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Topic 3: Tools of Rationality


This week’s theme is about improving our ability to think and reason, especially when facing complex problems. We strongly recommend reading them in the listed order, as the resources build on each other.  While this week has a higher number of resources, most of the posts and articles are quite short. Consequently, the predicted total reading time is the same as previous weeks, at approximately 1 hour.   

Note that this week, you will discuss these readings in-depth at a 1:1 session with your personal mentor. 

Essential readings (expected reading time 1h)

This Medium article (7 min) is a great introduction to rationality. It explains the differences between epistemic and instrumental rationality and provides examples of cognitive biases. Overall, the author does a fantastic job articulating why humans can be irrational, and thus why learning about rationality can be tremendously valuable, helping us improve our thinking and decision-making. 

Next, this LessWrong post (2 min) succinctly highlights the importance of self-skepticism, and how it increases the chances of you reaching robust and meaningful conclusions about the world. 


Another important principle to be aware of is Expected Value Theory, which is concisely explained in this EA Concepts post (3 min). It provides a concrete example to demonstrate how the theory works, and why it can be helpful in decision-making. 


This related EA Concepts post (2 min) builds on expected value theory, exploring risk aversion and the merits of risk-neutrality. Then, it identifies how risk-neutrality can lead to fascinating and surprising conclusions, particularly about careers, investments, and donations. 


In addition, this Conceptually post (2 min) explains counterfactual thinking, and the related notion of opportunity cost. It then highlights the real-world implications of counterfactual thinking, with a striking example from global health. 


In a similar vein, this Conceptually post (2 min) provides several examples of marginal thinking, and how it can guide us towards making more effective decisions in a variety of areas. 

This CrashCourse Psychology video (11 min) provides great context around cognition and heuristics. It also explains several different cognitive biases, and how they can trip up our day-to-day thinking. 


This article from the Library of Economics and Liberty (4 min) is a nice introduction to comparative advantage, and how we can use this principle to delegate tasks and responsibilities efficiently. Feel free to only read the intro and skip the excerpt sections.  

Finally, this EA Handbook article (8 min) explains scope insensitivity through several clear and engaging examples. Moreover, it demonstrates how scope insensitivity can severely limit our understanding of different problems. It concludes by emphasising why we need to guard ourselves against it.    

Optional readings

This video by Julia Galef (12 min) is a great visual guide to Bayesian thinking, which is a way of updating your beliefs as you encounter new evidence.  

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