A friend recently asked what the difference is between applied rationality and just plain good habits. What differentiates some of the items on our Rationality Checklist from other helpful routines like brushing your teeth regularly and getting enough sleep. After all, both of those habits tend to be worth the effort to install, and can pay big dividends in health, savings, and cognitive power.
At CFAR, we tend to think of rationality as having to do with domain-general habits, with a special emphasis on forming accurate beliefs. It’s one thing to have the habit of tooth brushing. It’s another to have good epistemic habits for sorting out the different health advice you have on all sides, and still another to have a pretty reliable way of gaining the habit of your choice once you’ve sorted through the data and made up your mind (as we teach in our Installing Habits class).
People tend to underweight the habits that help us prune and audit our beliefs. Epistemic good practices don’t produce results and tangible and immediate as, say, doing an increasing number of push-ups daily. So, as hyperbolic discounters, we can neglect the skills that help us figure out what’s true, not just how to act effectively based on what we currently believe.
But that last is always necessary; we want true beliefs not just so we can observe and cherish them like pinned butterflies. We want to be able to act in the world as it is, understanding the probable consequences of our actions. So some of the domain-general skills we think fall under the umbrella of rationality include time management, paying attention to your emotions as data, being alert to opportunities for cheap tests of your hypotheses, etc.
Here’s how Yan Zhang, one of our guest instructors, and a visiting professor at Berkeley puts it:
Suppose you got people who are really good at business to brainstorm the top 20 skills/habits someone good at business has, and you got people who are really good chess players to brainstorm the top 20 skills/habits someone good at chess has, and people who are really good carpenters to brainstorm the top 20 skills/habits someone good at carpentry has.
Some skills will be domain specific (an exhaustive memory of chess tropes, sensitivity to the movement of a saw) but some tools may turn up on all three lists (maybe being good at identifying steps toward a goal, time management, confidence and flexibility if things start to go wrong, etc).
When we work on applied rationality, we’re trying to identify and teach these skills, which seem to be important no matter what you’re working on. So we teach classes on better reactions than Fight/Flight/Freeze (Againstness) and looking for the next step in your plan, and making sure your pacing is sustainable (Delegating to Yourself) and getting the most out of new information (Building Bayesian Habits).
We’re still learning and expanding our curriculum as we find more counters to cognitive biases, or productive-seeming habits, or patterns behind thinking clearly and cogently. We think we’ve found some of the domain general habits that would turn up on Yan’s list, but we’re sure there’s more to improve, and we look forward to discovering what other rationality habits are out there.