book review General Psychology Psychology in Everyday Life

Review of ‘The Scout Mindset’ by Julia Galef

Recent books in popular psychology, and particularly those about our capacity for judgment and reasoning, don’t paint a flattering picture of our intellectual capacities. They argue that we deceive ourselves, that we become satisfied with a feeling of knowing rather than knowing, that we instrumentalize our capacity for reason to justify what we want (and what we want isn’t itself decided by reason), that we conform unthinkingly to established norms and group opinions. These arguments, it goes without saying, have motives and consequences. I tend to think that both of those (and especially the consequences) deserve an ongoing examination. We could ask, for example, do we feel more inclined to pay attention to and take responsibility for our thinking and decision-making, after we read a book about the subject? Are we charged with an attitude of “Why bother?” or with an attitude of “Let’s get to work?”. Do we pay attention to our own thinking, as opposed to focusing on others or on humanity as a whole? And what about our perception of the boundary between the experts and the laypeople? Does that boundary become thicker and more difficult to cross, as a consequence of the popular treatments of human psychology? Is it the reader that is elevated by the book or is it the pedestal on which the experts stand?

My thinking about these questions is related to why I liked Julia Galef’s book, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. Reading this book, I believe, would encourage us to take responsibility over our thinking process; it would encourage paying attention to the our own thinking (as opposed to a passive and unproductive pessimism about the unthinking masses or those people with their incorrigible biases); and, in doing so, it subverts the boundary between the rational experts (who are equipped to write books about our irrationality) and the laity (who are informed about themselves, thanks to the experts). The books, and the approach, that I am criticizing responds to the limits of human rationality, by reinforcing the dichotomy between experts and non-experts. Galef’s approach is superior and preferable, in my opinion, because she does not reinforce that tendency.

It’s not that Galef has found a whole new set of material for her book. Much of her material can be found in other books about human (ir)rationality. It is that she treats the material through a different lens, with a different attitude, an attitude that is responsible, practically minded, and hopeful. Given that we are changing constantly, that our minds are in constant motion, we could ask: Why not, to some limited degree, take charge of this constant and inescapable motion? Galef gives us a kind of compass, by introducing the distinction between the Soldier Mindset and the Scout Mindset. By personifying this distinction, by introducing them in terms of types of persons, she has made the compass more effective and “readable”.

Soldier versus Scout

What is the difference between the Scout and the Soldier? To give a short answer, their difference is in their commitments. Soldiers are committed to their sides, their positions, they can get defensive or go on the offense, they can win or lose. Scouts, by contrast, aren’t committed to a side, but to finding out the truth, to finding answers to their questions, to finding acceptable justifications for any given position. The Scout, therefore, would try to see the reasoning behind (and the appeal for) both sides of an issue.

Rather than asking, “Is it true?” (in the style of the Scout Mindset), the Solider asks two different questions. She asks, “Can I believe it?”, when considering an idea she prefers to accept. Asking, “Can I…?” gives your imagination license to search widely, yet selectively, for reasons to accept the idea. On the other hand, the Soldier asks, “Must I believe it?”, with an idea she prefers to reject. Asking, “Must I…?” gives your imagination license to search widely, yet selectively, for reasons to reject the idea.

Identity: Heavy versus Light

An important consequence of adopting the Scout Mindset is for the person’s identity or self-image. The Scout tries to keep their arguments and their self-image separate from each other. The Scout doesn’t identify with positions in the same way that the Solider does (“I am pro-choice”, “I am an atheist”, “I am a science advocate”, etc.). The Soldier statements link the speaker’s identity to one side of the debate, such that defending that side turns into a defense of your self and your group. One of my favorite chapters of the book (Chapter 14) is titled, “Hold Your Identity Lightly.” In this chapter, Galef encourages us to see why we can be more effective, more flexible, and more truthful in our reasoning, if we don’t carry a heavy baggage of identity-related commitments. In our recent Reading Group discussion, we connected Carl Jung’s treatment of persona to the commonly used type of qualification that begin a statement, “As a scientist…,” “As a mother…,” “As a Christian…,” These statements can deprive the speaker of their individuality (and their individual responsibility over the current activity of thinking) in favor of the group/type/persona with which they identify. The persona is an achievement of the collective and, as such, our reliance on it can be an escape from the present reality, into the (past) achievements of the society.

Conclusion & Further Reading

I would recommend Julia Galef’s book to anyone who is interested in a balanced, engaging, and hopeful treatment of human rationality. It is hopeful because it enlarges our view, rather than restricting it. It is a treatment that doesn’t just elevate the experts, but we the readers, as well. If you are convinced of the importance of Galef’s project and would like to go further, I’d also recommend the following three books: The Conflict of Mind by O. G. Rose, Reason & Rationality by Jon Elster, and Respect for Thought: Jan Smedslund’s Legacy for Psychology (edited by Tobias Lindstad et al.). If you’d like to support my YouTube channel and join our Reading Group, please visit my Patreon page.

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