Inside The Rationality Movement That Has Silicon Valley Buzzing With Positive Thinking

The Center For Applied Rationality uses science-based techniques that are giving the self-help industry a run for its money. See them here.

Inside The Rationality Movement That Has Silicon Valley Buzzing With Positive Thinking
[Photo: Flickr user DeusXFlorida]

“At my organization, all of us have an aversion to the self-help section of the bookstore,” says Julia Galef, president of the Berkeley-based nonprofit, Center for Applied Rationality.

Julia Galef

Galef’s group is far from alone. Every year, around $10 billion in self-help products flood the market, promising tips, tricks, and hacks that will improve your marriage, help you lose weight, and allow you to quickly ascend the ranks at your job. You know, win friends and influence people. But those sales have been steadily declining over the last five years, in part because Galef and other scientifically minded people–Silicon Valley techies, your doctor, or the average economics graduate student–believe that the mainstream self-help industry traffics in empty promises. Without randomized controlled trials and rigorous testing, self-help might as well be black magic to them.

“Self-help is often not based on research, but on generalizations from something that worked for the author or for a smattering of people,” Galef says. “The author might just remember and write about the time when the technique seems to have worked and ignore the times when it didn’t. Books are riddled with confirmation bias and selection bias.”

Yet, after years of promoting critical thinking and rationality as a blogger, podcaster, and public speaker in the scientific community known as the Skeptic Movement, Galef noted that those in this circle were just as keen on self-improvement as everyone else: they too wanted to make smarter career moves and communicate better with their spouses. “The Skeptic Movement tended to focus on a narrow domain of topics, namely, debunking paranormal claims and showing people how wrong their unscientific beliefs were,” Galef tells me. “That didn’t seem to be the highest impact thing we should be using rationality for. The problems that seem really interesting and important to me were: How do we figure out how to be happy? How do we pass policies that are actually going to improve people’s lives? These are much harder problems than showing that astrology isn’t real.”

It occurred to Galef that other people were also looking for empirically tested approaches to making better decisions, and thus was born the idea of CFAR, a center where self-improvement techniques would be studied and applied to everyday life. As she articulated her vision, she discovered kindred spirits. At a conference, Galef ran into Anna Salamon, a mathematician who was, at the time, working on machine learning at NASA but had been dreaming of starting a similar organization. The pair put out an advertisement for a third co-founder and this led them to Michael Smith, a teacher with a Ph.D. in math and science education, who was keen to develop a curriculum for what would, in mid-2012, become CFAR.

The cofounders define rationality in very specific cognitive science terms as the act of making decisions consistent with your goals. This definition is important because when I first heard about a center devoted to rationality, I immediately imagined a place where people were trained to become emotionless but highly productive automatons. But Galef sets me straight. “There’s this common misperception that rationality is about ignoring or suppressing emotion,” she says. “I blame this on the Hollywood portrayal of rationality in archetypal characters like Spock in Star Trek or Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. But the truth is there would be no point to rational decision-making if we did not have emotions; the whole point of rationality is to more effectively pursue the things that we deeply care about whether that is happiness or love or helping the world.”


Today, CFAR holds workshops around the country. For $4,000, you can sign up to spend three days learning about how your brain works and how you can train yourself to better achieve your goals, such as, for instance, managing your motivation or avoiding self-deception. “When we make decisions that we regret, there is often a certain lawlikeness to what we did,” Salamon tells me. “There’s a pattern to what we do, even if it is not desirable and our goal is to develop and teach tools that help correct those patterns.” The workshop is followed by six weeks of one-on-one follow up consultations with CFAR teachers to make sure you’re staying on track.

CFAR has just started conducting corporate workshops, as well, for Facebook, the Thiel Fellowship, and the University of California, Berkeley, among other organizations. It also give a significant minority of workshop attendees scholarships. They recently funded a police chief who was interested in strategies to improve relationships between his department and the community, a goal that has increased in importance since the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, And they’ve funded research scientists trying to save the world and brilliant students who are unsure about what to do with their lives.

“On one level it’s pretty conventional,” says Greg Dingle, a Facebook employee and CFAR alum. “It’s a retreat for professionals to develop the skills we all want: how to lose weight or have a more active social life–the subject of a million self-help books out there. But on another level, it’s also very subversive in its approach. The founders are hard-core materialists who want strong empirical evidence for every technique.”

Many participants are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and executives. Nancy Hua, for instance, attended a CFAR workshop because she was facing a difficult choice about whether to leave her career in algorithmic trading to start her own company. She was searching for a more systematic approach to making that decision and using CFAR techniques, she eventually took the leap and is now the CEO of the Palo Alto startup Apptimize.

Galef clarifies that rationality need not come with ideological baggage. For instance, CFAR has been home to both atheists and Catholics, political conservatives and liberals. The organization is not interested in engaging in discussions about the truth but instead, by using scientific testing, it is more interested in identifying what strategies work. On a daily basis, CFAR staff goes through reams of cognitive science research to learn about the latest trends in the field. They also take existing techniques, drawing from sources as diverse as religious traditions and modern day self-help gurus, then subject these methods to rigorous testing. Here is a sampling of techniques that they have found to be effective:


Technique One: The Trigger Action Plan

Many people come to the workshops saying they have trouble following through on their plans. For instance, they may have tried and failed to go to the gym three times a week or learn Chinese in their spare time or stop fighting with their partner. In their study of cognitive science literature, the CFAR staff discovered that it is possible to dramatically increase your chance of achieving your goals by developing a simple algorithm for yourself that goes, “if I do x, then I will do y.” So, for instance, “if I finish work before six, then I will go to the gym” or “if I feel like my partner has insulted me, then I will take a deep breath before I respond.”
“We chose this strategy because it seems to work,” says Galef. “It’s been tested on different people and in the context of different problems from going to the gym to developing better study habits. We look at the track record of what has worked for as many different people as possible and teach those.”

Technique Two: Reference Path Hopping

This technique helps people identify their individual behavioral patterns to better understand them. For instance, if you are frustrated because you feel anxious at parties, the strategy involves moving past a blanket statement about hating social events. Instead, it urges you to look at your track record to consider whether you feel anxious at all parties or whether there are times when the anxiety is diminished. By identifying the common themes in the parties you are more comfortable at, you can develop a hypothesis about the source of your anxiety and then test the theory. “This is basic scientific method, but applied to yourself and figuring out how you work,” says Galef.

Technique Three: Againstness

While meditation often has paranormal or spiritual associations, CFAR has extracted some useful techniques from the ancient art that allows people to be more aware of the signs of defensiveness or aggression in their body, noting that this is when they are most likely to be biased. “When you are feeling antagonized, you are most likely to put your walls up and shut out opposing arguments,” says Galef. This has proven to be one of the most popular classes, with students saying they have become more self-aware about how their bodies are responding to a situation and be more open when they would otherwise have been close-minded. “I don’t know if the proponents of mindfulness meditation intended for it to be used this way, but it has been very useful and if we had only been looking at the academic literature, we may have missed something like this.”

Technique Four: Surprise-o-Meter

I’ve previously written about Galef’s belief in the value of surprise. In an extension of this idea, Galef encourages students to quantify their uncertainty and estimate how likely they think something is to be true: for instance, the probability that a randomly chosen American has a tattoo or the probability that a randomly chosen Republican is Christian. The Surprise-o-Meter technique involves picturing that event and observing how surprised they would be in that situation, as a measure of their subconscious beliefs. “Surprise is a clue to what you were implicitly expecting to happen,” Galef says. “The more surprised you are, the less probable your subconscious thought that event was.” CFAR has done several randomized control trials to test the effectiveness of this technique and is continuing to study variations of it.

While these techniques are designed to help individuals become more productive and happier in their personal lives, Galef, Salamon and Smith also had more sweeping objectives when they conjured CFAR. The threesome also believe that rationality can make the world a better place by encouraging people to be more open to new ideas and changing their minds. “The mindset that allows you to step back and realize that you are being unfair to your partner is the same mindset that allows you to change your political views when you realize you are wrong,” says Galef. “Ultimately, we’d love to work with established institutions that are working to help the world, like charitable foundations or the government or research organizations like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health.”


Rational thinking could be helpful when working through big, complex, multi-faceted problems such as political impasses or even the recent Ebola crisis. Salamon points out that a medical model for pandemic has existed for a long time but was not taken seriously by enough people during this outbreak; this was exacerbated by the politicization of this issue. She thinks the current situation serves as a case study in irrational decision making. “I think there are different thinking habits that could be preventing what may be a humanitarian disaster,” says Salamon.

Salamon also makes the case that as technology advances at a fast clip, it is becoming harder for people to make sound decisions. “Doing what worked in the past does not work as well when change happens faster,” she says. “I’m interested in creating a world where citizens and business people and other changemakers are able to think in a fast and a flexible enough way to make good decisions as things change.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts