Initial thoughts about the early history of Circling

I spent a couple of hours over the past week looking into the origins and early history of Circling, as part of a larger research project.

If you want to read some original sources, this was the most useful and informative post on the topic that I found.

You can also read my curated notes (only the things that were most interesting to me), including my thinking about the Rationality Community.

A surprising amount of the original work was done while people were in college. Notably, Bryan, Decker, and Sarah, all taught and developed Circling / AR in the living spaces of their colleges:

“Even before this, Bryan Bayer and Decker Cunov had independently discovered the practice as a tool to resolve conflicts in their shared college household in Missouri,”

“Sara had been a college student, had discovered Authentic Relating Games, had introduced them into her college dorm with great success”

It reminds me that a lot the existence and growth of EA was driven by student groups. I wonder if most movements are seeded by people in their early 20s, and therefore college campuses have been the background for the origins of most movements throughout the past century.

There’s in  way in which the teaching of Circling spread, the way the teaching of rationality didn’t.

It sounds like many of the people who frequently attended the early weekend programs that Guy and Jerry (and others) were putting on, had ambitions to develop and run similar programs of their own one day. And to a large degree, they did. There’s been something like 10 to 15 for pay circling-based programs, across at least 4 organizations. In contrast Rationality has one CFAR, that primarily runs a single program.

I wonder what accounts for the difference?


  • Circlers tend to be poor, where rationalist tend to be software engineers. Circlers could dream of doing Circling full time, but there’s not much appeal for rationalists to be teaching rationality full time. (That would be a pay cut, and there’s no “activity” that rationalist love and that they would get to do as their job.)
  • Rationality is too discrete and explicit. Once you’ve taught the rationality techniques you know, you’re done (or you have to be in the business of inventing new ones), whereas teaching Circling is more like a service: there’s not a distinct point when the student “has it” and doesn’t need your teaching, but a gradual apprenticeship.
  • Relatedly, maybe there’s just not enough demand for rationality training. A CFAR workshop is, for most rationalists, is a thing that you do once, whereas Circlers might attend several Circling immersion or trainings in a year. Rationality can become a culture and a way of life, but CFAR workshops are not. As a result, the demand for rationality training amounts to 1 workshop per community member, instead of something like 50 events per community member.
    • Notably, if CFAR had a slightly different model, this feature could change.
  • Rationality is less of concrete thing, separate from the CFAR or LessWrong brands.
    • Because of this, I think most people don’t feel enough ownership of “Rationality” as an independent thing. It’s Eliezer’s thing or CFAR’s thing. Not something that is separate from either of them.
    • Actually, the war between the founders might be relevant here. That Guy and Decker were both teaching Circling highlighted that is was separate from any one brand.
    • I wonder what the world would look like if Eliezer coined a new term for the thing we call rationality, instead of taking on a word that already has meaning in the wider world. I expect there would be less potential for a mass movement, but more and affordance to teach the thing, a feeling that one could be expert at it.
  • Maybe the fact the Circling was independently discovered by Guy and Jerry, and Decker and Bryan, made it obvious that no one owned it.
    • If we caused a second rationality-training organization to crop up, would that cause a profusion of rationality orgs?
  • Circling people acquired enough confidence in their own skills that they felt comfortable charging for them, rationalist don’t.
    • It is more obvious who the people who are skilled in circling is, because you can see it in a Circle.
    • Circling has an activity that is engaging to spend many an hour at and includes a feedback loop, so people became skilled at it in a way that rationalists don’t.

There aren’t people who are trying to build Rationality empires the way Jordan is trying to build a Circling empire.

I get the sense that a surprising number of the core people of circling are what I would call “jocks.” (Though my actual sample is pretty limited)

  • Guy originally worked as a personal trainer.
  • Sean Wilkinson and John Thompson ran a personal tennis academy before teaching Circling.
  • Jordan was a model.

“Many of us lived together in communal houses and/or were in relationships with other community members.”

They had group houses and called themselves “the community”. I wonder how common those threads are, in subcultures across time (or at least across the past century).

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