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Julia Galef: ...why some people see things clearly and others don't

Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: And I'm Jan Black.

Laura: Have you ever paid much attention to your mindset? Do you wish that you had emotional skills, habits, and ways of looking at the world that served you better?

Jan: Our guest on this episode, Julia Galef, says you can learn new ways of looking at the world, and you should. Julia is the co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, the host of the podcast, Rationally Speaking, and the author of the new book, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. Julia, thank you so much for joining us.

Julia: Thank you. It's so great to be on the show. What a great intro.

Jan: You deserve it. Tell us what the scout mindset is.

Julia: The scout mindset is my term for the motivation to see things as they are and not as you wish they were. It's part of this larger metaphor of the book in which we humans are often, by default, in what I call soldier mindset, in which our motivation is to defend our pre-existing beliefs; so we defend the things we want to believe against any evidence or arguments that might threaten them. Scout mindset is an alternative to that. Whereas a soldier, their role is to attack and to defend, the scout’s role is just to go out and see what's really out there and form as accurate a map of reality as possible. The book is all about scout mindset, how to shift from soldier towards scout, and why we should do that.

Laura: Why is it that so many of us have this defensive mindset, even when we're presented with true information that goes against those thoughts? I'm sure all of us can think of situations where we've been in a fight, and we've gone so far, we believe our side, we're presented with different information, and yet, we still don't want to give up the fight, even though we know we're wrong.

Julia: I've been there many times myself. I should emphasize that even though I sometimes talk about scouts or soldiers, it's not like anyone is a pure soldier or a perfect scout, we're all a mix of scout and soldier. In different days and different contexts, we might be better or worse at being in scout mindset. What I'm trying to advocate is shifting somewhat from soldier to scout. I'm not claiming that anyone can really be a perfect scout.

To your question of why is soldier mindset so often just our instinctive default? I think it's a great question. I really try to take soldier mindset seriously and ask, "Why do we do this?" Not just take it for granted that it's pointless or useless. I think there are a few things that soldier mindset is trying to protect. For one thing, it's trying to protect our ego, our ability to feel good about ourselves, and feel good about our lives. We'll often try to instinctively defend beliefs that help us feel good about ourselves.

Then there's this other side of it where soldier mindset is trying to help us look good to other people. We might be really resistant to changing our mind because, on some level, we feel like that's going to make us look bad, or look weak, or look stupid, so we have this instinctive urge to resist that. Also, we might try to defend beliefs that help us look smart, or look virtuous, or we're mature. I might be motivated to defend certain political beliefs I think make me seem like a good person, or will make the other people around me who have those beliefs, will make them think that I'm part of their tribe, and that I'm a good person too.

Jan: How can we determine what mindset we have? I know you said that we each have a combination of scout and soldier, but do we tend to go more for one or the other, and how can we determine what it is?

Julia: It's a great question. I think most of us feel like we're being scouts. It's rare that anyone will say, "Of course, I can tell that I'm being unreasonable, biased, and unobjective here." No, we all feel like we're being reasonable and objective, even if we're kind of reasoning in a biased way. That's universal. Rather than asking yourself, "Do I feel like I'm a scout?" Or, "Do I feel like I'm a soldier?" I think it's more helpful to look at your track record of behavior.

There are some signs of scout mindsets that are, I think, better guides to how good of a scout you are. For example, can you think of times when you've proved yourself wrong? Maybe you were going to post something on Facebook or tweet something about some current events, then you looked into it more and decided, "Actually, no. I think I had that one wrong, so maybe I won't tweet this."

Or can you think of times in an argument where you recognize the other person was right, you told them so, and said, "Okay, maybe you have a point about this." I think things like that are good signs of scout mindset along with other things, like being able to name critics of yours, like critics of your beliefs, or critics of your lifestyle choices who you think are smart and reasonable, even if you disagree with them, instead of feeling like everyone who disagrees with you is all stupid and unreasonable. Those are a few signs of scout mindset.

Laura: The subtitle of the book is, Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. Why is that?

Julia: I should walk that back a little bit. As I say, we're all a mix of both, so I don't mean to say that there's some people who are completely unreasonable. But I do think there are some people who are better at seeing things clearly in some situations and I think it's valuable to figure out what they're doing right. A large part of it is just having strategies for looking good and feeling good, which, as I acknowledge, are really valuable things that are important for getting through the day as a human, having strategies that don't require a soldier mindset.

I think some people have better strategies, honest, non-self-deceptive coping strategies than other people do that really helps them. For example, suppose you're a door-to-door salesman and someone slams the door in your face, that's stressful and maybe hurts your feelings. So, of course, you reach for a coping strategy, something to make yourself feel better. A lot of people will reach for something like, "Well, she was a jerk." or, "It wasn't my fault." And that makes you feel better. It may or may not actually be true, but you kind of don't pay attention to that.

But then other people will try harder to find a way to feel good that doesn't require telling themselves something false. They might focus instead on the fact that, "Okay, yeah, she slammed the door in my face, but I'm getting better. People used to slam the door in my face every day, and now they slam it in my face every week or so. So it's progress." If that's true. The point is, there's usually true things that you can focus on that make you feel better instead of having to focus on false things to feel better. Does that make sense?

Jan: Yeah, that totally does. What are the factors that shape the way our mindset develops? Certainly on the surface, it seems like our mindset would be very much influenced by our parents, for example.

Julia: I don't know for sure, I don't think there's great research on this. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the way you were brought up influences your mindset. Are you praised for changing your mind versus are you punished for saying you don't know something? What kind of behavior do you see your parents modeling? That's got to make a difference, I would think. Even once you're an adult, I think it makes a big difference what communities you're a part of and what kind of values those communities have. There's a lot of variation in some workplaces or some social groups.

Maybe you've had this experience of being in a disagreement and the person says something and you pause to think about what they said. Just the fact that you're pausing, that you don't have an immediate rebuttal, causes them to grin triumphantly at you like, "A-ha! You can't respond immediately to my point." I hate that. If you're surrounded by people who do that to you, then that creates the strong pressure to always immediately have a rebuttal to something and to never take any time to consider that someone else might be right.

But if instead you're surrounded by people who are happy to let you think about things, change your mind, and praise people who admit that there's nuance in a situation and don't present things in a black and white way. Being surrounded by people like that creates a tailwind that makes it so much easier to be in scout mindset as compared to the first situation in which you're facing a headwind that makes it so much harder to be a scout because of the way other people treat you.

Laura: Do you think that texting makes it easier to be a scout, or does it make it a little bit harder? If you're able to write out your thoughts instead of having this one-on-one conversation with somebody where maybe emotions can get high and you have the adrenaline of being in a fight, I think sometimes with texting, it's a lot easier to be more well-thought-out.

Jan: That takes a minute.

Laura: Yeah.

Julia: That's a good question. I've noticed some variation in this. For me, that really helps. I've just learned from experience that I'm much better at taking the time to think about what the other person is saying and revising my response from the initial response, which was maybe a little more heated or a little less reasonable than I would like. Writing that out, reflecting on it, and rewriting it to something I think is actually more reasonable.

For me, that makes a big difference. I think the reason some people prefer in-person is that feeling of human connection, being able to read their body language, and see that they're not necessarily trying to attack you with what they say. I think the human connection can also help for some people, and in some sort of circumstances, help prompt them to interpret the other person's statements in a more charitable way. I think there are pluses and minuses is what I'm saying.

Jan: I'm wondering how much our habits get in the way of expanding our mindsets. In other words, I think for myself, if I've always done something one way and reacted one way to a particular situation, it's hard to change your mindset.

Julia: Yeah, it is hard, it really is. I encourage people to start small, and especially to not beat yourself up for not being perfect at this way of thinking right away. I think that's counterproductive to feel bad when you notice yourself in soldier mindset. I think, instead, you should feel good when you notice you're in soldier mindset, which might sound counterintuitive. But, as I say, soldier mindset is this universal, innate feature of human psychology. If you never notice you're in soldier mindset, what's more likely, that you're the one exception to humanity, or that you just aren't very self-aware? I think the latter is more likely.

I think you should feel good about becoming more self-aware and noticing the kinds of situations that tend to put you in soldier mindset, or the kinds of topics that tend to put you in soldier mindset, or the kinds of people. There's certain people where I know if I get into a disagreement with this person, I'm going to be in soldier mindset, and I need to watch out for that. So yes, I think an important first step in changing your habits is just becoming more self-aware and feeling good about that, and not bad about it.

I also advocate focusing on one or two things to try to work on at a time, maybe work on being more willing to say you were wrong. Maybe be more willing to think about that and send a couple emails to people when you remember something that they were right about that you haven't told them about. I think these kinds of incremental steps can be really valuable, and not stymie progress before it starts.

Laura: What are some other ways that we can try and work on that soldier mindset while so many of us are working from home, quarantining, and have time to really change that quality about ourselves if we want to?

Julia: Great question. You've probably heard already that it's valuable to get outside of your filter bubble, or escape your echo chamber, and try to read things from people who disagree with you, maybe people with different political beliefs. I do think that's a really valuable thing to do, but I think the way that people typically go about it is not all that effective. Typically, what they'll do is, like a liberal will turn on Fox News, or a conservative will maybe listen to NPR or something like that, they'll reach for whatever the most prominent representative of the other side is.

I think that doesn't tend to work very well, in fact, it often backfires. Liberals will come away from Fox News going, "This is even worse than I thought. I hate Conservatives even more than I realized." It kind of backfires, and I think that makes sense, if you think about it. The most prominent representative of the other side, how do they become the most prominent? They did it by playing to their base, and maybe presenting things in a really one-sided way that appeals to their audience and making fun of the other side, ie, you. That's exactly the worst kind of source to listen to if you're hoping to be able to stay open-minded and change your mind.

Instead, I think it's better to look for people who disagree with you with whom you have, at least, a little bit of common ground, maybe people on Twitter who are more conservative and you're more liberal. But you can at least recognize, "Okay, I can recognize that they're a good person," or, "I can recognize that they're smart and reasonable in some ways even if I disagree with them about a lot of important topics." Really, just be on the lookout for these people with whom you, at least, have some intellectual or some emotional common ground because those are the disagreements where you have the best chance of actually expanding your mind to some degree and not just coming away even more angry than you were before.

That's something you can do from home. When you're on social media or when you're reading the news, try to prioritize sources that make you more open to changing your mind instead of less.

Jan: When we talk about the mind, a lot of us tend to overthink some things in our lives. What's wrong with that and how do we move beyond that? How do we get past that?

Julia: I just laughed because on my website, I say, when I'm just describing in the About Me section, I say, "I have often been accused of overthinking things. And I'm still mulling over whether that accusation has merit."

Jan: I saw that, I saw that, which is why I wanted to ask you about it.

Julia: I think it's a great question. I think it's important to point out that being a scout does not mean obsessing over every single decision and being unwilling to act until you have all the information, which is a common failure mode. I think a common misconception of what it means to try to be rational or logical, and I think this misconception is often reflected in pop culture. If you watch Star Trek ever, you can see Mr. Spock, the supposedly logical Vulcan in Star Trek, one of the ways in which the show tries to show that he's perfectly logical is that he will often insist on, "Captain, we can't make a decision until we have all the information." This is clearly ridiculous because you're in a spaceship, you're trying to escape the enemy ships, and you have to just make a choice, right? You can't spend forever deliberating until you have all the info.

I think real life is often like this, you just have to make a choice sometimes. I think part of being a good scout is really trying to think honestly about like, is this a choice where it makes sense to keep deliberating? Sometimes there are really important, non-reversible choices where you really should spend a long time deliberating. But then, a lot of choices that we obsess over are not like that, they're small stakes, they're reversible. Really, what makes the most sense to do is to just go out there, try something, and see what happens. Then the next time you can try again and make a better choice.

I think often we don't want to do that because, just of fear, so we tell ourselves, "No, I really need more information because I can't make this choice without enough information." But really, what's going on is that we don't want to take a risk. So, in that sense, it can be an excuse for inaction. I think you should have scout mindset about how much deliberation to do, is what I'm trying to say.

Jan: Yeah, yeah. And we want to be perfect.

Julia: Yeah, I'm very sensitive to that, too. But I think that's often misguided and the consequences of not being perfect are really not that bad. The consequences of trying to be perfect and never doing anything are actually quite bad.

Laura: I think it's the perfect example of the compound effect where the more we realize that we can trust our decisions, we don't need to overthink things, and that our gut is often the right thing, it's often the right choice, and we usually end up coming back to our gut. I think that we end up making better decisions and we have that scout mindset more times, we don't have the soldier mindset. That's what I've noticed in my life. And I think, probably, you too, Mom?

Jan: Yeah, yeah.

Laura: You too, Julia?

Julia: Yeah. I think there's this really valuable compounding effect that you're talking about in which just trying a decision and seeing how it turns out, assuming it's not a totally huge life-changing decision, you just learn more, you get better at making decisions, and your gut gets smarter over time because you're giving it more experience and more practice. There is this really powerful compounding effect where, even if your decisions aren't perfect, or are far from perfect now, they're going to get better over time the more you practice and see what happens.

Jan: You've advocated keeping a surprise journal, what is that? And why do you think people should keep one?

Julia: A surprise journal is just keeping track of times when the world surprises you, when things don't turn out the way you had expected. Or someone behaves in a way that you didn't expect them to that seems confusing to you. Maybe someone believes something that seems totally wrong to you, but you're surprised because they seem like a smart person, so why do they believe that? Those are just some examples of what I would call surprises.

The reason I advocate that is that our default response when the world surprises us is often to just ignore it, sometimes because we don't want to change our minds. But also because it's just easier to explain away any evidence that contradicts our beliefs. If a smart person believes something that seems surprisingly wrong to you, it's easy to just shrug and say, “They probably just want to believe that for whatever reason," or, "Maybe they're not smart at all, maybe they're actually stupid.”

There're often easy explanations you can reach for to reduce your surprise. I think the surprise is really valuable because those instances where the world doesn't behave the way you expect it to, those are often the threads that if you tug on them, it will start to unravel some aspect of how you see the world and lead to a much richer picture and more accurate picture of how things work. Basically, I'm advocating fighting against our default impulse to ignore surprises and, instead, lean into our confusion and our surprise, pay more attention to them, and really mull over them. That's what leads us to change our mind.

Laura: Do you think that people have gotten more defensive during the pandemic and are using that soldier mindset more?

Julia: I don't know. There are definitely a bunch of signs of this happening. A lot of seemingly straightforward scientific questions about the pandemic, how it spreads, and how to prevent it, have become very conducive to soldier mindset because they become very politicized, so that doesn't look good for our scout mindset as a society. But I don't know that I want to blame that on the pandemic. It does seem like a lot of things get politicized these days that didn't have to get politicized and make it harder for us to think clearly, honestly, and objectively about them.

Laura: I think people are just crankier and more ripe for a fight right now, that's what it seems like to me, maybe aren't using logic.

Julia: That could well be true. As a general rule, I think that's true, that the more stressed out you are, for whatever reason, the harder it is to do that step of stepping back and being self-reflective. Maybe looking for a more charitable way to interpret what someone said, and not immediately assuming that they're evil and stupid, all of that stuff requires a bit of cognitive and emotional effort and overhead. All of that is in scarcer supply the more stressed out you are, so that could well be true.

Jan: You've said it's valuable to engage with ideas that seem weird or bad, why is that the case?

Julia: A lot of ideas that seem weird and bad, actually are weird and bad, I don't want to deny that.

Jan: Okay.

Julia: The thing is, I think humans in general, tend to err too much on the side of ignoring anything that sounds weird and bad. We end up missing some sizable minority of those ideas that actually have some merit, or at least can point out something inaccurate in the way that we were previously seeing the world. Also, it requires a little bit of effort to actually understand an idea. Some ideas that seem weird and bad at first, once you really dig into them and understand what the person means, don't actually seem as unreasonable as you had thought.

There's this example I talk about in the book. A friend of mine was in Egypt, he was sitting in a cafe and ended up striking up a conversation with a girl in the cafe who, she was Muslim, and I think she had never met an atheist before, my friend is atheist. They had a really nice conversation, but at some point, she mentioned evolution. She said, “You're an atheist, but presumably, you're not one of those crazy atheists that believes that monkeys turned into humans, right?” My friend was like, “Well, I do actually believe evolution is a thing.” The girl was shocked. She was like, “But that's so crazy. How could you possibly believe that monkeys turned into humans?"

My friend tried to explain what the theory of evolution says. He was trying to explain, "No, it's not really that monkeys just one day turned into humans, it's a more subtle process than that. It happened over a period of many, many years." He tried to talk about genes, I'm not sure how much progress he made in explaining it to her. But the point is that when she first heard the idea of evolution, it sounded completely crazy to her, but she didn't have a full picture of it. It's easy to laugh at her if you already understand evolution. But I think we often do this a lot, that things that sound crazy to us, we dismiss. But if we really took the time to understand them better, they wouldn't seem quite as crazy as they initially did.

Laura: You gave some other really good examples in the book about how people use this in the real world. One of them was about how Jeff Bezos used this to prevent overconfidence, can you tell us that story?

Julia: A lot of people don't know this, I didn't know it before I started researching my book. When Jeff Bezos was first deciding to start the company that would become Amazon, he made an unusually strong effort to really be clear-eyed and scout-like about his odds of success, the odds that his company would be successful. His estimate was 30%, "I'm about 30% sure that Amazon will one day succeed." He got to this number by, essentially, looking at the base rates. Just in general, if you look at internet startups in the 90's, how many of them are successful? His sense was that about 10% of them succeed. He thought, "I think I'm pretty smart, I think my idea is pretty great, so I think I have better than average odds. But I still have to adjust upward from that baseline of 10%, so maybe I have about a 30% chance." That was his rough guess, which, it's much lower than most founders think and talk about their companies.

The pressure on an entrepreneur is to just believe with all of your being that you are definitely going to succeed, that is what gives you motivation, and that's what gives you confidence. That's kind of the common wisdom. Jeff Bezos is this striking counter-example to that common wisdom. You might think that even if Jeff Bezos believed internally that he only had a 30% chance of success, surely he wouldn't tell anyone else that. But he did in all of his initial pitch meetings to raise money for Amazon, he was very clear with his potential investors. He said, "I think there's about a 70% chance that this is going to fail, and that you'll lose your money. So don't invest anything that you're not prepared to lose."

I think it's really quite striking and informative that his ability to recognize uncertainty, and to be candid about uncertainty, did not prevent him from inspiring a bunch of people, raising a bunch of money, getting a bunch of people to work for Amazon, and to make the company successful in the end. Really understanding what Bezos did, and how to acknowledge uncertainty in the world and to acknowledge the possibility, the real possibility of failure, without getting demotivated and without losing your ability to inspire other people, I think is really, really valuable.

Jan: Julia, as you know, our show is called Nobody Told Me! We always ask our guests, "What is your nobody told me lesson?" What is it that nobody told you about the scout mindset, or the soldier mindset, or overthinking things, or decision-making in general, that you had to learn the hard way that it would have been nice if you had not had such a tough path to learn?

Julia: That's a great question. Actually, the story of Jeff Bezos is a great segue into my 'nobody told me' moment. I had always assumed before looking into this subject, for years for my book, I had always assumed that there was this trade-off that you had to make between seeing things realistically, on the one hand, and appearing confident, on the other hand. I assumed that if you want people to look up to you as a leader, or as an expert, then you have to always state things with certainty. I thought, "This is just an unfortunate trade-off in the world." Then after years of reading studies and looking at real-life examples like Bezos, I've come to believe that that's actually not true. There isn't nearly as much of a trade-off there, that we can have our cake and eat it too, so to speak. We can recognize uncertainty where it exists without seeming unconfident.

I think the secret I was missing all that time is that there are two different kinds of confidence that I was just conflating, and I think a lot of people conflate, I call them epistemic confidence and social confidence. Epistemic confidence is just how certain are you of your beliefs? Are you 100% certain that your company is going to succeed? Or are you 30% certain? Those are examples of high and low epistemic competence respectively. Social confidence is just about how self-assured are you? Do you speak in a confident tone? Do you have good posture? Do you seem at ease in social situations? Are you comfortable speaking to groups? Those are all signs of social confidence.

What I think the example of Jeff Bezos and other people illustrates, is that social confidence is important for getting people to trust you, look up to you, and follow you. But epistemic confidence is not nearly as important. You can say things like, "I'm only about 30% sure my company will succeed." But if you say it confidently, and if you go out there, try things, take risks, and hold yourself with confidence, that's what people are paying attention to. It's not whether you claim to be 100% certain in everything.

I think this is great news because if you're going to be a scout, if you're going to try to see things honestly, then you can't really justifiably be 100% sure of everything, that's just not possible if you're being intellectually honest. I think it's wonderful news that you don't have to do that in order to project confidence to people and be influential. That was the thing I was very delighted to learn.

Laura: These are all great ideas, great concepts. I'm sure people are really going to want to read the book and check you out, how can they do that?

Julia: I hope so. The book is called The Scout Mindset. You can get The Scout Mindset on Amazon or on the Penguin Random House site. You can also go to my website, juliagalef.com where I have a page for The Scout Mindset and also links to my podcast, Rationally Speaking, and to my YouTube videos as well. Please come check me out and maybe give some of my other episodes a listen.

Jan: All right. We thank you so much for joining us, Julia.

Julia: Thank you. It's just been a pleasure. You guys ask great questions.

Jan: Thank you, we appreciate that.

Laura: Thank you, you gave great answers.

Julia: Oh good.

Jan: Our thanks to Julia Galef. Again, her new book is called The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. Her website is juliagalef.com. I'm Jan Black.

Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.

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