The Zeroth Skillset

post by katydee · 2013-01-30T12:46:28.926Z · score: 48 (51 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 109 comments

Related: 23 Cognitive Mistakes that make People Play Bad Poker

Followed by: Situational Awareness And You

If epistemic rationality is the art of updating one's beliefs based on new evidence to better correspond with reality, the zeroth skillset of epistemic rationality-- the one that enables all other skills to function-- is that of situational awareness. Situational awareness-- sometimes referred to as "situation awareness" or simply "SA"-- is the skillset and related state of mind that allows one to effectively perceive the world around them.

One might ask how this relates to rationality at all. The answer is simple. Just as the skill of lucid dreaming is near-useless without dream recall,[1] the skills of updating based on evidence and actually changing your mind are near-useless without good awareness skills-- after all, you can't update based on evidence that you haven't collected! A high degree of situational awareness is thus an important part of one's rationalist toolkit, as it allows you to notice evidence about the world around you that you would otherwise miss. At times, this evidence can be of critical importance. I can attest that I have personally saved the lives of friends on two occasions thanks to good situational awareness, and have saved myself from serious injury or death many times more.

Situational awareness is further lauded by elite military units, police trainers, criminals, intelligence analysts, and human factors researchers. In other words, people who have to make very important-- often life-or-death-- decisions based on limited information consider situational awareness a critical skill. This should tell us something-- if those individuals for whom correct decisions are most immediately relevant all stress the importance of situational awareness, it may be a more critical skill than we realize.

Unfortunately, the only discussion of situational awareness that I've seen on LessWrong or related sites has been a somewhat oblique reference in Louie Helm's "roadmap of errors" from 23 Cognitive Mistakes that make People Play Bad Poker.[2] I believe that situational awareness is important enough that it merits an explicit sequence of posts on its advantages and how to cultivate it, and this post will serve as the introduction to that sequence.

The first post in the sequence, unimaginatively titled "Situational Awareness and You," will be posted within the week. Other planned posts include "Cultivating Awareness," "How to Win a Duel," "Social Awareness," "Be Aware of Your Reference Class," "Signaling and Predation," and "Constant Vigilance!"

If you have any requests for things to add, general questions about the sequence, meta-thoughts about SA, and so on, this post is an appropriate place for that discussion; as this is primarily a meta post, it has been posted to Discussion. Core posts in the sequence will be posted to Main.

 

[1] What good are lucid dreams if you can't remember them?

[2] This is a very useful summary and you should read it even if you don't play poker.

109 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by BlueSun · 2013-01-30T21:08:17.792Z · score: 18 (22 votes) · LW · GW

I don't mean to be rude but as an FYI:

At times, this evidence can be of critical importance. I can attest that I have personally saved the lives of friends on two occasions thanks to good situational awareness, and have saved myself from serious injury or death many times more.

Lowers my confidence of the post. Almost everyone I know has a story about how they almost died except for a moment of abnormal cunning or pure luck; yet I know few people who have died for reasons that would have been avoidable had they or someone around them been more observant. This suggests to me (since not everyone can be above-average observant or lucky) that in most of those stories, they didn't have as high of a chance of death as they thought they did. It's certainly possible that it's not the case with you, but I'd prefer to either see the specific stories or maybe just use a less extreme example in the post. Or maybe it's just me and no one else is bothered by it.

comment by katydee · 2013-01-31T00:33:54.081Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Noted, thanks for the feedback. I do happen to know many (10+) people who died for reasons that would have been avoidable had they or someone around them been more observant, so my impression is that I am correctly calibrated in this respect, but I can see why one might be skeptical.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-01-31T08:03:25.250Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I do happen to know many (10+) people who died for reasons that would have been avoidable had they or someone around them been more observant

Do you have an unusual occupation or something? I know of virtually zero accidental deaths in my circle of friends and acquaintances, so I'm wondering what's going on here.

comment by Alicorn · 2013-01-31T19:56:48.133Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

katydee just knows a bizarre cross-section of the population in full generality. He tells fascinating stories about his weird friends at social gatherings. This doesn't surprise me at all about him in particular, but I don't think we should take it as strong evidence about people in general.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-01-31T11:44:57.460Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There's gotta be someone at the pointy part of the bell curve.

comment by jsalvatier · 2013-01-31T01:57:40.391Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

One way to alleviate skeptical would be to explain why you are unusual in this respect.

comment by katydee · 2013-02-01T09:04:48.552Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Until posting this, I didn't realize that I was particularly unusual in that respect; I thought having one or two people you know die every year was normal. Does this not happen for most people?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-02-01T10:59:58.426Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think it started happening until I was past forty, and very few of them died as a result of accidents.

comment by katydee · 2013-02-02T00:58:23.473Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

One other potential confound might be that I know lots of people.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2013-04-03T18:31:39.399Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My maternal grandfather died of a stroke when I was about 12 years old; my paternal grandfather died of cancer when I was 19. Those are the only people I knew personally who have died, and I think those numbers (and causes of death) are fairly typical for young people. I've seen lots more dead people, as a nursing student, including some who died of accidental/preventable causes, but I don't count that as evidence I can generalize from–it's a massively biased sample.

comment by BerryPick6 · 2013-02-01T22:14:31.742Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I know a number of people who have died in the past 3-4 years, but they all happened to be in the army at the time, so I would consider myself unusual in this respect.

comment by jsalvatier · 2013-02-01T16:50:17.753Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I can only think of one person I know of who died because of a preventable accident. One serious accident comes to mind too. I'm 27, male and in Seattle.

Another approach would be to cite statistics about accident rates. I think at least death statistics from accidents are well recorded.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-01-31T13:28:57.718Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

There's a problem with that idea.

(I don't know anyone who died because they where hit by a car while crossing a street, but this doesn't mean that looking for cars before crossing a street is pointless.)

comment by PaulS · 2013-02-01T02:50:30.192Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This case is different in an important way. Most people will go inside during a thunderstorm and check for cars before crossing a street, so avoiding these risks doesn't require an unusual degree of vigilance. katydee is claiming that unusually good situational awareness is frequently a decisive factor in avoiding death or serious injury. If that's true, then we should expect to hear about people dying due to inadequate situational awareness fairly often because most people don't have above average situational awareness.

However, I think this is possibly explained by the fact that people with good situational awareness are far more likely to place themselves in situations were good situational awareness is required.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-02-01T08:24:07.696Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

katydee is claiming that unusually good situational awareness is frequently a decisive factor

I took "good situational awareness" to mean 'a level of SA unusual among readers of this posts', which I guess is a lower standard than 'unusual among the population', e.g. because of this.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-02-01T03:24:37.696Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Special case of situational awareness: I read a discussion among martial arts students of whether they'd ever found their art useful. About half of them said they'd been avoided getting hurt from falling. (Sorry, no cite, but it was on usenet.)

comment by gwern · 2013-02-01T19:59:47.128Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

http://kojutsukan.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/can-martial-arts-falling-techniques.html may be a useful starting point for further research.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-02-01T22:51:50.687Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks very much.

comment by shminux · 2013-02-01T23:15:56.780Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Note that falling safely when expecting to be thrown is not the same as landing safely when falling unexpectedly. The latter is probably a special skill, not specifically trained for in martial arts. Here is some discussion:

Breakfalling may even help you get through a training session where you get tossed around a 100 times or more. But, when you slip and fall off the mat your training will most likely not kick in and save you.

comment by katydee · 2013-02-01T08:55:47.739Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't actually think that's thanks to situational awareness but rather from drilling breakfalls a lot.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2013-01-30T16:28:18.247Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Noticing is a useful habit and skill that has been touched on from time to time here: for example, noticing when you are confused.

I should have paid more attention to that sensation of still feels a little forced. It's one of the most important feelings a truthseeker can have, a part of your strength as a rationalist. It is a design flaw in human cognition that this sensation manifests as a quiet strain in the back of your mind, instead of a wailing alarm siren and a glowing neon sign reading "EITHER YOUR MODEL IS FALSE OR THIS STORY IS WRONG."

Situational Awareness looks like a special case of this, applied to life-threatening situations. Does it have a relevance to rationality more than that of being a case study in the general skill of noticing?

comment by katydee · 2013-01-30T23:16:23.551Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Situational Awareness looks like a special case of this, applied to life-threatening situations. Does it have a relevance to rationality more than that of being a case study in the general skill of noticing?

Well, let me put it like this. Your ability to make a correct decision or formulate a correct belief is based on two things-- the information that you collect and your skills at deriving benefit from that information. Most rationality training that I've seen pertains to increasing your various deriving benefit from information skills. Many probably conceptualize those skills as encompassing the whole of rationality.

However, it strikes me that if the broader goal of rationality is to formulate correct beliefs, collecting more information may in many cases be lower-hanging fruit than further improving your ability to make decisions based on the information that you have. Situational awareness seems like a good step in that direction.

comment by whowhowho · 2013-01-30T18:16:46.736Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Some concrete examples would be most helpful

comment by katydee · 2013-01-30T22:17:01.170Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Forthcoming in the first post, which will be up within the week. This post is primarily for meta-purposes and so there's an easy index of all the links to the things I'll be putting up.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-01-30T13:16:43.701Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

What good are lucid dreams if you can't remember them?

You might use the time in the lucid dream to practice a physical skill. There some research that indicates that visualising to perform a physical skills helps you to get better at it. Tim Ferriss advocates to practice physical skills during lucid dreams.

Even if you don't remember having practiced you might still get valuable effect from practicing during your sleep.

There are also other mental activities that give you benefits without having needing to remember them explicitely.

comment by Nisan · 2013-01-31T02:10:57.455Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Additionally, lucid dreaming can be intrinsically valuable even if you don't remember it. If the experience is enjoyable, then one of your person-moments will enjoy it. (I'm not sure if it's possible to have a lucid dream and not remember.) But this does not in any way detract from katydee's point.

comment by katydee · 2013-02-01T03:05:07.827Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

LaBerge believes it is possible to have a lucid dream and not remember and he is perhaps the foremost authority. However, we could very easily test this and I'll put it on the agenda for things to do once lucid dreaming training starts up around here.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-02-01T10:57:47.469Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How would you test that?

comment by katydee · 2013-02-01T11:43:55.455Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Posting about it publicly would violate potential double-blindness, but if you want I'll PM you the answer-- or at least the answer that I initially came up with.

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-04-04T20:39:32.315Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I can't speak for Nancy , but I would be interested in such a PM.

comment by katydee · 2013-01-30T22:31:36.366Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is true, but without being able to remember what went on in the dream (or in extreme cases, whether or not you dreamed at all), it will be rather difficult to track your improvements, refine your dreaming technique, determine what types of training give the most valuable returns, etc.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-30T22:16:51.270Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I have been practicing mental skills during lucid dreams. That is, I often explain sequence related insights to my dream characters. I'm not sure if it helps.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-01-30T20:13:46.041Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

An example of situational awareness being useful in non-terribly-time-constrained situations (to address a point made by several commenters) is that if you notice what people around you wear, you'll be less likely to unknowingly signal stuff you don't want to signal through your clothes.

EDIT: Another one: if you're going to some place with somebody, and you don't pay attention where you're going, if you later want to go there on your own, you won't remember how to get there.

comment by Andreas_Giger · 2013-01-30T14:31:12.029Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I can attest that I have personally saved the lives of friends on two occasions thanks to good situational awareness, and have saved myself from serious injury or death many times more.

I have no idea who you are and what you do for a living, but it appears you are or have been living a rather dangerous live, so I wonder what benefits compensate for this?

if those individuals for whom correct decisions are most immediately relevant all stress the importance of situational awareness, it may be a more critical skill than we realize.

It may be a critical skill only for those who need to make correct decisions under very tight time costraints. Maybe the skill of avoiding dangerous situations is preferable to the skill of mastering them.

comment by private_messaging · 2013-01-30T14:48:58.225Z · score: 1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Death rates are sufficiently low even among military, police, or fire fighters, and being wrong is sufficiently common (especially in the way that boosts self esteem), for this to be almost certainly wrong, in the sense that in those situations almost anyone would have survived (unless it refers to trivial things such as driving a car - situation awareness - haven't died a dozen times today). Frankly, this whole thing reminds me of something that could get said in its always sunny in philadelphia.

comment by Andreas_Giger · 2013-01-30T15:39:18.364Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sufficiently low death or injury rates imply sufficiently large benefits, and if those rates are sufficiently low among military, police, or fire fighters, then according to my knowledge about wages among soldiers, police officers, and fire fighters, katydee's statement "I have personally saved the lives of friends on two occasions thanks to good situational awareness, and have saved myself from serious injury or death many times more" does not hint at any of these occupations.

If you live in a city where law isn't strictly enforced, picking up a martial art might be a good idea. If you don't, coordinating to continue to live in a peaceful society might be a more reasonable use of time and effort.

You seem to take the idea that SA helps rationality as a fact. I fail to see any evidence for this unless we are talking about split-second decisions. I can perceive my environment perfectly well when not under imminent time constraints without being especially skilled at SA. Or maybe I am skilled at SA and just don't know it? It's difficult to tell without any frame of reference.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-30T22:15:50.821Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

martial arts are not a very good skill to neutralize the otherwise dangerous behavior of being around poor people.

comment by katydee · 2013-01-30T22:29:21.230Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

martial arts are not a very good skill to neutralize the otherwise dangerous behavior of being around poor people.

Or really any dangerous behavior at all.

When it comes to street crime, I believe that nearly everyone would be better served by learning improved posture (so you don't look like a target), awareness (so that you know what's going on and people see that you know what's going on), and if all else fails, foot speed (so you can get out of dangerous areas fast) rather than martial arts.

That said, I practice martial arts. However, if someone comes up to me with a knife and says "give me your wallet," you can be damn sure I'll give him my wallet. Whatever money I have with me is a low price to pay to avoid hand-to-hand combat with an armed opponent.

One useful heuristic for finding a good martial arts class might be to look for instructors who realize that martial arts are not practical for self-defense. An actual self-defense class would be interesting to see and would look nothing like a typical martial arts class.

comment by khafra · 2013-01-31T12:52:34.092Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

An actual self-defense class would be interesting to see and would look nothing like a typical martial arts class.

Next time you're in Tampa, drop a line. My instructor (no particular organized school) teaches punching and stuff, but also how to recognize different types of dangerous people and dissuade or circumvent them.

comment by katydee · 2013-02-01T02:20:22.033Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Will do (entirely serious here).

comment by gjm · 2013-01-31T01:05:37.581Z · score: 4 (10 votes) · LW · GW

the otherwise dangerous behavior of being around poor people.

Are you trolling, and if not what the hell is wrong with you?

I'm sure there are plenty of subclasses of "poor people" that it's best to avoid if safety is your priority. It is absolutely not the case that "being around poor people" as such is dangerous. If you are inclined to protest that statistically it's correct, then I will remark that the same is probably also true of, e.g., "being around really unpopular people" (some really unpopular people are unpopular because of personality disorders that also make them dangerous; being around sufficiently unpopular people may get you lynched along with them) and "being around young men" (young men are disproportionately likely to commit violent crimes, and to be victims of violent crime); would you say the same about those groups? It's quite likely also true of "being around depressed people" (suicide is slightly contagious) and it would have been true of "being around Jews" in, say, 1930s Germany (anything that makes you look like a friend of a persecuted group puts you in danger of being targeted by their persecutors). The conclusion I draw from examples like these is that saying "being around members of group X" is dangerous, even when true statistically, is liable to be very misleading; still more so, calling not doing so a "skill", as you do later in the thread.

(Note 1. Some of the people I know are quite rich. Some are quite poor. I feel -- correctly, I'm pretty sure -- no less safe with the poor ones than with the rich ones. Note 2. I wonder whether "poor" in your comment is in fact a proxy for "black". Note 3. I think LW could well do without the sort of "look how hard-headed and unafraid of social stigma I am" posturing that I strongly suspect is the underlying cause of this kind of comment.)

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-31T03:53:03.711Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I will bite any and all bullets you care to present. It would be nice to live in a world where these things weren't true. Unfortunately we do not, and I only care about outcomes, not being fair. I would, in fact, avoid associating with jews if I lived in 1930's Germany and if you wouldn't I would deem you insane and also avoid you. I do, in fact, avoid depressed, unproductive, and unpopular people and so do you.

comment by gjm · 2013-01-31T10:55:10.761Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Among the outcomes I care about is having other people not get screwed over. Shunning them because other things have gone badly for them contributes to not achieving such outcomes.

Another outcome I care about is associating with people who are interesting, good company, useful to me, etc. Shunning broadly-defined groups that contain many such people, when there are narrower groups whose shunning would be just as effective, contributes to not achieving such outcomes.

A policy of avoiding dangerous-seeming people seems very reasonable, especially if it's applied flexibly. (One might, e.g., have a close and dearly loved family member who is dangerous, or an important business connection with someone dangerous. Personal safety is good but not the only thing that matters.) I think it's very likely that "seems dangerous to me", fuzzy though it is, is a much more accurate heuristic for identifying dangerous people than "is poor", and that the same is true for most people here.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-31T11:02:49.240Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's a heuristic, not an algorithm for safety.

comment by gjm · 2013-01-31T16:05:14.185Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"A heuristic, not an algorithm": what difference are you intending to convey? (I wasn't trying to suggest that you think avoiding poor people gives some kind of guarantee, or anything like that. A heuristic is what I took you to be saying it was. For me, at least, a heuristic is a kind of algorithm.)

"Not ... for safety": do you mean that there are other purposes to it besides safety? OK, fair enough (though your presentation of this "skill" here has been all about safety) but I don't think it makes a difference to what I'm saying: safety together with the other things you intend this to achieve are still not the only things that matter, and I gravely doubt that the broad-brush policy of avoiding poor people is a great way of achieving those other things (by comparison with less-simplistic heuristics) -- though on that point I'm prepared to be convinced.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-31T18:28:36.744Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A heuristic is a fuzzy set of principles that are correlated with the outcomes you want. An algorithm is a set of directions that give you the outcome you want. When I say "avoiding poor people is a heuristic" I mean that it is the high level abstraction of a bunch of low level behaviors in various situations.

comment by gjm · 2013-01-31T21:01:10.654Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Something can be an algorithm despite not necessarily giving you exactly the outcome you want. Hence approximation algorithms and probabilistic algorithms.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-31T21:15:34.671Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Edit: the boundaries between algorithms and heuristics are complicated. Colloquial usage referring to heuristics as something like "rules of thumb" and algorithms as "a set of directions" is what was intended.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-01-31T17:13:21.891Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It would be nice to live in a world where these things weren't true. Unfortunately we do not

I suspect it might depend on where you are.

I've never been in a physical fight myself, but the ones I've witnessed were usually initiated by someone wearing not-so-cheap clothes and jewellery. (Maybe rich people are more spoiled, i.e. more used to getting their way, and therefore more likely to get resentful when they don't, or something.) And according to stereotypes at least, people in the Mafia and similar aren't exactly destitute. OTOH, beggars and the like don't look like people who might hurt someone.

YMMV if you're living in a country where a sizeable fraction of the population legally owns and carries firearms.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-01-31T20:27:10.518Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

the ones I've witnessed were usually initiated by someone wearing not-so-cheap clothes and jewellery. (Maybe rich people are more spoiled, i.e. more used to getting their way, and therefore more likely to get resentful when they don't, or something.)

Where I live, in my experience, the most dangerous neighbourhood (for young men) is the one occupied by many middle-class teenagers. The dangerous ones are the ones who have something to prove about how tough they are. They also make a lifestyle out of pretending to live in american ghettos, and simultaneusly pretending to be wealthy. I was friends with these people growing up. They are entertaining and scary.

We don't have american-style violent ghetto-dwellers here, though.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-31T18:26:49.463Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Poor people in the first world are often poor partially because they optimize for not looking poor.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-01-31T19:34:16.952Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If that's true, that's one more reason not to choose whom to associate with based on how rich they look. Or by “not hanging out with poor people” do you mean you do an income audit on all your acquaintances?

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-31T19:50:26.541Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Because they are terrible optimizers they don't actually succeed. I can spot low-IQ, low-income, unproductive behavior a mile away. It helps to have grown up on welfare I suppose.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-01-31T20:17:15.807Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Are you equally good at spotting high-IQ, low-income, unproductive behavior?

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-31T20:37:00.563Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Pretty good, but they're uncommon so I have limited data to calibrate on.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-01-31T20:56:00.671Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Really? Because reading random intellectual-sounding things on the Internet instead of actually getting things done seems like a fairly common failure mode... that, or playing World of Warcraft.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-31T21:13:15.595Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Actually getting things done is an unrealistic standard for the vast majority of humanity. We amuse ourselves while a few people actually push forward.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-01-31T21:19:40.648Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Some people get less done than others. I, for one, am job-free. ;)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-01-31T03:04:13.815Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It can take years to work one's way out of poverty. What do you suggest doing in the meanwhile?

comment by private_messaging · 2013-02-03T17:07:10.769Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Stay outta trouble, learn running, figure out various tricks - kick cars so alarms go off, maybe carry mace and some shrieking device, look crazy when threatened, I don't know, hiss real loud, that'll freak people out, they don't know maybe you're mentally retarded and basically a bigger chimpanzee. They'd never mess with a smaller brained ape your size, an ape half your size can totally mess people up - an ape will bite off fingers, gouge out eyes, rip off ears... without any martial arts. Don't look like you're clever enough to figure out that if you fight back you're more likely to die. Looking clever is stupid anyway.

My parents made a mistake of being in Russian part of Soviet Union when Soviet Union broke down - can't really blame them for not wanting to be in a hostile-ish-to-russians region near border when a military superpower goes down, though. The crime rate was like you wouldn't believe.

comment by gwern · 2013-01-31T17:44:18.507Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Most martial arts schools I've checked out have monthly tuitions in the $50-150 range; so on the low end, that's at least $600 tuition. You won't get much benefit out of just 1 class a week, but 2 classes a week at an hour & half a piece (travel, changing, recovery + 1hr class ) times 3 weeks a month times minimum wage is $72 a month or $864 a year. So paying for and going to the classes is going to cost you >$1500 a year. That could be a large chunk of what it takes to get out of poverty, for example, that alone is a good chunk of many community college tuitions.

Combine that with the low absolute rate of crimes and the unknown effectiveness of standard martial arts for dealing with said crimes...

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-31T03:50:19.315Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

being poor doesn't mean you have to spend time around other poor people. It's certainly more difficult, but it's worth it. In addition to personal danger, your habits and behaviors tend towards being the average of those you surround yourself with.

comment by Andreas_Giger · 2013-01-30T22:20:19.667Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Suppose you haven't got a gun because you don't live in America. Know any better skills?

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-30T22:24:28.348Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Not hanging out with poor people is a skill. And it's better than guns.

comment by Andreas_Giger · 2013-01-30T22:30:20.522Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Behaviour is not skill, and the issue is not hanging out with specific people, but living in the same area as them and walking the streets while they are as well. Suppose you don't want to change your behaviour for example by always walking with others, but instead choose to pick up a new skill. Any significantly better options than martial arts come to mind?

Or just suppose you're still in school.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-01-30T22:39:24.132Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

As katydee mentions, awareness, and running are going to be much much more likely to help you. Having the mindset that leads one to "martial arts would be useful" are what will get you into trouble.

comment by Andreas_Giger · 2013-01-30T23:26:07.271Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Running is a good idea, although I'm not sure how much difference practice really makes for someone who already is somewhat athletic. Parkour might be more useful.

Anecdotal evidence, I know, but I was once going home in the evening and passing through a semi-underground metro station, when out of the blue some guy from a clique was grabbing me by the wrist and aggressively blabbering something. I was rather thankful for having done Aikido when I was still in school because it's a lot easier to run when you're not being held back.

Funniest part is that getting out of wrist holds is one of the basics of Aikido for which there's a wide variety of techniques, but I'd never have expected anyone to actually try wrist-grabbing. I had never encountered wrist-grabbing in the few fights I had in school and I used to assume that if someone wanted to beat you up, they'd just try to beat you up.

Perhaps the whole situation could have been avoided by more caution or alertness, it's difficult to say. The whole thing was a unique experience for me; it was still rather early and while the sun had set (winter) there were lots of bright lights and some normal people around, so although I saw the clique and the guy, I didn't expect him to actually try anything. And of course nothing like that ever happened again.

Still not sure what to make of the whole incident in regards to useful skills. I did move away eventually, though.

comment by CAE_Jones · 2013-01-31T20:44:30.228Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I have reason to believe that the chances that trying to run would increase my risk of harm are above average. In all likelyhood, if I were in a place where there was a significant risk of being attacked or otherwise threatened by another creature, I'd probably be carrying a big stick. If I were still put in a fight-or-flight situation in spite of this, I'm not entirely confident that my extremely limited aikido/judo/Tai Chi training would be sufficient. (Semester courses in college with the latter two, sporadic classes with the former that are no longer an option for logistical reasons).

This past December, I got a wallet filled with fake money, for the specific purpose of using as a decoy in the unlikely event of a robbery, since I have only about $1000 that I could conceivably use for... anything. (This was a simplification of my original idea, which was to fill a fake wallet with flashpaper and matches...). Of course, if such an idea caught on, it'd rapidly lose value, since criminals would adapt, but for now it seems sufficiently paranoid to have a decent chance of success.

Of course, if anyone reading this tries to rob me, I'm screwed, having just divulged my entire arsenal (assuming I'm not lying/won't add something). But what's the probability of that?

comment by katydee · 2013-01-31T00:40:47.815Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I have practiced parkour as well and consider it similarly less than optimally useful. Aside from a few basic vaults, most moves are not practical unless you anticipate a foot chase through dense terrain with a determined pursuer, in which case altering other aspects of your behavior may prove more useful.

In terms of actually getting out of dangerous situations fast, practicing moving through crowds quickly is almost certainly more useful than parkour.

That said, parkour is really fun and a good workout to boot.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-01-31T16:43:08.408Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

moving through crowds quickly

I can do that, but I guess the technique I use only works for large people (I'm 1.88 m (6'2"), 93 kg (205 lb)).

comment by private_messaging · 2013-01-30T19:27:03.447Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, in that case the rationality is low: one can't even figure out that for given death rate others got to be very predominantly surviving similar threats, or successfully avoiding those threats at even earlier stage - the average 'SA' is apparently good enough.

Basing really strong results on really weak evidence (and generally overestimating strength of the evidence) seem to be a pervasive pattern here, though. Even in the cases where choice of prior is straightforward, such as for intelligence expressed as rarity; people either overcome some seriously low priors with some seriously subjective and error prone evidence, or maybe fail to even have priors.

comment by katydee · 2013-01-30T23:33:23.006Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I have no idea who you are and what you do for a living, but it appears you are or have been living a rather dangerous live, so I wonder what benefits compensate for this?

I am a student and it is not my impression that I lead a very dangerous life. I live in a peaceful town in an upper-middle class area. However, I have a few times found myself in a position when I have nevertheless been able to avert dangerous situations for myself or others. My impression is that other people would not have necessarily noticed these situations or acted appropriately on them.

It may be a critical skill only for those who need to make correct decisions under very tight time costraints. Maybe the skill of avoiding dangerous situations is preferable to the skill of mastering them.

Avoiding dangerous situations is indeed better than mastering them IMO (see this comment about martial arts), but noticing when you or others may be about to enter a highly dangerous situation is key to avoiding it.

comment by Andreas_Giger · 2013-01-31T16:52:26.895Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I can attest that I have personally saved the lives of friends on two occasions thanks to good situational awareness, and have saved myself from serious injury or death many times more.

It is not my impression that I lead a very dangerous life.

These two statements seem contradictory to me. Maybe you ought to specify what you mean by "saved from death". If I consider crossing the street, notice an approaching car, and procede to not cross the street until the car has passed, did I just save myself from death? Describing the particular incidents and pointing out exactly how SA helped you to stay alive where others would have died would be much more convincing.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-01-30T20:09:36.872Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I have no idea who you are and what you do for a living, but it appears you are or have been living a rather dangerous live, so I wonder what benefits compensate for this?

If one lives in the wrong place, one does not choose whether to live a dangerous life (EDIT: short of moving away). OTOH, according to his profile the OP is in Stanford, which I wouldn't have thought of as a hell-hole, so I wonder too.

comment by Andreas_Giger · 2013-01-30T21:03:20.103Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If one lives in the wrong place, one does not choose whether to live a dangerous life.

If one truly has no choice, then that must be a hell of a wrong place. Stanford Prison? (SCNR)

Negative effects associated with moving would of course be a perfectly valid reason for not doing so, but likewise, that would have to be some pretty serious negative effects.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-01-31T11:20:19.218Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Er, yeah, I should have said "short of moving away". (But even that is not an option if, say, you're still living with your parents and not financially independent.)

comment by CAE_Jones · 2013-01-31T20:22:25.560Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think in my case financial independence would still make moving away difficult, but because of my locations poor long-distance transit options and my disability (which I suspect is a rare combination in most developed countries). Granted, that combination also makes financial independence difficult.

On the upside, the risk of personal harm is incredibly low here, provided I don't go around telling everyone that my dad is a Buddhist and I don't go to church and I disapprove of how they ran the wickans out of town less than a decade ago.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-02-01T13:17:26.571Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

they ran the wickans out of town less than a decade ago

o.O

comment by Cthulhoo · 2013-01-30T13:01:48.938Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The topic looks promising. This post already achieved a result: it made me realized that SA is quite likely improvable trough training, and not some sort of magical skill someone is born with (see Sherlock Holmes and pretty much every detective in every detective story). May seem obvious in retrospect, but reading these few lines made me aware of this chached belief of mine. I'm looking forward to reading more about it.

comment by Barry_Cotter · 2013-01-30T13:55:19.905Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Mindfulness meditation is situational awareness improving. Once you know what being mindful is, try and engage in it when you are doing things, walking, being. The more you do it, and the more often the closer it will come to being automatic, and the faster.

If you do this you also need to practice acting fast on information fast. See and act as close to instantaneously as possible. Easier said than done.

comment by Cthulhoo · 2013-01-30T14:14:17.235Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Mindfulness meditation is situational awareness improving. Once you know what being mindful is, try and engage in it when you are doing things, walking, being. The more you do it, and the more often the closer it will come to being automatic, and the faster.

I briefly tried to google "mindfulness meditation" and this wiki page popped up. Please forgive my ignorance, is this what you meant? It does indeed look quite promising.

comment by Kingoftheinternet · 2013-01-30T15:30:33.743Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Very close).

comment by Cthulhoo · 2013-01-30T15:47:38.698Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I see the two are indeed related, but thank you for pointing me in the right direction (and in general for letting me know of something I definitely wasn't aware of).

comment by [deleted] · 2013-01-30T20:01:27.349Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

it made me realized that SA is quite likely improvable trough training, and not some sort of magical skill someone is born with

Yep. I've been practising that skill over the past few years, and I think I'm much better now.

comment by Cthulhoo · 2013-01-31T11:46:14.750Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I would really like to read about such kind of direct experience, but I guess it's more appropriate to wait for the rest of the sequnce.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-01-30T15:16:36.876Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm convinced it will be interesting. Looking forward to it.

comment by JMiller · 2013-01-30T16:19:56.874Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I am very excited about this. Ever since I was young I have had trouble with being aware of my surroundings. I have been improving slowly but I have found little good advice / guidance. I look forward to reading what you think about the subject.

comment by zslastman · 2013-04-03T20:51:42.479Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is a subject of great personal importance to me. I recently quit a research position (was offered another one in computational role at the same laboratory) because my lack of SA rendered me unable to do lab work. I went to a psychologist at a friends insistance due to a resulting, brief spate of depression.

The psychologist caused me to realize that I'd built an ugh field around my lack of SA, which was my major problem in life. The constant litany of small humiliations had caused me to internalize an image of myself as laughable and incompetent. My inability to pay attention during conversations made most human interaction unpleasant and stressfull. I had frequently injured myself, and my career was suffering.

SA (which I understand as being basically identical to "mindfullness") isn't just about avoiding danger. It's about actually experiencing what's happening around you. You can't form accurate models of other people for instance, or empathize with them, if your not actually paying attention to them. You can't stick to a schedule or execute a complex plan if you aren't aware of what you're doing at any given time. I think I've improved mine considerably over the past few months. It has benefit me in almost everything I do. My anecdata suggests the following have helped:

1)Meditation see david M's post. http://lesswrong.com/lw/5h9/meditation_insight_and_rationality_part_1_of_3/ 30 minutes per day alone, meditating with a group is a lot more effective. This is the most reproducible and subjectively dramatic effect, coming a close second is

2)Sleep Obviously enough.

3)Methylphenidate

I'm less sure of these last three.

4)Reducing computer usage. I strongly suggest that for me at least, computers, tabbed browsing etc. are overstimulating, and make it difficult to pay attention to anything that isn't a constant stream of information. Not multitasking when using a computer is preferable.

5)Decluttering the physical environment. This is probably more symptom that cause but for the same reasons I think removing clutter and distractions aids situational awareness.

6)Scheduling a regular bell to go off on your cell phone, habitually observing yourself and your surroundings when it does (what am I doing, where am I etc.)

All of this, like attempts to improve rationality itself, suffer from the huge difficulty in measuring improvements. Self experimentation is likely to be the only option for anyone else trying to improve this.

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2013-04-03T21:18:45.709Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What is SA?

comment by tgb · 2013-01-31T16:15:32.785Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The 'absentminded genius' is a sufficiently strong archetypal image desirable to certain populations that frequent LW that I would suggest explicit treatment of encouraging strong situational awareness. Make me want to be situationally aware, even if it means I will never be Norbert Wiener. Perhaps this sequence should be careful to reinforce the existing counter-image of hyper-aware geniuses, like Sherlock Holmes. Any real-life examples of such?

comment by OphilaDros · 2013-01-31T07:52:35.022Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Situational awareness is further lauded by elite military units, police trainers, criminals, intelligence analysts, and human factors researchers. In other words, people who have to make very important-- often life-or-death-- decisions based on limited information consider situational awareness a critical skill. This should tell us something-- if those individuals for whom correct decisions are most immediately relevant all stress the importance of situational awareness, it may be a more critical skill than we realize.

While agreeing with the general idea in the post- that SA is important, I think you are slightly overstating the case by calling it the zeroth skill. Where SA helps is in helping you collect more information for your decision making process, but we the world has a lot of data that could be collected. Not all information has the same value for decision making.

In any case, as a person with low SA, I'm interested in seeing the rest of this sequence. What would be helpful, if you've also thought of it is: is this a skill that you can "switch off" when it's not required? If I were in a setting where it's safe to do so, it could be of value to turn off SA and focus more on - a book perhaps, or my own thoughts.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2013-04-03T18:27:31.942Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What would be helpful, if you've also thought of it is: is this a skill that you can "switch off" when it's not required? If I were in a setting where it's safe to do so, it could be of value to turn off SA and focus more on - a book perhaps, or my own thoughts.

Based on my experience, yes. I am an absentminded person currently trying to retrain myself to function as a critical care nurse–see my related post here. At work/in clinical, I am slowly developing the skill of being aware of everything as it happens, keeping an ongoing plan/list of priorities, separating out important changes in a patient's condition from noise, and knowing when I have to re-prioritize. Of course, focusing on modelling the world around me constantly (or at least the few cubic meters of my patient and relevant equipment) is exhausting and makes me worse at nearly everything else, from remembering theory to social skills.

However, in a written exam (or at home posting on the Internet), I don't hesitate to block out distracting stimuli and focus on one thing. I can still churn out an essay in 2-3 hours, and I write novels for fun and can focus about as well as I used to be able to, although exhaustion is a confounding factor. (I'm sleep deprived a lot of the time, because of shift work, which wasn't the case when I was in high school). My comfort zone is still absentmindedness, being 'zoned out' and focused on my own thoughts, and I don't think this will ever change–but I already have a degree of situational awareness that I can switch on at will, which will probably increase over my next few years of work experience.

comment by Alexei · 2013-01-31T02:50:55.316Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think this is a great idea and you should go for it! I'm looking forward to reading your posts. I agree that this community somewhat under-values getting a lot of good info, and instead focuses perhaps too much on getting the most out of the info you have. But: garbage in -> garbage out, you need good data, and I, personally, have been pretty negligent in my life in that respect.

comment by Andreas_Giger · 2013-01-30T16:33:03.089Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I find the definition of SA given in the post somewhat flawed:

Situational awareness is the skillset and related state of mind that allows one to effectively perceive the world around them.

That's fuzzy and descriptive rather than defining, and seems to broadly describe what I would call being perceptive. If I had sharper eyes, would my SA be better? Or would that not count as a skill? Is the ability to concentrate on something part of SA? How about eidetic memory, balance/kinesthesia, absolute pitch, pattern recognition, psychological resilience, spatial visualization, or eye adaptation?

In my opinion SA should properly be defined prior to any sequence posts or, if that would be impractical, the term should be tabooed.

comment by katydee · 2013-01-30T22:17:28.195Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the feedback. An expanded definition is forthcoming in the first post.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-01-30T15:11:38.451Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Situational awareness is further lauded by elite military units, police trainers, criminals, intelligence analysts, and human factors researchers. In other words, people who have to make very important-- often life-or-death-- decisions based on limited information consider situational awareness a critical skill.

Note that most of those people operate in very time-sensitive environments. Yes, perceptual efficiency matters a lot with limited information.

In general, I agree that SA is useful, though I wouldn't quite call it the zeroth skillset. For the sequence, are you intending a description of what being SA means, or are you trying to prescribe a training regimen for SA? If so, remember to build small skills in the right order.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-01-30T15:16:44.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It may be a matter of connotation vs. denotation. Situational awareness is usually taken to mean keeping track of immediate sensory information in order to take life-saving or injury-avoiding action, but I don't think it's unreasonable to expand situational awareness to include Fleming noticing that penicillin was killing his bacteria.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-01-31T17:06:45.338Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I remember a story where the perfume of a woman messed up some biology experiment. When she was in the room the experiment produced different results than when she didn't. If you run any scientific experiement it's important to be able to notice alternative ways of why your experiment produced the result that it did.

comment by katydee · 2013-03-07T02:13:24.921Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Update: The next post in this sequence is coming as soon as I post the two posts about getting offended that took over my brain's writing module. The first of those, if you're curious, is here.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-01-31T08:04:33.614Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How general is this skill? Will it allow me to get better at researching things using the internet or solving math problems?

comment by Exiles · 2013-01-31T10:54:42.831Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It may improve your working memory, which would help you with those problems, John Maxwell IV, but probably not.

comment by shminux · 2013-01-30T22:17:29.026Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Here is my take on the list of mistakes from your poker link that seems to be related to situational awareness, directly or indirectly, classified by levels:

  • Inattention is the tendency to fail to concentrate on information that could be useful for future decision making. (Failure of perception, L1)

  • Clustering illusion (Apophenia) is the tendency to see patterns where none exist. (Failure of comprehension, L2)

  • Projection bias is the tendency to unconsciously assume that others (or one’s future selves) share one’s current emotional states, thoughts and values. (Failure of projection, L3)

Of course, L3, " extrapolating [...] information forward in time to determine how it will affect future states of the operational environment" includes basically all of the instrumental rationality skills.

comment by katydee · 2013-02-07T20:53:01.394Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The next post in this sequence is running slightly late but will be posted within the next two days, three at most. This comment is a commitment device-- downvote me heavily if I do not post the next post by 11:59 PM (PST), February 9th, 2013.

comment by dhoe · 2013-01-30T15:09:49.780Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I disagree with the importance you seem to place on it. Situational awareness implies realtime processing of high bandwidth environmental data, and that's orthogonal to rationality (cf. your stereotypical situationally unaware professor, lost in thought, and processing some data far away from the situation).

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2013-01-30T19:21:33.792Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Taboo "processing." There are at least two things you or katydee could mean by this, one of which is processing using System I, and one of which is processing using System II. The former seems extremely valuable to train with respect to the kind of information System I should be good at processing, e.g. fast-moving dangerous things, the body language and facial tics of other humans, etc.

comment by Eneasz · 2013-01-30T20:41:07.503Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

On a tangent, the terms "System I" and "System II" do not signal anything in their naming. Something a bit more descriptive would be nice. Like "Twitch System" and "Chess System", or really just about anything that invokes some imagery.

comment by syllogism · 2013-01-30T21:33:58.533Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I could be wrong but I think that was regarded as a feature not a bug when they were named. The authors didn't want them to become little homunculi with personalities that gradually built through folk lore. I think given the way the popular scientific press operates I think this was actually very prescient. Just think how the idea of your "reptile brain" has entered the popular consciousness...

comment by dhoe · 2013-01-31T09:11:51.341Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Are you attributing dual process theory to CFAR? In any case, situational awareness is not rationality, nor is it indispensable for it. I don't argue that it's nice to have, as are many other things, although I'd worry about trade-offs.

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2013-01-31T09:24:18.834Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I wasn't aware it was called that or pretty much anything about its history until just now. I'll edit.