Book Notes: ‘The Scout Mindset’

The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t
By Julia Galef
Portfolio 2021

We live in an increasingly polarized world. All spheres of life are becoming politicized. Tribalism and zero-sum thinking seem inescapable. In this context, Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset is a refreshing (and much needed) call to lead more rational lives.

We’ve been sold self-deception as a way to get ahead. (E.g., by projecting unwarranted confidence.) The book makes a compelling case for making clear and realistic assessments instead. It’s a practical guide on how to stop deceiving yourself — “to see things as they are, not as you wish they were.” The goal: to know truth in service of better decisions, leading to more skillful actions.

The emphasis is on practical. There are lots of other books on cognitive biases. The Scout Mindset focuses on putting this knowledge into action.

Knowing that you should test your assumptions doesn’t automatically improve your judgment, any more than knowing you should exercise automatically improves your health. Being able to rattle off a list of biases and fallacies doesn’t help you unless you’re willing to acknowledge those biases and fallacies in your own thinking.

The book’s core distinction is between soldier mindset, which defends and attack ideas (“like defensive combat”), and scout mindset, which constantly revises its understanding towards a surer hold on truth. Most of us unwittingly operate from a soldier mindset.

Developing a scout mindset requires that we notice biases in our thinking, and do something about them. And it’s not just acknowledging biases to tamper them down, but about using them in service of clearer thinking. For example, we can harness our tendency to be driven by identity by self-identifying as a scout. The goal isn’t to become an unemotional automaton, but to see reality clearly, without delusions or overconfidence.

If the image that comes to mind is Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, The Scout Mindset will disabuse you. Galef went through the majority of scripts featuring the character and noticed Spock’s vaunted rational mind is uncalibrated with regard to the outcomes of his predictions. Worse, he seems unable to learn from experience. This is because he’s a caricature designed to contrast the emotional, “human” Captain Kirk.

This caricature is representative of how society views rational thinking as a whole: unfairly and ignorantly. In her book, Galef herself comes across as a better role model for actual rational thinking: clear-headed, transparent, practical, and humane. I came away convinced we need more scouts and fewer soldiers; The Scout Mindset offers practical advice that will help you make the shift.

See the book in the Open Library