Cover image for The Scout Mindset

Reasoning

The Scout Mindset

Julia Galef's 'Scout Mindset' acts as an accessible term to cover practices taught in both the sciences and liberal arts. It will change the way you think, for the better.

Rating:

Table of contents

  1. Summary
  2. Key Takeaways
  3. Personal Notes

Summary

The Scout Mindset presents two opposing approaches for engaging with information in our daily lives: as a soldier, or as a scout.

The soldier mindset focuses on the defence of existing viewpoints, and the attack on information that would expose our held views as false. By contrast, the scout mindset focuses on openness, investigation, and regularly updating our worldview.

Galef suggests that soldier mindset evolved to sustain social cohesion, and ensure tribal norms were upheld, but is an insufficient mental model for our hyperconnected global society. She positions scout mindset as a more suitable mental model, as the amount of information we consume on a daily basis requires vigilance and examination so that we do not accept what we see, hear, or read without consideration.

Galef calls on us to view reasoning as a form of mapmaking, and to ensure that our "map" of knowledge, or of our identity, is as accurate as it can be. Discovering that we are wrong about something should be a simple "update" to the map, rather than seen as a personal failing.

Key Takeaways

  • Motivated Reasoning: Soldier mindset can be categorised as directionally-motivated reasoning — a phenomenon where a person is inclined to a particular bias when evaluating new knowledge. Scout mindset is instead focused on truthfulness, and can be considered accuracy-motivated reasoning.
  • Reasoning as Mapmaking: A key aspect of the scout mindset is ensuring that mental "maps" are kept as accurate as possible. This overlaps with mathematician Alfred Korzybski's famous idea that the map is not the territory: a reminder that our abstractions and models are flawed, and do not fully represent the reality of life.
  • Be Prepared: Scout mindset asks us to critically evaluate our plans, interrogate our beliefs, and question our assumptions. It does not accept information at face value, nor does it rely on optimism to ensure a goal is met. It is the critical thinking equivalent of the famous boy scout motto.
  • Comfortably Wrong: Galef suggests that the more scout mindset-oriented actions you take, such as fact-checking before citing information, and realigning your thoughts when you're proven wrong, the easier it will become over time. This could be considered The 1 Percent Rule for reasoning, where slight improvements to critical thinking over time accumulate into significant results.
  • Updates, Not Mistakes: The scout mindset asks us to consider errors in judgement, or our views being corrected, as "updates" rather than personal failures. This reframing helps us to adjust our thinking without blame.
  • Note the Extraordinary: Galef asks us to pay attention to anomalies, and consider them as puzzle pieces that may eventually find a home. A practical example of this is avoiding the normalisation of deviant processes or practices in the workplace, by paying attention to subtle cues in your surroundings.

Personal Notes

This is one of my favourite books this year. As a long-time member of the world scouting community, I admit to being drawn to this out of curiosity, but then found it impossible to put down.

Part teaching-through-storytelling, and part handbook for reasoning, Julia Galef coins and describes two opposing modes of thought: scout and soldier mindset. The former, and the main focus of the book, she defines as follows:

I call it scout mindset: the motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were. [1]

The latter, soldier mindset, she defines based on the use of "militaristic metaphors" when referring to reasoning, and the language of defense or attack when engaging in arguments.

Personally, I found the following quote by Upton Sinclair to be a useful reference for soldier mindset:

It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. [2]

As it is written for a general audience, Galef's "mindsets" act as accessible (and catchy) terms to cover practices taught in both the sciences and liberal arts, such as the scientific method, research methodologies, and critical thinking. For those who have read David Foster Wallace's This Is Water, it should be easy to see parallels here, with a disciplinary reframing.

My favourite concepts from the book were the different types of motivated reasoning, which I hadn't come across before, and the idea of "updating" your map. Seeing corrections as "updates" is a wonderfully simple way of challenging the fear of being wrong, which in my field, software engineering, is rife.

I would recommend this book to knowledge workers, but believe it would be as equally valuable to anyone wishing to improve their thinking.


You can pick this up on kindle, or buy a physical copy, here on Amazon.


[1] Galef, Julia. The Scout Mindset : Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. London, Piatkus, 2021.‌

[2] “It Is Difficult to Get a Man to Understand Something When His Salary Depends upon His Not Understanding It – Quote Investigator.” Quoteinvestigator.com, 30 Nov. 2017, quoteinvestigator.com/2017/11/30/salary/.

Sign up, break it down.

Every month or so I write a newsletter called Deconstruct, where I share actionable insights on learning, creativity, and improved thinking.

It also includes early previews of upcoming posts, and a behind-the-scenes look at my work.

50+ readers love it. Check out a sample, to see if it's right for you!

Privacy is very important to me, and I will never send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time using the link provided in every email. See my Privacy Policy for more detailed information.