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New Philosophical Work on Solomonoff Induction

2 vallinder 27 September 2016 11:12AM

I don't know to what extent MIRI's current research engages with Solomonoff induction, but some of you may find recent work by Tom Sterkenburg to be of interest. Here's the abstract of his paper Solomonoff Prediction and Occam's Razor:

Algorithmic information theory gives an idealised notion of compressibility that is often presented as an objective measure of simplicity. It is suggested at times that Solomonoff prediction, or algorithmic information theory in a predictive setting, can deliver an argument to justify Occam's razor. This article explicates the relevant argument and, by converting it into a Bayesian framework, reveals why it has no such justificatory force. The supposed simplicity concept is better perceived as a specific inductive assumption, the assumption of effectiveness. It is this assumption that is the characterising element of Solomonoff prediction and wherein its philosophical interest lies.

Existential risk for non-consequentialists

7 vallinder 31 January 2012 09:03PM

Many people on Less Wrong believe reducing existential risk is one of the most important causes. Most arguments to this effect point out the horrible consequences: everyone now living would die (or face something even worse). The situation becomes even worse if we also consider future generations. Such an argument, as spelt out in Nick Bostrom's latest paper on the topic, for instance, should strike many consequentialists as persuading. But of course, not everyone's a consequentialist, and on other approaches it's far from obvious that existential risk should come out on top. Might it be worth to spend some more time investigating arguments for existential risk reduction that don't presuppose consequentialism? Of course, "non-consequentialism" is a very diverse category, and I'd be surprised if there were a single argument that covered all its members.


The Neglected Virtue of Curiosity

23 vallinder 28 January 2012 05:28PM

Curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its objects perpetually; it has an appetite which is sharp, but very easily satisfied; and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness and anxiety.

- Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Curiosity is the first virtue: "[a] burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth." Yet I find surprisingly little material about curiosity on Less Wrong. Sure, AnnaSalamon shows us how to use curiosity, lukeprog ponders what curiosity looks like, Elizabeth discusses the limits of curiosity, and Eliezer_Yudkowsky offers the meditation on curiosity. But we have never been provided with an overview of the science of curiosity, as has been done for procrastination, motivation, and happiness, for instance. Perhaps most Less Wrongers score high on curiosity already, so there hasn't been much need to study it. But I often wish I were more curious. Some of you may, too. For the rest, what follows is a journey back to the basics of rationality.

What is curiosity, and how can we become more curious?

Curiosity: what?

We have all felt that burning itch to know on at least some occasions. It leads us to ask questions,1 manipulate interesting objects,2 and continue doing challenging tasks.3 Kashdan and Fincham (2004) define curiosity as "the volitional recognition, pursuit, and self-regulation of novel and challenging opportunities (reflecting intrinsic values and interests)". Loewenstein (2000) also emphasizes the fact that curiosity occurs in the absence of an extrinsic reward. All theories of curiosity agree that its short term function is to learn and explore. In the longer term, curiosity aids us in building knowledge and competence.4 When curious, we enter a state of flow, and become immersed in whatever it is we are doing.5

Researchers distinguish between state curiosity and trait curiosity. State curiosity is evoked by external situations. Why is the sky blue? How does quantum levitation work? Trait curiosity on the other hand is a characteristic that people possess to varying degrees. Someone with high trait curiosity seeks out complexity, novelty, conflict, and uncertainty.6 7

Curiosity can be measured across several dimensions (Kashdan, 2009):

  • Intensity. How strong is that burning itch to know?
  • Frequency. How often do you feel it?
  • Durability. How long does it last?
  • Breadth. How many topics evoke it?
  • Depth. Does the itch remain as you learn more about a topic?

It has been suggested that trait curiosity simply measures the frequency and intensity of state curiosity.8

I suspect many of you are particularly interested in epistemic curiosity. Epistemic curiosity measures our desire for knowledge and understanding, rather than, say, our desire to explore new cultures or meet new people. This notion is closely related to other psychological constructs such as need for cognition, typical intellectual engagement and openness for ideas, and some have argued that there isn't enough evidence for treating them as separate things.9 With that in mind, it might be worth examining the literature on these notions closer as well.

Early in our lives, curiosity will typically increase, only to start decreasing later. One study found that, on average, curiosity increases from age 12 until people attend college.10 By the age of 30, curiosity typically starts to decline. But some people manage to retain their curiosity even as they grow older. One study followed a group of men and women from college age until later adulthood. Those that were identified as very curious later in life had many characteristics in common: rich emotional lives with both positive and negative feelings, actively searching for meaning in life, don't experience themselves as being restricted by social norms, and chose careers that gave them opportunities to be independent and creative.11 More broadly, curiosity is correlated with the Big Five trait of Openness.12

The Benefits of Curiosity

Much research makes it plausible that curiosity is in fact the first virtue. It has a wide array of benefits, not only related to rationality or intelligence.13 One study found that it accounts for roughly 10% of the variance in achievement and performance outcomes.14 In particular, studies indicate that curiosity is useful for the following:

  • Health. Curious people are more likely to live longer, and less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease, for example.15
  • Intelligence. Being curious at an early age is a good predictor of intelligence later in life, even when initial intelligence is taken into account.16
  • Meaning and purpose in life. Curious people are more likely to develop interests, hobbies, and passions, which typically increase feelings of purpose.17
  • Social relationships. Curious people report more satisfying relationships, and are also more prone to develop new relationships with strangers.18
  • Happiness. Increased curiosity is associated with a moderate increase in happiness and well-being.19 A lack of curiosity has also been linked to negative emotions, such as depression.20

Beginning in the mid-70s, researchers have spent much effort attempting to measure curiosity. Unfortunately, attempts to cross-validate such measures have usually produced low intercorrelations (Loewenstein 1994).

Luckily for those who wish they were more curious, curiosity is a malleable psychological state. It is very much influenced by social contexts, and other individual differences.21 Relish the good news of situationist psychology!

Curiosity: how?

Curiosity, it seems, is a big deal. So what can we do to become more curious? Kashdan and Fincham (2004) focus on three factors correlated with curiosity: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Autonomy. People are more task curious when given more choice,22 and when given more information and encouragement.23 On the other hand, threats, punishment, negative feedback and surveillance all have negative effects on task curiosity. A meta-analysis found that the same goes for external rewards, though the effect was more robust for interesting, compared to boring tasks.24

Competence. Events that make individuals believe they can interact effectively with the environment (perceived competence) or that give them the desire to do so (competence valuation), will lead to enhanced curiosity.25 Sincere praise increases both perceived competence and competence valuation, and could therefore be a useful way of increasing curiosity.26

Relatedness. Feelings of relatedness—feeling connected to others, and believing your emotional experiences are acknowledged—also appear to increase curiosity.27 In particular, relatedness has been shown to improve both curiosity and performance in athletic,28 academic29 and work contexts.30 Feeling comfortable and safe also encourages curiosity.31

Based on these three factors, Kashdan and Fincham (2004, p. 490) propose a table of empirically-informed "curiosity interventions". These include

  • Create tasks that capitalize on novelty, complexity, ambiguity, variety, and surprise.
  • Purposely place individuals in contexts that are discrepant with their experience, skills, and personality.
  • Create tasks that can be conducted independently.
  • Allow opportunities for play.
  • Create tasks that are personally meaningful.
  • Create challenges that match or slightly exceed current skills.
  • Create enjoyable group based activities.

Unfortunately, most studies on curiosity have focused on narrow areas, and so the breadth of curiosity has not been well-examined. Factors that correlate with curiosity in one domain may not do so in others.32 The study of curiosity is still in its infancy, and most of these interventions remain to be experimentally tested. But as of today, these might be the best tools available.

That was a summary of what we know about curiosity. Now go out and explore!


1Evans (1971) found that asking lots of questions is correlated with one of three scales of the 'Ontario Test of Intrinsic Motivation'. Peters (1978) reports that students with high trait curiosity asked more questions when their instructor was perceived as non-threatening. If, on the other hand, the instructor was perceived as threatening, no difference was found between students with high trait curiosity and those with low trait curiosity. 

2Reeve and Nix (1997) found, among other things, that hand speed while performing a puzzle task correlated with self-reported intrinsic motivation.

3See Sansone and Smith (2000) for a review

4Kashdan and Silvia (2009)

5Curiosity is closely related to interest and intrinsic motivation (Kashdan and Fincham 2004), and consequently there is a considerable overlap between the study of these phenomena. Many researchers treat these terms interchangeably.

6Kashdan and Fincham (2004). Loewenstein (1994) raises some doubts about the usefulness of distinguishing between state curiosity and trait curiosity.

7See Litman and Silvia (2006) for an overview of ways to measure trait curiosity. Like many other psychological traits, curiosity is mostly measured through questionnaires. Beginning in the mid-70s, researchers developed many different ways of measuring curiosity. Unfortunately, attempts to cross-validate such measures have typically produced low intercorrelations (Loewenstein 1994)

8Silvia (2008)

9Mussel (2010)

10McCrae et al (2002)

11Kashdan (2009)

12McCrae (1996)

13Curiosity also appears to be correlated with some negative things. Green (1990) linked it with an increased probability of alcohol use. Kolko and Kazin (1989) found the same for arson.

14Schiefele, Krapp and Winteler (1992)

15Swan and Carmelli (1996)

16Raine et al (2002)

17Kashdan and Steger (2007)

18Kashdan et al (2011), Kashdan and Roberts (2004)

19Brdar and Kashdan (2010), Gallagher and Lopez (2007)

20Rodrigue, Olson, and Markley (1987)

21Kashdan and Fincham (2004)

22Cordova and Lepper (1996)

23Black and Deci (2000)

24Deci, Koestner and Ryan (1999)

25Cury et al (2002), Elliot et al (2000)

26Deci, Koestner and Ryan (1999)

27Mikulincer and Shaver (2003)

28Grolnick and Ryan (1989)

29Hazan and Shaver (1990)

30Smoll et al (1993)

31Kashdan, Rose and Fincham (2004)

32Kashdan and Fincham (2004)


Black and Deci (2000). The effects of instructors' autonomy support and students' autonomous motivation on learning organic chemistry: A self-determination theory perspective. Science Education 84:740-756.

Brdar and Kashdan (2010). Character strengths and well-being in Croatia: An empirical investigation of structure and correlate. Journal of Research in Personality 44:151-154

Cordova and Lepper (1996). Intrinsic motivation and the process of learning: Beneficial effects of contextualization, personalization, and choice. Journal of Educational Psychology 88:715-730.

Cury et al (2002). The trichotomous achievement goal model and intrinsic motivation: A sequential mediational analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology 38(5):473-481

Deci, Koestner and Ryan (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin 125(6):627-668

Elliot et al (2000). Competence valuation as a strategic intrinsic motivation process. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26:780-794.

Evans (1971). The Ontario Test of Intrinsic Motivation, Question Asking, and Autistic Thinking. Psychological Reports 29:154-154.

Gallagher and Lopez (2007). Curiosity and well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology 2(4): 236-248

Green (1990). Instrument for the measurement of individual and societal attitudes toward drugs. Substance Use & Misuse 25(2):141-157

Grolnick and Ryan (1989). Parent styles associated with children's self-regulation and competence in school. Journal of Educational Psychology 81:143-154.

Hazan and Shaver (1990). Love and work: An attachment-theoretical perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59:270-280.

Kashdan and Fincham (2004). Facilitating Curiosity: A Social and Self-Regulatory Perspective. In Linley and Joseph (eds.) Positive Psychology in Practice, Wiley

Kashdan (2009). Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, HarperCollins

Kashdan and Roberts (2004). Trait and State Curiosity in the Genesis of Intimacy: Differentiation From Related Constructs. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 23(6):792-816

Kashdan, Rose and Fincham (2004). Curiosity and Exploration: Facilitating Positive Subjective Experiences and Personal Growth Opportunities. Journal of Personality Assessment 82(3):291-305

Kashdan and Silvia (2009). Curiosity and Interest: The Benefits of Thriving on Novelty and Challenge. In S.J. Lopez (Ed.) Handbook of Positive Psychology (2nd Ed.) Oxford University Press.

Kashdan and Steger (2007). Curiosity and pathways to well-being and meaning in life: Traits, states, and everyday behaviors. Motivation and Emotion 31(3):159-173

Kashdan et al (2011). When Curiosity Breeds Intimacy: Taking Advantage of Intimacy Opportunities and Transforming Boring Conversations. Journal of Personality 79(6):1369-1402

Kolko and Kazin (1989). Assessment of Dimensions of Childhood Firesetting Among Patients and Nonpatients: The Firesetting Risk Interview. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 17 (2):157-176

Litman and Silvia (2006). The latent structure of trait curiosity: evidence for interest and deprivation curiosity dimensions. Journal of Personality Assessment 86(3):318-328

Loewenstein (1994). The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin 116(1):75-98

McCrae (1996). Social consequences of experiential openness. Psychological Bulletin 120(3):323-337

McCrae et al (2002). Personality trait development from age 12 to age 18: Longitudinal, cross-sectional and cross-cultural analyses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83(6):1456-1468

Mikulincer and Shaver (2003). The attachment behavioral system in adulthood: Activation, psychodynamics, and interpersonal processes. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 35, pp. 53-152). Academic Press.

Mussel (2010). Epistemic curiosity and related constructs: Lacking evidence of discriminant validity. Personality and Individual Differences 49(5):506-510

Peters (1978). Effects of Anxiety, Curiosity, and Perceived Instructor Threat on Student Verbal Behavior in the College Classroom. Journal of educational psychology 70(3):388-395

Raine et al (2002). Stimulation seeking and intelligence: A prospective longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82(4):663-674

Reeve and Nix (1997). Expressing Intrinsic Motivation Through Acts of Exploration and Facial Displays of Interest. Motivation and Emotion 21(3):237-250

Rodrigue, Olson, and Markley (1987). Induced mood and curiosity. Cognitive Therapy and Research 11(1):101-106

Sansone and Smith (2000). Interest and self-regulation: The relation between having to and wanting to. In C. Sansone & J.M. Harackiewicz (Eds.). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: The Search for Optimal Motivation and Performance, Academic Press.

Schiefele, Krapp and Winteler (1992). Interest as a predictor of academic achievement: A meta-analysis of research. In K. A. Renninger, S. Hidi, & A. Krapp (Eds.), The role of interest in learning and development, Erlbaum.

Silvia (2008). Appraisal components and emotion traits: Examining the appraisal basis of trait curiosity. Cognition and Emotion 22(1):94-113

Smoll et al (1993). Enhancement of children's self-esteem through social support training for youth sports coaches. Journal of Applied Psychology 78:602-610.

Swan and Carmelli (1996). Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study. Psychology and Aging 11(3):449-453

Survey on X-risk: Feedback needed

4 vallinder 26 September 2011 10:15PM


Together with Jesper_Ostman, I'm currently preparing an mTurk survey on the public perception of extinction threats (aiming for a sample size of about 400). Below is our current draft. Feedback is much appreciated. We are planning to do a few follow-up studies, so in this one we want to keep things simple for the most part. In question 3, we want to compare extinction risk reduction to something that is generally perceived as good but not too closely related to it, but perhaps our current choice isn't the best. In addition to the demographic questions we will also include a brief 10-question personality inventoryWe’re both looking for information on the public perception of x-risk and what demographic groups and personality types might have the most potential for getting involved.

1.  How likely do you think it is that humanity has gone extinct by the year...

a) 2050

(i)    0-20%
(ii)   20-40%
(iii)  40-60%
(iv) 60-80%
(v)  80-100%
b) 2100
(i)    0-20%
(ii)   20-40%
(iii)  40-60%
(iv) 60-80%
(v)  80-100%

c) 2200
(i)    0-20%
(ii)   20-40%
(iii)  40-60%
(iv) 60-80%
(v)  80-100%
d) 2500

(i)    0-20%
(ii)   20-40%
(iii)  40-60%
(iv) 60-80%
(v)  80-100%

e) 10 000

(i)    0-20%
(ii)   20-40%
(iii)  40-60%
(iv) 60-80%
(v)  80-100%

2. What do you think is the most likely cause (causes) of human extinction?


3. How important do you think reducing the risk of human extinction is, compared to giving foreign aid?

a) Much more important
b) More important
c) Equally important
d) Less important
e) Much less important

4a. Age:   __________ b. Gender: __________       c.      Nationality: __________

5. What is your current occupation?


6. If you are a student, what subject are you majoring in?


7. What is your level of education?



[LINK] Videos from FHI's Winter Intelligence Conference

6 vallinder 27 July 2011 11:22AM

Available here. Speakers include Eliezer Yudkowsky and Nick Bostrom.