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Bring up Genius

45 Viliam 08 June 2017 05:44PM

(This is a "Pareto translation" of Bring up Genius by László Polgár, the book recently mentioned at Slate Star Codex. I hope that selected 20% of the book text, translated approximately, could still convey 80% of its value, while taking an order of magnitude less time and work than a full and precise translation. The original book is written in an interview form, with questions and answers; to keep it short, I am rewriting it as a monologue. I am also taking liberty of making many other changes in style, and skipping entire parts, because I am optimizing for my time. Instead of the Hungarian original, I am using an Esperanto translation Eduku geniulon as my source, because that is the language I am more fluent in.)


Genius = work + luck

This is my book written in 1989 about 15 years of pedagogic experiment with my daughters. It is neither a recipe, nor a challenge, just a demonstration that it is possible to bring up a genius intentionally.

The so-called miracle children are natural phenomena, created by their parents and society. Sadly, many potential geniuses disappear without anyone noticing the opportunity, including themselves.

Many people in history did a similar thing by accident; we only repeated it on purpose.

1. Secrets of the pedagogic experiment

1.1. The Polgár family

The Polgár sisters (Susan, Sofia, Judit) are internationally as famous as Rubik Ernő, the inventor of the Rubik Cube.

Are they merely their father's puppets, manipulated like chess figures? Hardly. This level of success requires agency and active cooperation. Puppets don't become geniuses. Contrariwise, I provided them opportunity, freedom, and support. They made most of the decisions.

You know what really creates puppets? The traditional school system. Watch how kids, eagerly entering school in September, mostly become burned out by Christmas.

Not all geniuses are happy. Some are rejected by their environment, or they fail to achieve their goals. But some geniuses are happy, accepted by their environment, succeed, and contribute positively to the society. I think geniuses have a greater chance to be happy in life, and luckily my daughters are an example of that.

I was a member of the Communist Party for over ten years, but I disagreed with many things; specifically the lack of democracy, and the opposition to elite education.

I work about 15 hours a day since I was a teenager. I am obsessed with high quality. Some people say I am stubborn, even aggressive. I am trying hard to achieve my goals, and I experienced a lot of frustration; seems to me some people were trying to destroy us. We were threatened by high-ranking politicians. We were not allowed to travel abroad until 1985, when Susan was already the #1 in international ranking of female chess players.

But I am happy that I have a great family, happy marriage, three successful children, and my creative work has an ongoing impact.

1.2 Nature or nurture?

I believe that any biologically healthy child can be brought up to a genius. Me and my wife have read tons of books and studies. Researching the childhoods of many famous people that they all specialized early, and each of them had a strongly supportive parent or teacher or trainer. We concluded: geniuses are not born; they are made. We proved that experimentally. We hope that someone will build a coherent pedagogical system based on our hypothesis.

Most of what we know about genetics [as of 1989] is about diseases. Healthy brains are flexible. Education was considered important by Watson and Adler. But Watson never actually received the "dozen healthy infants" to bring up, so I was the first one to do this experiment. These are my five principles:

* Human personality is an outcome of the following three: the gifts of nature, the support of environment, and the work of one's own. Their relative importance depends on age: biology is strongest with the newborn, society with the ten years old, and later the importance of one's own actions grows.

* There are two aspects of social influence: the family, and the culture. Humans are naturally social, so education should treat the child as a co-author of themselves.

* I believe that any healthy child has sufficient general ability, and can specialize in any type of activity. Here I differ from the opinion of many teachers and parents who believe that the role of education is to find a hidden talent in the child. I believe that the child has a general ability, and achieves special skills by education.

* The development of the genius needs to be intentionally organized; it will not happen at random.

* People should strive for maximum possible self-realization; that brings happiness both to them and to the people around them. Pedagogy should not aim for average, but for excellence.

2. A different education

2.1. About contemporary schools

We homeschooled our children. Today's schools set a very low bar, and are intolerant towards people different from the average by their talent or otherwise. They don't prepare for real life; don't make kids love learning; don't instigate greater goals; bring up neither autonomous individuals nor collectives.

Which is an unsurprising outcome, if you only have one type of school, each school containing a few exceptional kids among many average ones and a few feeble ones. Even the average ones are closer to the feeble ones that to the exceptional ones. And the teacher, by necessity, adapts to the majority. There is not enough space for individual approach, but there is a lot of mindless repetition. Sure, people talk a lot about teaching problem-solving skills, but that never happens. Both the teachers and the students suffer at school.

The gifted children are bored, and even tired, because boredom is more tedious than appropriate effort. The gifted children are disliked, just like everyone who differs from the norm. Many gifted children acquire psycho-somatic problems, such as insomnia, headache, stomach pain, neuroses. Famous people often had trouble at school; they were considered stupid and untalented. There is bullying, and general lack of kindness. There are schools for gifted children in USA and USSR, but somehow not in Hungary [as of 1989].

I had to fight a lot to have my first daughter home-schooled. I was afraid school would endanger the development of her abilities. We had support of many people, including pedagogues, but various bureaucrats repeatedly rejected us, sometimes with threats. Finally we received an exceptional permission by the government, but it only applied for one child. So with the second daughter we had to go through the same process again.

2.2. Each child is a promise

It is crucial to awaken and keep the child's interest, convince them that the success is achievable, trust them, and praise them. When the child likes the work, it will work fruitfully for long time periods. A profound interest develops personality and skills. A motivated child will achieve more, and get tired less.

I believe in positive motivation. Create a situation where many successes are possible. Successes make children confident; failures make them insecure. Experience of success and admiration by others motivates and accelerates learning. Failure, fear, and shyness decrease the desire to achieve. Successes in one field even increase confidence in other fields.

Too much praise can cause overconfidence, but it is generally safer to err on the side of praising more rather than less. However, the praise must be connected to a real outcome.

Discipline, especially internal psychological, also increases skills.

I believe the age between 3 and 6 years is very important, and very underestimated. No, those children are not too young to learn. Actually, that's when their brains are evolving the most. They should learn foreign languages. In multilingual environments children do that naturally.

Play is important for children, but play is not an opposite of work. Gathering information and solving problems is fun. Provide meaningful activities, instead of compartmentalized games. A game without learning is merely a surrogate activity. Gifted children prefer games that require mental activity. There is a continuum between learning and playing (just like between work and hobby for adults). Brains, just like muscles, becomes stronger by everyday activity.

My daughters used intense methods to learn languages; and chess; and table tennis. Is there a risk of damaging their personality by doing so? Maybe, but I believe the risks of damaging the personality by spending six childhood years without any effort are actually greater.

When my daughters were 15, 9, 8 years old, we participated in a 24-hour chess tournament, where you had to play 100 games in 24 hours. (Most participants were between age 25 and 30.) Susan won. The success rates during the second half of the tournament were similar to those during the first half of the tournament, for all three girls, which shows that children are capable of staying focused for long periods of time. But this was an exceptional load.

2.3. Genius - a gift or a curse?

I am not saying that we should bring up each child as a genius; only that bringing up children as geniuses is possible. I oppose uniform education, even a hypothetical one that would use my methods.

Public ideas of geniuses is usually one of two extremes. Either they are all supposed to be weird and half-insane; or they are all supposed to be CEOs and movie stars. Psychology has already moved beyond this. They examined Einstein's brain, but found no difference in weight or volume compared with an average person. For me, genius is an average person who has achieved their full potential. Many famous geniuses attribute their success to hard work, discipline, attention, love of work, patience, time.

All healthy newborns are potential geniuses, but whether they become actual geniuses, depends on their environment, education, and their own effort. For example, in the 20th century more people became geniuses than in the 19th or 18th century, inter alia because of social changes. Geniuses need to be liberated. Hopefully in the future, more people will be free and fully developed, so being a genius will become a norm, not an exception. But for now, there are only a few people like that. As people grow up, they lose the potential to become geniuses. I estimate that an average person's chance to become a genius is about 80% at age 1; 60% at age 3; 50% at age 6; 40% at age 12; 30% at age 16; 20% at age 18; only 5% at age 20. Afterwards it drops to a fraction of percent.

A genius child can surpass their peers by 5 or 7 years. And if a "miracle child" doesn't become a "miracle adult", I am convinced that their environment did not allow them to. People say some children are faster and some are slower; I say they don't grow up in the same conditions. Good conditions allow one to progress faster. But some philosophers or writers became geniuses at old age.

People find it difficult to accept those who differ from the average. Even some scientists; for example Einstein's theory of relativity was opposed by many. My daughters are attacked not just by public opinion, but also by fellow chess players.

Some geniuses are unhappy about their situation. But many enjoy the creativity, perceived beauty, and success. Geniuses can harm themselves by having unrealistic expectations of their goals. But most of the harm comes from outside, as a dismissal of their work, or lack of material and moral support, baseless criticism. Nowadays, one demagogue can use the mass communication media to poison the whole population with rage against the representatives of national culture.

As the international communication and exchange of ideas grows, geniuses become more important than ever before. Education is necessary to overcome economical problems; new inventions create new jobs. But a genius provokes the anger of people, not by his behavior, but by his skills.

2.4. Should every child become a celebrity?

I believe in diversity in education. I am not criticizing teachers for not doing things my way. There are many other attempts to improve education. But I think it is now possible to aim even higher, to bring up geniuses. I can imagine the following environments where this could be done:

* Homeschooling, i.e. teaching your biological or adopted children. Multiple families could cooperate and share their skills.

* Specialized educational facility for geniuses; a college or a family-type institution.

Homeschooling, or private education with parental oversight, are the ancient methods for bringing up geniuses. Families should get more involved in education; you can't simply outsource everything to a school. We should support families willing to take an active role. Education works better in a loving environment.

Instead of trying to a find a talent, develop one. Start specializing early, at the age of 3 or 4. One cannot become an expert on everything.

My daughters played chess 5 or 6 hours a day since their age of 4 or 5. Similarly, if you want ot become a musician, spend 5 or 6 hours a day doing music; if a physicist, do physics; if a linguist, do languages. With such intense instruction, the child will soon feel the knowledge, experience success, and soon becomes able to use this knowledge independently. For example, after learning Esperanto 5 or 6 hours a day for a few months, the child can start corresponding with children from other countries, participate at international meet-ups, and experience the conversations in a foreign language. That is at the same time pleasant, useful for the child, and useful for the society. The next year, start with English, then German, etc. Now the child enjoys this, because it obviously makes sense. (Unlike at school, where most learning feels purposeless.) In chess, the first year makes you an average player, three years a great player, six years a master, fifteen years a grandmaster. When a 10-years old child surpasses an average adult at some skill, it is highly motivating.

Gifted children need financial support, to cover the costs of books, education, and travel.

Some people express concern that early specialization may lead to ignorance of everything else. But it's the other way round; abilities formed in one area can transfer to other areas. One learns how to learn.

Also, the specialization is relative. If you want to become e.g. a computer programmer, you will learn maths, informatics, foreign languages; when you become famous, you will travel, meet interesting people, experience different cultures. My daughters, in addition to being chess geniuses, speak many foreign languages, travel, do sports, write books, etc. Having deep knowledge about something doesn't imply ignorance about everything else. On the other hand, a misguided attempt to become an universalist can result in knowing nothing, in mere pretend-knowledge of everything.

Emotional and moral education must do together with the early specialization, to develop a complex personality. We wanted our children to be enthusiastic, courageous, persistent, to be objective judges of things and people, to resist failure and avoid temptations of success, to handle frustration and tolerate criticism even when it is wrong, to make plans, to manage their emotions. Also, to love and respect people, and to prefer creative work to physical pleasure or status symbols. We told them that they can achieve greatness, but that there can be only one world champion, so their goal should rather be to become good chess players, be good at sport, and be honest people.

Pedagogy puts great emphasis on being with children of the same age. I think that mental peers are more important than age peers. It would harm a gifted child to be forced to spend most of their time exclusively among children of the same age. On the other hand, spending most of the time with adults brings the risk that the child will learn to rely on them all the time, losing independence and initiative. You need to find a balance. I believe the best company would be of similar intellectual level, similar hobbies, and good relations.

For example, if Susan at 13 years old would be forced to play chess exclusively with 13 years old children, it would harm both sides. She could not learn anything from them; they would resent losing constantly.

Originally, I hoped I could bring up each daughter as a genius in a different field (e.g. mathematics, chess, music). It would be a more convincing evidence that you can bring up a genius of any kind. And I believe I would have succeeded, but I was constrained by money and time. We would need three private teachers, would have to go each day to three different places, would have to buy books for maths and chess and music (and the music instruments). By making them one team, things became easier, and the family has more things in common. Some psychologists worried that children could be jealous of each other, and hate each other. But we brought them up properly, and this did not happen.

This is how I imagine a typical day at a school for geniuses:

* 4 hours studying the subject of specialization, e.g. chess;

* 1 hour studying a foreign language; Esperanto at the first year, English at the second, later choose freely; during the first three months this would increase to 3 hours a day (by reducing the subject of specialization temporarily); traveling abroad during the summer;

* 1 hour computer science;

* 1 hour ethics, psychology, pedagogy, social skills;

* 1 hour physical education, specific form chosen individually.

Would I like to teach at such school? In theory yes, but in practice I am already burned out from the endless debates with authorities, the press, opinionated pedagogues and psychologists. I am really tired of that. The teachers in such school need to be protected from all this, so they can fully focus on their work.

2.5. Esperanto: the first step in learning foreign languages

Our whole family speaks Esperanto. It is a part of our moral system, a tool for equality of people. There are many prejudices against it, but the same was true about all progressive ideas. Some people argue by Bible that multiple languages are God's punishment we have to endure. Some people invested many resources into learning 2 or 3 or 4 foreign languages, and don't want to lose the gained position. Economically strong nations enforce their own languages as part of dominance, and the speakers of other languages are discriminated against. Using Esperanto as everyone's second language would make the international communication more easy and egalitarian. But considering today's economical pressures, it makes sense to learn English or Russian or Chinese next.

Esperanto has a regular grammar with simple syntax. It also uses many Latin, Germanic, and Slavic roots, so as a European, even if you are not familiar with the language, you will probably recognize many words in a text. This is an advantage from pedagogical point of view: you can more easily learn its vocabulary and its grammar; you can learn the whole language about 10 times easier than other languages.

It makes a great example of the concept of a foreign language, which pays off when learning other languages later. It is known that having learned one foreign language makes learning another foreign language easier. So, if learning Esperanto takes 10 times less time than learning another language, such as English, then if already knowing another foreign language makes learning the second one at least 10% more efficient, it makes sense to learn Esperanto first. Also, Esperanto would be a great first experience for students who have difficulty learning languages; they would achieve success faster.

3. Chess

3.1. Why chess?

Originally, we were deciding between mathematics, chess, and foreign languages. Finally we chose chess, because the results in that area are easy to measure, using a traditional and objective system, which makes it easier to prove whether the experiment succeeded or failed. Which was a lucky choice in hindsight, because back then we had no idea how many obstacles we will have to face. If we wouldn't be able to prove our results unambiguously, the attacks against us would have been much stronger.

Chess seemed sufficiently complex (it is a game, a science, an art, and a sport at the same time), so the risks of overspecialization were smaller; even if children would later decide they are tired of chess, they would keep some transferable skills. And the fact that our children were girls was a bonus: we were able to also prove that girls can be as intellectually able as boys; but for this purpose we needed an indisputable proof. (Although, people try to discount this proof anyway, saying things like: "Well, chess is simple, but try doing the same in languages, mathematics, or music!")

The scientific aspect of chess is that you have to follow the rules, analyze the situation, apply your intuition. If you have a favorite hypothesis, for example a favorite opening, but you keep losing, you have to change your mind. There is an aesthetic dimension in chess; some games are published and enjoyed not just because of their impressive logic, but because they are beautiful in some sense, they do something unexpected. And most people are not familiar with this chess requires great physical health. All the best chess players do some sport, and it is not a coincidence. Also it is organized similarly to sports: it has tournaments, players, spectators; you have to deal with the pain of losing, you have to play fair, etc.

3.2. How did the Polgár sisters start learning chess?

I don't have a "one weird trick" to teach children chess; it's just my general pedagogical approach, applied to chess. Teach the chess with love, playfully. Don't push it too forcefully. Remember to let the child win most of the time. Explain to the child that things can be learned, and that this also applies to chess. Don't worry if the child keeps jumping during the game; it could be still thinking about the game. Don't explain everything; provide the child an opportunity to discover some things independently. Don't criticize failure, praise success.

Start with shorter lessons, only 30 minutes and then have a break. Start by solving simple problems. Our girls loved the "checkmate in two/three moves" puzzles. Let the child play against equally skilled opponents often. For a child, it is better to play many quick games (e.g. with 5-minute timers), than a few long ones. Participate in tournaments appropriate for the child's current skill.

We have a large library of different games. They are indexed by strategy, and by names of players. So the girls can research their opponent's play before the tournament.

When a child loses the tournament, don't criticize them; the child is already sad. Offer support; help them analyze the mistakes.

When my girls write articles about chess, it makes them think deeply about the issue.

All three parts of the game opening, middle game, ending require same amount of focus. Some people focus too much on the endings, and neglect the rest. But at tournament, a bad opening can ruin the whole game.

Susan had the most difficult situation of the three daughters. In hindsight, having her learn 7 or 8 foreign languages was probably too much; some of that time would be better spent further improving her chess skills. As the oldest one, she also faced the worst criticism from haters; as a consequence she became the most defensive player of them. The two younger sister had the advantage that they could oppose the same pressures together. But still, I am sure that without those pressures, they also could have progressed even faster.

Politicians influenced the decisions of the Hungarian Chess Association; as a result my daughters were often forbidden from participation at international youth competitions, despite being the best national players. They wanted to prevent Susan from becoming the worldwide #1 female chess player. Once they even "donated" 100 points to her competitor, to keep Susan at the 2nd place. Later they didn't allow her to participate in the international male tournaments, although her results in the Hungarian male tournaments qualified her for that. The government regularly refused to issue passports to us, claiming that "our foreign travels hurt the public order". Also, it was difficult to find a trainer for my daughters, despite them being at the top of world rankings. Only recently we received a foreign help; a patron from Netherlands offered to pay trainers and sparring partners for my daughters, and also bought Susan a personal computer. A German journalist gave us a program and a database, and taught children how to use it.

The Hungarian press kept attacking us, published fake facts. We filed a few lawsuits, and won them all, but it just distracted us from our work. The foreign press whether writing from the chess, psychological, or pedagogical perspectives was fair to us; they wrote almost 40 000 articles about us, so finally even the Hungarian chess players, psychologists and pedagogues could learn about us from them.

At the beginning, I was a father, a trainer, and a manager to my daughters. But I am completely underqualified to be their trainer these days, so I just manage their trainers.

Until recently no one believed women could play chess on level comparable with men. Now the three girls together have about 40 Guiness records; they repeatedly outperformed their former records. In a 1988 interview Karpov said: "Susan is extraordinarily strong, but Judit... at such age, neither me nor Kasparov could play like Judit plays."

3.3. How can we make our children like chess?

Some tips for teaching chess to 4 or 5 years old children. First, I made a blank square divided into 8x8 little squares, with named rows and columns. I named a square, my daughter had to find it; then she named a square and I had to find it. Then we used the black-and-white version, and we were guessing the color of the named square without looking.

Then we introduced kings, in a "king vs king" combat; the task was to reach the opposing row of the board with your king. Then we added a pawn; the goal remained to reach the opposing row. After a month of playing, we introduced the queen, and the concept of checkmate. Later we gradually added the remaining pieces (knights were the most difficult).

Then we solved about thousand "checkmate in one move" puzzles. Then two moves, three moves, four moves. That took another 3 or 4 months. And only afterwards we started really playing against each other.

To provide an advantage for the child, don't play with less pieces, because that changes the structure of the game. Instead, provide yourself a very short time limit, or deliberately make a mistake, so the child can learn to notice them.

Have patience, if some phase takes a lot of time. On stronger fundamentals, you can later build better. This is where I think our educational system makes great mistakes. Schools don't teach intensely, so children keep forgetting most of what they learned during the long spaces between the lessons. And then, despite not having fully mastered the first step, they move to the second one, etc.

3.4. Chess and psychology

Competitive chess helps develop personality: will, emotion, perseverance, self-discipline, focus, self-control. It develops intellectual skills: memory, combination skills, logic, proper use of intuition. Understanding your opponent's weakness will help you.

People overestimate how much IQ tests determine talent. Measurements of people talented in different areas show that their average is only a bit above the average of the population.

3.5. Emancipation of women

Some people say, incorrectly, that my daughter won the male chess championship. But there is officially no such thing as "male chess championship", there is simply chess championship, open to both men and women. (And then, there is a separate female chess championship, only for women, but that is considered second league.)

I prepared the plan for my children before they were born. I didn't know I would have all girls, so I did not expect this special problem: the discrimination of women. I wanted to bring up my daughter Susan exactly according to the plan, but many people tried to prevent it; they insisted that she cannot compete with boys, that she should only compete with girls. Thus my original goal of proving that you can bring up a genius, became indirectly a goal of proving that there are no essential intellectual differences between men and women, and therefore one can't use that argument as an excuse for subjugation of women.

People kept telling me that I can only bring up Susan to be a female champion, not to compete with men. But I knew that during elementary school, girls can compete with boys. Only later, when they start playing the female role, when they are taught to clean the house, wash laundry, cook, follow the fashion, pay attention to details of clothing, and try getting married as soon as possible when they are expected to do other things than boys are expected to do that has a negative impact on developing their skills. But family duties and bringing up children can be done by both parents together.

Women can achieve same results, if they can get similar conditions. I tried to do that for my daughters, but I couldn't convince the whole society to treat them the same.

We know about differences between adult men and women, but we don't know whether they were caused by biology or education. And we know than e.g. in mathematics and languages, during elementary and high schools girls progress at the same pace as boys, and only later the differences appear. This is an evidence in favor of equality. We do not know what children growing up without discrimination would be like.

On the other hand, the current system also provides some advantages for women; for example the female chess players don't need to work that hard to become the (female) elite, and some of them don't want to give that up. Such women are among the greatest opponents of my daughters.

4. The meaning of this whole affair

4.1. Family value

I am certain that without a good family background the success of my daughters would not be possible. It is important, before people marry, to have a clear idea of what expect from their marriage. When partners cooperate, the mutual help, the shared experiences, education of children, good habits, etc. can deepen their love. Children need family without conflicts to feel safe. But of course, if the situation becomes too bad, the divorce might become the way to reduce conflicts.

To bring up a genius, it is desirable for one parent to stay at home and take care of children. But it can be the father, too.

[Klára Polgár says:] When I met László, my first impression was that he was an interesting person full of ideas, but one should not believe even half of them.

When Susan was three and half, László said it was time for her to specialize. She was good at math; at the age of four she already learned the material of the first four grades. Once she found chess figures in the box, and started playing with them as toys. László was spending a lot of time with her, and one day I was surprised to see them playing chess. László loved chess, but I never learned it.

So, we could have chosen math or foreign languages, but we felt that Susan was really happy playing chess, and she started being good at it. But our parents and neighbors shook their heads: "Chess? For a girl?" People told me: "What kind of a mother are you? Why do you allow your husband to play chess with Susan?" I had my doubts, but now I believe I made the right choice.

People are concerned whether my children had real childhood. I think they are at least as happy as their peers, probably more.

I always wanted to have a good, peaceful family life, and I believe I have achieved that. [End of Klára's part.]

4.2. Being a minority

It is generally known that Jewish people achieved many excellent results in intellectual fields. Some ask whether the cause of this is biologic or social. I believe it is social.

First, Jewish families are usually traditional, stable, and care a lot about education. They knew that they will be discriminated against, and will have to work twice as hard, and that at any moment they may be forced to leave their home, or even country, so their knowledge might be the only thing they will always be able to keep. Jewish religion requires parents to educate their children since early childhood; Talmud requires parents to become the child's first teachers.

4.3. Witnesses of the genius education: the happy children

I care about happiness of my children. But not only I want to make them happy, I also want to develop their ability to be happy. And I think that being a genius is the most certain way. The life of a genius may be difficult, but happy anyway. On the other hand, average people, despite seemingly playing it safe, often become alcoholics, drug addicts, neurotics, loners, etc.

Some geniuses become unhappy with their profession. But even then I believe it is easier for a genius to change professions.

Happiness = work + love + freedom + luck

People worry whether child geniuses don't lose their childhood. But the average childhood is actually not as great as people describe it; many people do not have a happy childhood. Parents want to make their children happy, but they often do it wrong: they buy them expensive toys, but they don't prepare them for life; they outsource that responsibility to school, which generally does not have the right conditions.

And when parents try to fully develop the capabilities of their children, instead of social support they usually get criticism. People will blame them for being overly ambitious, for pushing the children to achieve things they themselves failed at. I personally know people who tried to educate their children similarly to how we did, but the press launched a full-scale attack against them, and they gave up.

My daughters' lives are full of variety. They have met famous people: presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors, princess Diana, millionaires, mayors, UN delegates, famous artists, other olympic winners. They appeared in television, radio, newspapers. They traveled around the whole world; visited dozens of famous places. They have hobbies. They have friends in many parts of the world. And our house is always open to guests.

4.4. Make your life an ethical model

People reading this text may be surprised that they expected a rational explanation, while I mention emotions and morality a lot. But those are necessary for good life. Everyone should try to improve themselves in these aspects. The reason why I did not give up, despite all the obstacles and malice, is because for me, to live morally and create good, is an internal law. I couldn't do otherwise. I already know that even writing this very book will initiate more attacks, but I am doing it regardless.

And morality is also a thing we are not born with, but which needs to be taught to us, preferably in infancy. And we need to think about it, instead of expecting it to just happen. And the schools fail in this, too. I see it as an integral part of bringing up a genius.

One should aim to be a paragon; to live in a way that will make others want to follow you. Learn and work a lot; expect a lot from yourself and from others. Give love, and receive love. Live in peace with yourself and your neighbors. Work hard to be happy, and to make other people happy. Be a humanist, fight against prejudice. Protect the peace of the family, bring up your children towards perfection. Be honest. Respect freedom of yourself and of the others. Trust humanity; support the communities small and large. Etc.

(The book finishes by listing the achievements of the Polgár sisters, and by their various photos: playing chess, doing sports. I'll simply link their Wikipedia pages: Susan, Sofia, Judit. I hope you enjoyed reading this experimental translation; and if you think I omitted something important, feel free to add the missing parts in the comments. Note: I do believe that this book is generally correct and useful, but that doesn't mean I necessarily agree with every single detail. The opinions expressed here belong to the author; of course, unless some of them got impaired by my hasty translation.)

I Updated the List of Rationalist Blogs on the Wiki

25 deluks917 25 April 2017 10:26AM

I recently updated the list of rationalist community blogs. The new page is here: https://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/List_of_Blogs


-Tons of (active) blogs have been added

-All dead links have been removed

-Blogs which are currently inactive but somewhat likely to be revived have been moved to an inactive section. I included the date of their last post. 

-Blogs which are officially closed or have not been updated in many years are now all in the "Gone but not forgetten" section


-Categorizing the blogs I added was hard, its unclear how well I did. By some standard most rationalist blogs should be in "general rationality" 

-The blog descriptions could be improved (both for the blog-listings I added and the pre-existing listings)

-I don't know the names of the authors of Several blogs I added. 

I am posting this here because I think the article is of general interest to rationalists. In addition the page could use some more polish and attention. I also think it might be interesting to think about improving the lesswrong wiki. Several pages could use an update. However this update took a considerable amount of time. So I understand why many wiki pages are not up to date. How can we make it easier and more rewarding to work on the wiki?

Sufficiently sincere confirmation bias is indistinguishable from science

19 Benquo 15 March 2017 01:19PM

Some theater people at NYU people wanted to demonstrate how gender stereotypes affected the 2016 US presidential election. So they decided to put on a theatrical performance of the presidential debates – but with the genders of the principals swapped. They assumed that this would show how much of a disadvantage Hillary Clinton was working under because of her gender. They were shocked to discover the opposite – audiences full of Clinton supporters, watching the gender-swapped debates, came away thinking that Trump was a better communicator than they'd thought.

The principals don't seem to have come into this with a fair-minded attitude. Instead, it seems to have been a case of "I'll show them!":

Salvatore says he and Guadalupe began the project assuming that the gender inversion would confirm what they’d each suspected watching the real-life debates: that Trump’s aggression—his tendency to interrupt and attack—would never be tolerated in a woman, and that Clinton’s competence and preparedness would seem even more convincing coming from a man.

Let's be clear about this. This was not epistemic even-handedness. This was a sincere attempt at confirmation bias. They believed one thing, and looked only for confirming evidence to prove their point. It was only when they started actually putting together the experiment that they realized they might learn the opposite lesson:

But the lessons about gender that emerged in rehearsal turned out to be much less tidy. What was Jonathan Gordon smiling about all the time? And didn’t he seem a little stiff, tethered to rehearsed statements at the podium, while Brenda King, plainspoken and confident, freely roamed the stage? Which one would audiences find more likeable?

What made this work? I think what happened is that they took their own beliefs literally. They actually believed that people hated Hillary because she was a woman, and so their idea of something that they were confident would show this clearly was a fair test. Because of this, when things came out the opposite of the way they'd predicted, they noticed and were surprised, because they actually expected the demonstration to work.

But they went further. Even though they knew in advance of the public performances that the experiment got the wrong answer, they neither falsified nor file-drawered the evidence. They tried to show, they got a different answer, they showed it anyway.

This is much, much better science than contemporary medical or psychology research were before the replication crisis.

Sometimes, when I think about how epistemically corrupt our culture is, I'm tempted to adopt a permanent defensive crouch and disbelieve anything I can't fact-check, to explicitly adjust for all the relevant biases, and this prospect sounds exhausting. It's not actually necessary. You don't have to worry too much about your biases. Just take your own beliefs literally, as though they mean what they say they mean, and try to believe all their consequences as well. And, when you hit a contradiction – well, now you have an opportunity to learn where you're wrong.

(Cross-posted at my personal blog.)

Revitalizing Less Wrong seems like a lost purpose, but here are some other ideas

19 John_Maxwell_IV 12 June 2016 07:38AM

This is a response to ingres' recent post sharing Less Wrong survey results. If you haven't read & upvoted it, I strongly encourage you to--they've done a fabulous job of collecting and presenting data about the state of the community.

So, there's a bit of a contradiction in the survey results.  On the one hand, people say the community needs to do more scholarship, be more rigorous, be more practical, be more humble.  On the other hand, not much is getting posted, and it seems like raising the bar will only exacerbate that problem.

I did a query against the survey database to find the complaints of top Less Wrong contributors and figure out how best to serve their needs.  (Note: it's a bit hard to read the comments because some of them should start with "the community needs more" or "the community needs less", but adding that info would have meant constructing a much more complicated query.)  One user wrote:

[it's not so much that there are] overly high standards,  just not a very civil or welcoming climate . why write content for free and get trashed when I can go write a grant application or a manuscript instead?

ingres emphasizes that in order to revitalize the community, we would need more content.  Content is important, but incentives for producing content might be even more important.  Social status may be the incentive humans respond most strongly to.  Right now, from a social status perspective, the expected value of creating a new Less Wrong post doesn't feel very high.  Partially because many LW posts are getting downvotes and critical comments, so my System 1 says my posts might as well.  And partially because the Less Wrong brand is weak enough that I don't expect associating myself with it will boost my social status.

When Less Wrong was founded, the primary failure mode guarded against was Eternal September.  If Eternal September represents a sort of digital populism, Less Wrong was attempting a sort of digital elitism.  My perception is that elitism isn't working because the benefits of joining the elite are too small and the costs are too large.  Teddy Roosevelt talked about the man in the arena--I think Less Wrong experienced the reverse of the evaporative cooling EY feared, where people gradually left the arena as the proportional number of critics in the stands grew ever larger.

Given where Less Wrong is at, however, I suspect the goal of revitalizing Less Wrong represents a lost purpose.

ingres' survey received a total of 3083 responses.  Not only is that about twice the number we got in the last survey in 2014, it's about twice the number we got in 20132012, and 2011 (though much bigger than the first survey in 2009).  It's hard to know for sure, since previous surveys were only advertised on the LessWrong.com domain, but it doesn't seem like the diaspora thing has slowed the growth of the community a ton and it may have dramatically accelerated it.

Why has the community continued growing?  Here's one possibility.  Maybe Less Wrong has been replaced by superior alternatives.

  • CFAR - ingres writes: "If LessWrong is serious about it's goal of 'advancing the art of human rationality' then it needs to figure out a way to do real investigation into the subject."  That's exactly what CFAR does.  CFAR is a superior alternative for people who want something like Less Wrong, but more practical.  (They have an alumni mailing list that's higher quality and more active than Less Wrong.)  Yes, CFAR costs money, because doing research costs money!
  • Effective Altruism - A superior alternative for people who want something that's more focused on results.
  • Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter - People are going to be wasting time on these sites anyway.  They might as well talk about rationality while they do it.  Like all those phpBB boards in the 00s, Less Wrong has been outcompeted by the hot new thing, and I think it's probably better to roll with it than fight it.  I also wouldn't be surprised if interacting with others through social media has been a cause of community growth.
  • SlateStarCodex - SSC already checks most of the boxes under ingres' "Future Improvement Wishlist Based On Survey Results".  In my opinion, the average SSC post has better scholarship, rigor, and humility than the average LW post, and the community seems less intimidating, less argumentative, more accessible, and more accepting of outside viewpoints.
  • The meatspace community - Meeting in person has lots of advantages.  Real-time discussion using Slack/IRC also has advantages.

Less Wrong had a great run, and the superior alternatives wouldn't exist in their current form without it.  (LW was easily the most common way people heard about EA in 2014, for instance, although sampling effects may have distorted that estimate.)  But that doesn't mean it's the best option going forward.

Therefore, here are some things I don't think we should do:

  • Try to be a second-rate version of any of the superior alternatives I mentioned above.  If someone's going to put something together, it should fulfill a real community need or be the best alternative available for whatever purpose it serves.
  • Try to get old contributors to return to Less Wrong for the sake of getting them to return.  If they've judged that other activities are a better use of time, we should probably trust their judgement.  It might be sensible to make an exception for old posters that never transferred to the in-person community, but they'd be harder to track down.
  • Try to solve the same sort of problems Arbital or Metaculus is optimizing for.  No reason to step on the toes of other projects in the community.

But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be done.  Here are some possible weaknesses I see with our current setup:

  • If you've got a great idea for a blog post, and you don't already have an online presence, it's a bit hard to reach lots of people, if that's what you want to do.
  • If we had a good system for incentivizing people to write great stuff (as opposed to merely tolerating great stuff the way LW culture historically has), we'd get more great stuff written.
  • It can be hard to find good content in the diaspora.  Possible solution: Weekly "diaspora roundup" posts to Less Wrong.  I'm too busy to do this, but anyone else is more than welcome to (assuming both people reading LW and people in the diaspora want it).
  • EDIT 11/27/16 - Recently people have been arguing that social media generates relatively superficial discussions.  This plausibly undermines my "lost purpose" thesis.

ingres mentions the possibility of Scott Alexander somehow opening up SlateStarCodex to other contributors.  This seems like a clearly superior alternative to revitalizing Less Wrong, if Scott is down for it:

  • As I mentioned, SSC already seems to have solved most of the culture & philosophy problems that people complained about with Less Wrong.
  • SSC has no shortage of content--Scott has increased the rate at which he creates open threads to deal with an excess of comments.
  • SSC has a stronger brand than Less Wrong.  It's been linked to by Ezra Klein, Ross Douthat, Bryan Caplan, etc.

But the most important reasons may be behavioral reasons.  SSC has more traffic--people are in the habit of visiting there, not here.  And the posting habits people have acquired there seem more conducive to community.  Changing habits is hard.

As ingres writes, revitalizing Less Wrong is probably about as difficult as creating a new site from scratch, and I think creating a new site from scratch for Scott is a superior alternative for the reasons I gave.

So if there's anyone who's interested in improving Less Wrong, here's my humble recommendation: Go tell Scott Alexander you'll build an online forum to his specification, with SSC community feedback, to provide a better solution for his overflowing open threads.  Once you've solved that problem, keep making improvements and subfora so your forum becomes the best available alternative for more and more use cases.

And here's my humble suggestion for what an SSC forum could look like:

As I mentioned above, Eternal September is analogous to a sort of digital populism.  The major social media sites often have a "mob rule" culture to them, and people are increasingly seeing the disadvantages of this model.  Less Wrong tried to achieve digital elitism and it didn't work well in the long run, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.  Edge.org has found a model for digital elitism that works.  There may be other workable models out there.  A workable model could even turn in to a successful company.  Fight the hot new thing by becoming the hot new thing.

My proposal is based on the idea of eigendemocracy.  (Recommended that you read the link before continuing--eigendemocracy is cool.)  In eigendemocracy, your trust score is a composite rating of what trusted people think of you.  (It sounds like infinite recursion, but it can be resolved using linear algebra.)

Eigendemocracy is a complicated idea, but a simple way to get most of the way there would be to have a forum where having lots of karma gives you the ability to upvote multiple times.  How would this work?  Let's say Scott starts with 5 karma and everyone else starts with 0 karma.  Each point of karma gives you the ability to upvote once a day.  Let's say it takes 5 upvotes for a post to get featured on the sidebar of Scott's blog.  If Scott wants to feature a post on the sidebar of his blog, he upvotes it 5 times, netting the person who wrote it 1 karma.  As Scott features more and more posts, he gains a moderation team full of people who wrote posts that were good enough to feature.  As they feature posts in turn, they generate more co-moderators.

Why do I like this solution?

  • It acts as a cultural preservation mechanism.  On reddit and Twitter, sheer numbers rule when determining what gets visibility.  The reddit-like voting mechanisms of Less Wrong meant that the site deliberately kept a somewhat low profile in order to avoid getting overrun.  Even if SSC experienced a large influx of new users, those users would only gain power to affect the visibility of content if they proved themselves by making quality contributions first.
  • It takes the moderation burden off of Scott and distributes it across trusted community members.  As the community grows, the mod team grows with it.
  • The incentives seem well-aligned.  Writing stuff Scott likes or meta-likes gets you recognition, mod powers, and the ability to control the discussion--forms of social status.  Contrast with social media sites where hyperbole is a shortcut to attention, followers, upvotes.  Also, unlike Less Wrong, there'd be no punishment for writing a low quality post--it simply doesn't get featured and is one more click away from the SSC homepage.

TL;DR - Despite appearances, the Less Wrong community is actually doing great.  Any successor to Less Wrong should try to offer compelling advantages over options that are already available.

A Second Year of Spaced Repetition Software in the Classroom

29 tanagrabeast 01 May 2016 10:14PM

This is a follow-up to last year's report. Here, I will talk about my successes and failures using Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) in the classroom for a second year. The year's not over yet, but I have reasons for reporting early that should become clear in a subsequent post. A third post will then follow, and together these will constitute a small sequence exploring classroom SRS and the adjacent ideas that bubble up when I think deeply about teaching.


I experienced net negative progress this year in my efforts to improve classroom instruction via spaced repetition software. While this is mostly attributable to shifts in my personal priorities, I have also identified a number of additional failure modes for classroom SRS, as well as additional shortcomings of Anki for this use case. My experiences also showcase some fundamental challenges to teaching-in-general that SRS depressingly spotlights without being any less susceptible to. Regardless, I am more bullish than ever about the potential for classroom SRS, and will lay out a detailed vision for what it can be in the next post.

continue reading »

The Sally-Anne fallacy

27 philh 11 April 2016 01:06PM

Cross-posted from my blog

I'd like to coin a term. The Sally-Anne fallacy is the mistake of assuming that somone believes something, simply because that thing is true.1

The name comes from the Sally-Anne test, used in developmental psychology to detect theory of mind. Someone who lacks theory of mind will fail the Sally-Anne test, thinking that Sally knows where the marble is. The Sally-Anne fallacy is also a failure of theory of mind.

In internet arguments, this will often come up as part of a chain of reasoning, such as: you think X; X implies Y; therefore you think Y. Or: you support X; X leads to Y; therefore you support Y.2

So for example, we have this complaint about the words "African dialect" used in Age of Ultron. The argument goes: a dialect is a variation on a language, therefore Marvel thinks "African" is a language.

You think "African" has dialects; "has dialects" implies "is a language"; therefore you think "African" is a language.

Or maybe Marvel just doesn't know what a "dialect" is.

This is also a mistake I was pointing at in Fascists and Rakes. You think it's okay to eat tic-tacs; tic-tacs are sentient; therefore you think it's okay to eat sentient things. Versus: you think I should be forbidden from eating tic-tacs; tic-tacs are nonsentient; therefore you think I should be forbidden from eating nonsentient things. No, in both cases the defendant is just wrong about whether tic-tacs are sentient.

Many political conflicts include arguments that look like this. You fight our cause; our cause is the cause of [good thing]; therefore you oppose [good thing]. Sometimes people disagree about what's good, but sometimes they just disagree about how to get there, and think that a cause is harmful to its stated goals. Thus, liberals and libertarians symmetrically accuse each other of not caring about the poor.3

If you want to convince someone to change their mind, it's important to know what they're wrong about. The Sally-Anne fallacy causes us to mistarget our counterarguments, and to mistake potential allies for inevitable enemies.

  1. From the outside, this looks like "simply because you believe that thing".

  2. Another possible misunderstanding here, is if you agree that X leads to Y and Y is bad, but still think X is worth it.

  3. Of course, sometimes people will pretend not to believe the obvious truth so that they can further their dastardly ends. But sometimes they're just wrong. And sometimes they'll be right, and the obvious truth will be untrue.

Require contributions in advance

53 Viliam 08 February 2016 12:55PM

If you are a person who finds it difficult to tell "no" to their friends, this one weird trick may save you a lot of time!


Scenario 1

Alice: "Hi Bob! You are a programmer, right?"

Bob: "Hi Alice! Yes, I am."

Alice: "I have this cool idea, but I need someone to help me. I am not good with computers, and I need someone smart whom I could trust, so they wouldn't steal my idea. Would you have a moment to listen to me?"

Alice explains to Bob her idea that would completely change the world. Well, at the least the world of bicycle shopping.

Instead of having many shops for bicycles, there could be one huge e-shop that would collect all the information about bicycles from all the existing shops. The customers would specify what kind of a bike they want (and where they live), and the system would find all bikes that fit the specification, and display them ordered by lowest price, including the price of delivery; then it would redirect them to the specific page of the specific vendor. Customers would love to use this one website, instead of having to visit multiple shops and compare. And the vendors would have to use this shop, because that's where the customers would be. Taking a fraction of a percent from the sales could make Alice (and also Bob, if he helps her) incredibly rich.

Bob is skeptical about it. The project suffers from the obvious chicken-and-egg problem: without vendors already there, the customers will not come (and if they come by accident, they will quickly leave, never to return again); and without customers already there, there is no reason for the vendors to cooperate. There are a few ways how to approach this problem, but the fact that Alice didn't even think about it is a red flag. She also has no idea who are the big players in the world of bicycle selling; and generally she didn't do her homework. But after pointing out all these objections, Alice still remains super enthusiastic about the project. She promises she will take care about everything -- she just cannot write code, and she needs Bob's help for this part.

Bob believes strongly in the division of labor, and that friends should help each other. He considers Alice his friend, and he will likely need some help from her in the future. Fact is, with perfect specification, he could make the webpage in a week or two. But he considers bicycles to be an extremely boring topic, so he wants to spend as little time as possible on this project. Finally, he has an idea:

"Okay, Alice, I will make the website for you. But first I need to know exactly how the page will look like, so that I don't have to keep changing it over and over again. So here is the homework for you -- take a pen and paper, and make a sketch of how exactly the web will look like. All the dialogs, all the buttons. Don't forget logging in and logging out, editing the customer profile, and everything else that is necessary for the website to work as intended. Just look at the papers and imagine that you are the customer: where exactly would you click to register, and to find the bicycle you want? Same for the vendor. And possibly a site administrator. Also give me the list of criteria people will use to find the bike they want. Size, weight, color, radius of wheels, what else? And when you have it all ready, I will make the first version of the website. But until then, I am not writing any code."

Alice leaves, satisfied with the outcome.


This happened a year ago.

No, Alice doesn't have the design ready, yet. Once in a while, when she meets Bob, she smiles at him and apologizes that she didn't have the time to start working on the design. Bob smiles back and says it's okay, he'll wait. Then they change the topic.


Scenario 2

Cyril: "Hi Diana! You speak Spanish, right?"

Diana: "Hi Cyril! Yes, I do."

Cyril: "You know, I think Spanish is the most cool language ever, and I would really love to learn it! Could you please give me some Spanish lessons, once in a while? I totally want to become fluent in Spanish, so I could travel to Spanish-speaking countries and experience their culture and food. Would you please help me?"

Diana is happy that someone takes interest in her favorite hobby. It would be nice to have someone around she could practice Spanish conversation with. The first instinct is to say yes.

But then she remembers (she knows Cyril for some time; they have a lot of friends in common, so they meet quite regularly) that Cyril is always super enthusiastic about something he is totally going to do... but when she meets him next time, he is super enthusiastic about something completely different; and she never heard about him doing anything serious about his previous dreams.

Also, Cyril seems to seriously underestimate how much time does it take to learn a foreign language fluently. Some lessons, once in a while will not do it. He also needs to study on his own. Preferably every day, but twice a week is probably a minimum, if he hopes to speak the language fluently within a year. Diana would be happy to teach someone Spanish, but not if her effort will most likely be wasted.

Diana: "Cyril, there is this great website called Duolingo, where you can learn Spanish online completely free. If you give it about ten minutes every day, maybe after a few months you will be able to speak fluently. And anytime we meet, we can practice the vocabulary you have already learned."

This would be the best option for Diana. No work, and another opportunity to practice. But Cyril insists:

"It's not the same without the live teacher. When I read something from the textbook, I cannot ask additional questions. The words that are taught are often unrelated to the topics I am interested in. I am afraid I will just get stuck with the... whatever was the website that you mentioned."

For Diana this feels like a red flag. Sure, textbooks are not optimal. They contain many words that the student will not use frequently, and will soon forget them. On the other hand, the grammar is always useful; and Diana doesn't want to waste her time explaining the basic grammar that any textbook could explain instead. If Cyril learns the grammar and some basic vocabulary, then she can teach him all the specialized vocabulary he is interested in. But now it feels like Cyril wants to avoid all work. She has to draw a line:

"Cyril, this is the address of the website." She takes his notebook and writes 'www.duolingo.com'. "You register there, choose Spanish, and click on the first lesson. It is interactive, and it will not take you more than ten minutes. If you get stuck there, write here what exactly it was that you didn't understand; I will explain it when we meet. If there is no problem, continue with the second lesson, and so on. When we meet next time, tell me which lessons you have completed, and we will talk about them. Okay?"

Cyril nods reluctantly.


This happened a year ago.

Cyril and Diana have met repeatedly during the year, but Cyril never brought up the topic of Spanish language again.


Scenario 3

Erika: "Filip, would you give me a massage?"

Filip: "Yeah, sure. The lotion is in the next room; bring it to me!"

Erika brings the massage lotion and lies on the bed. Filip massages her back. Then they make out and have sex.


This happened a year ago. Erika and Filip are still a happy couple.

Filip's previous relationships didn't work well, in long term. In retrospect, they all followed a similar scenario. At the beginning, everything seemed great. Then at some moment the girl started acting... unreasonably?... asking Filip to do various things for her, and then acting annoyed when Filip did exactly what he was asked to do. This happened more and more frequently, and at some moment she broke up with him. Sometimes she provided explanation for breaking up that Filip was unable to decipher.

Filip has a friend who is a successful salesman. Successful both professionally and with women. When Filip admitted to himself that he is unable to solve the problem on his own, he asked his friend for advice.

"It's because you're a f***ing doormat," said the friend. "The moment a woman asks you to do anything, you immediately jump and do it, like a well-trained puppy. Puppies are cute, but not attractive. Have you ready any of those books I sent you, like, ten years ago? I bet you didn't. Well, it's all there."

Filip sighed: "Look, I'm not trying to become a pick-up artist. Or a salesman. Or anything. No offense, but I'm not like you, personality-wise, I never have been, and I don't want to become your - or anyone else's - copy. Even if it would mean greater success in anything. I prefer to treat other people just like I would want them to treat me. Most people reciprocate nice behavior; and those who don't, well, I avoid them as much as possible. This works well with my friends. It also works with the girls... at the beginning... but then somehow... uhm... Anyway, all your books are about manipulating people, which is ethically unacceptable for me. Isn't there some other way?"

"All human interaction is manipulation; the choice is between doing it right or wrong, acting consciously or driven by your old habits..." started the friend, but then he gave up. "Okay, I see you're not interested. Just let me show you the most obvious mistake you make. You believe that when you are nice to people, they will perceive you as nice, and most of them will reciprocate. And when you act like an asshole, it's the other way round. That's correct, on some level; and in a perfect world this would be the whole truth. But on a different level, people also perceive nice behavior as weakness; especially if you do it habitually, as if you don't have any other option. And being an asshole obviously signals strength: you are not afraid to make other people angry. Also, in long term, people become used to your behavior, good or bad. The nice people don't seem so nice anymore, but they still seem weak. Then, ironicaly, if the person well-known to be nice refuses to do something once, people become really angry, because their expectations were violated. And if the asshole decides to do something nice once, they will praise him, because he surprised them pleasantly. You should be an asshole once in a while, to make people see that you have a choice, so they won't take your niceness for granted. Or if your girlfriend wants something from you, sometimes just say no, even if you could have done it. She will respect you more, and then she will enjoy more the things you do for her."

Filip: "Well, I... probably couldn't do that. I mean, what you say seems to make sense, however much I hate to admit it. But I can't imagine doing it myself, especially to a person I love. It's just... uhm... wrong."

"Then, I guess, the very least you could do is to ask her to do something for you first. Even if it's symbolic, that doesn't matter; human relationships are mostly about role-playing anyway. Don't jump immediately when you are told to; always make her jump first, if only a little. That will demonstrate strength without hurting anyone. Could you do that?"

Filip wasn't sure, but at the next opportunity he tried it, and it worked. And it kept working. Maybe it was all just a coincidence, maybe it was a placebo effect, but Filip doesn't mind. At first it felt kinda artificial, but then it became natural. And later, to his surprise, Filip realized that practicing these symbolic demands actually makes it easier to ask when he really needed something. (In which case sometimes he was asked to do something first, because his girlfriend -- knowingly or not? he never had the courage to ask -- copied the pattern; or maybe she has already known it long before. But he didn't mind that either.)


The lesson is: If you find yourself repeatedly in situations where people ask you to do something for them, but at the end they don't seem to appreciate what you did for them, or don't even care about the thing they asked you to do... and yet you find it difficult to say "no"... ask them to contribute to the project first.

This will help you get rid of the projects they don't care about (including the ones they think they care about in far mode, but do not care about enough to actually work on them in near mode) without being the one who refuses cooperation. Also, the act of asking the other person to contribute, after being asked to do something for them, mitigates the status loss inherent in working for them.

Upcoming LW Changes

46 Vaniver 03 February 2016 05:34AM

Thanks to the reaction to this article and some conversations, I'm convinced that it's worth trying to renovate and restore LW. Eliezer, Nate, and Matt Fallshaw are all on board and have empowered me as an editor to see what we can do about reshaping LW to meet what the community currently needs. This involves a combination of technical changes and social changes, which we'll try to make transparently and non-intrusively.

continue reading »

Anxiety and Rationality

32 [deleted] 19 January 2016 06:30PM

Recently, someone on the Facebook page asked if anyone had used rationality to target anxieties.  I have, so I thought I’d share my LessWrong-inspired strategies.  This is my first post, so feedback and formatting help are welcome.  

First things first: the techniques developed by this community are not a panacea for mental illness.  They are way more effective than chance and other tactics at reducing normal bias, and I think many mental illnesses are simply cognitive biases that are extreme enough to get noticed.  In other words, getting a probability question about cancer systematically wrong does not disrupt my life enough to make the error obvious.  When I believe (irrationally) that I will get fired because I asked for help at work, my life is disrupted.  I become non-functional, and the error is clear.

Second: the best way to attack anxiety is to do the things that make your anxieties go away.  That might seem too obvious to state, but I’ve definitely been caught in an “analysis loop,” where I stay up all night reading self-help guides only to find myself non-functional in the morning because I didn’t sleep.  If you find that attacking an anxiety with Bayesian updating is like chopping down the Washington monument with a spoon, but getting a full night’s sleep makes the monument disappear completely, consider the sleep.  Likewise for techniques that have little to no scientific evidence, but are a good placebo.  A placebo effect is still an effect.

Finally, like all advice, this comes with Implicit Step Zero:  “Have enough executive function to give this a try.”  If you find yourself in an analysis loop, you may not yet have enough executive function to try any of the advice you read.  The advice for functioning better is not always identical to the advice for functioning at all.  If there’s interest in an “improving your executive function” post, I’ll write one eventually.  It will be late, because my executive function is not impeccable.

Simple updating is my personal favorite for attacking specific anxieties.  A general sense of impending doom is a very tricky target and does not respond well to reality.  If you can narrow it down to a particular belief, however, you can amass evidence against it. 

Returning to my example about work: I alieved that I would get fired if I asked for help or missed a day due to illness.  The distinction between believe and alieve is an incredibly useful tool that I immediately integrated when I heard of it.  Learning to make beliefs pay rent is much easier than making harmful aliefs go away.  The tactics are similar: do experiments, make predictions, throw evidence at the situation until you get closer to reality.  Update accordingly.  

The first thing I do is identify the situation and why it’s dysfunctional.  The alief that I’ll get fired for asking for help is not actually articulated when it manifests as an anxiety.  Ask me in the middle of a panic attack, and I still won’t articulate that I am afraid of getting fired.  So I take the anxiety all the way through to its implication.  The algorithm is something like this:

  1.       Notice sense of doom
  2.       Notice my avoidance behaviors (not opening my email, walking away from my desk)
  3.       Ask “What am I afraid of?”
  4.       Answer (it's probably silly)
  5.       Ask “What do I think will happen?”
  6.       Make a prediction about what will happen (usually the prediction is implausible, which is why we want it to go away in the first place)

In the “asking for help” scenario, the answer to “what do I think will happen” is implausible.  It’s extremely unlikely that I’ll get fired for it!  This helps take the gravitas out of the anxiety, but it does not make it go away.*  After (6), it’s usually easy to do an experiment.  If I ask my coworkers for help, will I get fired?  The only way to know is to try. 

…That’s actually not true, of course.  A sense of my environment, my coworkers, and my general competence at work should be enough.  But if it was, we wouldn’t be here, would we?

So I perform the experiment.  And I wait.  When I receive a reply of any sort, even if it’s negative, I make a tick mark on a sheet of paper.  I label it “didn’t get fired.”  Because again, even if it’s negative, I didn’t get fired. 

This takes a lot of tick marks.  Cutting down the Washington monument with a spoon, remember?

The tick marks don’t have to be physical.  I prefer it, because it makes the “updating” process visual.  I’ve tried making a mental note and it’s not nearly as effective.  Play around with it, though.  If you’re anything like me, you have a lot of anxieties to experiment with. 

Usually, the anxiety starts to dissipate after obtaining several tick marks.  Ideally, one iteration of experiments should solve the problem.  But we aren’t ideal; we’re mentally ill.  Depending on the severity of the anxiety, you may need someone to remind you that doom will not occur.  I occasionally panic when I have to return to work after taking a sick day.  I ask my husband to remind me that I won’t get fired.  I ask him to remind me that he’ll still love me if I do get fired.  If this sounds childish, it’s because it is.  Again: we’re mentally ill.  Even if you aren’t, however, assigning value judgements to essentially harmless coping mechanisms does not make sense.  Childish-but-helpful is much better than mature-and-harmful, if you have to choose.

I still have tiny ugh fields around my anxiety triggers.  They don’t really go away.  It’s more like learning not to hit someone you’re angry at.  You notice the impulse, accept it, and move on.  Hopefully, your harmful alief starves to death.

If you perform your experiment and doom does occur, it might not be you.  If you can’t ask your boss for help, it might be your boss.  If you disagree with your spouse and they scream at you for an hour, it might be your spouse.  This isn’t an excuse to blame your problems on the world, but abusive situations can be sneaky.  Ask some trusted friends for a sanity check, if you’re performing experiments and getting doom as a result.  This is designed for situations where your alief is obviously silly.  Where you know it’s silly, and need to throw evidence at your brain to internalize it.  It’s fine to be afraid of genuinely scary things; if you really are in an abusive work environment, maybe you shouldn’t ask for help (and start looking for another job instead). 



*using this technique for several months occasionally stops the anxiety immediately after step 6.  

The correct response to uncertainty is *not* half-speed

77 AnnaSalamon 15 January 2016 10:55PM

Related to: Half-assing it with everything you've got; Wasted motionSay it Loud.

Once upon a time (true story), I was on my way to a hotel in a new city.  I knew the hotel was many miles down this long, branchless road.  So I drove for a long while.

After a while, I began to worry I had passed the hotel.



So, instead of proceeding at 60 miles per hour the way I had been, I continued in the same direction for several more minutes at 30 miles per hour, wondering if I should keep going or turn around.

After a while, I realized: I was being silly!  If the hotel was ahead of me, I'd get there fastest if I kept going 60mph.  And if the hotel was behind me, I'd get there fastest by heading at 60 miles per hour in the other direction.  And if I wasn't going to turn around yet -- if my best bet given the uncertainty was to check N more miles of highway first, before I turned around -- then, again, I'd get there fastest by choosing a value of N, speeding along at 60 miles per hour until my odometer said I'd gone N miles, and then turning around and heading at 60 miles per hour in the opposite direction.  

Either way, fullspeed was best.  My mind had been naively averaging two courses of action -- the thought was something like: "maybe I should go forward, and maybe I should go backward.  So, since I'm uncertain, I should go forward at half-speed!"  But averages don't actually work that way.[1]

Following this, I started noticing lots of hotels in my life (and, perhaps less tactfully, in my friends' lives).  For example:
  • I wasn't sure if I was a good enough writer to write a given doc myself, or if I should try to outsource it.  So, I sat there kind-of-writing it while also fretting about whether the task was correct.
    • (Solution:  Take a minute out to think through heuristics.  Then, either: (1) write the post at full speed; or (2) try to outsource it; or (3) write full force for some fixed time period, and then pause and evaluate.)
  • I wasn't sure (back in early 2012) that CFAR was worthwhile.  So, I kind-of worked on it.
  • An old friend came to my door unexpectedly, and I was tempted to hang out with her, but I also thought I should finish my work.  So I kind-of hung out with her while feeling bad and distracted about my work.
  • A friend of mine, when teaching me math, seems to mumble specifically those words that he doesn't expect me to understand (in a sort of compromise between saying them and not saying them)...
  • Duncan reports that novice Parkour students are unable to safely undertake certain sorts of jumps, because they risk aborting the move mid-stream, after the actual last safe stopping point (apparently kind-of-attempting these jumps is more dangerous than either attempting, or not attempting the jumps)
  • It is said that start-up founders need to be irrationally certain that their startup will succeed, lest they be unable to do more than kind-of work on it...

That is, it seems to me that often there are two different actions that would make sense under two different models, and we are uncertain which model is true... and so we find ourselves taking an intermediate of half-speed action... even when that action makes no sense under any probabilistic mixture of the two models.

You might try looking out for such examples in your life.

[1] Edited to add: The hotel example has received much nitpicking in the comments.  But: (A) the actual example was legit, I think.  Yes, stopping to think has some legitimacy, but driving slowly for a long time because uncertain does not optimize for thinking.  Similarly, it may make sense to drive slowly to stare at the buildings in some contexts... but I was on a very long empty country road, with no buildings anywhere (true historical fact), and also I was not squinting carefully at the scenery.  The thing I needed to do was to execute an efficient search pattern, with a threshold for a future time at which to switch from full-speed in some direction to full-speed in the other.  Also: (B) consider some of the other examples; "kind of working", "kind of hanging out with my friend", etc. seem to be common behaviors that are mostly not all that useful in the usual case.

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