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TL;DR: When we're unsure about what to do, we sometimes naively take the "average" of the obvious options — despite the fact that a different strategy is often better. For example, if you're not sure if you're in the right job, continuing to do your job as before but with less energy ("going half-speed") is probably not the best approach. Note, however, that sometimes speed itself is the problem, in which case "half-speed" can be totally reasonable — I discuss this and some other considerations below

I've referenced this phenomenon in some conversations recently, so I'm sharing a relevant post from 2016 — The correct response to uncertainty is *not* half-speed — and sketching out some examples I've seen. 

The correct response to uncertainty is *not* half-speed

The central example in the post is a time when the author was driving along a long stretch of road and started wondering if she’d passed her hotel. So she continued at half-speed, trying to decide if she should keep going or turn around. After a while, she realized: 

If the hotel was ahead of me, I'd get there fastest if I kept going 60mph.  And if the hotel was behind me, I'd get there fastest by heading at 60 miles per hour in the other direction.  And if I wasn't going to turn around yet -- if my best bet given the uncertainty was to check N more miles of highway first, before I turned around -- then, again, I'd get there fastest by choosing a value of N, speeding along at 60 miles per hour until my odometer said I'd gone N miles, and then turning around and heading at 60 miles per hour in the opposite direction.  

Either way, fullspeed was best.  My mind had been naively averaging two courses of action -- the thought was something like: "maybe I should go forward, and maybe I should go backward.  So, since I'm uncertain, I should go forward at half-speed!"  But averages don't actually work that way.[1] 

[...] [From a comment] Often a person should hedge bets in some fashion, or should take some action under uncertainty that is different from the action one would take if one were certain of model 1 or of model 2. The point is that "hedging" or "acting under uncertainty" in this way is different in many particulars from the sort of "kind of working" that people often end up accidentally doing, from a naiver sort of average. Often it e.g. involves running info-gathering tests at full speed, one after another.

… 

Opinions expressed here are mine, not my employer’s, not the Forum’s, etc. I wrote this fast, so it’s definitely not an exhaustive list of examples or considerations and is probably wrong in important places. 

Assorted links that seem related to the post

Where I’ve seen the “half-speed” phenomenon recently[1]

I think that I’ve seen multiple instances of each of these in the past few months. I’m not sure that all of these directly stem from the phenomenon described above — there might be better descriptions for what’s going on — but they seem quite related.

  1. Jobs. Someone is unsure if their role is a good fit (or if it's the most impactful option, etc.) for them. So they continue working in it, but put less energy into it. 
    • What you might do instead: set aside time to evaluate your options and fit (and switch jobs based on that), consider setting up some tests, see if you can change or improve things in your current job (talk to your manager, etc.), decide that it’s a bad time to think about this and that you'll re-evaluate at a set time (schedule it in), etc.
  2. Resting. Someone is tired and worried about burning out, but they also think it’s important for them to work right now. So they do work-related things that they think are kinda relaxing, but which are neither as useful nor as relaxing as the most useful or the most relaxing things respectively. (Half-speed resting.)
    • They should probably decide one way or another, and then go all-in. Although it’s possible that this sort of middle ground is a useful hack for the person to actually take a break if they’re having trouble letting themselves do that.
    • See also: Rest in motion 
  3. Community-building. Someone is uncertain about the value of working on some kind of community-building or field-building. So they think that they or the people working on it should slow the community-building down.
    • I’d guess that it’s generally better to investigate whether the community-building should be stopped altogether (as much as possible). (You could also decide that it shouldn't be stopped, but should be seriously modified.) If you're actively involved in community-building, this might mean that you should stop what you're currently doing in order to investigate. Alternatively, you might think that you're very unlikely to make progress on this investigation — consider thinking about how your beliefs on this front have been changing after you started thinking about it, in which case I think you should decide one way or another now and commit to that until you have new information. 
    • Note that it is right to slow down if you think that the speed is the thing causing problems — I discuss this a bit below.
  4. Cause prioritization. Someone has changed their mind about cause prioritization and is now quite unsure if they’re working on the right problem. Maybe they’ve decided that animal welfare is probably significantly more important than they used to think, and they’re unsure about whether they should switch into that cause area. But they’re already on an unrelated path and it seems hard to switch, so they make their current work slightly animal-welfare-related.
    • This is similar to the role-switching example above; I think they should usually make time to explore what problem(s) they think they should be working on (from both a cause-oriented and fit-oriented perspective). 
    • Related writing on multipliers and aptitudes.

Some notes / adding nuance

  1. When speed itself is part of the problem, going “half-speed” can be totally reasonable
    • If going fast means being more careless or if it has some other costs, then you should absolutely consider slowing down. This isn’t the same as responding to uncertainty by doing something like averaging your options. 
    • For instance, if you’re unsure about the value of growing your organization in part because growing it fast might make it harder to maintain good team culture (or is straining management capacity, etc.), slowing down could be totally reasonable. 
    • (This is a sub-case of (2) below.)
  2. There are many things that can seem like “half-speed” that I think don’t face the problems described here
  3. Going “half-speed” could be a low-cost way of getting some more capacity for figuring out what to do. (Related to (1) in this list.)
    • Maybe you’re unsure if you’re in the right role, but it would be really costly for you to drop all of your current responsibilities to try a different job, or to take a month to investigate what you should do. It might make sense for you to reduce hours at your current job or put things into maintenance mode and make space for side projects and thinking about your career.
    • In the driving-to-a-hotel example above where you’ve just realized that you might have missed your hotel, half-speed might be reasonable if: 
      • It’s taking mental energy to drive fast (e.g if you’re worried that you’ll miss the hotel)
      • It would be pretty hard to pull over (e.g. you’re on a big highway)
      • And you can make progress on the problem of “what’s the best way to get to my hotel?” just by thinking or doing something that doesn’t involve driving past where your hotel is (whether that’s in front or behind of you) — like pulling out a GPS, just being more attentive to your surroundings, or giving your brain more bandwidth to figure out what your next steps should be. (If you can’t, I think you should probably just keep driving fast, commit to some distance that you’ll drive forward, then go back if there’s no hotel.)
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  1. ^

    There are more examples in the original post.

Comments9
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:36 PM

This post really resonates with me. Over winter 2021/22 I went on a retreat run by folks in the CFAR, MIRI, Lightcone cluster, and came away with some pretty crippling uncertainty about the sign of EA community building.[1] In retrospect, the appropriate response would have been one of the following:

  1. stop to investigate
  2. commit to community building (but maybe stop to investigate upon encountering new information or after some predetermined period of time)
  3. switch jobs

Instead, I continued on in my community building role, but with less energy, and with a constant cloud of uncertainty hanging over me. This was not good for my work outputs, my mental health, or my interactions and relationships with community building colleagues. Accordingly, “the correct response to uncertainty is *not* half-speed” is perhaps the number one piece of advice I’d give to my start-of-2022 self. I’m happy to see this advice so well elucidated here.

  1. ^

    To be clear, I don’t believe the retreat was “bad” in any particular way, or that it was designed to propagate any particular views regarding community building, and I have a lot of respect for these Rationalist folks.

If you can, could you elaborate more on what caused this uncertainty at/after the retreat?

Firstly, I'll say that I chose not to elaborate in my initial comment because Lizka’s post here is about what to do when faced with uncertainty in general, and I didn’t wish to turn the comments section into a rehash of the various arguments on whether community building in particular – either as a whole in its current state, or specific parts of it – is net positive or negative and to what degree. I’ve also personally moved on from my period of somewhat-debilitating uncertainty, and so I didn’t really want to be faced with replies and thus something of an obligation to re-engage with this debate. On top of this, experience has taught me to tread lightly, since the EA community is tight-knit and many people in this community have jobs in or adjacent to community building.

However, as well as your reply I’ve received two direct messages since posting my comment, from community builders who sound like they’re in similar situations to the one I was in, so perhaps there is value in me elaborating. I’ll try to do that now.

(Note: I think this retreat catalyzed my processing of considerations and related uncertainties that I'd already been harboring. In other words, I don’t think I was hit with a bunch of completely new considerations about community building, or that I overly deferred. Note also: As I mention above, I’ve personally moved on from this topic with respect to my own career choices, and I’m glad to no longer have this weight of uncertainty on my shoulders. Therefore, I probably won’t engage further in the comment thread, if there are more replies. I realize this could be frustrating from an epistemics standpoint, and for that I apologize. Also, the points I list out below are just what I can think of off the top of my head right now, and so they should be viewed as an unpolished part of the picture rather than anything that’s close to complete or authoritative. Finally, I notice that what I write below is pretty critical stuff, and I very much hope that I don’t come across as disparaging of the great efforts being made by many community builders.)

Elaboration:

  • In a way, community building seemed to me to resemble a Ponzi scheme. My anecdata suggested that EA fellowships/intro programmes tended to disproportionately engage people who enjoy talking about moral philosophy and EA ideas, and who enjoy getting more people to think about EA ideas. A simplistic model here is that EA fellowships result in more EA community builders which results in more EA fellowships which result in more EA community builders, and so on. Meanwhile, the actual problems, such as factory farming and x-risk, haven't gone away. Me-at-the-time began to feel skeptical that the community building cycle I was witnessing was an efficient way to make progress on solving the actual problems.
  • Community building is a blast. I think this makes it easy to motivated-reason one’s way into pursuing it. At the time, my alternative to community building was a research role. Research, however, is hard work. (For me, at least. There may well be better researchers out there who don’t relate.) On the other hand, doing community building meant connecting with lots of cool new people and having interesting conversations and going on fun retreats around the world with other community builders. I also met my last two romantic partners through community building.[1]
  • To me, the direction of community building while I was involved felt like a fairly indiscriminate “more programs, more participants, more events, more hype”. (I'll avoid giving concrete examples publicly, since that feels like straying into personal attack territory.) My sense was that there wasn’t enough application of cause prio or enough serious thought going into understanding the pipelines and talent bottlenecks within cause areas. I felt deeply uncertain about whether the proxy goals I was being encouraged to aim for – running a certain number of workshops, or attracting and retaining a certain number of participants – mapped all that well onto solving the actual problems.
    • My attempts to raise this concern with other community builders, including those above me, were mostly dismissed. This worried me. It seemed like the community building machine was not open to the hypothesis that (some of) what it was doing might be ineffective, or, worse, net negative. (More on the latter below.) On top of this, there seemed to be a tricky second-order effect at play: evaporative cooling whereby the community builders who developed concerns like mine exited, only to be replaced by more bullish community builders. The result: a disproportionately bullish community building machine. And there didn't appear to be any countermeasures in place. For example, there was plenty of funding available if one wanted a paid role doing community building. But, in addition to the social disincentive, there was no funding available for evaluating/critiquing the impact of community building – at least, not that I was aware of.
  • I'd grown uncertain about whether the EA and AI safety communities had done more good than harm to date. Therefore, based on reference class forecasting, I'd grown uncertain as to whether the sign of future EA and AI safety activities would be net positive. I had significant (maybe ~33%) credence in these communities, if they continued to exist in roughly the same form, being negative for the world. "Shutting Down the Lightcone Offices" expresses similar thoughts to those I was having.
  1. ^

    For a related comment I wrote, see here.

There is a corporate motto: "10% of decisions need to be right. 90% of decisions just need to be taken!" which resonates perfectly with this post. 

To put this in an EA context - if you're unsure which of two initiatives to work on, that probably means that (to the best of your available knowledge) they are likely to have similar impacts. So, in the grand scheme of things, it probably doesn't matter which you choose. But the time you spend deciding is time that you are NOT dedicating to either of the initiatives. 

However, this is a good rule-of-thumb, but you need to be wary of exceptions. There are those 10% of cases where your decision matters a lot. In my case, as a chemical engineer, decisions about safety would typically be in that 10%. In an EA context, maybe it's decisions where you really are not sure if a particular initiative might be doing more harm than good which fall into this 10%. 

How to decide whether you can already take a decision?

  1. Does any decision have potentially very bad consequences? Not just wasted time, but actual harm, or major investments wasted or whatever. 
  2. How much of a difference is there likely to be depending on which decision you take?
  3. What new information are you likely to get (and when) which could help you make a better decision? 
  4. Put the pros and cons on a sheet of paper and discuss with a friend or colleague. Often times, this exercise alone, even before you discuss, will enable you to make a decision. 

Lizka - very interesting points, and generally good advice.

This seems metaphorically related to the principle of 'force concentration' in warfare. Wherever one thinks the enemy is likely to be massing, it's better to keep all of one's forces together, and go to where one thinks they are most likely to be -- rather than splitting one's forces, which often makes the likelihood of defeat much higher, wherever they end up being. This is especially true given firearms that can engage from a distance, as described by Lanchester's N-square law

One caveat to add: naive readers interested in AI X-risk could misinterpret you as saying that it's better to go full steam ahead with AI, and then reverse at full speed if we decide that's the wrong way to proceed, rather than going more slowly & cautiously along the way. I know that's not what you intended, but it may be worth emphasizing, as you mentioned, that 'When speed itself is part of the problem, going “half-speed” can be totally reasonable'.

Thanks for pointing this out — I've made some edits in response (mostly to the very beginning of the post). 

Nice post!

Where I’ve seen the “half-speed” phenomenon recently

I think donations are another common example. If the goal is maximising the impact of a donation, for small donors, it makes sense to donate to what we think has the highest marginal cost-effectiveness at the margin.

That post is one of my all-time favourites from LW. I've struggled a lot with cause uncertainty, but sometimes the best way to resolve it is just to go full speed on one thing until you discover that it was not for you. The compromise is usually less effective than any of the options. :)

I like this point, and I think it explains some of the mistakes I see people make (and have made myself). One additional related link: deliberate once.