If someone had mentioned “scout mindset” to me a week ago, I would probably have thought they were referring to mottos of the scouting movement such as “Be prepared!” and “Do a good turn every day!”. Since then, I have had the opportunity to read Julia Galef’s book, Scout Mindset, Why some people see things clearly and others don’t, which was published last year.
I think this is a remarkably good book - even though it has left me feeling somewhat more modest about the accuracy of some of my perceptions.
Scout mindset versus soldier mindset
Julia Galef defines scout mindset as ‘wanting your “map” – your perception of yourself and the world – to be as accurate as possible’. The scout aims to form a map of the strategic landscape. The scout mindset is characterized by accuracy motivated reasoning and guided by the question: Is it true?
By contrast, “soldier mindset” is aimed at fighting off threatening evidence. It is directionally motivated reasoning, evaluating ideas through the lenses of “Can I believe it?” and “Must I believe it?”
Galef suggests that soldier mindset is our default setting, and argues that in many, if not all situations we would be better off abandoning it and learning to adopt a scout mindset instead.
I am inclined to the view that intuitive thinking is our default setting, and that there are often good reasons to be reluctant to abandon intuitions and expectations that are based on patterns that have we have observed in the past. Nevertheless, it is probably fair to argue that most of us have a tendency to keep fighting conflicting evidence long after it should have persuaded us to change our minds. That is the soldier mindset. When we adopt a scout mindset, we begin to assimilate the evidence and re-assess our views sooner – perhaps by engaging in reasoning akin to Bayesian updating of probabilities.
Galef explains that there are several reasons why people tend to adopt a soldier mindset. It enables them to avoid unpleasant emotions by denial or by offering comforting narratives. It helps them to feel good about themselves by maintaining illusions. It helps them to motivate themselves by exaggerating their chances of success. It helps them to convince themselves so they can be more successful in convincing others. It enables them to choose beliefs that make them look good. It also helps them to belong to social groups of like-minded people.
The author suggests that scout mindset is more useful to us than for our ancestors. I have some reservations about that claim. Scout mindset would have been a useful attribute for our hunter and gatherer ancestors when they were searching for food. Nevertheless, she is persuasive in arguing that, by comparison with your ancestors, “your happiness isn’t nearly as dependent on your ability to accommodate yourself to whatever life, skills, and social groups you happened to be born into”.
In subsequent chapters, Galef proceeds to discuss how to develop self-awareness, thrive without illusions, change your mind, and develop a scout identity. In what follows, my focus is selective. Readers seeking a more comprehensive review should also read Jon Hersey’s article in Quillette, which persuaded me to read the book.
It seems to me that the strongest objection that people raise to having accurate perceptions of themselves is that self-delusion serves them well. The strongest objection to seeking accurate perceptions relating issues of public policy is that it is not worth attempting because the individual voter’s influence on policy outcomes is insignificant. I will look at those objections before discussing scout identity as an objective of personal development.
Does self-delusion serve us well?
A substantial amount of psychological research purports to show that people who deceive themselves are happier than realists. Galef points out that these research findings are based on measures of self-deception that lack any objective standards of reality as a basis for comparison. They use measures of self-deception that conflate positive beliefs with illusions. For example, the measurement methodology assumes that people who claim that they never get angry are deceiving themselves. Similarly, people who claim that they always know why they like things are assumed to be deceiving themselves.
It is not necessary for us to deceive ourselves about the probability of success before embarking on new ventures. Galef refers to Elon Musk as an example of an investor who has proceeded with ventures even though he has a clear-eyed view that they have a low probability of success. When asked why he has said:
“If something is important enough you should try. Even if the probable outcome is failure”.
A gamble can worth taking if the expected payoff (value of each outcome x probability of occurrence) is positive.
There can also be an issue of perspective involved in assessing probability of success. I find it helpful to think in terms of adopting a player mindset rather than a spectator mindset. On the basis of past performance, spectators might be justified in assessing that the player has low probability of success in a particular event. However, a coach who knows a great deal about the player’s capability might have good reasons to suggest to her that the spectators are under-rating her chances. Encouraging the player to adopt a mindset that makes use of her inside knowledge might induce her to take a more positive attitude toward training etc. My point is that adopting a player mindset is an exercise in realistic self-appraisal, rather than self-deception.
Julia Galef is not alone in being critical of empirical research which purports to show that holding positive illusions about oneself tends to promote happiness. As previously noted on this blog Neera Badhwar has also taken that position, and has argued strongly that realistic optimism about oneself and one’s future beats unrealistic optimism. Badhwar also notes that Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, leaders of the human potential movement, viewed realism as central to mental health and well-being. She notes that in Rogers' view the fully functioning individual is open to experience, distorting neither his perceptions of the world to fit his conception of himself, nor his conception of himself to fit his perceptions of the world. I find this particularly interesting in the light of Rogers’ use of Alfred Korzybski’s notion that “the map is not the territory”. Carl Rogers recognized that our maps do not serve us well if they are not realistic.
Why seek accurate maps of public policy issues?
Readers who are familiar with Chapter 6 of Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing will be aware of my concern that individual voters lack incentive to become well-informed about policy issues. Most voters are either apathetic about politics, or view it in the same way as they view sporting contests. They cheer for their team and jeer at their opponents.
Galef discusses Bryan Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. In explaining what he means by rational irrationality Caplan suggests:
“In real world political settings, the price of ideological loyalty is close to zero. So we should expect people to ‘satiate’ their demand for political delusion, to believe whatever makes them feel best” (The Myth of the Rational Voter, p 18).
Galef rejects the view that voters are rationally irrational on the grounds that it implies that they are “already striking an optimal balance between scout and soldier”. She seems concerned that if she were to accept that rational irrationality is widespread, she would have to appeal to the desire of the readers of her book to be good citizens, and/ or to love truth, in urging them to adopt a scout mindset.
However, it seems to me that readers of this book who have any interest in politics are more likely to be Vulcans than Hooligans – to use the terminology of Jason Brennan (in Against Democracy, 2016). Vulcans try to avoid bias, while the Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. The Hooligans are so wedded to soldier mentality that their beliefs are determined by the social groups that they identify with. The only hope of persuading these soldiers to modify political beliefs that are at variance with reality rests with the ability of scouts to persuade the generals (opinion leaders they respect) to modify their views.
Galef has little respect for those Vulcans whose reasoning resembles that of Spock in Star Trek, but has plenty of advice for people who really want to avoid bias in beliefs relating to policy issues. For example, she discusses the research of Phil Tetlock, which suggests that people who are willing to make subtle revisions of forecasts of global events in response to new information tend to make more accurate forecasts than academic experts.
The author also has some interesting advice for people who want to reduce bias in their beliefs by exposing themselves to views outside of their echo chambers. Exposing partisans to the views of their political opponents tends to reinforce their existing views. She suggests:
“To give yourself the best chance of learning from disagreement, you should be listening to people who make it easier to be open to their arguments, not harder. People you like or respect, even if you don’t agree with them.”
Galef notes that identifying with a belief can wreck your ability to think clearly because you feel that you have to defend it, which motivates you to feel that you have to collect evidence in its favour. She suggests that activists are likely to be most successful if they hold their identity lightly enough to be capable of engaging with the views of opponents and making clear-eyed assessments of the best ways to achieve goals.
The author presents several arguments for seeking to adopt scout identity, but suggests that the most inspiring one is “the idea of being intellectually honorable: wanting the truth to win out, and putting that principle above your own ego”.
In reading The Scout Mindset, I was struck by parallels between the argument presented for adoption of scout mindset and the views of Robert Kegan on stages of mental development from a socialized mind, which enables people to be faithful followers and team players, to a self-authoring mind and self-transforming mind. Readers wishing to investigate further might find it helpful to read Immunity to Change, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. (I discuss the book here.)
In my view Julia Galef makes a strong case for people to seek to have realistic maps - perceptions of themselves and the world that are as accurate as possible.
The author successfully challenges research findings claiming that self-deception contributes to happiness of individuals, and she provides useful advice to those seeking to make their maps more accurate.
Galef offers particularly useful advice for people seeking better mapping of public policy issues. If you want to become less biased, listen carefully to the views of opponents you respect rather than seeking exposure to opponents you do not respect.
I agree with the author that the most important reason to seek to have realistic maps is because that is intellectually honorable. Scout mindset is a worthy objective of personal development.