In 2012, Julia Galef, the host of a podcast called Rationally Speaking, moved from New York to Berkeley to help found a nonprofit called the Center for Applied Rationality. It was the early days of the rationalist movement: a community formed on the internet whose adherents strove to strip their minds of cognitive biases and subject all spheres of life to the glare of scientific thought and probabilistic reasoning. Galef and her cfar co-founders—mathematician Anna Salamon, research scientist Andrew Critch, and math and science educator Michael Smith—wanted to translate these principles to everyday life. They did this through multiday workshops, where participants could learn to make better decisions using techniques like “goal factoring” (breaking a goal into smaller pieces) and “paired debugging” (in which two people help identify each other’s blind spots and distortions).
Over the next several years, as rationalism became not only the de facto brand of self-help in Silicon Valley but also an intellectual movement followed by pundits and executives alike, cfar’s profile grew; soon, the nonprofit was running workshops across the country and teaching classes at Facebook and the Thiel Fellowship. But for cfar’s founders, it was the empirical confirmation of their work that mattered most. Early on, they began conducting a controlled study to determine whether the workshops were demonstrably helpful. They surveyed 40 participants, assessing their before-and-after answers to questions like “How together is your life?” and “How successful do you feel in your social life?” The study found that, one year after the workshop ended, participants showed decreased neuroticism and increased selfefficacy, but to Galef, the results weren’t sufficiently rigorous. “What was it about the workshop?” she says. “Was it the classes or hanging out with like-minded people that makes the difference?” Conducting more tests would have been too expensive. “My vision was we’d come up with hypotheses about techniques, keep the ones that work, and discard the ones that don’t. It turned out to be much harder than I’d realized.”
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