Center for Applied Rationality

The Center for Applied Rationality is a new nonprofit seeking to invent new ways to teach science-based rationality skills, for overcoming cognitive biases and thinking sanely using a human brain.

About Applied Rationality

Have you ever heard of the sunk cost fallacy?  The sunk cost fallacy is when you make decisions on the basis of honoring previously expected costs, rather than from looking forward to future consequences.  If you say, “I’ve got to finish my PhD – I already put three years into it, so if I quit now, those three years will have been wasted!” that’s sunk-cost reasoning; the three years are already spent and won’t be gotten back either way.  Conversely, if you say, “I think it’s worth one more year to finish my PhD program – I looked up salaries and people in my profession with PhDs get substantially higher salaries on average” – leaving aside that this is somewhat improbable in many fields – then you’re reasoning as a proper consequentialist, attending to future consequences and the future costs required to obtain future benefits.

The sunk cost fallacy is one among many, many known cognitive biases, and one that happens to have received a lot of press.  But we (the people trying to start CMR) have encountered several friends with this exact problem (whether to finish a PhD) who seemed highly attached to the costs they’d previously sunk, and had to be argued out of this sort of reasoning at some length.  These are people who, like us, have a strong interest in cognitive biases, decision theory, and correct reasoning – but although they knew about the sunk cost fallacy, they’d never practiced overcoming it or trained themselves to overcome it, and so when they ran into the real-life situation, they fell prey to the usual mistake.

We think it’s possible to teach modern rationality (i.e., modern-cognitive-science-based principles for saner thinking) to a much higher standard than is attempted by present-day “critical thinking” programs at colleges, corporate seminars on productivity… or even the lectures and knowledge embedded in modern cognitive science books, which might tell you what’s wrong, but rarely give you training techniques and exercises you can use to fix yourself.

We’ve accumulated large quantities of admittedly anecdotal evidence that people who learn about many cognitive biases and train themselves to overcome them, become substantially smarter in their everyday lives – among the cases we know, they’ve negotiated higher salaries, changed fields, gotten out of bad relationships and into good ones, lost weight, and learned to stop doing things that make themselves miserable.  In some cases, they’ve abandoned long-held superstitions with much less fuss and mess than it usually seems to take.

(Randomized tests of this sort of intervention are currently underway, but the life-outcome measurements aren’t in yet.)

We want to systematize the practice of applied rationality, and reliably produce people who can reliably execute the skills of evidence-based sanity – what we’ve seen so far, we believe, is just the tip of the iceberg of what can be accomplished.  It’s worth noting that the whole “Enlightenment” business of the last several centuries began from greater use of the empirical method, arithmetic-based engineering, and similar cognitive improvements.  But that journey is far from over – humanity now has the next collection of recently discovered errors, so now it’s time to fix those too, and keep the project going.

Wanted:  Test subjects, workshop attendees, exercise teachers/developers, and funding.

We are looking for test subjects on which to try out new exercises as we imagine them.  People who live in the Bay Area are especially desired for in-person tests.  We definitely want as many of you as possible, especially if you’ve had little previous exposure to the science of cognitive biases.  We will never have too many test subjects.  If you live near enough Berkeley to get there by BART on a Saturday or two, or if you’re interested in Internet-based testing, please sign up.

The Center for Applied Rationality runs occasional workshops where people get a coherent package of skills presented in an organized way, with lots of practice and followup afterwards.  Many attendees report this as a peak experience and say that it helped their lives a lot.  The current workshops are aimed at people who can get a lot of value out of them (especially entrepreneurs, hackers, and other ambitious+analytic folk) and priced accordingly, but scholarships are occcasionally available.  Apply here.

CFAR is advertising open positions for curriculum teachers/developersexecutive assistants, a programmer, and some amount of consulting work from people with experience on similar projects (like someone who’s helped design exercises for corporate seminars, or a teacher who cares about students and has been experimenting with alternative teaching methods for the last 7 years).  If you’re not sure whether to apply, please err on the side of applying.  We’ve gotten some really awesome people who say that they almost talked themselves out of it.

And finally, the Center for Applied Rationality needs funding to keep doing all that amazing stuff.  I (Eliezer Yudkowsky aka Less Wrong) am not employed by the Center for Applied Rationality, and I don’t currently receive (or need) any funding from CFAR.  But I consider it absolutely vital and a top priority for the human species that this project of turning cognitive science into practical sane behavior, continue forward at the fastest possible rate with the best possible people.  It could help determine how sane of a planet we live on, in a few years, in a couple of decades.  CFAR is currently in a critical startup phase.  Please help CFAR out.