The Scout Mindset

It seems like every few months there’s another book published about how we can think better, think more clearly, think more long term, or just think again.

Judging from the level of discourse here in the US, it doesn’t appear to be doing much good. I wonder if these sorts of books appeal mainly to people who are pretty decent thinkers already.

Still, it’s a worthy endeavor, so here’s another one.

In The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t, Julia Galef writes that people have either a soldier’s mindset or a scout’s mindset.

With a soldier’s mindset, we defend our positions at all costs. We don’t think critically. We engage in motivated reasoning: looking for evidence that supports our viewpoint and resisting evidence that contradicts what we believe.

Galef argues it’s better to adopt a scout’s mindset: mapping out the terrain ahead as clearly and accurately as possible. Scouts are open to new facts and new ideas and use them to update their maps.

Julia Galef is an author and host of the Rationally Speaking podcast. She also co-founded the Center for Applied Rationality, a non-profit dedicated to “developing clear thinking for the sake of humanity’s future.”

Cover of The Scout Mindset

The Scout Mindset
By Julia Galef
Portfolio/Penguin, New York, 2021

One thing is clear from The Scout Mindset: it’s not always easy to be a scout. No one is a scout all the time or under all circumstances. Most of us are soldiers on some issues or in some situations. (Yup, I have no sympathy for anti-vaxers.)

The first thing that makes it hard to be a scout is that we all have biases. Galef spends several chapters explaining how we can recognize and then overcome our biases. She quotes Richard Feynman, the theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate, who famously said,

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

She suggests clever thought experiments to help you recognize your own biased thinking, such as testing your confidence in a decision by imagining alternative bets you might take on the outcome, something like answering “would you rather” questions.  

Second, we often find it difficult to appreciate the views of “the other side.” Galef says that the standard advice to get out of your echo chamber, while well-intentioned, usually doesn’t work very well. Immersing yourself in the views of the other side is just as likely to harden your original opinion. (So I don’t need to watch Fox News after all – phew!) 

But the other side isn’t crazy, Galef warns us. When you hear someone making an argument that sounds crazy, what you’re really hearing is a clue that you’re missing some piece of information or not seeing some contributing factor. So instead of rejecting the argument out of hand, Galef suggests that scouts “lean in to confusion,” accept the anomalies and actually go and investigate them. Small anomalies can eventually add up to a paradigm shift. 

Another thing that makes it difficult to be a scout is that we tend to incorporate our beliefs into our identities.  People say, “I am a Republican,” or “I am pro-choice.” This makes it harder to evaluate new facts, harder to change our minds, harder to update our maps.

So Galef advises us to “wear our identities lightly.”  Instead of saying, “I am an X,” she suggests we say “I am a person who supports or agrees with or believes in X.”  So, “I support the Republican political platform,” or “I agree with the pro-choice position.” These are less absolute statements and create a separation between our identities and our ideas.

There’s one exception, though. Galef suggests we “flip the script” on beliefs becoming identities to deliberately develop a scout identity. You could say to yourself, “I am the kind of person who values truth over ideology,” or “I am not someone who thinks it’s wrong to change my mind.”

The stakes are high, Galef says. We have more options about our careers, lifestyles, where we live, who we marry etc. than at any time in human history. So our choices are more consequential. Having an accurate map of our world is more important than ever.

“More and more, it’s a scout’s world now.”

Unsolicited Feedback

On the whole, I really like the idea of adopting a scout mindset. I do think it’s important for us to develop the mental habits Galef advocates in this book.

The Scout Mindset got me thinking about our experience during the pandemic. All of us in the public and in the scientific community have been learning about the Covid-19 virus for the past 20 months. We’ve had to update our maps repeatedly. At times this has been confusing and frustrating, and even the experts make mistakes. But that’s how science progresses; with each step we learn a little more and fill in more of the map.

So I liked Galef’s suggestion that scouts should lean in to confusion when we encounter anomalies or facts that we can’t explain. I think it’s healthy to accept that we don’t have to have all the answers right away. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know … yet.”

Also, I loved all the Star Trek references.

My main critique of the book is that it seems to be chasing two rabbits. Most of the book is about how to avoid self-deception to build a more accurate map of your world or your situation. But there are also several chapters about how to influence or convince other people. I felt these chapters weren’t clearly connected to developing a scout’s mindset. Instead they were digressions that blurred the focus of the book. The Scout Mindset is only 232 pages. It could have been shorter.

I probably would have liked The Scout Mindset more if I had not already read Adam Grant’s book Think Again earlier this year. (Here’s my review.) Grant advocates a scientist’s mindset instead of a scout’s, but many of the ideas are nearly identical. Grant generously provided a blurb for the The Scout Mindset, but in my view Think Again is the better book. To be fair, Grant also writes about how to rethink our own opinions and how to convince others, but it’s clear this was his objective from the outset so his book seems more cohesive. I found Grant’s writing livelier too.

Thanks for reading.

Related Links

Why you think you’re right – even if you’re wrong
TED Talk by Julia Galef, February, 2016

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2 Responses to The Scout Mindset

  1. The initial premise for this book sounded kind of silly and simplistic to me, but some of the specific advice you shared really grabbed me! In particular, I do have a hard time understanding republican positions these days. It’s very easy to dismiss them as irrational. I think it’s probably valuable to search for understanding of why a rational person would believe something that seems unbelievable to me. I’m worried that in our current moment, though, a lot of times the answer to this question may come down to an insurmountable disagreement about the facts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Harry Katz says:

      I think seeking to understand is valuable too. That doesn’t mean agreeing or even sympathizing. And the underlying reasons might still end up being irrational.

      Thanks for taking the time to read & comment!

      Like

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