An EA at a CFAR Rationality Workshop: Thoughts and Review

by Gleb_T6th Jun 201610 comments

14

Center for Applied Rationality
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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



Introduction

 

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.


Experience

 

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.


Benefits

 

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.

 

Hope these thoughts prove helpful to you all, and please contact me at gleb@intentionalinsights.org if you want to chat with me about my experience.

9 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:43 PM
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Being part of these projects run by different organizations, like EA Global or a CFAR workshop, often face queries about their value. I think it's obvious attending these events are valuable in an absolute sense. If something like a CFAR workshop is free, anyone should go, because they won't be doing anything better with their weekend. However, most reviews of CFAR workshops don't address the question I most hear from members of our community: what is the relative value of a CFAR workshop to what else I would do with the money? CFAR workshops have been $3900 per participant for the last several years, and this seems to be a solid price not set to drop in the near future.

$3900 is a lot of money. Thinking in terms of 'dead children currency', and according to Givewell's estimates, $3900 saves the live of a child, i.e., generates ~39 QALYs. Would the value I personally get out of a CFAR workshop be worth more to me than a life saved, never mind how the person whose life I've saved feels about it? Can I really justify that cost? Of course, this question-begging gives rise to a naive evaluation of a CFAR workshop.

The case CFAR staff or alumni themselves will make is that a member of this community can benefit by not only gaining better skills which will save time and make them more productive, but gain greater insight which may allow them to make better choices, upon which much value hinges, or even get more in touch with what they really value, in a way that might change their cause selection. If someone was able to think more clearly through their priorities, and realized future generations, or non-human animals, do or don't matter as much as they previously did, that itself is a learning experience definitely worth thousands of dollars.

Of course, this is something that might happen at a CFAR workshop, but there isn't evidence that this is what someone can realistically expect out of attending a workshop. I don't know how much university courses cost in the United States, but in Canada where I'm from, $3900 USD pays for almost a year worth of university. If I was an undergraduate, I can think of some classes I could take, like in moral philosophy, and microeconomics, and computer science. These are just a handful of courses which will give a student the pieces to understand the rationale behind effective altruism, and equip them with valuable foundational skills they can use to help others. Now, there are some courses which I don't think will be instrumentally valuable in saving lives. I don't begrudge anyone for taking an intro pottery class at university, but unless they become a world-class potter who can sell their wares for thousands apiece after one class, I don't think it will contribute to saving more lives relative to something else.

So, CFAR workshops could definitely be worth more to an effective altruist than even a year of university classes. However, is a one-weekend workshop worth more than a year of the most important classes one takes in a degree? I don't think so. Each of us here is, in theory, interested in getting the most out of the money we spend, not merely any positive experience. Whether we're exclusively interested in increasing our personal effectiveness for altruistic or self-centered goals, I think there are projects or learning experiences with a price tag of $3900 worth more than a CFAR workshop. Of course, I've only used one example: a year of university courses. I think a college freshman will get more value out of their first year of study than a CFAR workshop. During the last year of their degree, when a student may be taking only electives which don't directly contribute to their skills or personal capital, a CFAR workshop could easily be worth more.

Ultimately, people who attend CFAR workshops fall into some common categories, like graduate researchers, entrepreneurs, of software engineers. I'd like to see more evaluations of CFAR which attempt to quantify the value of their workshop relative to the value of an experience of equivalent price a would-be attendee might spend $3900 on instead, like a professional development course, or a portion of a post-graduate certificate.

However, I think what is often understated about CFAR workshops, and which Gleb points out in his review above, is the most value might be the little skills, new habits of thought, which automate moments of indecision or hesitation we face everyday. I think many CFAR alumni would agree if they applied them, they could use each of the 5-second skills multiple times a day. This could compound to save multiple hours of wasted time per week, and may help us with important decisions we don't see coming, in ways we don't easily anticipate. I think these are the skills CFAR offers which should undergo quantification in an evaluation of their workshop. Whether it's anecdotes or real studies, there is much more evidence that this is the real value of a CFAR workshop, rather than some big and magical epiphany some might hope for. That's what I was hoping for when I went, but I didn't get it.

As a CFAR alumnus, I'd like to see any attempt at more rigorous evaluations of CFAR workshops, ideally from someone who attended the workshop in the last year. However, I've been a bit uncharitable to CFAR here. For those would-be attendees who face the steepest opportunity costs, CFAR often and graciously offers scholarships. It is true that members of the effective altruism community, who also often work at non-profits or are students, are much likelier to get a partial or full scholarship. Assuming other costs (e.g., travel costs) are negligible or taken care of, I'd recommend anyone who receives a full scholarship to go. It may or may not be worth it if one only receives a partial scholarship, but that will really vary from person to person. If this is the case, I encourage anyone to reach out to me so I or another alumnus/alumna in a similar position to you can help work out whether it's worth going to a CFAR workshop at the price offered to you.

A lot of the examples you cite as potentially superior alternatives for spending $3,900 have a lot of opportunity cost because they take much more time than a weekend at CFAR. Once that's accounted for, a lot of them are much more costly than CFAR for a lot of people.

That may be true of lots of the sort of alternatives I suggested, perhaps most of them, but I wouldn't recommend effective altruists pursue most of the alternatives anyway. If I suggested a post-graduate certification or PD course to an effective altruist, I'd recommend a course than is better than other courses they'd choose from as well, in addition to being better than CFAR. Also, the costs for them may be greater than CFAR, but so would the benefits. To claim otherwise I think would be to overrate the value of a CFAR workshop. Note in this sort of evaluation I think the time and money of a random effective altruist is worth more than the time and money of a random person outside of EA, because what an effective altruist does with their time and money, or how they invest it, is expected to lead to much better results.

Hi Evan!

You bring up some good points about quantifying CFAR's relative impact, which I would like to see them address in the near-future, especially given their connection to EA.

It sounds like your own CFAR experience wasn't exactly helpful in the way you expected it to be. Could you talk a little more about that? I'd be interested in hearing how your actual results stacked up with your expectations.

Lastly, as just a little note, university here in the US is more expensive than Canada, in case you were wondering.

A year at a public university for an in-state student is about $9,000, while a year at a private institution averages about $32,000.

(It is around $3,000 for 1 year at a 2-year college, but I'm not sure that's what you had in mind when you talked about universities. The courses offered at the 2-year college tend to have less of the high-level courses in the fields you mentioned above, like CS, econ, and moral philosophy)

Link here (http://www.topuniversities.com/student-info/student-finance/how-much-does-it-cost-study-us)

Yeah, I went to CFAR for unconventional reasons and with unconventional expectations. E.g., I went for personal reasons without an expectation it would make my altruism itself more effective. I think CFAR is worth it for a lot of people, and I respect people's preferences enough that if:

  • they're not into EA
  • they wouldn't have donated the money anyway
  • they're a working college graduate

A CFAR workshop is probably worth it and more valuable than the next closest thing, like a professional development workshop or something. I mean, nobody is saying people should spend $4k on a CFAR workshop instead of rent, food, and bills, but if they're in the position where their savings and lifestyle needs are covered, and they're shopping around to spend on, a CFAR workshop is a decent bet. However, I think EAs in particular demand a higher bar to make the case for CFAR workshops, and why EAs in particular should go, and I think we as CFAR alumni should rise to that challenge. I'm part of both the CFAR alumni community and EA, and the overlap between the two isn't 100%, so I respect the boundaries and norms of both, and switch which hat I'm wearing depending on the context.

I think the CFAR staff themselves have done a better job of making the case to attend their workshop than any written review by a CFAR workshop alumnus/alumna. However, a more rigorous review from someone not working for them is what the more skeptical/risk-averse aspects of the EA community demands before more of them attend CFAR workshops themselves. The above comment was a note to myself as much as it was to anyone else, in that I might very well be the person best suited to writing that review, if nobody else does it. There are actual several members of the EA community I think would benefit from a CFAR workshop, and would find what they learn and the skills they gain worth the expense, but I don't think as many will go until their is a more rigorous evaluation.

Also, I'm aware university is more expensive in the US, and varies wildly. I was generalizing from my own experience as a Canadian because that's what I know, and because it seems just as valid to use a non-US example as a US example, because there are roughly as many EAs outside of the US as there are in the US, and because the university systems of countries like Australia, Germany, Switzerland, and Britain are likely more like that in Canada than that of the U.S. This is relevant as CFAR has held workshops in Europe and Australia in the past, and I anticipate they'd do so again if they knew there was sufficient demand for it.

Awesome, thanks for taking the time to give more background on your thinking process!

It was helpful to see your overall thoughts on ways CFAR can make a case for EA's to attend, given their understanding of measuring impact.

I would agree with Evan that I would love to see more rigorous evaluations of CFAR workshops. I also agree that the key benefit is the little skills and the new habits of thought. My probabilistic estimate is that such benefits, compounded over the course of one's life, add up to much more than $3900 saved, and thus potentially open to being given as a benefit to charity.

Another thing to note is that if you think you did not get the benefits you hoped for, from their workshop page:

"And if you conclude the benefits to your happiness and effectiveness don’t recoup the investment, we’ll refund your money up to a year after you attend the workshop."

How do you think donating to CFAR compares in terms of effectiveness with donating to organizations explicitly spreading EA? It seems like the benefits of making non-EA people more rational are relatively small if they never become EAs. Assuming that few of the non-EAs attending CFAR workshops become EAs, it would seem that donations to CFAR do less good than donations to organizations explicitly spreading EA. Perhaps it would be a better idea to donate to a scholarship fund that helps verified EAs pay for CFAR workshops.

Note: I understand that the question of whether it is a good idea to attend a CFAR workshop is different than the question of whether it is a good idea to donate additional money to CFAR.

I generally perceive spreading rationality as an excellent way to reduce medium-term existential risk, so I support CFAR's work for that reason. This is also why my organization, Intentional Insights, also orients to spreading rationality broadly, as well as spreading effective altruist ideas.