Like a good origin story, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t, by Julia Galef (host of the Rationally Speaking podcast), is about the tension between two nemeses. The Soldier Mindset is our default thought process of motivated reasoning. The newly introduced Scout Mindset is “what allows you to recognize when you are wrong, to seek out your blind spots, to test your assumptions and change course.”
Examples of the Scout Mindset come from science, business, activism, politics, sports, cryptocurrency, and survivalism. Some famous exemplars of Scout habits are Abraham Lincoln, Chalres Darwin, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk. Galef’s favorite example is the Treatment Action Group, citizen scientists who worked against the AIDS crisis. Case studies span the political spectrum and various industries. The book also provides explanations for how to find constructive ways out of your filter bubble.
The Scout Mindset is broadly organized around three ideas: don’t choose between truth and achieving goals, learn tools to see clearly, and the emotional rewards of Scout Mindset.
The Scout chooses truth and dare
Soldier Mindset has both emotional and social benefits: comfort, self-esteem, morale, image cultivation, and belonging. But Soldier Mindset requires you to believe illusions and obscure the truth. That’s a price we should be unwilling to pay.
When a belief becomes an identity, evidence is considered based on being favorable, not based on it being informative. Your identity can turn empirical questions into ones that are much more emotionally fraught. Look for signs that a belief has become an identity in the way you communicate, and how you feel about it.
Hold your identity lightly by thinking of it in a matter-of-fact way, not as a source of pride and meaning. Treat that identity as contingent, because beliefs are contingent. Activists should focus on actions with high impact, rather than activities that satisfy an identity urge.
Enhance, enhance, enhance
Use thought experiments as precautions against fooling yourself, by identifying possible relevant biases and fallacies. The Scout Mindset offers a pragmatic list of questions, not an exhaustive list of biases and fallacies.
Are you applying a double standard? How would an outsider think of your situation? If your peers changed their minds, would you do it too, just to fit in? Are you employing skepticism selectively? Would you opt into your current situation given a choice, or are you just afraid to change it?
Quantify degrees of certainty by using “the Equivalent Bet test.” Imagine a game where the likelihood of winning is equal to what you think is the likelihood that your belief is true. If you calibrated correctly, you should be indifferent between which to bet on. You’ve converted your belief from a claim to a bet. The percentage of winning that game is equal to how confident you are in your belief. For more detail, see episode #197 of Rationally Speaking, with management consultant Doug Hubbard.
The Scout Mindset includes a test to practice calibrating yourself to the feeling of differentiating confidence in a belief. For example, how confident are you that flamingos are pink because they eat shrimp; 55%, 65%, 75%, 85%, or 95%? The point is to develop a sense of the different ranges of confidence, not to test your knowledge. To be well-calibrated, you should be right about your 55% level beliefs 55% of the time.
Update frequently and prove yourself wrong. Look for evidence that would lower your confidence in your map of reality; incremental updates add up. Look for and disclose a caveat or exception to your view. Seek empirical evidence that should make you slightly less confident in your position, and improve its overall quality.
Updates are refreshing
Tell other people when you realize they were right. It increases credibility, makes the lesson you’ve learned more likely to stick, reduces identity-induced inflexibility, and disarms others.
When facing an unpleasant truth, we may use a coping strategy to deal with stressful emotions. You don’t have to lie to yourself. Imagine your list of coping mechanisms, which includes self-justification, denial, and sour grapes. These employ self-deception. Add to that list coping strategies that don’t require self-deception, like noticing how far you’ve come, remembering that you can’t do more than your best, and summoning gratitude toward your critic. Even taking a deep breath counts, and that doesn’t even involve making a claim.
Notice when you use motivated reasoning: keeping an eye out for when you are in Soldier Mindset is an essential step toward reducing it. Spotting it is the fundamental requirement to making the switch to Scout Mindset. When you catch it, feel good that you will not cheat yourself out of clear thinking. “Our judgment is limited by our attitude more than our knowledge,” Galef says.
The map isn’t the territory
No map, model, or metaphor is completely perfect. The same is true for The Scout Mindset. The book would have benefited from a more detailed description of navigating one’s map and correctly scaling it. Real soldiers have a doctrine called an OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), which would challenge Galef’s distinction between the soldier and scout archetypes.
Always let your conscience be your guide
Galef offers persuasive critiques of the Rationally Irrational Hypothesis, the Positive Psychology literature, the Self-Belief Model of Success, Lincoln’s team of rivals, and hilariously, Mr. Spock’s predictable unreasonableness.
Case studies will stick with you long after reading. The organization of the material, the charts, graphs, figures, and humor all gave the impression that reading The Scout Mindset will be an unambiguous aid to making the habits of a Scout a part of your life.
So follow this guidebook, take pride in the resolution of your map, and in not behaving resolutely. The Scout Mindset concludes with a timely call for an increase in personal intellectual rigor – a Scout’s intellectual honor.
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