules:

  1. Post the title of your favorite textbook on a given subject.
  2. You must have read at least two other textbooks on that same subject.
  3. You must briefly name the other books you've read on the subject and explain why you think your chosen textbook is superior to them.

Rules #2 and #3 are to protect against recommending a bad book that only seems impressive because it's the only book you've read on the subject. Once, a popular author on Less Wrong recommended Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy to me, but when I noted that it was more polemical and inaccurate than the other major histories of philosophy, he admitted he hadn't really done much other reading in the field, and only liked the book because it was exciting.

I'll start the list with three of my own recommendations...

continue reading »

The Neglected Virtue of Scholarship

177 lukeprog 05 January 2011 07:22AM

Eliezer Yudkowsky identifies scholarship as one of the Twelve Virtues of Rationality:

Study many sciences and absorb their power as your own. Each field that you consume makes you larger... It is especially important to eat math and science which impinges upon rationality: Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory. But these cannot be the only fields you study...

I think he's right, and I think scholarship doesn't get enough praise - even on Less Wrong, where it is regularly encouraged.

First, consider the evangelical atheist community to which I belong. There is a tendency for lay atheists to write "refutations" of theism without first doing a modicum of research on the current state of the arguments. This can get atheists into trouble when they go toe-to-toe with a theist who did do his homework. I'll share two examples:

  • In a debate with theist Bill Craig, agnostic Bart Ehrman paraphrased David Hume's argument that we can't demonstrate the occurrence of a miracle in the past. Craig responded with a PowerPoint slide showing Bayes' Theorem, and explained that Ehrman was only considering prior probabilities, when of course he needed to consider the relevant conditional probabilities as well. Ehrman failed to respond to this, and looked as though he had never seen Bayes' Theorem before. Had Ehrman practiced the virtue of scholarship on this issue, he might have noticed that much of the scholarly work on Hume's argument in the past two decades has involved Bayes' Theorem. He might also have discovered that the correct response to Craig's use of Bayes' Theorem can be found in pages 298-341 of J.H. Sobel’s Logic and Theism.

  • In another debate with Bill Craig, atheist Christopher Hitchens gave this objection: "Who designed the Designer? Don’t you run the risk… of asking 'Well, where does that come from? And where does that come from?' and running into an infinite regress?" But this is an elementary misunderstanding in philosophy of science. Why? Because every successful scientific explanation faces the exact same problem. It’s called the “why regress” because no matter what explanation is given of something, you can always still ask “Why?” Craig pointed this out and handily won that part of the debate. Had Hitchens had a passing understanding of science or explanation, he could have avoided looking foolish, and also spent more time on substantive objections to theism. (One can give a "Who made God?" objection to theism that has some meat, but that's not the one Hitchens gave. Hitchens' objection concerned an infinite regress of explanations, which is just as much a feature of science as it is of theism.)

The lesson I take from these and a hundred other examples is to employ the rationality virtue of scholarship. Stand on the shoulders of giants. We don't each need to cut our own path into a subject right from the point of near-total ignorance. That's silly. Just catch the bus on the road of knowledge paved by hundreds of diligent workers before you, and get off somewhere near where the road finally fades into fresh jungle. Study enough to have a view of the current state of the debate so you don't waste your time on paths that have already dead-ended, or on arguments that have already been refuted. Catch up before you speak up.

This is why, in more than 1000 posts on my own blog, I've said almost nothing that is original. Most of my posts instead summarize what other experts have said, in an effort to bring myself and my readers up to the level of the current debate on a subject before we try to make new contributions to it.

The Less Wrong community is a particularly smart and well-read bunch, but of course it doesn't always embrace the virtue of scholarship.

Consider the field of formal epistemology, an entire branch of philosophy devoted to (1) mathematically formalizing concepts related to induction, belief, choice, and action, and (2) arguing about the foundations of probability, statistics, game theory, decision theory, and algorithmic learning theory. These are central discussion topics at Less Wrong, and yet my own experience suggests that most Less Wrong readers have never heard of the entire field, let alone read any works by formal epistemologists, such as In Defense of Objective Bayesianism by Jon Williamson or Bayesian Epistemology by Luc Bovens and Stephan Hartmann.

continue reading »

View more: Next