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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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