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[LINK] Former Christian fundamentalist: Science robbed me of my faith

1 Benquo 12 March 2014 09:32PM

This person seems to have the virtue of non-compartmentalization. What rationalist skill can we learn from this? Maybe look for ways a strong belief in one domain, to another where it's more testable?


Handshakes, Hi, and What's New: What's Going On With Small Talk?

57 Benquo 02 January 2014 10:08PM

This is an attempt to explicitly model what's going on in some small talk conversations. My hope is that at least one of these things will happen:

  • There is a substantial flaw or missing element to my model that someone will point out.
  • Many readers, who are bad at small talk because they don't see the point, will get better at it as a result of acquiring understanding.


I had some recent conversational failures online, that went roughly like this:

“How are you?”
The end.

At first I got upset at the implicit rudeness of my conversation partner walking away and ignoring the question. But then I decided to get curious instead and posted a sample exchange (names omitted) on Facebook with a request for feedback. Unsurprisingly I learned more this way.

Some kind friends helped me troubleshoot the exchange, and in the process of figuring out how online conversation differs from in-person conversation, I realized what these things do in live conversation. They act as a kind of implicit communication protocol by which two parties negotiate how much interaction they’re willing to have.

Consider this live conversation:

The end.

No mystery here. Two people acknowledged one another’s physical presence, and then the interaction ended. This is bare-bones maintenance of your status as persons who can relate to one another socially. There is no intimacy, but at least there is acknowledgement of someone else’s existence. A day with “Hi” alone is less lonely than a day without it.

“Hi, how’s it going?”
“Can’t complain. And you?”

This exchange establishes the parties as mutually sympathetic – the kind of people who would ask about each other’s emotional state – but still doesn’t get to real intimacy. It is basically just a drawn-out version of the example with just “Hi”. The exact character of the third and fourth line don’t matter much, as there is no real content. For this reason, it isn’t particularly rude to leave the question totally unanswered if you’re already rounding a corner – but if you’re in each other’s company for a longer period of time, you’re supposed to give at least a pro forma answer.

This kind of thing drives crazy the kind of people who actually want to know how someone is, because people often assume that the question is meant insincerely. I’m one of the people driven crazy. But this kind of mutual “bidding up” is important because sometimes people don’t want to have a conversation, and if you just launch into your complaint or story or whatever it is you may end up inadvertently cornering someone who doesn’t feel like listening to it.

You could ask them explicitly, but people sometimes feel uncomfortable turning down that kind of request. So the way to open a substantive topic of conversation is to leave a hint and let the other person decide whether to pick it up. So here are some examples of leaving a hint:

“Anything interesting this weekend?”
“Oh, did a few errands, caught up on some reading. See you later.”

This is a way to indicate interest in more than just a “Fine, how are you?” response. What happened here is that one party asked about the weekend, hoping to elicit specific information to generate a conversation. The other politely technically answered the question without any real information, declining the opportunity to talk about their life.

“Anything interesting happen over the weekend?”
“Oh, did a few errands, caught up on some reading.”
“Ugh, I was going to go to a game, but my basement flooded and I had to take care of that instead.”
“That’s tough.”
“See you around.”

Here, the person who first asked about the weekend didn’t get an engaged response, but got enough of a pro forma response to provide cover for an otherwise out of context complaint and bid for sympathy. The other person offered perfunctory sympathy, and ended the conversation.

Here’s a way for the recipient of a “How are you?” to make a bid for more conversation:

“How are you?”
“Oh, my basement flooded over the weekend.”
“That’s tough.”
“See you around.”

So the person with the flooded basement provided a socially-appropriate snippet of information – enough to be a recognizable bid for sympathy, but little enough not to force the other person to choose between listening to a long complaint or rudely cutting off the conversation.

Here’s what it looks like if the other person accepts the bid:

“How are you?”
“Oh, my basement flooded over the weekend.”
“Wow, that’s tough. Is the upstairs okay?”
“Yeah, but it’s a finished basement so I’m going to have to get a bunch of it redone because of water damage.”
“Ooh, that’s tough. Hey, if you need a contractor, I had a good experience with mine when I had my kitchen done.”
“Thanks, that would be a big help, can you email me their contact info?”

By asking a specific follow-up question the other person indicated that they wanted to hear more about the problem – which gave the person with the flooded basement permission not just to answer the question directly, but to volunteer additional information / complaints.

You can do the same thing with happy events, of course:

“How are you?”
“I’m getting excited for my big California vacation.”
“Oh really, where are you going?”
“We’re flying out to Los Angeles, and then we’re going to spend a few days there but then drive up to San Francisco, spend a day or two in town, then go hiking in the area.
“Cool. I used to live in LA, let me know if you need any recommendations.”
“Thanks, I’ll come by after lunch?”

So what went wrong online? Here’s the conversation again so you don’t have to scroll back up:

“How are you?”
The end.

Online, there are no external circumstances that demand a “Hi,” such as passing someone (especially someone you know) in the hallway or getting into an elevator.

If you import in-person conversational norms, the “Hi” is redundant – but instead online it can function as a query as to whether the other person is actually “present” and available for conversation. (You don’t want to start launching into a conversation just because someone’s status reads “available” only to find out they’re in the  middle of something else and don’t  have time to read what you wrote.)

Let’s say you’ve mutually said “Hi.” If you were conversing in person, the next thing to do would be to query for a basic status update, asking something like, “How are you?”. But “Hi” already did the work of “How are you?”. Somehow the norm of “How are you?” being a mostly insincere query doesn’t get erased, even though “Hi” does its work – so some people think you’re being bizarrely redundant. Others might actually tell you how they are.

To be safe, it’s best to open with a short question apropos to what you want to talk about – or, since it’s costless online and serves the same function as “Hi”, just start with “How are you?” as your opener.

What’s New?

I recently had occasion to explain to someone how to respond when someone asks “what’s new?”, and in the process, ended up explaining some stuff I hadn’t realized until the moment I tried to explain it. So I figured this might be a high-value thing to explain to others here on the blog.

Of course, sometimes “what’s new?” is just part of a passing handshake with no content – I covered that in the first section. But if you’re already in a context where you know you’re going to be having a conversation, you’re supposed to answer the question, otherwise you get conversations like this:

“What’s new?”
“Not much. How about you?”
“Can’t complain.”
Awkward silence.

So I’m talking about cases where you actually have to answer the question.

The problem is that some people, when asked “What’s New?”, will try to think about when they last met the person asking, and all the events in their life since then, sorted from most to least momentous. This is understandably an overwhelming task.

The trick to responding correctly is to think of your conversational partner’s likely motives for asking. They are very unlikely to want a complete list. Nor do they necessarily want to know the thing in your life that happened that’s objectively most notable. Think about it – when’s the last time you wanted to know those things?

Instead, what’s most likely the case is that they want to have a conversation about a topic you are comfortable with, are interested in, and have something to say about. “What’s New?” is an offer they are making, to let you pick the life event you most feel like discussing at that time. So for example, if the dog is sick but you’d rather talk about a new book you’re reading, you get to talk about the book and you can completely fail to mention the dog. You’re not lying, you’re answering the question as intended.

Cross-posted on my personal blog.

Doubt, Science, and Magical Creatures - a Child's Perspective

33 Benquo 28 December 2013 03:26PM


I grew up in a Jewish household, so I didn't have Santa Claus to doubt - but I did have the tooth fairy.

It was hard for me to believe that a magical being I had never seen somehow knew whenever any child lost their tooth, snuck into their house unobserved without setting off the alarms, for unknown reasons took the tooth, and for even less fathomable reasons left a dollar and a note in my mom's handwriting.

On the other hand, the alternative hypothesis was no less disturbing: my parents were lying to me.

Of course I had to know which of these terrible things was true. So one night, when my parents were out (though I was still young enough to have a babysitter), I noticed that my tooth was coming out and decided that this would be...

A Perfect Opportunity for an Experiment.

I reasoned that if my parents didn't know about the tooth, they wouldn't be able to fake a tooth fairy appearance. I would find a dollar and note under my pillow if, but only if, the tooth fairy were real.

I solemnly told the babysitter, "I lost my tooth, but don't tell Mom and Dad. It's important - it's science!" Then at the end of the night I went to my bedroom, put the tooth under the pillow, and went to sleep. The next morning, I woke up and looked under my pillow. The tooth was gone, and in place there was a dollar and a note from the "tooth fairy."

This could have been the end of the story. I could have decided that I'd performed an experiment that would come out one way if the tooth fairy were real, and a different way if the tooth fairy were not. But I was more skeptical than that. I thought, "What's more likely? That a magical creature took my tooth? Or that the babysitter told my parents?"

I was furious at the possibility of such an egregious violation of experimental protocol, and never trusted that babysitter in the lab again.

An Improvement in Experimental Design

The next time, I was more careful. I understood that the flaw in the previous experiment had been failure to adequately conceal the information from my parents. So the next time I lost a tooth, I told no one. As soon as I felt it coming loose in my mouth, I ducked into the bathroom, ran it under the tap to clean it, wrapped it in a tissue, stuck it in my pocket, and went about my day as if nothing had happened. That night, when no one was around to see, I put the tooth under my pillow before I went to sleep.

In the morning, I looked under the pillow. No note. No dollar. Just that tooth. I grabbed the incriminating evidence and burst into my parents bedroom, demanding to know:

"If, as you say, there is a tooth fairy, then how do you explain THIS?!"

What can we learn from this?

The basic idea of the experiment was ideal. It was testing a binary hypothesis, and was expected to perfectly distinguish between the two possibilities. However, if I had known then what I know now about rationality, I could have done better.

As soon as my first experiment produced an unexpected positive result, just by learning that fact, I knew why it had happened, and what I needed to fix in the experiment to produce strong evidence. Prior to the first experiment would have been a perfect opportunity to apply the "Internal Simulator," as CFAR calls it - imagining in advance getting each of the two possible results, and what I think afterwards - do I think the experiment worked? Do I wish I'd done something differently? - in order to give myself the opportunity to correct those errors in advance instead of performing a costly experiment (I had a limited number of baby teeth!) to find them.


Cross-posted at my personal blog.

CFAR has a matched-donations fundraiser going on [LINK]

6 Benquo 26 December 2013 02:38PM


The folks at CFAR are working on a post talking about all the good work they've done and plan to do, but in the meantime I'm putting this up as a placeholder in case anyone finishing up their 2013 donations literally doesn't know about it. Someone please let me know if the official announcement's already up and I've missed it.

UPDATE: Lukeprog pointed out that there's a stub in Main too. Also I put up my own bleg on behalf of CFAR here: http://benjaminrosshoffman.com/2013/12/26/cfar-second-thoughts-and-a-bleg/ It was an interesting exercise in trying to write glowing praise while experiencing extreme annoyance. I hope I succeeded.

I also hope the official version will be up very soon!

UPDATE2: CFAR now has a post up explaining what they are working on and why you should give. You should probably trust the official version more than mine.


Wait vs Interrupt Culture

67 Benquo 27 November 2013 03:38PM

At the recent CFAR Workshop in NY, someone mentioned that they were uncomfortable with pauses in conversation, and that got me thinking about different conversational styles.

Growing up with friends who were disproportionately male and disproportionately nerdy, I learned that it was a normal thing to interrupt people. If someone said something you had to respond to, you’d just start responding. Didn’t matter if it “interrupted” further words – if they thought you needed to hear those words before responding, they’d interrupt right back.

Occasionally some weird person would be offended when I interrupted, but I figured this was some bizarre fancypants rule from before people had places to go and people to see. Or just something for people with especially thin skins or delicate temperaments, looking for offense and aggression in every action.

Then I went to St. John’s College – the talking school (among other things). In Seminar (and sometimes in Tutorials) there was a totally different conversational norm. People were always expected to wait until whoever was talking was done. People would apologize not just for interrupting someone who was already talking, but for accidentally saying something when someone else looked like they were about to speak. This seemed totally crazy. Some people would just blab on unchecked, and others didn’t get a chance to talk at all. Some people would ignore the norm and talk over others, and nobody interrupted them back to shoot them down.

But then a few interesting things happened:

1) The tutors were able to moderate the discussions, gently. They wouldn’t actually scold anyone for interrupting, but they would say something like, “That’s interesting, but I think Jane was still talking,” subtly pointing out a violation of the norm.

2) People started saying less at a time.

#1 is pretty obvious – with no enforcement of the social norm, a no-interruptions norm collapses pretty quickly. But #2 is actually really interesting. If talking at all is an implied claim that what you’re saying is the most important thing that can be said, then polite people keep it short.

With 15-20 people in a seminar, this also meant that people rarely tried to force the conversation in a certain direction. When you’re done talking, the conversation is out of your hands. This can be frustrating at first, but with time, you learn to trust not your fellow conversationalists individually, but the conversation itself, to go where it needs to. If you haven’t said enough, then you trust that someone will ask you a question, and you’ll say more.

When people are interrupting each other – when they’re constantly tugging the conversation back and forth between their preferred directions – then the conversation itself is just a battle of wills. But when people just put in one thing at a time, and trust their fellows to only say things that relate to the thing that came right before – at least, until there’s a very long pause – then you start to see genuine collaboration.

And when a lull in the conversation is treated as an opportunity to think about the last thing said, rather than an opportunity to jump in with the thing you were holding onto from 15 minutes ago because you couldn’t just interrupt and say it – then you also open yourself up to being genuinely surprised, to seeing the conversation go somewhere that no one in the room would have predicted, to introduce ideas that no one brought with them when they sat down at the table.

By the time I graduated, I’d internalized this norm, and the rest of the world seemed rude to me for a few months. Not just because of the interrupting – but more because I’d say one thing, politely pause, and then people would assume I was done and start explaining why I was wrong – without asking any questions! Eventually, I realized that I’d been perfectly comfortable with these sorts of interactions before college. I just needed to code-switch! Some people are more comfortable with a culture of interrupting when you want to, and accepting interruptions. Others are more comfortable with a culture of waiting their turn, and courteously saying only one thing at a time, not trying to cram in a whole bunch of arguments for their thesis.

Now, I’ve praised the virtues of wait culture because I think it’s undervalued, but there’s plenty to say for interrupt culture as well. For one, it’s more robust in “unwalled” circumstances. If there’s no one around to enforce wait culture norms, then a few jerks can dominate the discussion, silencing everyone else. But someone who doesn’t follow “interrupt” norms only silences themselves.

Second, it’s faster and easier to calibrate how much someone else feels the need to talk, when they’re willing to interrupt you. It takes willpower to stop talking when you’re not sure you were perfectly clear, and to trust others to pick up the slack. It’s much easier to keep going until they stop you.

So if you’re only used to one style, see if you can try out the other somewhere. Or at least pay attention and see whether you’re talking to someone who follows the other norm. And don’t assume that you know which norm is the “right” one; try it the “wrong” way and maybe you’ll learn something.

Cross-posted at my personal blog.

Meetup : DC Meetup: Goals spreadsheet, political advocacy as effective altruism, scary rationalist stories

0 Benquo 10 November 2013 02:26PM

Discussion article for the meetup : DC Meetup: Goals spreadsheet, political advocacy as effective altruism, scary rationalist stories

WHEN: 10 November 2013 03:00:00PM (-0500)

WHERE: National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC 20001, USA

Roger's description:

"We will be: Talking about goals and trying to revive the goals spreadsheet Discussing several posts on Givewell's blog about political advocacy as effective altruism And (if people have them) telling Haloween stories, as per this thread (a bit late, I know, but why not?):" http://lesswrong.com/lw/iyb/halloween_thread_rationalists_horrors/

Discussion article for the meetup : DC Meetup: Goals spreadsheet, political advocacy as effective altruism, scary rationalist stories

Ekman Training - Reviews and/or Testing

7 Benquo 19 June 2012 09:25PM

I'm considering taking Ekman's microexpressions training because it's cheap in both time and money. Has anyone here taken it? Did it work for you? How do you know?


The course does seem to come with tests included (both before and after), but if anyone has any ideas for some cheap tests I can do before and after to see if it really works, I'd be happy to do those as well, and report the results. Cheap tests should cost me less than three hours total and less than $100 total.


Alternately, if enough people here have done it we could pool our "before" and "after" scores to independently verify whether there's an effect.

[LINK] Making Big Decisions about Money

10 Benquo 04 April 2012 04:02PM

Seth Godin has an article about how to translate monetary values into something intuitively commensurable with the thing you're buying:

Making Big Decisions about Money

The conclusion:

If you go to the free school, you can drive there in a brand new Mini convertible, and every summer you can spend $25,000 on a top-of-the-line internship/experience, and you can create a jazz series and pay your favorite musicians to come to campus to play for you and your fifty coolest friends, and you can have Herbie Hancock give you piano lessons and you can still have enough money left over to live without debt for a year after you graduate while you look for the perfect gig...

Suddenly, you're not comparing "this is my dream," with a number that means very little. You're comparing one version of your dream with another version.

Longecity funding cryo research [link]

6 Benquo 28 February 2012 02:24PM

I don't understand enough of the relevant science to evaluate the prospects of the research being funded here:


If anyone here knows substantially more than me, does it look promising?

Meetup : Rejection Therapy in DC

2 Benquo 19 July 2011 01:41PM

Discussion article for the meetup : Rejection Therapy in DC

WHEN: 24 July 2011 02:00:00PM (-0400)

WHERE: National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

We will meet in the inner courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery/American Museum of Art (near the Chinatown and Metro Center stations if you're taking the metro). We will take 30 minutes to an hour to discuss strategies and goals, and then we will go off separately to do rejection therapy (so be sure to show up well before 3PM - or if you know you'll be late, contact Benquo so you can find us later). After an hour or two of that, we will meet back in the courtyard at a designated time to discuss what we've learned, and any cool things we got by asking.

Discussion article for the meetup : Rejection Therapy in DC

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