Sunday, 12 June 2011

The first four days

This is a blog about the Rationality Boot Camp. For now I am the only contributor, but I intend to invite all of the other participants to contribute if and when they like. For now, I intend to restrict my entries mostly to the content of the classes and my reactions to them. I may post some other things if I find them amusing/enlightening.

In the future, I will try to write down my reactions at the time, and take more detailed notes on the actual content of the sessions. This first entry is being done on Sunday morning, about sessions that took place on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, so there is a good chance that I've already edited my memories of what happened to better fit the story I have in my head, and so that this reads better as a narrative. My apologies. I will, at least, attempt to get all of the facts that I report right.

Wednesday Session 1: Meditation

I was not optimistic about this. I have dabbled with meditation in the past and not had much success. However, we will be meditating for half an hour a day throughout RBC, so I have decided to at least attempt to enjoy it, and see if I can get any benefits. The session started with Jasen giving us roughly an hour-long talk about meditation. I find it very difficult to pay attention to people when they are talking to a group in that fashion, so cannot report much of what was said. The one thing I do remember is that he tried to specify the sort of meditation we will be doing, and objects to "meditation" as a particularly broad word.

The exercises, insofar as I remember, consisted of the following:

1. Note your breathing.
Spend five minutes in a comfortable position (key: it must be stable, ie, not require effort to maintain) paying attention to the feeling of your breath: either as it passes past your nostrils, or as your chest rises and falls.

2. Note your breathing: in or out.
Essentially the same, but this time note whether the breath you are currently taking is an inbreath or an outbreath.

3. Note physical sensations.
Notice any sensations anywhere in your body. Classify them as pleasant or unpleasant.

4. Note thoughts.
We were told to note our thoughts and classify them. I can't remember what the classifications were.

5. Note your emotions.
Exactly what it says.

I found the first exercise quite difficult, the second quite a lot easier. I've no good hypothesis for why this is. The fourth and 5th exercises were by far the most difficult for me - although I did notice some interesting things about how much more I was verbalising thoughts when I was "noting" them - if I could manage to avoid that, I think that exercise might well be useful. The easiest for me by far was exercise 3, although I'm still not sure I really understand the instructions.

Wednesday Session 2: non-violent communication

This was the first of the sessions which truly set of my woo detector. The Wikipedia article on NVC contains the following quote.
There are few published studies supporting the claims of effectiveness. While some people consider the development of an evidence base a high priority, NVC currently lacks any longitudinal research program, or significant research and analysis of the practice and its theoretical base.
Since the claims that the presenter was making were really quite strong, I find this particularly worrying. Again, I don't really remember too much of this session, so can't give details. As far as I remember, there wasn't a lot more than is contained in this wikihow article, plus a little bit of practice at making observations rather than evaluations, and distinguishing "feelings" without moral judgement.

I don't think I got a lot out of this session, and haven't really noticed anyone in the group mentioning any of the principles since. There is a whole week of it later in the course, so I will re-evaluate then.

Thursday Session 1: Rejection Therapy

There was essentially no motivation for this exercise, or explanation of how to do it. The idea behind it was to:
re-calibrate small-tribe based fears like fear of rejection or fear of making requests
Now, I am particularly bad at this: I often don't buy things I want from shops because I don't want to bother the shopkeeper. The most recent example I can think of is not wanting to ask a pharmacist for advice on mosquito bites: I have no really good idea why. However, I have very little trouble playing the game. I asked several people if they would swap t-shirts with me, and went into at least 3 ice cream shops to ask for free ice cream.

This is an exercise which is definitely fun, but I find it hard to believe it is useful. On the other hand, it is quite possible that I'm unusual in this regard, and suffering from the Typical Mind Fallacy.

Another problem I have with this exercise is that several people went around the streets of Berkeley asking strangers for money. I don't want to be the sort of person who can wander around the streets of Berkeley asking people for money, as I don't want other people to wander round the streets of Berkeley asking me for money.

Thursday Session 2: Rationality 1

This session consisted of two presentations from Anna Salamon, along with 2 games which we played. The games were both played with Wits and Wagers cards - cards with obscure trivia questions which one wouldn't expect anyone to be able to answer (along the lines of "how many people have been signed up to be barred for life from riverboat casinos in MIssouri?" and "in what year did a woman first orbit the Earth?")

The games were as follows:

The updating game

Everyone in the group makes a guess as to the answer to the question privately. You then share your guesses and whatever reasoning led you to the guess, and then make a second guess. Then check the answer.

The idea is to see what updating actually feels like. I did find that I was not updating enough - I think other people found the opposite. We didn't keep proper records, which was probably a mistake. There was also an element of "we're playing the updating game, I should try and update on other people's information going on, at least in my head".

The Rationalisation game

In pairs, you each make a guess, and then try very hard to defend your answer in a heated debate, to feel what "rationalisation" feels like (ie, to notice yourself justifying your beliefs, rather than giving reasons for them).

I was paired with Thomas for this exercise, and we found it completely impossible. Neither of us could manage to pretend to care about the answer to a question that we both knew we could just check on wikipedia within seconds. I have since, I think, managed to notice myself rationalising beliefs about other topics, so it's possible that just having the idea spelled out was useful.

My overall impression: these games were fun, but I didn't feel like I'd learned much. I guess this was the first session, and I have read all of Less Wrong from the beginning, so I probably shouldn't have expected to. Anna seems like she genuinely wants to teach people skills that she thinks she has found useful in her thinking - hopefully I will start to appreciate this in later lessons.

Friday Session 1: Eye Contact, Body Language, and Granularization of Social Skills

Taught by Luke, aka lukeprog from Less Wrong. Essentially nothing that one couldn't have read in pretty much any popular book on body language (eg, one that I've read is "What Every Body is Saying"), but with the advantage that he was, at least, there to demonstrate the skills he was demonstrating.

We started with the Scientology staring exercise which is described in this post. Essentially, try to stare into someone's eyes for 15 minutes to prove that you are capable of making eye contact with someone for 15 minutes. I was not particularly good at this exercise, looking away 5 times, however, Luke didn't manage to adequately explain to me why the skill of staring into someone's eyes for 15 minutes was useful, and I did remember David Gerard's warnings from that thread about the Scientology stare.

Friday Session 2: Rationality 2

Giving Reasons, not justifications, for beliefs

We practised this by doing exactly what you would expect: e.g., making statements, and then giving reasons for why we believed them (rather than justifications for why we thought they were true)

e.g., I believe that this text is Arial.

I believe this because I have seen previous text with similar features, and heard it referred to as Arial. I also believe it because I have a memory of earlier when I started typing and the font looked different to this, and I had a negative emotional reaction to it, I clicked the button at the top of the page and changed the font to "Arial".

Giving reasons rather than justifications for more contentious or deeply-held beliefs is, of course, harder. I found this exercise quite illuminating, and have been trying my hardest to practise this skill for a while - it was nice to have a reminder of it, and to get some more explicit practice at doing it.

Being Specific: giving examples

The skill to practice was that of having concrete examples in mind when making general statements. This is useful both for testing the general statements, and for helping one to think about them.

The game was: given a list of categories, try to list 5 examples of each. The categories ranged in difficulty from "colours" to "times you were surprised".

I found this somewhat unsatisfying. Played as a game, I didn't really think it was helping me to develop the relevant skill. However, we only played for half an hour, so I don't have very much evidence. Also, I don't really have a good idea of how good I was at this skill beforehand, so it is quite hard to measure. I will probably try something similar to this again, as it does seem like this is a useful skill I would like to develop.

Friday Session Three: Creating Dispositions

This was taught by Academian from Less Wrong. Quite a lot of what he told us is already contained in his Less Wrong posts, but I have to admit to not really having paid attention, and/or not really having understood it when he taught it. The talks were about self-modification, specifically about the ability to convince oneself to desire (the word we used for the sort of "want" one means when one "wants" to have some of the ice cream that is in the bowl in front of you) things that one wants to desire. I haven't yet had a chance to put these methods into practice, but they seemed quite plausible and Academian seemed like quite a normal guy, and was endorsing them enthusiastically, so I look forward to trying.

I don't think I can do the theory justice in this blog post, which is already probably overly long, so I will probably just leave it at that. I will say that one very interesting fact that I learned is one about human emotions, which, according to research cited in the talk, essentially break down along 7-9 axes: Fear, Anger, Sadness, Caring, Lust, Play and Seeking (with possibly Disgust and Surprise), and that this is fairly well-established science. Learning to recognise these 7 affects seems like it could be a useful skill.

Overall Impression

This post might give the impression that my overall experience so far has been negative. It really hasn't, and this is mostly because I've focussed on the core curriculum. I'm living in a house with 10 other bright, interesting people who are interesting in learning how to think, and learning quite a lot of other things. It is fun, and I expect to benefit from the experience. So far, I'm not convinced that I expect to benefit a great deal from the curriculum, but I'm hoping that that will change over the coming weeks. According to the timetable, we will learn about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (the only talking therapy proven to work - just about the only thing we know about psychology, as far as I can tell). More about NVC and something called Internal Family Systems, the wikipedia page for which doesn't seem overly reassuring, but which I'm sure will, at least, be interesting. The week after is drawing, which I look forward to quite a lot, and then more social skills from Luke.

Overall: I think the camp will be an awesome experience, and definitely expect to enjoy myself. I am slightly skeptical about learning much from the actual content of the lessons currently, but am hoping to, and intend to try my hardest to, get at least some useful techniques out of them.


  1. Good summaries; thanks for doing this. Summarization boosts retention and follow-through.

    The "rationalization game" was actually called the "Changing course mid-stream game"; the aim was partly to memorize what rationalization feels like, and partly to practice changing your mind after advocating for a given position (and to note what trying to figure out the right answer, and curiosity, feel like).

    Depending on your aims in writing these posts, I wonder if you might consider spending a larger portion of your writing looking for ways to master the skills, and then separately, and in a different section/post, discuss whether the skills or sessions are worthwhile. Uncritical acceptance would be bad, of course: but having one "mode" where you try things out, and a separate mode where you afterwards evaluate, can be helpful. I find that if I {read a book / attend a seminar / etc.} while wondering if the course is silly or if I'll look silly for being in it, it's much harder for me to actually update my thinking skills -- since actually changing the way I think requires a measure of focus, of trusting the exercises long enough to really try them, and of being willing to plunge fully into things that feel a bit silly (for a time; like "willing suspension of disbelief" in a movie).

    Also, rationality is in some ways easier to learn than to teach: if you yourself are actively searching for ways to improve your thinking skill, you may well be able to use our exercises, or other aspects of RBC or of your life, to help you do that -- even though it's hard to find a set of exercises that will automatically in and of themselves cause you and the others to improve your thinking skill. If RBC works, it will work via you, and other participants, actively shaping it to boost your learning.

    Critiques are appreciated, of course; we're doing RBC mostly to learn how to run such programs, and any info as to what is and isn't working for you or others is most welcome. It's just that you may want to buy your learning separately from your input into what's useful.

  2. I agree with Anna, and especially her third paragraph seems important with respect to your approach. It sounds like you're gunning for the nocebo effect pretty hard.

    If you go for a walk every day, you will improve your expected lifespan and your daily brain function. But if you start day-one's walk analyzing how unhelpful it seems (and it may seem unhelpful in the short-term - it does for many people who try it), you are less likely to get anything out of it, and less likely to continue a beneficial regimen.

    I'm not suggesting the boot camp exercises are as helpful as taking a walk daily - the exercises are pretty new, whereas walking has a mass of evidence behind it. But just that your approach is counterproductive.

  3. Taking things seriously doesn't require believing that they are true/useful. One can master all the details of obscure rituals while knowing that they likely don't do anything.

    There is probably a teachable lesson in that: feeling enthusiastic/productive about developing a skill that you expect won't be helpful, but have decided to attain for more abstract reasons (such as, there is a small chance it will be helpful in an unknown way, and this particular course of action is the best available, even if we already know that it's likely no good).

    (This is the mode in which I study math, which I don't particularly enjoy and usually have no specific idea about how it could help in development of decision theory/metaethics. Sometimes it helps, and I don't have a better actionable plan.)

  4. Thanks for doing this blog!

    What's the difference between a reason and a justification? Is it that a justification is post hoc? (E.g., saying "I believe it's Arial because the font droplist says so", when I had not looked at the font droplist until after asked why I believed it was Arial.)

  5. I see you answered my reason/justification question here.

  6. The reason I gave for the staring exercise is that it's helpful for people to develop comfort in holding strong eye contact so that they have the ability to do so when it will serve them well - for example when listening, or when talking with high-status people.