Ben Kuhn, an undergraduate at Harvard and one of the leaders of the High Impact Philanthropy group there, recently wrote up a review of his experience at our May workshop. He walked in already knowing some of the skills and practices we teach, because when he saw the positive testimonials on our website, he paused to think about several possible explanations for the evidence he observed and to check his priors:

I entertained four different hypotheses about the testimonials:

  1. The workshop is a standard derpy self-improvement technique: really good at making people feel like they’re getting better at things, but has no actual effect.
  2. CFAR advertises mainly on Less Wrong and by word of mouth, and the people most likely to bite on the ads are those most tied to the Less Wrong community. Therefore they’re predisposed to like the retreat.
  3. The retreat functions as a costly self-signalling gadget that shows you care about self-improvement. Once you spend all that money, cognitive dissonance forces you to actually put effort into things instead of being lazy.
  4. The testimonials are actually fair assessments and the workshops actually teach things that are effective.

I put a prior probability of about 50/20/10/20 for these. But on a lark I followed their advice and didn’t not-apply. I was fortunate enough to get significant financial aid, enough that I decided the expected value worked out in favor of me going. So I went.

I won't spoil the conclusion of the post (where he gives his posterior distribution for these four hypotheses), but let me show you an excerpt of his evaluation, and you can try to predict them yourself, before you click through. After the workshop was over, Ben wrote:

The material was almost completely new to me—speaking of college classes, volume-wise this was definitely at least a semester’s worth of material. I’ve been applying it gradually so as not to fall over myself and failing at everything, but so far all the stuff I’ve tried out has stuck. Subjectively, I’m much better at planning and staying on top of things, much better at introspection (especially noticing unconscious/emotional effects), and somewhat better at actually doing things that I want to do. Just from the better plans I’ve already made for the semester, I anticipate the workshop approximately doubling the effectiveness of Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy’s fall operations, which probably makes it worth it already.

It’s pretty clear that the CFAR staff have been applying what they teach to themselves with great effect. Throughout the weekend I kept having slow-burning realizations that the instructors were doing things in class that they were teaching us to do. For instance, a class on how to quickly train new skills was taught using exactly the techniques it described. Similarly, I realized during a class on self-reinforcement that the reason our instructor bounced around excitedly was that she was using excited body motions as a method of self-reinforcement.