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The Scout Mindset

The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't

by Julia Galef

read in November 2021

book info on goodreads

All reasoning is directionally motivated reasoning; our conclusions are always biased by unconscious motives. This is the core premise underlying Julia Galef's book. But just because all reasoning is motivated does not mean that we cannot do something about it. For Galef how we acknowledge, question, and work with our biases is a mindset question.

She distinguishes between soldier mindset and scout mindset. Soldier mindset is about protecting one's ego by finding comforting but blinding narratives and by avoiding negative emotions. For examples, as academics we often convince ourselves about the novelty of our ideas, the originality of our theories, and the ingenuity of our methods, more so than what they really are. This often requires us to intentionally misunderstand or misinterpret other's work thus constructing a straw man argument no one is actually making. Scout mindset, Galef's core idea and title of this book, describes the idea that some people are aware of the limits of their understanding, are open to new information, and embrace changing their mind.

... they're more genuinely desirous of the truth, even if it's not what they were hoping for, and less willing to accept bad arguments that happen to be convenient. They're more motivated to go out, test their theories and discover their mistakes. They're more conscious of the possibility that their map of reality could be wrong, and more open to changing their mind.

Technically, making the shift to scout mindset is easy. Even though it can be even stronger when shared with others, one only needs to acknowledge to oneself that we were wrong about a decision we made. Galef's book can be boiled down to an eight-step guide that everyone can apply to practice Scout mindset in their everyday decision-making processes.

First, we need to become aware and acknowledge the kind of biases that could impact on our decision making. Galef suggests several thought experiments that can help us become aware of these biases. These experiments include the double standard test (Am I judging other people's behaviour by a standard I wouldn't apply to myself?), the outsider test (imagine someone else stepped into your shoes—what do you expect they would do in your situation?), the selective sceptic test (imagine this evidence supported the other side. How credible would you find it then?), and the status quo bias test (imagine your current situation was no longer the status quo. Would you then actively choose it?).

Second, such thought experiments also help us calibrate our own decision-making processes. We become more aware of our overly certain claims and ask ourselves how sure we really are in a particular situation.

"Happily, calibration is a skill with a quick learning curve. A couple of hours of practice is all it takes for most people to become very well calibrated—at least within a single domain, like trivia questions."

Third, decision making based on the Scout mindset is all about planning for uncertain or unexpected scenarios. Our usually response to an uncomfortable situation or worrying though is to explain it away. "This won't happen to me." Instead, by thinking such events through beforehand and making a plan for how we would act if the unlikely would actually happen, we are treating the unexpected scenario as a real possibility rather than falsely rationalising it away.

Fourth, Galef suggests to train our mind in a form of Socratic dialogue. We usually blind out opinions and media that stand in opposition to our own beliefs and assumptions (social media has even algorithmically configured this phenomenon). Yet, when actively seeking and listening to an author or news source that differs from our opinions, but has a coherent argument we are more likely to engage with the opposing side rather than simply dismissing it.

Fifth, similarly, when engaging with individuals we should listen to them and try to understand their point rather than dismissing their point of view as misguided all too quickly. Behaviour that might appear irrational to us nevertheless makes sense to them. Our aim should be to understand why it makes sense to them and not to us.

Sixth, Scouts look for opportunities to learn from their mistakes and update their beliefs. For a scout new information is not a threat to one's beliefs or reasoning process, but an opportunity to improve. Instead of dismissing them as outliers, they actively seek exceptions to their beliefs and focus in on observations that they cannot yet explain with their current theory.

"But most of the time, being wrong doesn't mean you did something wrong. It's not something you need to apologize for, and the appropriate attitude to have about it is neither defensive nor humbly self-flagellating, but matter-of-fact. Even the language scouts use to describe being wrong reflects this attitude. Instead of 'admitting a mistake,' scouts will sometimes talk about 'updating'."

Your worldview is a living document meant to be revised.

Seventh, these success in updating one's beliefs should be shared with others as much as possible. It is important to let those that played a role in the updating process know that one's beliefs have been changed. Scouts are never too proud to acknowledge that others have convinced them to adopt new assumptions or explanations.

Finally, identities of one's beliefs should be held lightly. One's identity should serve as a description, not a central source of meaning in one's life. Holding your identity lightly keeps your mind flexible and free to follow the evidence. It allows you to perform, what Galef calls, an ideological Turing test of the other side. Only by arguing for the other side yourself can you truly start to appreciate the other's point of view.

Galef's book resonates with other recent ideas on decision-making and biases such as Kahneman's work. While the whole solider versus scout mindset metaphor seems to somewhat lead away from the core argument about motivated decision-making, the book covers several interesting ideas. To me what was most valuable were the multiple thought experiments that Galef describes. These experiments combined with the eight step guide will certainly be useful to get to the bottom of the question "Is it true?"

Julian Prester © 2022