An EA at a CFAR Rationality Workshop: Thoughts and Review
Outline: This is the kind of post I would have wanted to read to help me think about and prepare for a CFAR workshop, so I am writing this post to the kind of person who has not gone to a workshop but might be interested in it and also those who are actively considering it and would want to be prepared for it well. I will discuss my background and how I prepared for the workshop, and then how I would have prepared differently if I could go back and have the chance to do it again; I will then discuss my experience at the CFAR workshop, and what I would have done differently if I had the chance to do it again; I will then discuss what my take-aways were from the workshop, and what I am doing to integrate CFAR strategies into my life; finally, I will give my assessment of its benefits and what other folks might expect to get who attend the workshop.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to fellow CFAR alumni and CFAR staff for feedback on earlier versions of this post
Many Effective Altruism participants have heard about the Center for Applied Rationality, an organization devoted to teaching applied rationality skills to help people improve their thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns. This nonprofit does so primarily through its intense workshops, and is funded by donations and revenue from its workshop. It fulfills its social mission through conducting rationality research and through giving discounted or free workshops to those people its staff judge as likely to help make the world a better place, mainly those associated with various Effective Altruist cause areas, especially existential risk.
To be fully transparent: even before attending the workshop, I already had a strong belief that CFAR is a great organization and have been a monthly donor to CFAR for years. So keep that in mind as you read my description of my experience (you can become a donor here).
Background and Preparation
First, some background about myself, so you know where I’m coming from in attending the workshop. I’m a professor specializing in the intersection of history, psychology, behavioral economics, sociology, and cognitive neuroscience. I discovered the rationality movement several years ago through a combination of my research and attending a LessWrong meetup in Columbus, OH, and so come from a background of both academic and LW-style rationality. Since discovering the movement, I have become an activist in the movement as the President of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit devoted to popularizing effective altruist and rationality ideas (see here for our EA work). So I came to the workshop with some training and knowledge of rationality, including some CFAR techniques.
Since a number of people were curious about how to prepare for a CFAR workshop, I will share my experience doing so in detail. To help myself prepare, I reviewed existing posts about CFAR materials, with an eye toward being careful not to assume that the actual techniques match their actual descriptions in the posts.
I also delayed a number of tasks for after the workshop, tying up loose ends. In retrospect, I wish I did not leave myself some ongoing tasks to do during the workshop. As part of my leadership of InIn, I coordinate about 50ish volunteers, and I wish I had placed those responsibilities on someone else during the workshop.
Before the workshop, I worked intensely on finishing up some projects. In retrospect, it would have been better to get some rest and come to the workshop as fresh as possible.
There were some communication snafus with logistics details before the workshop. It all worked out in the end, but I would have told myself in retrospect to get the logistics hammered out in advance to not experience anxiety before the workshop about how to get there.
The classes were well put together, had interesting examples, and provided useful techniques. FYI, my experience in the workshop was that reading these techniques in advance was not harmful, but that the techniques in the CFAR classes were quite a bit better than the existing posts about them, so don’t assume you can get the same benefits from reading posts as attending the workshop. So while I was aware of the techniques, the ones in the classes definitely had optimized versions of them—maybe because of the “broken telephone” effect or maybe because CFAR optimized them from previous workshops, not sure. I was glad to learn that CFAR considers the workshop they gave us in May as satisfactory enough to scale up their workshops, while still improving their content over time.
Just as useful as the classes were the conversations held in between and after the official classes ended. Talking about them with fellow aspiring rationalists and seeing how they were thinking about applying these to their lives was helpful for sparking ideas about how to apply them to my life. The latter half of the CFAR workshop was especially great, as it focused on pairing off people and helping others figure out how to apply CFAR techniques to themselves and how to address various problems in their lives. It was especially helpful to have conversations with CFAR staff and trained volunteers, of whom there were plenty—probably about 20 volunteers/staff for the 50ish workshop attendees.
Another super-helpful aspect of the conversations was networking and community building. Now, this may have been more useful to some participants than others, so YMMV. As an activist in the moment, I talked to many folks in the CFAR workshop about promoting EA and rationality to a broad audience. I was happy to introduce some people to EA, with my most positive conversation there being to encourage someone to switch his efforts regarding x-risk from addressing nuclear disarmament to AI safety research as a means of addressing long/medium-term risk, and promoting rationality as a means of addressing short/medium-term risk. Others who were already familiar with EA were interested in ways of promoting it broadly, while some aspiring rationalists expressed enthusiasm over becoming rationality communicators.
Looking back at my experience, I wish I was more aware of the benefits of these conversations. I went to sleep early the first couple of nights, and I would have taken supplements to enable myself to stay awake and have conversations instead.
Take-Aways and Integration
The aspects of the workshop that I think will help me most were what CFAR staff called “5-second” strategies—brief tactics and techniques that could be executed in 5 seconds or less and address various problems. The stuff that we learned at the workshops that I was already familiar with required some time to learn and practice, such as Trigger Action Plans, Goal Factoring, Murphyjitsu, Pre-Hindsight, often with pen and paper as part of the work. However, with sufficient practice, one can develop brief techniques that mimic various aspects of the more thorough techniques, and apply them quickly to in-the-moment decision-making.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the longer techniques are not helpful. They are very important, but they are things I was already generally familiar with, and already practice. The 5-second versions were more of a revelation for me, and I anticipate will be more helpful for me as I did not know about them previously.
Now, CFAR does a very nice job of helping people integrate the techniques into daily life, as this is a common failure mode of CFAR attendees, with them going home and not practicing the techniques. So they have 6 Google Hangouts with CFAR staff and all attendees who want to participate, 4 one-on-one sessions with CFAR trained volunteers or staff, and they also pair you with one attendee for post-workshop conversations. I plan to take advantage of all these, although my pairing did not work out.
For integration of CFAR techniques into my life, I found the CFAR strategy of “Overlearning” especially helpful. Overlearning refers to trying to apply a single technique intensely for a while to all aspect of one’s activities, so that it gets internalized thoroughly. I will first focus on overlearning Trigger Action Plans, following the advice of CFAR.
I also plan to teach CFAR techniques in my local rationality dojo, as teaching is a great way to learn, naturally.
Finally, I plan to integrate some CFAR techniques into Intentional Insights content, at least the more simple techniques that are a good fit for the broad audience with which InIn is communicating.
I have a strong probabilistic belief that having attended the workshop will improve my capacity to be a person who achieves my goals for doing good in the world. I anticipate I will be able to figure out better whether the projects I am taking on are the best uses of my time and energy. I will be more capable of avoiding procrastination and other forms of akrasia. I believe I will be more capable of making better plans, and acting on them well. I will also be more in touch with my emotions and intuitions, and be able to trust them more, as I will have more alignment among different components of my mind.
Another benefit is meeting the many other people at CFAR who have similar mindsets. Here in Columbus, we have a flourishing rationality community, but it’s still relatively small. Getting to know 70ish people, attendees and staff/volunteers, passionate about rationality was a blast. It was especially great to see people who were involved in creating new rationality strategies, something that I am engaged in myself in addition to popularizing rationality—it’s really heartening to envision how the rationality movement is growing.
These benefits should resonate strongly with those who are aspiring rationalists, but they are really important for EA participants as well. I think one of the best things that EA movement members can do is studying rationality, and it’s something we promote to the EA movement as part of InIn’s work. What we offer is articles and videos, but coming to a CFAR workshop is a much more intense and cohesive way of getting these benefits. Imagine all the good you can do for the world if you are better at planning, organizing, and enacting EA-related tasks. Rationality is what has helped me and other InIn participants make the major impact that we have been able to make, and there are a number of EA movement members who have rationality training and who reported similar benefits. Remember, as an EA participant, you can likely get a scholarship with a partial or full coverage of the regular $3900 price of the workshop, as I did myself when attending it, and you are highly likely to be able to save more lives as a result of attending the workshop over time, even if you have to pay some costs upfront.