Better has an ambitious mission: to research, develop, and share the best ways people can improve their lives and the world. There are countless ways to potentially improve life; over millennia, humanity has tried everything from protective magic to ward off evil spirits to caloric restriction to extend lifespan. Unfortunately, the majority of these ways don’t work. Of the ones that do, only a small fraction are the absolute best ways to try. There has never been a dedicated effort to identify the absolute best ways to improve life—until now, with Better.
Given the enormous breadth and depth of information that exists about life, and the challenge of separating what’s best from what works and what works from what doesn’t, Better has begun developing a research framework that will allow us—and humanity in general—to find the best ways to live life as speedily as possible.
The EPITOME Framework
We are calling our initial framework the EPITOME framework. It has five steps:
- Exploration: There are many ways to potentially improve life. Ideally, we would find as many of them as possible to make sure we don’t miss low-hanging fruit or ways that are better than other ways that we’ve found. Practically, we want to try to find the best ways really quickly and ignore the others. There are two types of exploration: active and passive. With active exploration, we will try to quickly find the best ways to improve a specific aspect of life, relying on precise research scoping, efficient ways to scan broad amounts of information, trusted information sources, and high-quality evidence. With passive exploration, we will monitor high-quality information sources and leverage crowdsourcing to discover new information and ways that could affect our existing recommendations.
- Prioritization: Some ways to improve life are much better than other ways. Once we find out about a new way, we need to be able to quickly estimate how promising it is so that we can determine if/when to invest more resources in researching it. We have created the ABCD prioritization framework to estimate how impactful a particular way to improve life is. We multiply the number of people it could affect (audience) with the cost-and-risk-adjusted impact per person (benefit), the likelihood of it working (confidence), and percentage of people that would adopt it (difficulty).
- InvesTigation: If a way seems very promising, we need to determine if it will work or not. Our investigation process involves following best practices with reasoning (including epistemic humility and reasoning from first principles), employing active exploration to gather pertinent information (including confirming and disconfirming evidence), and creating formal and information reasoning aids to clarify reasoning and minimize bias (like argument maps and double crux) in order to reach the best conclusions.
- Optimization: If a way works, we need to determine if it is the best way to improve a specific aspect of life. We will first compare the way on a broader level with other ways and determine which high-level way is best. Ideally, we would have analyzed other high-level ways in the past, and if not, research into other high-level ways is required. If the high-level way looks promising, we will examine the details of how someone can best implement that way, which can include identifying the best practical steps to take or things to buy to best implement the way.
- MEdiatization: Mediatization is how media affects important areas of society like politics and business. We will produce media (writing, videos, etc.) that recommends the best ways to improve life, and we will optimize to have the highest impact possible. Oftentimes, this will involve explicitly highlighting how a way can influence people, organizations, and society as a whole.
The EPITOME framework relies on many mental models and heuristics (some opinionated, some not) for how the world works, how to do research, and how to reason. We’ve documented these models and heuristics in five steps, in rough order of when they are used in EPITOME.
Step 0.1: How The World Works
Better exists because we believe that there are many things that are imperfect in the world, and many of these imperfections are entirely optional and inflicted by individuals and society upon themselves. Individuals and society do this because they are either less than perfectly moral, or less than perfectly rational and strategic. Our research method will focus on the latter problem; we believe that with better knowledge and reasoning, we can make things better.
Eliezer Yudkowsky’s book Inadequate Equilibria, which is available for free online, covers why we do not live in an “adequate civilization,” and instead in one where imperfections on an individual and societal level exist at a vast scale and produce unimaginable levels of harm. In Chapter 1, on an individual level, Eliezer describes how he treated his wife’s depression with a simple strategy that, tragically, could likely improve the lives of millions of other depressed people but is completely ignored by everyone. On a societal level, he describes how the Bank of Japan, a reputable institution, needlessly inflicted trillions of dollars of damage on its own economy, and how such a thing is even possible. Understanding humanity’s civilizational inadequacy is critical in understanding why Better even exists; ideally, there would not be imperfections so large we can find easy ways to greatly improve the lives of millions of people, but sadly we can.
The Open Philanthropy Project’s article on Reasoning Transparency covers why the vast majority of writing (and information) does not easily and clearly make their reasoning easy to replicate. This is unfortunate because it forces us to either trust something, or spend large amounts of time trying to recreate an information source’s reasoning. We will use this understanding of reasoning transparency to gauge higher quality content from lower quality content, as well as shape Better’s internal and public writing and information.
Step 0.2: Reasoning
In addition to believing that better knowledge and reasoning can improve the world, a perspective supported by Inadequate Equilibria, here at Better, we also adopt a stance of epistemic humility. Epistemic humility involves recognizing that our own knowledge and reasoning are limited, and that there is a possibility that other views are correct. We aim to almost never hold a belief of view with “100%” confidence. Given the number of people and beliefs on the planet, statistically, it is nearly impossible for people to be correct with all of the things they believe are correct, including Better. It is also almost certain that future generations will view many of our current beliefs in a completely different light, as evidenced from our views on the beliefs of past generations. Regarding confidence estimates, as documented in the book Superforecasting, people are generally very poor at accurately predicting things and accurately conveying their own level of confidence. We want to use the recommendations in Superforecasting to learn how to better convey our own levels of confidence in our recommendations and the supporting arguments, evidence, and predictions in those recommendations.
First principles reasoning is an important way to improve how we reason, as captured by Wait But Why in their article on how Elon Musk has been so successful. Farnam Street also has an article advocating for it and explaining how to do it. This is important in Better’s research. For example, we can use first principles reasoning to understand how common and less common ways to live life work and what effects they have on us. We can then use this understanding to determine which way is likely to be best, and why. As another example, first principles reasoning can help us understand how the world and life works, and then think of novel ways to improve it.
Cognitive biases are the many ways our brain does not think in rational ways. The Decision Lab has an excellent list of common biases. Biases can range from consistently underestimating how hard things will be (which is why projects always seem to be going over time and over budget) to using whether something easily comes to mind to estimate things (for example, overestimating the risk of planes due to media coverage of plane crashes, and underestimating the risk of cars). Here at Better, we want to follow practices that minimize bias. With Better Research, we want to be cautious of confirmation bias, which can cause us to only search for evidence that confirms our existing views.
Step 0.3: Research Sources and Tools
Hierarchy of Information Sources
Information sources are of utmost importance when doing research. High-quality information sources employ good reasoning and evidence, and will allow us to quickly arrive at the right conclusions. Lower-quality information sources can cause us to miss out on key information and strategies, and as a result produce suboptimal recommendations.
We categorize information sources from the highest level to the lowest level.
Types of Source
Clearly, websites, academic studies, and expert interviews are very different from one another. All have their pros and cons. We will generally use multiple types of sources, in particular, websites, academic research, books, and people in our network. We will most commonly use online research due to its ease of access, speed, and breadth. Unfortunately there is a lot of low-quality content on the internet, and we will need to use various strategies to overcome this problem. The following categories will use websites as examples of classification.
General-Purpose Information Sources
General-purpose information sources can be used in isolation or with several related sources to find information on a vast array of topics. The highest-level general information source for the web would be a top-level domain, like .edu, which can only be used by accredited institutes of higher education for the most part.
This category also includes common websites like Reddit and Wikipedia, which we commonly use at Better (we can use websites in many ways, and not necessarily for evidence; for example, Wikipedia can be a good gauge of the neutral/consensus view on a topic).
Individual websites and small collections of websites in a certain area also fall under this classification. For example, we will sometimes search thoughtful publications such as Aeon, Nautilus, and BBC Future to get well-researched, thoughtful takes on issues, and websites that have book summaries to information that may only be in books.
Broad Information Sources
We use broad information sources to reliably get information about a specific area of knowledge. For example, the Cochrane Collaboration is a great way to understand the consensus academic view on medical issues, and Consumer Reports is a great way to get information on the best products in a particular area.
Better is particularly interested in organized information sources for a specific area, which we call a database. An example of a database would be Greater Good in Action, an organized resource on positive psychology.
Specific Information Sources
Specific information sources contain information about a very specific topic. This is generally a standalone article or webpage. Here, the reliability of the publisher matters, but so does the actual content in the source itself.
Evaluating Evidence/Source Quality
Depending on the source, we may be interested in:
- Relevance - Does this source pertain to what we are researching?
- Author Background - Is the author trustworthy? Do they have any biases or conflicts of interest, how much do they know about this topic, and how good of a thinker are they in general?
- Evidence Quality - Does the author cite high-quality sources? How many? How high on the evidence hierarchy is the evidence presented? Is the evidence accurate represented?
- Consensus - Does this article align with the overall consensus, if there is one? Does it present multiple points of view, or just one?
- Writing Style - How well does the author write? Is this an intellectual article? How long is it? How well is the author reasoning, including reasoning transparency?
- Website - How good is the website? Is it organized in a way that makes it easy to find information?
Each factor can be scored on a numeric scale, for example 1–5, and combined together to create a holistic score for the source.
When evaluating academic research, LessWrong has a great article introducing the why and how of literature reviews.
We recommend learning about and using advanced Google search techniques. This series of articles covers some common techniques we use, including site limited searches (air quality site:bbc.com/future) and exact searches (”delegative” “DAO”).
It is very helpful to store your research progress in a knowledge management tool to synthesize information and for future reference. This could be done with a research-specific tool, like Zotero, or in a general-purpose tool, like Notion (which we use at Better).
Step 1: Research Scoping
It is important to understand the exact research question and scope of the research in order to avoid hours of wasted time searching for irrelevant information. It can help to create a research plan before doing the research, as well as break the broad research question down into parts.
Step 2: Breadth Research Methods
When researching a new/unfamiliar space, it’s important to get a sense of the entire landscape in an efficient manner. If this isn’t done, it could be possible to miss entire areas of knowledge that could be pivotal in affecting research outcomes. This process also helps with understanding and prioritizing the specific items that need to be researched, as well as identifying quality sources of information.
There are several strategies that can help with rapid learning:
- Scan general-purpose information sources to quickly get a sense of the entire space. For example, Wikipedia, .edu sites, and Reddit.
- Identify high-quality broad information sources and/or use existing sources if available. For example, if you are researching a health topic, it would be prudent to check sources like the Cochrane Collaboration, which does unbiased systematic reviews of health-related topics.
- Scan the topics covered by organized collections of information in the area of research, such as books, online courses, and online database. You can also read reviews and summaries to go slightly more in-depth.
- Deliberately search for different perspectives.
Knowledge gaps are missing areas/bits of information that can greatly affect research outcomes. For example, Better often searches for the best products and services to meet certain needs. If we are unable to find some that actually exist, we may provide the wrong recommendation, or even mistakenly conclude that no relevant options exist. This can have significant consequences on our public recommendations and internal decisions.
In order to avoid this, you can utilize several strategies to find relevant information:
- When using online searches, try searching many times in a row with different keywords, both changing them incrementally or dramatically depending on what results come up
- Use keywords and phrases from relevant content that you find to inspire additional searches; this can involve diving deeply into what you are researching and finding specialized terminology that can assist the search
- Try using exact word and phrase searches, which involves using quotation marks around keywords with Google Search
- Use the triangulation method to find information, which includes a variety of strategies
- Try different informational sources to find information (for example, try Google Search, Google Books, Google Scholar, and if time allows, also interview experts, etc.)
- If resources permit, have different people try to find the same information separately
- Utilize different data sources and methods
- Specifically seek out related/adjacent sources of knowledge (for example, research other infectious diseases when researching COVID-19) and attempts to do or research something similar (for example, if designing a process or framework, look for similar processes and frameworks)
Step 3: Depth Research Methods
Utilizing trusted sources, quick results for high-qual info
Searching informational sources specifically - See Google, Merit, active/passive exploration
Evaluate new sources - curation guidelines, source credibility in Tracy Truthfinding, writing quality
Levels of evidence
Strategically using sources; biased, secondary vs. primary, etc (saving time)
Utilizing informal/secondary sources to shortcut information acquisition, must be able to accurately assess reasoning
Use biased sources to get different POVs, double check reasoning (example: Brave)
Step 4: Reasoning Process
Gather confirming and disconfirming evidence as needed after looking at argument, go back up the research process (scope needed info, breadth/depth as needed, incorporate new information into reasoning)
Create reasoning aids (argument maps)
No documentation, notes, listing arguments in a structured way, using a formal argument map
At first, we will publish our recommendations in our initial recommendation template. This template adapts to whichever phase of EPITOME a potential recommendation is in.
E: Only title required, put in appropriate category, flag with hyphen, internal
P: Fill in initial ABCD, perform initial fermi
IT: Investigate if it works
O: Optimize if needed (may not require a check if publishing in existing space)
ME: Fill in template, document specific impacts on various aspects of society, internal review, then external review and publish
Quantification and Estimation Method
Conversion Table, document what’s best there
Overall Score: Use conversion table for final result
Audience: US population percentage
Benefits (Net): Use conversion table for net benefits