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

Community roles: teachers and auxiliaries

7 Post author: calcsam 22 June 2011 10:52AM

Related to: Building rationalist communities, Lessons from Latter-day Saints, Holy Books (Or Rationalist Sequences) Don't Implement Themselves, Designing rationalist projects.

I'm beginning a new subseries of posts, trying to answer the following question: what should be the roles in a rationalist community?           

In this post and the next one, I will outline the roles in Latter-day Saint communities. In the following posts, I will draw more conclusions as to which roles would be ideal for rationalist communities.

I should note that these sets of responsibilities are designed to function in congregations where 100 to 150 people come to church every week. They are slimmed down when the congregations are smaller. I’m going to outline all the roles, and as I go, I’ll note which ones are the most important.

The Main Roles

There are four main groups of “callings,” responsibilities in the church. I will discuss the first two groups in this post.

First, there are the teachers, who speak, teach and lead discussions in Sunday church meetings.

Second, there are auxiliaries, responsible for ensuring the well-being of the various segments of the congregation. In each congregation, there is a women’s organization, a men’s organization, as well as young women’s, young men’s, and children’s organizations.

In smaller groups, the leaders and more-committed members often wear multiple hats.

Teachers.

"Teachers [are] foot soldiers in the ongoing war against ignorance and complacency. Sunday worship is only as good and effective as the teaching." - Orson Scott Card. (Link, read the whole piece if you like this one.)

Some members of the congregation are selected as regular teachers, who teach “Sunday school” classes to everyone, for two hours of class every Sunday. 

In addition, every week, three speakers from the congregation are assigned to give talks in the one-hour everyone-together “sacrament meeting”. These rotate every week; people rarely give talks more than once every six months.

Teacher selection

Qualifications? Interestingness and the ability to promote personal applications.

The main enemy in church is simply boring-ness. Making a learning experience interesting is a nontrivial problem: visit your local school for evidence of that. This is even more where everybody is expected to teach, at some point.

Speakers in the everyone-together “sacrament meeting” can drone on about favorite stories. Teachers can um and er their way through the lesson and ask bad questions.

While selecting teachers, leaders must balance two conflicting objectives: interesting classes and skill development.

On the one hand, if you pick the relatively confident, outgoing, intelligent people to teach, you’re more likely to have interesting classes. On the other hand, if these people teach all the time, the others will never get a chance to learn to teach.

Why is learning to teach so important for everyone? Well, everyone has to teach their children.[1] Plus there are recruiting and career benefits.

The usual compromise is a mix of the two types. Some teachers are picked primarily so the classes will learn, and some are picked primarily so the teachers will learn.[2]

This is supported by a shared norm/belief that the responsibility to learn lies with each individual; and you shouldn’t blame a bad teacher. In a class focused on basic principles of living life, through sufficient humility and introspection, you can learn in any class, even given a less-articulate or educated teacher.[3]

The norm is most clearly articulated by C.S. Lewis:

an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise—does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going. This attitude, especially during sermons, creates the condition in which platitudes can become really audible to a human soul.

Manuals.

The church, having been around for awhile, condensed the doctrine into a set of manuals. Here are some examples of manuals.

There provide for a more standardized curriculum and provide a way to disseminated shared institutional knowledge, both doctrinal and practical (good questions to ask when teaching a particular topic.)

Again, there is a tradeoff:

  • Hew too closely to the manual and you neglect the special needs of your class and discussion becomes stilted because it’s curtailed whenever not exactly on topic.
  • Stray too far and the class becomes a forum for the teacher and/or eloquent class members to hold forth on their favorite topic-related points, which may or may not be helpful to the class as a whole.

Finally, manuals provide a lower bound for teaching quality by giving inexperienced teachers basic ideas and jumping-off points.

The only way to figure out whether manuals are a good thing for Less Wrong is to include what works and see if good results can be replicated.

Discussion

One of the most important but unassigned (unassignable?) roles is ‘intelligent commenter’ – saying useful things in class discussion, taking the initiative and leading small group discussion, summarizing the group’s discussion in useful form to the teacher afterwards.

The best teachers aren’t so much teachers as discussion moderators. But this is far from automatic, especially given the earlier discussion of teacher quality.

Less Wrong seems to use small groups, which work well as long as at least one ‘intelligent commentator; ends up in each group. Without people trying to keep the discussion on track, it can roam around topics without actually going anywhere.[4]

Auxiliaries

There is the men’s organization and the women’s organization. Sometimes there are other groups; for example, in my current church, there is a group of Stanford students, since about half of the church members are students there.

(In “family wards” there are also organizations for the teenage boys and girls, plus one for younger children)

Basically: this is how you number the flock and make sure you don’t forget about anyone. More about that later when I discuss leadership.

The men’s organization divides the men in two and assigns each pair three to five people to visit monthly and watch out for. The women’s organization similarly divides the women into pairs and assigns them to visit each other. This is called “home teaching” for men or “visiting teaching” for women.

Home and visiting teachers are expected to be the first line of service if someone needs a ride to church or the airport, if their marriage is straining, if they end up in the hospital, etc.

This helps most for those who don’t live with other church members and for families. It is mostly redundant for those that are roommates with other church members.

Visiting rates are around sixty percent in my church unit (all young single adults), maybe forty percent overall. (That is, 40 or 60 percent of people are visited every month.)

The division is along age and gender lines because, as for age, the youth will naturally just divide that way anyway.

As for gender, there’s the obvious reason: a group of guys, or a group of girls, will talk about anything gender-related more freely than in mixed groups.

There are also norms that place a high emphasis on a traditional family model. A single woman, a new mother, and a mother with her last kid on the way out the door are in different stages of the same role, and are well positioned to learn from and support each other. (Similarly with males.)

Groupings will likely slice differently in Less Wrong communities, of course. Having a formal or informal woman’s subgroup is probably a good idea, else the gender balance will probably continue to be, um, skewed.[5]



[1] This is a reasonably well-understood topic among Latter-day Saints. See here.

[2] I should add there is a group responsible for ensuring teachers are trained properly, through holding teacher training classes, and so on.

[3] This is also supported by another norm, that the group already understands the central ‘purpose of life’ type questions; the challenge to discover them through intelligent analysis. Instead, the central challenge of life is to apply already-known principles consistently in life, ie overcoming akrasia, and this is a talent to which intelligence and articulation are not qualifications.

These norms are usually cited in response to concerns like, "I don't see any reason to come to church, it's boring and I don't feel like I'm learning anything I don't know."

[4] This was my father’s impression when I brought my parents to the LW meetup in Tortuga. He said it reminded him of his college days in IIT-Bombay. There were a lot of smart people living together, and most of them had never been around other smart people before and were so excited to be around each other. A lot of discussions there were unsatisfying, as they seemed to pinball frantically around n number of topics without actually seeming to go anywhere

[5] How can this be effective? Well, Less Wrongian women should probably have some sort of ongoing discussion about this. One idea from me: Divia was telling me about Crucial Conversations and Nonviolent Communication. Not trying to gender stereotype, but maybe subgroup meetings on these kinds of topics would attract a more broad base of women?

 

Comments (69)

Comment author: gjm 22 June 2011 11:24:09AM 5 points [-]

The attitude described in that quotation from C S Lewis seems to me (and, I'd guess, to a large majority of LW regulars) very, very, very broken. And perhaps entirely incoherent: how can you accept some things and reject others, while simultaneously not wasting time thinking about what you reject and accepting humbly and uncommentingly what you accept? If you can do that at all, it seems to me that it would have to be by (1) thinking about what you're hearing, (2) throwing away all the products of that thought other than a binary "accept/reject" distinction, (3) accepting or rejecting, and (4) forgetting about the thinking you did in step 1. Ouch.

Comment author: Nornagest 22 June 2011 07:04:47PM *  2 points [-]

There are two ways I can make sense of that quote: first, by assuming that Lewis's "that which is false or unhelpful" has already been excluded by the time it reaches you, allowing you to turn your critical (by a conventional definition) faculties off and absorb a known-good set of data; and second, by shifting the burden of evaluation entirely to intuition and consciously accepting (humbly and uncommentatingly) only what feels intuitively sound. Neither seems suitable for what we're doing here; quite aside from any philosophical objections, we don't have a known-good set that's good enough to propagate without caveats, and the kind of knowledge we work with is very frequently counterintuitive.

Comment author: MaoShan 29 June 2011 05:20:19PM 1 point [-]

Following that advice led me to reject that advice. Now THAT's efficient. CS Lewis was clearly a master of rationality.

Comment author: lessdazed 22 June 2011 01:22:53PM 4 points [-]

This comment pertains only to the end of the last footnote. It is tangential, but not off topic.

I don't know much about nonviolent communication, as I only heard about it recently and looked it up on wikipedia and the websites that are the first few google hits for it.

I am very, very unimpressed with it, particularly as it contrasts with a negotiation course I took taught by an editor of the last few books of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project Director. How is NVC being integrated with broader LW themes?

From my perspective, if it were well done it would be to the credit of the outlook and philosophy of whoever was doing the integrating rather than to the credit of NVC. In other words, I see NVC as being badly flawed and based on the types of poor thinking LW specifically guards against, so if I saw a collection of only true concepts all gleaned from NVC, the person who made that collection would have to be skilled in critical thought, though if in general they thought well of NVC I'd wonder at their inability to see what they were doing when discarding core elements of NVC.

What I'm saying is related to the difference between a) the principle of charity and b) the principle that one should be able to defeat the good argument that most resembles your interlocutor's bad one. It is possible to cut the wrongness out of NVC, use the remaining pieces as half of a rational theory of negotiation and communication, and stand that up on its own, but to call it NVC would be a misuse of the admittedly compelling label, as far as I can tell.

That said, I can see how a "typical" female who took the negotiation class I did might be less repulsed by NVC. I'm perfectly willing to grant that it's not very unlikely I'm wrong in my assessment of exactly how much better academic negotiation is than NVC; my wrongness could stem purely from idiosyncratic or male biases. A female from my class who didn't become as irrational as I may upon reading the treacly NVC material might give a less damning critique, and a more accurate one.

Still and all, I predict all of my class of 20 would prefer academic negotiation theory to NVC, and so would most sufficiently intelligent people, whichever approach they learned first.

Comment author: JackEmpty 22 June 2011 02:58:28PM 12 points [-]

I would love to read a top-level post comparing the major differences and similarities between academic negotiation theory and NVC, and why the differences that negotiation theory has are better than their NVC alternatives.

Comment author: lessdazed 23 June 2011 03:06:01AM *  6 points [-]

The short answer for now is to apply a general principle: whenever one sees a lauded and apparently efficacious set of beliefs people are applying, and those beliefs are extremist, and those beliefs are unjustified (not necessarily unjustifiable) or poorly justified by appeal to something other than good evidence (such as their effectiveness or persistence), one should suspect the reality is that people are biased against following the recommended practices, such that partial or even full adherence to the beliefs is better than total cluelessness, and the wrong belief system ameliorates those biases.

E.g., if I see people saying silly things like "violence never solves anything" or "violence is never the best way to fulfill your goals", I ought to suspect that the actual truth is that people are biased to incorrectly conclude that they ought to use violence when in fact it is inappropriate as well as when it is appropriate, so such a dogmatic belief is helpful, even if false. If so, such a belief will be particularly helpful to moderates who take it seriously but not as gospel and are open to acting in accordance with their instincts when those instincts are insistently clamoring. People who are truly faithful to the system may or may not be worse off than those who never heard of it, because insofar as adaptation of the system is based off its usefulness when used irregularly, it isn't necessarily beneficial when tried universally.

As far as this system in particular is concerned, you can browse the web for information. The following are the first words on the home page of the Center for NVC:

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is based on the principles of nonviolence-- the natural state of compassion when no violence is present in the heart.

NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies—whether verbal or physical—are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture. NVC also assumes that we all share the same, basic human needs, and that each of our actions are a strategy to meet one or more of these needs.

People who practice NVC have found greater authenticity in their communication, increased understanding, deepening connection and conflict resolution.

Only three things come to mind when I think of how a conclusion can fail to be correct. 1) It can be based on false premises, 2) it can be based on flawed reasoning, and 3) it can fail to actually mean anything at all and be "not even wrong".

The first statement arguably passes the third test, though I think it is an application of the "appeal to nature" fallacy (note: not the "naturalistic fallacy") and happens to be based on a false fact, so it fails tests 1) and 2).

The second paragraph clarifies that our interpretation of the first was correct and adds some assumptions that are either false and fail the second test or strain the meanings of the words used and thereby flirt with violating the third test.

The third statement is unscientific in a number of ways but I don't really hold it against them, it's good enough for a webpage. However, it fails to support a specific conclusion and thus invites the reader to construct an argument reaching the strongest pro-NVC argument he or she fails to see a flaw in, like "Churches were the biggest patrons of art and culture in medieval Europe and are responsible for (insert good thing here)," which is potentially a true statement, but is often inserted among pro-religious arguments as if it were the basis of a sound pro-religious argument.

To me the theories behind NVC look like tricks to get people to buy into extreme propositions that act as counterweights to flawed biases, approaches, and methods many people in fact have. The theories don't look true and the advice seems merely useful for most people to hear rather than actually true.

Comment author: pjeby 23 June 2011 03:45:55AM 13 points [-]

To me the theories behind NVC look like tricks to get people to buy into extreme propositions that act as counterweights to flawed biases, approaches, and methods many people in fact have. The theories don't look true and the advice seems merely useful for most people to hear rather than actually true.

Given Sturgeon's law, "merely useful" is pretty high praise.

In any field of endeavor where your goal is to convince someone to change their behavior, it is a given that you must provide a suitable "theory" to be a behavioral mnemonic and/or intuition pump. (Because in order to get a person to act, you must provide them with an intuitive perception that taking (or refraining from) the prescribed actions will produce the result they want.)

It is also a given that most such intuition pumps will contain things that are to some degree, false or wrong, simply because all models are wrong, and convincing models especially so. (Since they have to fit humans' pre-existing biases and cognitive capacities.)

And, if you try to fix that wrongness by being more detailed and more nuanced, you will gradually begin to lose your audience, which for the most part, really doesn't care!

And, even if they do care, they are soon no longer able to grasp the essence of your model, due to the number of bits of information you're expecting them to internalize.

Therefore, a rationalist that wants to obtain useful information needs to have a lower threshold for rejecting source of information based on their epistemic hygiene, and focus only on the predictions made by a model.

For example: the "law of attraction" model is complete and utter bunk.

And yet, if you discard the theory, and examine instead what specific behaviors its advocates say people should engage in, and what specific results they predict will occur, you will in fact find that, well, the prescriptions and predictions are actually kind of right. (See Wiseman's "luck research", which provides far more plausible explanations for how those phenomena actually occur.)

So: the theory is bunk, and yet results are produced... just like candles still burned when everybody still thought "phlogiston" was a thing.

Now, note that I'm not saying that NVC has been empirically verified. I know next to nothing about it other than tidbits I've heard about some of the skills -- and which tidbits I've put to practical use.

What I am saying, however, is that the theories provided by any system of self-improvement, communication, etc. should be taken with a grain of salt, because the practical value of those theories is to provide intuitive understanding and motivation for someone learning to apply the practical knowledge involved.

So, it is these specific, detailed behavioral recommendations and result predictions that should be examined, when examining a practical body of knowledge.

Because, either those behaviors produce the result, or they don't. And if you desire the result, the theory part is completely and utterly irrelevant: all that matters is whether the result is produced or not.

You can, if you wish, always invent a replacement intuition pump -- perhaps even making it so silly that you know you won't be compromised by believing it (see e.g. the Flying Spaghetti Monster), or perhaps carrying out your own groundbreaking scientific research to show why/how the crazy thing under study actually works (like Richard Wiseman).

But if you set your standards for theory so high as to require an academic level of precision, you're automatically cutting yourself off from vast amounts of useful knowledge, and substituting knowledge that usually isn't optimized for actually doing anything.

Comment author: lessdazed 23 June 2011 04:46:54AM *  2 points [-]

Because, either those behaviors produce the result, or they don't. And if you desire the result, the theory part is completely and utterly irrelevant: all that matters is whether the result is produced or not.

That doesn't address the concern that more diligent adherence to the specific behavioral recommendations produces worse results when the recommendations overshoot how much one should correct a bias in one's natural tendencies. That's part of why I followed "merely useful" with "to most people". If something is untrue but useful to many and harmless to few or none, that's one thing, but this is untrue and harmful to many and we can do better.

It may be too complicated to some people to say "Violence is appropriate .01% of the time, you think it's appropriate .03% of the time, until you learn to distinguish among cases in which you think you should use violence, when you think you should use violence there is a 2/3 chance you are wrong". Fine. Tell those people "Violence is never the answer".

LW people can handle that many bits of information, and will see right through some lies that are useful to those dull enough to believe them. We can even aspire to distinguish among cases in which we intuit that the best course of action is violence, something those who tell themselves the useful lie cannot. (Obviously, I made these numbers up to make the point.)

What I am saying, however, is that the theories provided by any system of self-improvement, communication, etc. should be taken with a grain of salt, because the practical value of those theories is to provide intuitive understanding and motivation for someone learning to apply the practical knowledge involved.

Having sound theory is important so one knows when to deviate from standard practices. Here's a rule: don't commit fouls in basketball. Opponent has possession and is up by one point with 20 seconds left on the shot clock and in the game? Meh. Here's a rule: use a goalie and not a sixth skater in ice hockey. Delayed penalty call against the opponent? Meh. I could go on.

Comment author: pjeby 23 June 2011 05:02:14PM 4 points [-]

Having sound theory is important so one knows when to deviate from standard practices.

Not necessarily. One reason simple linear models do better than human experts is because the humans are too eager to abandon their standard model in favor of something that seems like a good reason to deviate.

(And this is an important reason why you don't teach a beginner advanced strategies until they've mastered the basics first - you want their brain to pave a really broad route to the basics, and relatively narrow tracks for the advanced bits.)

In any case, calling it a need for "sound theory" is overstating the case. What's needed is a model that provides accurate predictions. The model itself need not be true or sound -- see again the "law of attraction" as an example.

Comment author: lessdazed 24 June 2011 06:14:22AM *  1 point [-]

humans are too eager to abandon their standard model

You seem to imply that it is sometimes, though not always, appropriate to deviate from a standard model - I agree - but that people tend to do it too much - I agree.

I wouldn't think you better off if instead of believing this, you believed wrongly that it is never appropriate to deviate from standard models. Note how in arguing for the utility of false beliefs you refer back to reality as we both believe it to be, in which there are nuances and exceptions, If it so happens that you correctly believe you aren't good at determining when to depart from standard models, you can do well and in practice never deviate from them, all without the burden of the false belief that it is never correct to do so.

Like any false belief, that would risk spreading epistemological contagion when other beliefs get entangled with it, and you can't avoid this by labeling it false as "If there were a verb meaning "to believe falsely," it would not have any significant first person, present indicative." -Wittgenstein.

I agree that false beliefs can be useful, but this seems somewhat analogous to the fact that the most correct actor is the one who has priors (somewhat miraculously) corresponding to the truth and has confidence of 1, or the fact that to get the most points after a touchdown one would always have to "go for two" rather than kicking for an extra point. I'm wary of accepting (or teaching) false beliefs even when apparently useful, for the same reasons Eliezer stated in Protected from Myself. I know that to believe/teach false things is sometimes best, but I also know that I overestimate when it is best, so I'm avoiding doing it, and I didn't have to falsely believe "teaching false things is never best" to avoid doing it and protect me from myself!

Comment author: pjeby 24 June 2011 02:59:49PM 2 points [-]

I wouldn't think you better off if instead of believing this, you believed wrongly that it is never appropriate to deviate from standard models.

No, I believe that it is not appropriate to deviate from a model you are trying to learn, before you have mastered it. This also means that it's inappropriate to critique a training program on the basis that it advocates not deviating from a model; it is, after all, material for people trying to learn that model.

[various confused things]

In order to explain why I think the rest of what you said is wrong and/or tangential, I'd have to take a lot of time to expand out each of your terms and assumptions, and I really don't want to take the time right now. So, all I'm going to say at this point is that your map of "belief" does not match the territory of the brain's hardware. Rather, it's a naive intuition of an idealized non-physical mind, not unlike the intuition that makes humans inclined to believe in things like souls.

IOW, the term "belief" is extremely overloaded. I deliberately have been referring to "models" rather than beliefs, specifically to narrow down the overloading. At minimum, we can divide beliefs into anticipative (Kahneman/Tversky System 1 aka "near") beliefs and verbal/symbolic (K/T System 2 aka "far") beliefs. Anticipative beliefs control your actual real-world anticipations, behaviors, and emotional responses, while verbal/symbolic beliefs drive your verbal reasoning, professions of belief, and long-term expectations.

This split explains why one can "not believe in ghosts", but still be scared in a haunted house, or "believe" that one is just as deserving as anyone else, yet have trouble speaking up in a group.

However, the system 1/system 2 distinction is only the tip of the iceberg with respect to how beliefs and models work in the brain - there are meaningful subdistinctions within both system 1 and system 2, and there are differences in how permeable the systems are -- the rate, you might say, at which a belief can "diffuse" through the brain and influence other things.

None of this, AFAICT, is incorporated into your naive model of epistemological contagion.

That being said, I don't advocate teaching things that would be contagious.

For example, I wouldn't support NVC's teaching that violence is just learned and not inherent to human beings; that's plain stupid. However, the apparent intended function of that belief is to communicate that the expression of violent impulses is modulated by choice and learning, and so I'd need to replace that belief with some other idea that conveys that same point... perhaps in a story or metaphor that conveys the idea implicitly, so as to help push it into students' System 1models (where it really needs to be, anyway, if you want people to behave differently, vs. being able to regurgitate things on tests).

Comment author: lessdazed 24 June 2011 04:00:12PM 0 points [-]

None of this, AFAICT, is incorporated into your naive model of epistemological contagion.

I can't see why you would guess my model excluded it.

I wouldn't support NVC's teaching that violence is just learned and not inherent to human beings; that's plain stupid.

OK, so starting with the foundational belief of NVC, it's important that learners of NVC not think any of that is true, and not to be misled by its association with the sound methods it apparently underlies. I haven't seen any advocate of NVC say as much, but I haven't delved into it.

Why should we expect the system to do a job of accumulating an effective set of methods that's not easily improvable, if its teachers and practitioners believe these falsities? If they believe them, why are we confident they haven't made erroneous, harmful extrapolations based on the theory being true?

Isn't it likely that the leading academics (with studies, experiments, peer review, and decades of teaching experience) could separate what's effective for teaching from what's not, as well as what's true from untrue, when those have been their dual goals? While their system is optimized for slightly different goals than NVC, HNP includes NVC's goals, so asking HNP to compete against NVC by NVC's goal criteria is like challenging a world-class triathlon champion to swim race against a guy who has never actually timed himself, but gets around pretty quickly at the YMCA pool, if he does say so himself, and that's all he does all day. More accurately, it's like asking both for advice on swimming rather than them racing.

Comment author: pjeby 24 June 2011 10:55:19PM 2 points [-]

OK, so starting with the foundational belief of NVC, it's important that learners of NVC not think any of that is true, and not to be misled by its association with the sound methods it apparently underlies. I haven't seen any advocate of NVC say as much, but I haven't delved into it.

Er... I think you misunderstand me. Most people don't give a flying football whether that statement is true or not. The functional purpose of the statement is (IMO) to encourage people to rethink an existing bias to assume that certain classes of communication are normal, natural, expected, and/or the only available option.

So, the statement serves a functional purpose, and if it's thrown out, it needs to be replaced with something else. I am not saying that people should be taught to consider it untrue, and I doubt that the NVC folks do so. I'm just saying that if I were to teach NVC, I would ideally replace that statement with something that was both more true and more useful.

All I'm trying to say here is that it's silly for a rationalist (whose goal is to acquire skill in a given field) to discard a set of methods from serious consideration or study, simply on the basis of obviously-wrong and obviously-stupid theories. (If Richard Wiseman had done that, we wouldn't have luck research, for example.)

Why should we expect the system to do a job of accumulating an effective set of methods that's not easily improvable, if its teachers and practitioners believe these falsities? If they believe them, why are we confident they haven't made erroneous, harmful extrapolations based on the theory being true?

For the same reasons we expect candlemakers to be able to make candles, even when they believed pholgiston exists. And that is because, generally speaking, theories follow successful practice of some kind.

For example, Anton Mesmer noticed that if he did certain things, he could get people to behave in odd ways. He then made up a nonsense theory ("animal magnetism") to explain this peculiarity. The practice of hypnotism still exists today, despite a near-complete absence of an epistemically-sound theory for its method of operation.

Theories preceding practices are exceedingly rare, because people don't usually make up their theories out of nothing; generally, they make them up to explain their observations. And it is these observations that a rationalist should concern themselves with, rather than the theories that were made up to explain them.

While their system is optimized for slightly different goals than NVC, HNP includes NVC's goals

HNP includes the goal of becoming a more compassionate person?

[Other HNP vs. NVC stuff]

I think you're still mistaking me for an advocate of NVC, or someone trying to compare these two sets of practices. My sole purpose in this thread is to correct the all-too-common mis-perception that rationalists should discard bodies of practical knowledge that are packaged with verbal falsities. Such an attitude is poisonous to progress, since it needlessly discards quite a lot of otherwise perfectly-usable evidence and observations.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 23 June 2011 06:58:17PM 1 point [-]

I think this would make a really valuable top-level post.

Comment author: Morendil 22 June 2011 03:47:04PM 0 points [-]

Seconded.

Comment author: pjeby 23 June 2011 02:55:08AM 3 points [-]

I see NVC as being badly flawed and based on the types of poor thinking LW specifically guards against,

Really?

A quick google brought me to this list of skills:

  1. Differentiating observation from evaluation, being able to carefully observe what is happening free of evaluation, and to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us;
  2. Differentiating feeling from thinking, being able to identify and express internal feeling states in a way that does not imply judgment, criticism, or blame/punishment;
  3. Connecting with the universal human needs/values (e.g. sustenance, trust, understanding) in us that are being met or not met in relation to what is happening and how we are feeling; and
  4. Requesting what we would like in a way that clearly and specifically states what we do want (rather than what we don’t want), and that is truly a request and not a demand (i.e. attempting to motivate, however subtly, out of fear, guilt, shame, obligation, etc. rather than out of willingness and compassionate giving).

At least 1, 2, and 4 sound like excellent interpersonal skills to have, and 1, 2, and 3 are good intrapersonal skills as well.

I would in fact say that this list describes critical rationality skills, ones that are not even optional for practical rationality on human hardware.

Which part of this list do you find objectionable? Or is it something I wasn't able to find in the first inch or two of Google links?

Comment author: lessdazed 23 June 2011 04:56:11AM *  4 points [-]

Really?

For realsies!

(1) Any skill prefaced with "being able to" is compelling, as one could always just not do it and be no worse off. My concern is that NVC seems so prescriptive, admittedly it seems like the best approach to have were one restricted to one approach in interpersonal situations. However, one is not. I won't disparage abilities if that's truly what's learned, but one is an order of magnitude better off if one knows when to not apply them. As I don't see a deep theoretical understanding of reality inspiring the principles, I don't know how NVC could instruct adherents regarding when exceptions to general rules arise. NVC's principles and methods are likely optimal in more situations than any other similarly narrow advice.

(4) This is similar to (1), but it's not true that this is always the best way to get something, nor is it true that having a genuine request rejected is the second best thing for a person. For instance, one might feel better off if one's offensive and irritating request is rejected than if one's genuine request is. In general, I am not unduly confident in my specific examples of when one ought to abjure the usual methods, but broad statements that there are no such situations are not reassuring, particularly when they are based on suspect analysis of human nature.

(2) I hope that "imply" is meant in its most expansive sense, "to make another (eventually) infer", regardless of what a random person would probably think or feel or the immediate effect of the language.

Negotiation teaches one to customize one's strategy in a way I don't see in NVC. One is encouraged to know precisely when screaming, insulting, etc. would be most effective in meeting one's goals. Have you ever seen a debate in which one person began to lose their cool and shout, and their interlocutor responded by affecting calm and lower the volume of their voice? It is an effective way to make an angry person angrier if one is trying to win a debate by making them look silly. In contrast, were I in a similar situation with a person with whom I had an important relationship, I might match their yelling and offensiveness so as to make them less embarrassed about losing control.

I advocate truly, broadly considering another person and what makes them infer, however, all NVC stuff I've seen gives the impression of a sweeping attempt to moderate violent expressions and suppress blame rather than a cool consideration of situations and consequences. I currently suspect NVC means "does not imply blame" in a way that categorically forbids expressions like "It's your fault, you ass mucus." It would be an argument from ignorance to just declare such a phrase (stipulate also any amount of vituperation) can never be the best thing to say.

(3) The idea that human needs are all universal is de-individualizing. Rather, people have very different needs. Once again, by listing the most common human needs, NVC may be better than nothing, and it may be better than any other similar listing, but authentic openness to others includes the idea they have needs alien to you and perhaps unique. Bearing the most common ones in mind is fine, of course. I recognize that this text does not say (or disclaim the idea that) all human needs are universal, as other NVC sources at least strongly imply.

Comment author: pjeby 23 June 2011 04:53:50PM 4 points [-]

Rather, people have very different needs.

Actually, no. People just have different ways of getting those needs met. The idea that people can actually have different fundamental needs is terribly unscientific - it implies that there's more physical differentiation between individuals within a species than genetics allows.

[other stuff]

In general, it seems that your argument isn't with NVC skills per se, but with the implication that their method is the one and only thing you should use, ever. But, part of learning any skill is the "man with hammer" phase, in which you really do need to pretend the whole world is a nail. That way, you can actually internalize for yourself which of those .03 percent or whatever things are not, in fact, nails.

Your broad assertion that LWers are special in being able to take in this sort of information is also a bit off-base: it doesn't matter whether LWers can take in this (abstract) information, because abstract information is not a skill. And unconscious skill development can actually be hindered by an excess of conscious processing.

Could NVC be taught in a way that includes less epistemic garbage? Sure. Should one care? Not really, if one simply desires to obtain the result being offered.

(And, it's important to be clear about what result you want -- negotiation skills are about influencing someone else, while ISTM that NVC is about becoming a more compassionate person who understands others better and can communicate their intentions clearly. Some of these goals may well be antithetical to zero-sum negotiation, in that there may be reason to conceal one's intentions, or to avoid any potentially-exploitable compassion.)

Comment author: lessdazed 24 June 2011 08:13:54AM *  2 points [-]

Actually, no. People just have different ways of getting those needs met. The idea that people can actually have different fundamental needs is terribly unscientific - it implies that there's more physical differentiation between individuals within a species than genetics allows.

I think you are right and I was wrong. Compare the HNP core concerns, the Max-Neef needs, and the NVC needs inventory for more insight.

zero-sum negotiation

That's not at all what the negotiation project is about. Negotiation theory encompasses zero-sum negotiation (a special case) as well as normal collaborative negotiations, as well as what the latest book calls Bargaining with the Devil, When to Negotiate, When to Fight. Characterizing negotiation as being about how to succeed in zero-sum situations is just wrong, negotiation goes Beyond Winning.

negotiation skills are about influencing someone else

Self control is an important element in influencing others, and as such it is central to negotiation theory. So is interpreting the world as it actually is. Clearly communicating one's desires without having them interpreted as anything more demanding than a request (i.e. NVC) is useful, but it is only one way to interact with people and will not always be ideal, even among those one is emotionally intimate with.

Comment author: pjeby 24 June 2011 03:14:10PM 0 points [-]

Self control is an important element in influencing others, and as such it is central to negotiation theory. So is interpreting the world as it actually is. Clearly communicating one's desires without having them interpreted as anything more demanding than a request (i.e. NVC) is useful, but it is only one way to interact with people and will not always be ideal, even among those one is emotionally intimate with.

I didn't say negotiation and NVC didn't have areas of overlap, I said there were areas where their goals might be in conflict. Not the same thing. (I also didn't say that negotiation was always zero-sum, I said that zero-sum negotiation was an area where conflicts with NVC would likely exist.)

Compare the HNP core concerns, the Max-Neef needs, and the NVC needs inventory for more insight.

You could also look at my own SASS model, or the Murray-Bennett-Robbins models found in lots of self-help stuff. (See e.g. Robbins' TED talk about the six human needs.) There's also a recent 16-point needs model that lists all the same stuff, organized differently. (I don't remember the scientist's name right off, sorry.)

Pretty much every model of human needs ends up with the same big list, just grouped differently as far as categories. And what categorization you use really depends on what functional goals you have for applying your model, rather than there being any epistemologically "correct" classification. (Well, in theory, there's whatever physical groupings that occur in the brain or genome, but there's no point in waiting until we know that before we use the information we have.)

In general, when one is trying to train people to achieve some practical result, the best categorization to use is one that is both mnemonic, and closely tied either to the actions students need to take, and/or to the diagnostic/classification criteria they'll be using. So, HNP, NVC, and I can all have quite legitimate reasons for categorizing the basic needs differently, depending on what we intend to train people to do.

Comment author: JackEmpty 24 June 2011 03:58:43PM *  1 point [-]

To respond to this whole thread of discussion, what it seems to me is that NVC is a quite useful tool, and negotiation theory is the toolbox and instruction manuals.

It also seems that NVC could be a better designed tool (that's not to say that it won't do it's job!), and that negotiation theory could be a better formulated heuristic of when to use the NVC-tool, and when to use the other tools...

My concern is now cutting the cruft from both and adding the useful bits into the repertoire of my own rationality.

I'll have to look into them both further before I make any more in-depth of a comment than that, though.

ETA: Any recommendations on where to start reading up? (Free/online preferrable.)

Comment author: lessdazed 24 June 2011 04:03:55PM 0 points [-]

I didn't say negotiation and NVC didn't have areas of overlap, I said there were areas where their goals might be in conflict.

It's helpful and not difficult to see that zero-sum negotiations are a subset of negotiations in general. The principles of negotiation don't shatter when a situation is zero-sum, rather, variables applicable to general/collaborative negotiation take on extreme values.

A model that recommended certain behaviors, all ideal for zero-sum negotiation, wouldn't have goals "in conflict" with standard HNP, and if HNP recommends the same thing as this hypothetical zero-sum unit, then the situation is not best described by "areas of overlap". It would be encompassed and limited, but fine for what it is.

However, there would be a serious problem if the model's users did not recognize its limitations relative to the broader theory that encompasses it and correctly cease to use it often. If their beliefs about the system are false, it doesn't seem likely the model's designers would happen to find all the correct times to stop using it. It would furthermore be unfortunate if zero-sum trained people found themselves totally at sea whenever that happened, when they could have learned the broader approach all along, like someone who fails a history exam because it must be written in cursive, when they know history and print but not cursive. Hmm I hope to think of a better analogy.

Comment author: pjeby 24 June 2011 11:03:42PM 1 point [-]

I think that perhaps you are overly concerned with trying to present HNP as unequivocally superior to NVC. I am speaking here only about general criteria for evaluating bodies of knowledge, so your specific arguments about areas of applicability are of no import to me.

I'm not trying to say your favorite body of knowledge isn't spectacularly wonderful, I'm simply saying that you are wrong to use the epistemic truth or falsehood of "motivational" beliefs as part of evaluating the instrumental utility of a body of practical knowledge that contains said motivational beliefs.

(Where a "motivational" belief is a verbal statement or set of advocated principles whose sole function within that body of knowledge is to prime one or more intuition pumps that are part of the skill being taught.)

This has nothing to do with HNP; it's strictly regarding your earlier dismissal of NVC. So, it would not matter one whit whether the things being discussed were ABC and XYZ instead of HNP and NVC - I would still be making the same basic point here.

Comment author: lessdazed 25 June 2011 03:19:50AM 0 points [-]

I'm simply saying that you are wrong to use the epistemic truth or falsehood of "motivational" beliefs as part of evaluating the instrumental utility of a body of practical knowledge that contains said motivational beliefs.

Where a "motivational" belief is a verbal statement or set of advocated principles whose sole function within that body of knowledge is to prime one or more intuition pumps that are part of the skill being taught.

Do you have evidence that this is the sole intended function of the foundational NVC beliefs (and many others), as distinguished from others which are intended as both true and motivational?

This is an example of a person (a CNVC Certified Trainer and Executive Director) correctly using a motivational "belief". He thinks of himself as if he were a robot and has different homunculi within him, etc., and he is able to do this without actually believing he is a robot. He will certainly not derive things based on the assumption his nature being that of a robot, unlike with the false beliefs underlying so much of NVC, such as that his true nature is non-violent and socialization has taught him violence, etc.

Having false beliefs is bad in ways that are hard to predict, and it is important not to seek beliefs that are useful in a narrow sense rather than true (which is useful in the broad sense).

The concept you are talking about is common and widely used, and it's even used correctly by the NVC person in the example I gave, but I have not seen and you have given no evidence that that is what NVC does most of the time.

I said that NVC is sub-optimal because the theory is untrue, it's unclear how much the practice was shaped by the theory rather than vice versa, unlike the HNP it doesn't seem to be based on rigorous peer review, etc. see above. You really have been talking about ABC and XYZ, and the point you are trying to make does not arise naturally in this case since that is apparently not what NVC is generally doing. Thanks to HNP, we know negotiation/interpersonal interaction can be taught, and well, without resorting to useful lies. I first said:

I am very, very unimpressed with it, particularly as it contrasts with a negotiation course I took taught by an editor of the last few books of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project Director.

My "dismissal" of NVC was due to knowing that there is a better way, so it doesn't make sense to say "This has nothing to do with HNP" if the subject is my dismissal of NVC. As far as I could see from a quick overview, NVC is actually quite similar to a subset of HNP, that's why it's possible to say one is better than the other. It's easier to compare shortstops to shortstops than shortstops to pitchers, particularly if those pitchers are jugs used for holding liquids. But a player who can play any position is really something.

I agree motivational "beliefs" are useful tools, but swooping down like Spider-Man to rescue false beliefs by saying they weren't intended to be true would be an instance of the no true Scotsman fallacy, and trying to rescue them by saying no motivational "beliefs" are intended to be true (in the context of NVC) would be unsupported.

False statements don't have the property of ritual impurity, irrevocably tainting by association all things associated with the speaker. Of course NVC could contain something useful. I qualified my skepticism based on my familiarity with it, its habit of proliferating nonsensical theories, etc. You introduced the word "dismissal".

I am speaking here only about general criteria for evaluating bodies of knowledge, so your specific arguments about areas of applicability are of no import to me.

Pretend they're analogies. In general, if one knows it is possible to teach a true theory or a false theory to motivate behavior, all else equal, the true one is preferable. E.g. NVC v. HNP. One cannot entirely dismiss the false belief based system unless one knows the goals are achievable under a true one, e.g., there is a difference in what judgments of NVC are justified between one person who knows about HNP and another who does not.

Comment author: pjeby 25 June 2011 05:48:16AM 1 point [-]

I agree motivational "beliefs" are useful tools, but swooping down like Spider-Man to rescue false beliefs by saying they weren't intended to be true would be an instance of the no true Scotsman fallacy, and trying to rescue them by saying no motivational "beliefs" are intended to be true (in the context of NVC) would be unsupported.

Do note that I didn't make either of those arguments. You still seem to be confusing me with someone who wishes to promote NVC.

(If I were such an advocate, I'd be a pretty bad one, since many of my statements to you have been both evaluative and judgmental. ;-) )

Comment author: Nisan 22 June 2011 03:02:19PM 5 points [-]

Here are some homologous roles in the LW San Francisco Bay Area community:

  • Rationality Camp is run by capable teachers. Right now they're busy with rationality camp. There may be a separate rationality seminar in Berkeley at some point. But presently there is no Sunday School experience that everyone in the community goes to.

  • In Mountain View, Shannon Friedman has been teaching newbies once a week, using the Sequences as a manual.

  • So far, we only have one thing remotely like the LDS home teaching program: The rationality mini-camp participants set up a rotating Skyping buddy schedule. This ensures that community members have regular interaction with a variety of other community members. It differs from the home teaching program in that the roles are symmetric, it's not in-person, and you can't really give your skyping buddy a ride to the airport if they're a thousand miles away.

Comment author: MaoShan 29 June 2011 05:07:57PM *  0 points [-]

That is, until the nearest rationalist is down the block. LDS has the advantage of physical proximity due to local concentration, so it seems that most of us on the "rational frontier-land" need to either move to SF Bay, or propagate rationality by conversion until local support becomes a statistical possibility. Using the Sequences as a standard toolbox would be a great way, if one understands one of them (proficiently), to offer a potential rationalist a Wow! moment to get them on the Way. As I suspect that there are criteria when on "mission work" for identifying potential converts to LDS, what characteristics would one look for in a person who would be more likely to become Less Wrong? It's not as if you can just go around asking people what their g level is. Well, not politely, anyway.

Comment author: Nisan 29 June 2011 05:40:50PM 0 points [-]

It's easier to get someone hooked on Methods of Rationality than on the Sequences. And if someone likes Methods of Rationality, there's a good chance they'll be interested in going to a meetup.

Comment author: EvelynM 22 June 2011 08:11:40PM 6 points [-]

This looks to me to be a recipe for adhering to a standard set of documents and roles, not a recipe for empirically investigating reality as it is, together with other investigators.

On [5], just saying you're avoiding a gender stereotype is different than actually avoiding it.

Comment author: BenLowell 23 June 2011 08:01:03PM *  3 points [-]

In this post and the next one, I will outline the roles in Latter-day Saint communities. In the following posts, I will draw more conclusions as to which roles would be ideal for rationalist communities.

Comment author: calcsam 23 June 2011 05:19:54AM 5 points [-]

This looks to me to be a recipe for adhering to a standard set of documents and roles, not a recipe for empirically investigating reality as it is, together with other investigators.

Reasonable. However, this doesn't make it unuseful as an example. The set of instructions on how to run a McDonalds, for example, is an exceedingly efficient piece of, essentially, software. (Which can be seen in how widely it has propagated.) Likewise here.

Comment author: EvelynM 23 June 2011 11:39:01PM 4 points [-]

The recipe for running a McDonalds wouldn't work for running a design firm. One of them values doing the same thing over and over, and one of them values doing new things and old things in new ways.

I think that the recipe you're proposing is more about doing the 'authorized' thing. LessWrong is more about doing the figuring it out thing.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 22 June 2011 04:40:24PM *  1 point [-]

So, some quick feedback: I could not guess what you meant by "the ability to promote personal applications" until I'd read many more paragraphs, and even now I am not sure what it means. My best guess is, "letting those who want to teach teach".

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 June 2011 04:10:42PM *  0 points [-]

Don't

Comment author: wedrifid 23 June 2011 12:15:00AM 0 points [-]

Don't

No, you don't! ;)