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Stefie_K comments on SotW: Be Specific - Less Wrong

39 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 April 2012 06:11AM

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Comment author: Stefie_K 03 April 2012 10:00:31PM 2 points [-]

Hi! I've been lurking for a bit.

It looks to me like one thing that would help would be to get the people you're teaching to get frustrated enough to spontaneously say "Be specific!" on their own. If you can get them to associate a feeling of frustration with certain situations, the emotional reaction could reinforce the cognitive skills they're developing.

Specific scenarios can be based off of actual conversations like the one Eliezer presented in his post. Here's an example, based on Eliezer's example:


Sample Exercise:

The student must decide whether to invest in Company X or MixPanel. They will be investing $1 million of their company's money in one (and only one) of them; their only choice is which. They must be prepared to justify this decision to their boss, or they will be fired (and possibly have to deal with a lawsuit? Try to ramp up consequences).

Have a "boss" be there to help steer the conversation if the student is too happy with something unspecific. For the most part, though, the boss will be silent, and perhaps look unhappy.

The "entrepreneur" (now a teacher, not a student) speaks as though s/he really wants the student to invest in Company X. However, s/he is never specific. The exact language is taken/adapted from the recording of the original exercise.

In order to make sure that this exercise isn't derailed by focusing on money than by the actual difference between the companies' products, the boss can point out that even if the funding and/or number of customers is good now, that is not guaranteed to continue, and that they need information on what exactly makes the two companies' products different, and Company X's product better.


I would provide some scripted language, but there isn't enough continuous dialogue in the post for me to do much more than copy and paste it here.

Exercises like this could be designed from scratch, but if there are enough recordings of actual situations like the one Eliezer used, that could be more efficient, and quite possibly more realistic. Ironically but usefully, this approach to designing specific exercises of this type is made easier by the apparent disconnect between what the student-entrepreneur said and what Paul and Harj were asking. If there's usually a disconnect, then that makes it easier for a script to fit a conversation being directed by a student-investor, and it won't sound much less natural than the original situation.

One issue with this is that you would need to make sure that the scenario in the exercise doesn't match up too closely with the student's own background. In the example that Eliezer posted, for instance, an example involving software solutions would be a bad choice for the entrepreneur-student, because he'd be too used to hearing unspecific explanations and solutions of that particular type, and might well not recognize them as a problem. This requirement would mean that a lot of scenarios would need to be written (in order to ensure enough variety), and that people would need to be matched up with the particular scenario they'd be put in.

What do you think? I could also try to come up with from-scratch scenarios, but my ideas had a tendency to be vague in a way that's different from how people would realistically be vague. This exercise is much more useful if people seem sincerely not-specific, rather than trying to be not-specific, both because it avoids the impression that this is just a game (and therefore possibly not something to be frustrated by), and because realistic scenarios make it easier to recognize these situations in real life.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 04 April 2012 04:31:57AM 2 points [-]

The "entrepreneur" (now a teacher, not a student) speaks as though s/he really wants the student to invest in Company X. However, s/he is never specific. The exact language is taken/adapted from the recording of the original exercise.

I'd be a little leery of embarrassing those guys even more than they've already been embarrassed.

Comment author: Stefie_K 04 April 2012 05:32:41AM 0 points [-]

Hmm. I hadn't envisioned them being present, but I may have misunderstood the ongoing nature of these things. If they aren't present, key details might be changed, and so on, to preserve anonymity. I was also imagining that this exercise would be done privately, rather than on a stage in front of lots of people -- although that would be flexible.

Reusing earlier exercises isn't essential to my idea, so that could be changed, and made-up dialogue used instead.

However... I think that one of the issues with all of these exercises is going to be making sure that the students mentally connect these exercises to other areas of their lives, and apply the skill in real life. A lot of the ideas suggested here sound good, but they sound too much like games, and not enough like people actually sound when they fail to be specific in real life. I liked the "mission statement" idea for the same reason.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 04 April 2012 05:43:10AM 0 points [-]

I meant to avoid embarrassing the real-life people whose start up wasn't mixpanel by making their embarrassing dialogue with Paul Graham into a standard rationality exercise. Not sure whether that was what you intended or not.

A lot of the ideas suggested here sound good, but they sound too much like games, and not enough like people actually sound when they fail to be specific in real life.

What you think of my exercise? ;-)

Comment author: Stefie_K 04 April 2012 06:30:23AM 0 points [-]

That was kind of my intention, but I had imagined that they wouldn't be the only ones. (Misery loves company?) I was thinking that you might do dialogues like in Eliezer's example with a lot of people (privately), as one rationality exercise, then use that to put together a large set of scenarios.

Remember, students will probably need scenarios that are different enough from their own lives for them to recognize the lack of specifics. Eliezer's example might not work at all well for someone involved in an online company, and/or a startup, because it might seem normal rather than frustration-provoking.

I don't know; maybe other people here have a strong enough idea of what people actually say in these situations, and can write realistic dialogue from scratch. I'd still expect transcripts to worth consulting as part of the writing process, though.

What you think of my exercise? ;-)

I think it would lead to more accurate personality tests, among other things. ;)

Seriously, I realized after taking one personality test that I would have responded completely differently to a question if it had said "walking" rather than "driving," and the question was about something entirely unrelated to modes of transportation. (It was something like comfort in trying new things, or comfort with visual maps vs. verbal directions.) Oops?