With an educational background in applied math and computer science, Spencer Greenberg has always gravitated towards technology.

I was very lucky to have great teachers throughout my life!

However, as he studied solutions yielded by cognitive science, and the literature that explained them, Spencer worried that they were not accessible to the general public. This disconnect is a significant obstacle in applying scientific research solutions in real life. As a response, he created ClearerThinking.org, a website with 22 free web-tools designed to help people achieve their goals in the most effective way possible.

spencer greenberg
Spencer Greenberg // Photo Courtesy of Spencer Greenberg

ClearerThinking.org aims to expand the frameworks through which we see and judge the world. By dissecting the many studies that —more often that not— go unread by the general public, Greenberg has been able to identify some of the common biases that limit our thoughts and actions. Through ClearerThinking.org, he provides the tools to break from these restricting habits.

Greenberg talks to us about his idea behind creating ClearerThinking.org and Spark Wave, his new company. “The way I think about improving the world is through the lens of technology. Not all of the problems are solved through technology but many are and many have been solved with technology. My question is, what are big problems in the world that software could help solve? And that’s what we [at Spark Wave] look for.” Once they find a problem that fits the criteria, they brainstorm a product or prototype to market as the seed for a new company.

So we are like a company that creates new software companies, designed to solve problems.

One of the prototypes Greenberg has helped develop is UpLift: an app designed to fight depression using cognitive behavioral theory, which is, “to oversimplify it…the idea that our thoughts affect the way we feel” and “our feelings affect the way we behave.” The Cognitive Behavioral Theory framework understands the mechanisms of depression and their cyclical nature. UpLift then uses these cycles and maps them out in order to teach people the skills to interrupt them. In addition, the nature of the program —which is “automated,” “customized” and “interactive”— puts forth a “self-directed” approach against depression. This “do-it-yourself” element that capitalizes off of the democracy of smartphones and apps allows UpLift to provide mental and emotional care on a much larger scale.

Spencer Greenberg // Centre for Effective Altruism

Greenberg continues talking to us about his fight to help people understand and regulate their emotions and the systems that help process and control them. In doing so, he has found a way to help people redirect their lives and use their time and energy in the most effective way possible in order to achieve their goals, whether they are professional, economic, personal or moral.

For example he explains to us intrinsic values. These are values that, “you would continue to care about even if they got you nothing else,” but that a lot of the time get sidelined by other ambitions or worries, such as a salary-paying job. Often, this shift in priorities is a symptom of narrow framing. What Greenberg explains happens is people get cornered into options that seem either safe or obvious to them because their reactive system is crammed into a previously outlined frame. Greenberg says, “your opportunity set is limited by your reactivity.” His tools and philosophy aim to push people to see beyond those preconceived boundaries, to seek something other than option A and B and begin to crave the gray space that exists between and around those options.

If you want to have an accurate understanding of the world you have to be able to see bad things about things you think are good, and you need to be able to see good things about things you think are bad.

Understanding that this duality is inevitable is not only essential to human compassion, but it is also essential in tackling the world’s problems, no matter how small or large.

Spencer Greenberg // Photo Courtesy of Spencer Greenberg

In reality, if you actually want to win in the long term, you have to understand the enemy. You have to understand the strengths and the weaknesses. Imagine if a general refused to actually measure how many troops the enemy has because they have to  believe that the enemy sucks. They’re not gonna win, right? So, it’s like this short sighted thing, where it is you don’t want to admit that there is anything good about the enemy, but actually if you want to win long term you have to understand, you have to deeply understand, the other side.

Spencer Greenberg reflects on the interconnectivity and complexity of the systems inside and outside us, and remind us that as our understanding grows so does our ability to interpret the world around us, identify its shortcomings and do our part in fixing them.