Thoughts on CFAR

In spite of my criticisms of the LessWrong subculture, I’ve been contemplating going to a CFAR workshop for awhile now. I thought I’d type up my reasons for doing this. First, for people who don’t know what CFAR does, this is from the CFAR website:

The Center for Applied Rationality is a nonprofit founded to give people more understanding and control of their own decisions and behavior. The techniques we teach are inspired by models of reasoning from probability and decision theory, combined with cognitive science research on how human brains actually work and how we can train ourselves to improve. We at CFAR turn those mathematical and empirical insights into everyday skills (like those described in our rationality checklist) — how to make accurate predictions, how to avoid self-deception, and how to get your motivation where your arithmetic says it should be.

CFAR workshops cost close to $4,000 for a weekend. IIRC some Bay Area tech companies have sent employees to these workshops; Facebook is listed on CFAR’s website among their “past” clients which I think means they’ve paid for employees to go to CFAR workshops, but don’t quote me on that.

It’s worth reflecting on how doing something like this could make sense, if you’re a highly paid professional with money to spare. Or a corporation that already invests a lot in its employees, as many Bay Area tech companies do. At that level, it only requires a small percentage increase in a person’s effectiveness to justify the expense. (Though the threshold is higher if you can write the expense off on your taxes. As Brian Tomasik put it, “Because of income tax, a penny saved is more than a penny earned, unless you can fully deduct the earned pennies.”)

Okay, but do CFAR’s workshops actually do any good? A couple months back, I had a Skype conversation of approximately one hour with Anna Salamon that mostly centered on that topic. Here’s what I remember of the conversation, with the caveat that it was a couple months ago, so apologies in advance to Anna for any errors.

Disclaimers about memory out of the way, on our Skype call, Anna shared one technique with me that CFAR teaches and which comes straight out of the scientific literature: implementation intentions, which you can find a lot of relevant information about here. CFAR calls them “trigger action plans,” which I agree is a much better name. I’ve found them useful for getting back into the habit of doing push ups, by resolving that if I remember I haven’t done push-ups yet today (or I can’t remember if I have or not), I’ll do them.

But Anna was also up-front about the fact that a lot of the material taught in CFAR workshops, while inspired by scientific research, hasn’t been scientifically tested directly. So it’s hard to tell if most of that material does what it’s supposed to do. CFAR has done experiments with trying different things with different groups of attendees, but my impression is they don’t have strong evidence regarding overall benefits. Lots of attendees report large benefits, but could they be imagining it?

After all, people are likely biased towards believing something they spent so much time and money on was beneficial, rather than admit a mistake.When I raised this worry in our conversation, one thing Anna said was that a lot of the attendees who reported large benefits were, like me, initially skeptical. But presumably, they weren’t as skeptical as they could have been. The most skeptical people are unlikely to have gone at all.

Okay, so that’s a major worry. But consider another partly skeptical, but partly positive, hypothesis about CFAR workshops. Maybe the general space of “weekend workshops on decision making / productivity / life hacking” turns out to be like diets and psychotherapy, in that nothing works much better than anything else, but any remotely sane plan will produce some results.

Maybe in the case of CFAR and similar workshops, the key ingredient is spending a weekend getting psyched about better habits and decision making. If it’s expensive, then all the better (at least up to a point), because you’ll be motivated to work harder at whatever you hoped to do through the workshop, so as to not feel like you wasted your money.

This hypothesis may sound cynical, but it implies that doing some kind of workshop like one of CFAR’s might be a good idea. As psychiatrist Scott Alexander once said at the end of a somewhat skeptical post on psychotherapy, “Do not stop going to psychotherapy after reading this post! All psychotherapies, including placebo psychotherapies, are much better than nothing at all.”

On the other hand, if this hypothesis is right, the benefits of CFAR may not have anything to do with their “do things inspired by probability and decision theory and cognitive science” approach. You might be able to get similar results from a workshop with similar goals but a very different approach, and perhaps a lower price tag to boot.

One other factor, though, in deciding whether or not to attend a CFAR workshop, is that since moving to the Bay Area I’ve met lots of cool people who turned out to be CFAR alumni, and they’ve told me the CFAR alumni network has been very valuable to them. So maybe one reason to attend a CFAR workshop is for the networking benefits.

Obviously, though, actually going to a workshop hasn’t be necessary for meeting the cool CFAR alumni I’ve met so far. Also, I don’t know if the CFAR alumni I’ve met are representative, or if there’s a significant risk that future CFAR workshop attendees will not, on average, be as cool as past CFAR workshop attendees.

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