My Experience with Leverage Research

I was part of Leverage/Paradigm from 2017–2019. This is a description of my time there.

The Main Leverage Building

I. Context

Effects of Leverage on Me — What Are The Stakes Here?

II. Concretes

A Taste of How Out of Control This Got

III. Final Notes

How did genuinely smart, good-hearted, intelligent people get wrapped up in all this shit?

I. Context

Effects of Leverage on Me — What Are The Stakes Here?

Since leaving Leverage/Paradigm in 2019, I experienced a cluster of psychological, somatic and social effects that radically impacted my well-being (these effects are typically associated with cPTSD, including some unique to experiences with “cults,” less sensationally called “high-demand groups” or “high-control groups”). These experiences were completely unfamiliar to me and were unique to the two years after I left Leverage.

  • night terrors
  • trouble sleeping
  • hyperarousal
  • startle responses
  • triggers flinging me into flashbacks/trance states/paranoia/terror/shutdown
  • avoidance/dread of the people and places associated with Leverage
  • radical changes in emotional regulation noticed by those around me including inhibited or explosive rage, terror spirals, and lack of laughter or smiling
  • (new) difficulty trusting others
  • some memory loss
  • depersonalization
  • derealization
  • episodes of “trance states” and other numb dissociated periods
  • feelings of being fundamentally “defiled” or “ruined”
  • On rare occasion, suicidal thoughts

Why I Haven’t Talked About It Until Now

Before I get into the specifics of what happened in Leverage, I want to provide some context.

Fear of Response

Leverage was very good at convincing me that I was wrong, my feelings didn’t matter, and that the world was something other than what I thought it was. After leaving, it took me years to reclaim that self-trust. I’d get angry at something they did and then wonder if I was just being dramatic. Am I playing the victim? Why does nobody else seem upset?

It’s Still Confusing

This whole experience was really fucking confusing. The gaslighting and lack of public knowledge has exacerbated the struggle for a coherent description of events and dynamics, and I spent a long time believing I was at fault for the pain I was going through. I’ve never been so confused or overwhelmed by anything in my life.

Relationship to Other ex-Leveragers:

I still care very much about the people who were there when I was.

Unofficial NDA

Geoff had everyone sign an unofficial NDA upon leaving agreeing not to talk badly about Leverage, and agreeing that he would narrativize the whole place in a way that was favorable to all of us. I am the only person from Leverage who did not sign this, according to Geoff who asked me at least three times to do so, mentioning each time that everyone else had (which read to me like an attempt to pressure me into signing).

Who am I?

Here are some facts about me:

Benefits of Leverage

I know we’re already elbow-deep in context — I promise I’m getting to the meat and potatoes of everything shitty about Leverage. But before I do, I want to give credit where due.

Variations in Responses

One final piece of context. Why do people say such different things?

Subgroups Were Very Different

These variations in response, however, go beyond variations in individual personality structure — there were also enormous cultural differences between subgroups at Leverage. The subgroups themselves went through constant changes and restructuring, so who was in which groups, the names of groups, the leaders of them (with the exception of Geoff, who was always head of project), the level of exclusion they practiced, the requirements within them to maintain one’s funding — these things all changed very often.

Workshops Were Pretty Chill

If you had brief contact with Leverage (i.e. went to a workshop or socialized at events), chances are good that you had a great experience. Some people were repulsed by something in our vibe (“seems culty” & “seems elitist” were common critiques) but I’ve also heard many people say they found the people earnest, intelligent, and helpful, the tools very useful and clarifying for their personal goals. That makes sense to me. I think the really dysfunctional stuff only affected those who were there a long time.

II. Concretes

A Taste of How Out of Control This Got

To give you a picture of where the culture eventually ended up, here’s a list of some things I experienced by the end of my time there:

Concrete Features of Leverage

This is a list of internal narratives and features of Leverage that I think were either harmful or place it definitively in the category of a “high-control group.”

World-Saving Plan:

1. People (not everyone, but definitely a lot of us) genuinely thought we were going to take over the US government.

Geoff’s Specialness — “Things Are Only Real Once Geoff Makes A Theory About Them”

Geoff and his theories had a kind of glow, a kind of special prestige and mystical strength.

Personal Life Attendant Upon Geoff

Some peoples’ personal life plans were influenced by things Geoff did or made theories about. I heard at least two members say, “I’m waiting to decide about kids until we know if the project has kids,” or “I’m waiting about marriage until Geoff decides/releases a theory.”

Rarity Narratives

There was a narrative at Leverage that we had access to great things — this was mostly Geoff himself, the psychological tools and techniques, Geoff’s theoretical process, and the harder-to-pin down values of rigor, truth-seeking, self-reflective methodology, and a genuinely scientific approach.

“Debugging” Culture

There are a lot of questions about the culture of debugging at Leverage. What was it like? Was it really optional? Asymmetric? Was there oversight?

What is “debugging?”

Skip this if you already know.

Was Debugging Required?

The explicit strategy for world-saving depended upon a team of highly moldable young people self-transforming into Elon Musks. For a long time, what was asked of me in order to maintain my funding was to “become a self-debugger” — become capable of working with my own mind effectively enough to be able to change it in the direction that would be useful for the project, which it was assumed was also the direction I’d obviously want, because right now I wasn’t a powerful Elon Musk type, and obviously I was here because I didn’t want to keep being an ineffective, unagentic powerless normie forever (this was not remotely the self-concept or set of concerns with which I entered Leverage, but it was a shameful prospect by the time I left). I sat in many meetings in which my progress as a “self-debugger” was analyzed or diagnosed, pictographs of my mental structure put on a whiteboard. What were my bottlenecks? Was I just not trying hard enough, did I need to be pushed out of the nest? Did I just need support in fixing that one psych issue? Or were there ten, and this wasn’t going to work out?

Teacher-Student Asymmetry

Trainers were often doing vulnerable, deep psychological work with people with whom they also lived, made funding decisions about, or relied on for friendship. Sometimes people debugged each other symmetrically, but mostly there was a hierarchical, asymmetric structure of vulnerability; underlings debugged those lower than them on the totem pole, never their superiors, and superiors did debugging with other superiors.

Pre-Determined Ends

In my early days, the debugging seemed much more open-ended, curious, and similar to regular therapy. In retrospect, it came to feel decided beforehand what was acceptable to believe. If I didn’t come to the same conclusions about project strategy, group culture, Geoff’s theories, etc, it was definitely because I just wasn’t “there yet.” I wasn’t smart enough. After the first seven months or so, I no longer debugged myself or theorized to find the as-yet-unknown truth; I did so to try to see the truth that they saw, to integrate and perceive what they perceived as my reality. This seemed like the path to being valued and valuable.

Purity Goals

There was kind of an implicit goal to eventually have no more irrationalities left. I heard at least four people there talk about “when we have no more psych issues,” this kind of golden age we’d achieve as a prerequisite to the kind of skilled mastery of the external world that would make the project succeed.

Pressure to Debug Other People

I was repeatedly threatened with defunding if I didn’t debug people. But I didn’t want to do it; every time I tried, I got brain fog and couldn’t focus. Especially as our techniques and my skill improved, I was making contact with another person’s mind, body, energy, memories, family history, or even with parts of them I wasn’t sure they had access to — their shadow, their subconscious. It was precious and intimate to be in such close contact with someone else’s mind, but throughout all of it the goal (especially when the pressure was on for my funding) was to “improve their trajectory,” “help them become a master” “make them more trainable” “get over their introspective blocks.” I didn’t know how to hold the expectations coming from the top that I “make them more productive,” or the sly implication that as the trainer, I knew better than they did what direction they should grow. I was expected to “diagnose their bottlenecks,” often without even asking them what direction they wanted to grow, or expected to interact with them somatically according to what I thought should happen in their bodies, like I was some sort of G-d.

Negligence and Seriously Bad Effects

This might be controversial, but I believe at least one person had a full-on psychic break from doing this work in this environment.

Culture of Confession and Criticism

I experienced a pattern in which I was repeatedly thrown into a position of social defense, and then attempted to repent, apologize, “own” my badness, or debug myself in order to make up for supposed harms I’d caused (to superiors, who would suddenly become very upset with me at random times).

Insularity, Social Isolation, Elitism

We could officially read anything we wanted, go where we wanted, talk on the phone to whoever, visit family, etc. That said —

Overwork and Busy-ness

We were kept extremely busy. I feel this is relevant because in further readings I’ve done about cult dynamics, totalism, and the eight criteria of thought reform, overwork and busy-ness is cited as an essential ingredient in making recruits mentally less resilient, less capable of critical thinking, and more susceptible to influence.

III. Final Notes

How did genuinely smart, good-hearted, intelligent people get wrapped up in all of this?

  • Most were extremely young. Not true across the board, but for the most part, recruits were 19–25 and leadership were 32–40.
  • Recruitment from nearby communities selected for goodness (EA communities) and for truth (rationality) as values. Leverage also specifically selected for extremely high openness people. Recruitment criteria changed a lot, but consistently included psychological analysis of a potential recruit’s openness to influence, via assessment of their “level of entrenchment” in preexisting beliefs or cultures.
  • It provided meaning, as these things do. Being very smart, passionate young people, what could seem better than working with other extremely dedicated people to do something good and powerful?

Even if I’m unusually sensitive or misguided in some ways, this still doesn’t justify what they did.

  • A common narrative at Leverage was that if you are hurt by this, you’re simply too weak or overly sensitive for this tough world, and I anticipate some of that narrative in response to my experience. But even if I was overly weak, or overly sensitive, that still doesn’t justify what they did. At the very best, Leverage still utterly failed to care for the emotional health of its sensitive members, which is a huge failure given their ambitions of running the world with a complete theory of psychology.
  • Leverage is still gaslighting people. See those PR posts on the recent LessWrong post, and what looks like a coordinated attempt at defense (notice the comment structure is very similar). No attempts for repair have been made at all.
  • The community still dissolved, and everybody lost some connections after investing heavily.

Why is this so important to me?

I saw Geoff is moving in the world.

  • He recently got a small Progress Studies grant from a known Silicon Valley funder.
  • If Reserve succeeds, he’s going to get millions of dollars, because they already agreed to this contractually. He might have a lot of power coming his way.
  • I’ve still heard about unknowing people being set up on calls with him. Some people might be fine. Others might be like me.
  • The rebranding of the website. This was a conscious rebrand that I’d heard discussed a bit as I was leaving. I’m pretty sure Geoff was afraid as everyone left that all the psychology stuff was going to look culty, and decided to do a hard science rebrand. The beakers and shit all over the website actually crack me up. It’s very try-hard. But it also demonstrates he’s still breaking his back to seem legitimate.
  • He deleted the entire slack and the entire online library. Maybe this is normal infosec practice but in this case, given everything else, it means it’s hard to find evidence against him. We joked regularly that if anyone ever saw the slack, we were fucked.

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