CFAR President Julia Galef was interviewed by the Humanists of Minnesota and talked about CFAR's ongoing randomized controlled trial, whether there's a tension between rationality and imagination, and how she'd alter K-12 education, if she were in charge.
CFAR conducts workshops to improve thinking and decision-making. What are the most important lessons you've learned from these workshops? Acknowledging the fact that CFAR is a relatively new organization, do you have any preliminary research yet on how effective the workshops are at inducing long-term changes in individuals?
We ran a randomized controlled trial this past year on one of our workshops – we interviewed a group of 50 people and had all of them fill out a survey about their current life situation (as well as send the survey to two friends or family members to fill out about them). Then we randomly admitted 25 of the 50 to our workshop, and sent the others off with a “Sorry, welcome to our control group!”
We’re following up with both groups this summer to see if there are any significant differences. But I should note that the purpose of this study was really just to suggest promising hypotheses about the effects of rationality, rather than to prove anything definitively. A sample of 25 is small enough that any effects would have to be huge in order to be very statistically significant at this scale. We’ll be running more studies as we go.
So far, the cognitive science literature has mainly concentrated on demonstrating the existence of biases, rather than testing debiasing techniques. So the pre-existing evidence is sparse. But a few techniques that have repeatedly proven to work include calibration training, which is where you learn to adjust your confidence in your beliefs, so that when you feel 90% confident about something, you’re actually 90% likely to be right – rather than the default most of us start at, in which our feeling of 90% confidence usually only corresponds to 50-60% accuracy. The set of proven-to-work techinques also includes the practice of prompting yourself to consider at least one alternate hypothesis. Sounds simple and obvious, and it is, but we don’t do it enough – and it’s low-hanging fruit.
How would you respond to the following hypothetical criticism? "Irrationality is a big problem, but humans are many-sided, and much of who we are is underdeveloped. We could all improve our creativity, our compassion, our ability to hold attention in the present moment, and to listen. The cultivation of imagination is utterly ignored in most educational settings. Howard Gardner has spoken about how we don't address the 'synthesizing mind' in education. Levels of psychological health can always be improved. And so forth. Do you see any tension between CFAR's focus on rationality the need to address the fullness of our humanity?"
No, honestly, all of those things sound good too! But of course they're not mutually exclusive, with each other and certainly not with rationality improvement either. I think they're synergistic. For example, improving your ability to feel compassion makes it much easier to consider an issue from someone else's point of view, an important piece of rationality. Increasing your capacity for attention makes it easier to notice when you're committing the confirmation bias. And learning about rationalization makes you able to notice, for example, "Hey, I'm telling myself that these people don't deserve any help, but it feels like I'm rationalizing my desire to ignore them" - which makes you able to feel compassion.