Rational Politics Project

byGleb_T2y8th Jan 201713 comments


Brief Summary: There have been a number of concerns expressed in the EA Forum following the recent election about the role of EA in politics, such as about fundamental research on politics and policy as an EA issue, as well as specific concerns about Trump's election, especially in terms of Trump as a Global Catastrophic Risk (though see this rebuttal). Recently, a number of EAs have joined with a number of people from outside the movement to form the Rational Politics (RAP) project, an explicitly non-partisan effort to gather thoughtful citizens of all political stripes devoted to spreading rational thinking and wise decision-making in the political arena, We see the lack of these practices as one of the worst problems for our global society in terms of how important, neglected, and tractable it is. To address this fundamental issue, we aim to use best practices in communicating and marketing to convey to the citizenry the vital role of evaluating reality accurately using research-based methods to help people make wise political decisions to improve our society.


Note that while this project is motivated by EA concerns for doing the most good to improve the world in a cost-effective way, it is NOT explicitly an EA project. We see significant dangers in tainting the EA movement in potentially politically biased activism. It so happens right now that conservatives are using lies and deceptions more than liberals. There is certainly no inherent reason why this needs to be so, but it is the current political reality. We thus anticipate that RAP will draw some heat from conservatives, and do not want to risk any backlash on the EA movement as a whole. Likewise, note that the organization that is mobilizing this project, Intentional Insights, has drawn some criticism in the EA movement and has publicly distanced itself from the EA movement, while still continuing to operate informed by EA concerns. For anyone interested in the project, a summary follows. I welcome anyone interested to get involved as individuals, remembering that this is not explicitly an EA project.



Brief Description


Why Is the Lack of Rational Thinking and Wise Decision-Making one of the Worst Problems?


  • Important:

    • Success in the political arena, as in any other area of life, depends on one’s ability to evaluate reality accurately and make wise decisions. This ability is called rationality in psychology and behavioral economics - the integration of reason with intuitions and feelings to make wise decisions. For politics, this means ensuring that one is politically engaged in a way that will improve our society as a whole.

    • 2016 has been a testament to the current inability of many citizens to assess reality correctly. Instead of combining reason with intuition, many people rely excessively on their gut reactions to determine the truth. They get information that they feel good about because it matches their current beliefs, regardless of whether it is true. Such information often comes from the quickly-growing number of fake news sources. These citizens then rationalize their conclusions when faced with contrary evidence, regardless of objective reality. This over-reliance on feelings, instead of combining the heart with the head, results in thinking errors, which lead to bad political decisions that harm our society. In addition, people often fail to consider the effect of their individual political decisions on others. As a result, it is increasingly easy for charismatic political figures to sway the masses away from an accurate understanding of what would best serve our society’s interests, and instead toward the interests of these politicians.

    • This separation between objective reality and the political decisions of the electorate is devastating for democracy in the US and around the world, as it relies on the citizenry’s ability to make political decisions for the greatest good. This principle has now been undercut at the root: too many citizens have been manipulated into believing lies. This results in extremely harmful political outcomes, in terms of the health of the political system itself, the kind of leaders we elect, and the kind of policies we pursue.

    • Without intervention, these outcomes will most likely grow worse over time, as future politicians learn from the results of the 2016 election season and double down on this strategy of lies and manipulation. This is a classic example of a tragedy of the commons, where a commonly-shared resource is destroyed by individuals acting in their own self-interest and against the collective interest. In this case, the commonly-shared resource is trust in our political system and a basic expectation of truth-telling, together with a strong expectation that politicians will back away from lies when called out. We have seen this resource gobbled up in the 2016 election season by the Trump campaign. This invaluable, though intangible, resource is being further eaten up by the post-election lack of truth-telling. Unless we act forcefully now, we are very probably bound for a downward spiral, where the winners of political elections will be the most capable liars. This will, in turn, lead to the end of our democratic system as we know it. The RAP project was created to prevent this future from becoming a reality.


  • Neglected:

    • Despite the likelihood of this bleak future, the need to accurately assess reality is mostly treated with indifference by current players in the political arena - even those who we might expect to be motivated to do so, such as liberals. After all, conservatives have relied much more (1, 2, 3) on lies during this election to mislead the public intentionally, although liberals used some misleading tactics as well, especially in intra-party struggles. Partly due to their success in appealing to voters with these deceitful tactics, conservatives won the election. Yet surprisingly, liberals have generally overlooked the opportunity to make these lies a major aspect of their post-election evaluation. Although in recent years liberals have come to be associated with science and reason, there is nothing inherent in either conservative or liberal perspectives to make one side favor lies more than the other. Still, given the major role that deceit played in the 2016 election, with many, though far from all, of those voting for Donald Trump having been misled, we would think that the Democrats should pay more attention to these lies.

    • Unfortunately, the Democratic evaluation of their loss in this election fails to address in any significant way this issue of campaigning through deception. Moreover, their plans for their future campaigning includes adopting Trump’s own messaging and populist style! By doing so, they are being short-sighted and failing to orient themselves toward the long-term needs of America and its political system. Likewise, Republicans are making short-term gains at the expense of the long-term future - both in terms of the country and their party.

    • Like clean air and water, truth is a public common good: pollution of the truth will devastate all of us in a tragedy of the commons. Yet very few are individually motivated to clean it up. Fortunately, some rare and wise people have the foresight to realize that protecting it is in the end a nonpartisan issue which benefits virtually all citizens in the long run.


  • Tractable:

    • Fortunately, once educated about this reality in an effective and emotionally engaging manner, many can recognize that wise decision-making by the citizenry is beneficial to all but a few interest groups devoted to deceiving the public. This common recognition makes the problem of failing to evaluate reality accurately much more amenable to solution than partisan issues that only affect one side of the political spectrum.

    • While some may dismiss the possibility of the electorate becoming more rational in its political decision-making, the idea that citizens are inherently irrational is a myth. Research shows that people can train themselves to be more rational - more accurately evaluating reality and, thus, making wise decisions. However, this can only happen if people are motivated to put the time and effort into doing so. It is much easier to get people to agree that truth in politics is important than to get people to act in accordance with their stated agreement to this principle when doing so takes the cognitive effort of adopting new habits. These include systematically fact-checking political information, welcoming learning new information that goes against their current perspective and updating their beliefs, and many others.

    • Here, we can learn from the successes of the another social movement tackling a major tragedy of the commons - environmental degradation through human action. The environmental movement started with an initially-small group of motivated and informed activists pursuing education and later advocacy. As a result of their efforts, growing numbers of regular citizens increasingly changed their habits through recycling and composting, and pushed politicians to pass pro-environmental legislation such as pollution regulation. We as activists for rationality in politics similarly need to undertake educational and advocacy efforts to motivate regular citizens and politicians alike to address the pollution of truth in the political arena.

    • The only way this can happen is through a concerted effort by dedicated activists to plan out and implement a course of action that will raise awareness of and deal with this problem. RAP unites that small group of advocates who want to change the world by bringing rational thinking and wise decision-making to politics. In similarity to the environmental movement, we envision that after we initially raise awareness of this tragedy of the commons, more and more people will internalize the need for the protection of truth in the political system. However, we anticipate that we will not face nearly such strong headwinds from financially-motivated interest groups who oppose the environmental movement, which makes it much easier to build momentum behind rationality in politics.


A full description is available in this document. You can contact me at gleb [at] intentionalinsights [dot] org if you are interested in getting involved.