Arkham Intelligence has been thrust into the limelight thanks to its new ‘dox-to-earn’ program, which has also invited increased scrutiny of its founder, Miguel Morel.
Before Morel founded Arkham, he co-founded Reserve alongside Nevin Freeman. Reserve is another cryptocurrency company focused on over-collateralized stablecoins.
However, Freeman and Morel also have a history that predates Reserve, involving a strange group of Silicon Valley thinkers. This group hoped it had chanced into revolutionary new psychological tools that would enable it to correct serious mental health issues and enable people to become more effective.
Freeman met self-proclaimed philosopher and research program designer Geoff Anders during a time when he was looking for a new purpose in life. He’d shifted his focus from climate change to other things he believed posed an existential risk, such as Artificial General Intelligence.
In the early 2010s, Anders formed Leverage Research to focus on some of these existential risks and to explore his novel ‘psychological’ hypothesis, Connection Theory. Freeman was one of the very first people to join Leverage Research.
A few years after Leverage Research was started, Freeman co-founded Paradigm Academy. When asked about what motivated him to start the organization, Freeman said, “We reached a certain point in the research where we thought we may be within striking distance of basically turning our psychological tools into a comprehensive training program that people could do for a couple of years … and come out the other side significantly more effective.”
Other members saw the launch of Paradigm Academy as evidence that people outside the organization believed they were on to something: “It signaled that we had found a promising line of research that we believed (and angel investors tentatively believed) could be a profitable business model with enough continued R&D.”
Paradigm Academy’s business model was centered around providing people with training based on Leverage’s psychological work in exchange for a portion of their future income. However, this business model was never fully implemented as Paradigm was shut down towards the end of 2019.
Morel wasn’t impressed with Paradigm’s training
Morel would join Paradigm after high school as an “entrepreneur-in-residence,” which was not a staff position but did allow Morel to experience the training offered by Paradigm. Morel described it as, “More a hobby where I got to hang out and chat startup stuff with tech people on occasion.” Freeman said of Morel’s time at Paradigm that he didn’t immediately take to the training, claiming that Morel “tried out our training tools” and “wasn’t that impressed” because the “training didn’t really work for him” and “he stopped doing it pretty quickly.”
Morel may not have taken to Paradigm’s training, but it did provide an important networking opportunity. Indeed, it was out of Paradigm that the Reserve Protocol would arise. Freeman said that he was motivated to “create a currency that would outlast empires rising and falling.”
Working with Morel, Reserve recruited heavily from Paradigm Academy. Indeed, Freeman said that, in the beginning, “basically a hundred percent” of its members were recruited from Leverage Research or Paradigm Academy. This included Leverage Research founder Anders, who helped advise Reserve and received compensation for those efforts.
Freeman said that he was motivated to start Reserve because he “would like to be one of the people who has a boatload of money and is willing to fund things before they’re popular that are really important to the world.” Leverage Research said of his motivation, “Reserve is a cryptocurrency project founded by Nevin Freeman, an early employee at Leverage, for the sake of raising money for non-profit causes (including Leverage).”
Is Leverage Research a cult?
Leverage Research and associated entities like Paradigm Academy have been accused of being ‘cult-like’ or a ‘high-demand group’ by former members.
These accusations center around some of the strangeness at the core of Leverage Research’s work. When Leverage was founded, one of the main things it started looking into was Anders’ aforementioned ‘Connection Theory,’ which he felt was a uniquely powerful method to help people understand their own minds.
Anders said that he believed this theory had enabled him to “predict a number of antecedently unlikely phenomena, and the predictions appear to have come true at a very high rate.” He also believes that it was responsible for enabling him “to work for more than 13 hours a day, with only occasional days off, for more than two years. I attribute this to CT and I expect we’ll be able to replicate this. If we end up not being able to, that’ll be obvious to us and everyone else.”
This push towards effectiveness and productivity was very important to this organization, with a former member saying that the “overarching objective was to discover and “update” deep irrationalities and eventually become a sort of Musk-level super-person (“attain Mastery” of a world-saving-relevant domain).” Apparently, members “genuinely thought we were going to take over the US government” using “‘super weapons’ or ‘super theories,” including their “One True Theory of Psychology.”
These are clearly very difficult goals to achieve, which may have contributed to some of the other choices that complicated the organizational experience. These included the fact that early on, many members of the organization lived together, blurring normal lines and complicating certain parts of the work.
Further complicating things is the fact that Anders, the leader of the organization, had sexual and romantic relationships with multiple other members.
In this environment of enmeshed platonic, professional, sexual, and romantic relationships, the organization began looking into a variety of different research topics, with many of the most important being those that built on Anders’ own psychological theory.
Multiple techniques ended up being developed. These included:
- ‘Belief Reporting‘ where you pay attention to subtle changes in your body to try to see if you are aligned with your beliefs and intentions,
- ‘Charting,’ that encouraged people to attempt to map their mind and beliefs, and
- ‘Intention Reading,’ which one former member described as “something like mind-reading,” and involved the use of non-verbal communication to judge others’ ‘intentions.’
Normally, psychological research is done in a highly regulated manner under the oversight of an Institutional Review Board (IRB) and often under strict ethical frameworks to prevent harm to participants.
However, both Leverage Research and Freeman have confirmed to Protos that the research was not conducted with an IRB.
They also confirmed that there was not a published ethical framework, and Leverage stated that it instead “relied on its internal culture, rather than published ethical policy to help its researchers make good decisions with respect to their research.”
Was anybody involved an actual psychologist?
The organization lacked familiarity with psychology research norms. This is understandable as Anders wasn’t a psychologist, instead having an academic background in Economics and Philosophy. Other members who were vital to the documents published about the research, like Kerry Vaughan, also had backgrounds in subjects other than psychology (Vaughan’s was in philosophy). Freeman’s background is in transport engineering.
Both Leverage and Freeman claimed that all participation in this psychological research was ‘opt-in,’ and felt that this helped reduce some of the most harmful risks associated with the research. Despite these assurances, one former member said:
“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,’ and ‘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.”
Freeman also felt that the team wouldn’t be able to conduct this research in a conventional manner, telling Protos that it was “different from the dominant psychology research paradigm” and that to have this research conducted in a more conventional manner would have required them to “convince academic psychologists first that their entire approach to research is not the … correct one.”
They felt this way because, according to Freeman, “no one’s publishing anything that’s like, here’s how we think the mind might work. No one’s doing what Freud was doing … or what Jung was doing.”
When asked about other psychological techniques that acknowledge the mind or beliefs that have been published, Freeman chose to highlight that, in his opinion, “academic psychological research efforts … don’t generate things like CBT or EMDR.”
Protos asked Leverage Research and Freeman why none of this research was submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal; Leverage Research responded that it “anticipates there will be,” and Freeman stated that “it might make sense to do that on Leverage Research’s techniques at some point.”
This is despite the fact that when Leverage Research restructured into “Leverage Research 2.0,” it moved on from most of this research.
The lack of peer review makes it difficult to assess the quality of the research, but ‘LessWrong’ community members have highlighted issues with research methodology and the fundamental assumptions about the nature of beliefs in light of existing peer-reviewed psychology research.
These non-peer-reviewed psychological techniques, developed without an ethical framework and with no review board, were apparently used in long ‘debugging’ sessions of up to six hours where members tried to break through their ‘limiting’ beliefs to help people become a ‘self-debugger’ and become vastly more effective.
These sessions were made more complicated by the complex mix of professional, platonic, sexual, and romantic relationships that co-existed in the house that many members lived in. A former member said that in these sessions, “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.”
Power imbalances made things worse
This setup resulted in people feeling as though the results from these vulnerable psychological sessions were affecting their ability to advance in the organization, with this same member indicating that another member told them, “My funding was in question — they had done all they could do to train me and thought I might be too blocked to sufficiently progress into a ‘Master’ on the project.
“They and Geoff were questioning my commitment to and understanding of the project, and they had concerns about my debugging trajectory.”
Another member did confirm that “a trainer’s assessment of your mental configuration and blindspots might actually be triggering for them and/or be used as rationale (along with more traditional views of you as a teammate) for dialing back the amount of time and energy they’d be willing to invest in training you, or for trying to influence what your role in the project should or shouldn’t be.”
Leverage’s own public report on some of these events did note that “many individuals felt some form of pressure to engage in training” and “instances of power imbalances … likely only made this problem worse.”
When asked if these power imbalances made this research effectively less opt-in or crossed ethical lines, Freeman said he believes there are “benefits and costs to engaging in deep psychological conversations with people that we were close with.”
“I think we did cross that line,” he then admitted, but quickly added, “I think that the way that people see it from the outside … isn’t usually right.”
Freeman and Leverage Research both wanted to highlight that Leverage lacked normal hierarchical job structures, and many of these power imbalances were not seen as classic ‘supervisor-worker’ relationships.
Some within the organization believed that a more accurate categorization would be to call the team lead a ‘sensei’ and the traumatized member an ‘apprentice.’ Those who advocated for this also highlighted that, “It seems likely that both parties would feel pressure: the teacher feeling pressure to support the apprentice and help her to gain skill to keep her funding status in good standing (also balancing their investment in a new researcher against the pull to continue their own research or invest in others), and the apprentice feeling pressure to make personal progress, help her pod-mates, and display her commitment.”
The former member who had a very negative experience with these techniques said that she “experienced a cluster of psychological, somatic and social effects that radically impacted my wellbeing.” These effects are typically associated with cPTSD, including some unique to experiences with cults.
She added, “These experiences were completely unfamiliar to me and were unique to the two years after I left Leverage.” She also highlighted how, in her time there, she saw someone experience what she believed was a psychotic break that may have been a byproduct of these techniques.
It was these debugging techniques that were fundamental to Paradigm Academy’s training methods.
The group was scared of magic and ‘powered-up’ rivals
Outside of these psychological techniques, this member also reported instances of ‘woo’ being part and parcel of the experience with Leverage Research. They stated that people were concerned about “a rival group having done ‘magic’ that weekend and clearly having ‘powered up.’“
They apparently believed that they needed to debug the effects of being around that powered-up group, which they said was attacking them or otherwise affecting their ability to trust their own perception. She herself said that she “went through many months of near-constant terror at being mentally invaded,” claiming that her only source of help became the leaders of her own subgroup, who unfortunately were also completely caught up in the mania and had their own goals and desires for her that were mostly definitely “not in her interest.”
She added that she prayed for hours most nights to rid herself of specific ‘demons’ that she felt she’d “picked up from other members of Leverage.”
The member in question also suggested that there was an ‘unofficial NDA’ and that Anders repeatedly pressured her to sign it by claiming that she was the only person who hadn’t done so. Other members have claimed that they don’t remember an NDA or that while they do remember an information-sharing agreement, they perceived it as innocuous.
Despite this, there was something of a culture of secrecy, with a former member telling how Anders became concerned about the risk of malevolent actors using these powerful techniques and decided to stop sharing as much of their research publicly.
Anders was at the center of this organization to such an extent that a former member claimed that another member told her that they “hate to think of the consequences for the world if anything happens to his head.”
This led to some members apparently claiming that “Geoff is maybe the only mind who has ever existed who is capable of saving the world” and that “Connection Theory is the One True Theory of Psychology.”
Outside of this, there was a member of the LessWrong rationality forum who self-identified as a former cult member and cult leader and said this organization seemed very similar. Furthermore, another member said that Geoff represented that if he had not started Leverage Research, he would have been running a cult.
Not quite a cult?
After the publication of a blog post from a former member describing how Leverage Research and Paradigm Academy had traumatized them, there was a reaction post from another former member entitled ‘In Defense of Doing Hard Things.’
In her piece, this member confirms that she had also “experienced almost all of the trauma symptoms” that were described but added that she “has a different perspective on why that is.”
She conceded, “If you have a bunch of weird(?) people experiment on their own minds and also each other, you would maybe imagine that could lead to bad effects and/or things might fall apart at some point.
“Perhaps this is why some people found Leverage to be a bad idea from the outset.”
Despite this fact, she said that it’s regrettable that the project has been labeled a cult, as that term is “basically used as a slur in mainstream society.”
She continued to reference Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’ speech and instead characterized the group as an “ambitious experimental psychology and sociology research community.”
Even Freeman says that he “still applies those techniques to myself every couple days … and it makes a difference to my life.”
This group, who lived together and had intertwined professional and personal relationships, believed that using non-validated psychological techniques developed by their leader in an ethically fraught manner would enable their group to transform themselves into abnormally high achievers who could change the world.
It serves as an example of the importance of many of the ethical policies that are part and parcel of research on human subjects and have been developed over many years to mitigate the long history of harm caused by this type of research.
Two separate cryptocurrency companies have clear links to Leverage Research: Reserve Protocol, which initially had effectively sourced “100%” of its employees from this group, and Arkham Intelligence, whose founder has moved on from charting his beliefs to trying to chart all cryptocurrency addresses. The founder of Leverage Research, Anders, will financially benefit if Reserve succeeds.
Update 2023-07-31 19:25: Changed the description of Kerry Vaughan’s relationship to the research, a previous version said that he was “vital to the research”, but Vaughan stated to Protos that while he helped document the research, he had not participated in the research itself.