Book Review: The Scout Mindset


The Scout Mindset is a book by Julia Galef. It introduces the concept of “Scout mindset”, contrasted with “Soldier mindset”. A Soldier mindset is present when our unconscious motives affect the conclusions we draw. A Scout seeks to continually align their perceptions closer to reality.

If directionally motivated reasoning is like being a soldier fighting off threatening evidence, accuracy motivated reasoning is like being a scout forming a map of the strategic landscape.

Galef convincingly makes the case that, while there are benefits to the commonly adopted Soldier mindset, Scout mindset is worth greater consideration and adoption. Many of us could be more “rationally irrational”:

…epistemic rationality means holding beliefs that are well justified, while instrumental rationality means acting effectively to achieve your goals.

Being rationally irrational, therefore, would mean that we’re good at unconsciously choosing just enough epistemic irrationality to achieve our social and emotional goals, without impairing our judgement too much. A rationally irrational person would deny problems only when the comfort of denial is sufficiently high and their chance of fixing the problem is sufficiently low.

Galef’s book makes the case that people are often irrationally irrational by relying too heavily on Soldier mindset, denying problems when it isn’t in their best interest to do so. I can think of many times where the benefits of motivated reasoning have successfully drawn me away from the greater benefits of truth seeking:

Belief: “my code works as intended, but is a little bit slow. Oh well, I must be fairly close to an optimal design. I’ll leave it as is”. This belief justifies my impatience and soothes some creeping insecurity about my technical ability for that application.

Reality: a one-line change based on 10 minutes of further investigation improves performance by many orders of magnitude. I learn something and there is a better outcome.

Belief: “I am being as patient and kind in this situation as anyone could be under the circumstances”. This belief helps maintain my self esteem and gave me comfort.

Reality: others in much more stressful situations are more patient and kind than I was. I should continue to strategize on aligning my actions and values more often.

Belief: “my joke or ad hominem comment when discussing what Trump recently said or did is a good contribution to the conversation”. This belief helps me appear smart and feel like I belong in my group.

Reality: jokes or personal attacks can paper over my lack of deeper knowledge on a topic and prevent me from learning more in the moment from the people I’m engaged with.

The book gives practical techniques for testing how evidence-driven we are being in a given moment, for example, probing for double standards in your views or asking yourself what an unbiased outsider would think. One I found particularly compelling is a twist on the classic “jump off a bridge” question - asking yourself “would I still agree with this position if all my friends changed their view on it”?

A number of examples of people adopting the Scout mindset in various situations are presented, from the Dreyfus affair to The Humane League, Climate Change denial, and the “Mommy Wars” over breast feeding.

A common blocker for being evidence driven is that emphasizing uncertainty can be confused with incompetence and relinquishing influence. Galef differentiates between types of uncertainty and how uncertainty doesn’t necessarily project incompetence. It’s very different to have an uncertain doctor who says “I have no idea about the risks of X” and one who says “There are trade-offs and stronger and weaker determinants here for your risk of X. Your family history indicates some risk, probably between 10 to 20%.” Soft skills, like clear communication and good posture, don’t have to be sacrificed when stating why you are unsure of something.

One of the more powerful sections for me talked about identity. Ideas can become part of your identity, and then updating your view on something requires also updating a view about yourself. Galef points out signs of beliefs becoming identity, including making things personal, projecting annoyance towards critics, using defiant, righteous, or gatekeeping language, taking pleasure in the “other side’s” misfortune, using insults or feeling the need to defend your view. These are usually signs of poor judgement and motivated reasoning leaking into your thought processes.

Galef advocates holding your identity lightly - “I am X for as long as Y is true”. It’s difficult to avoid identity, but this is a way to maintain a current identity and still update our beliefs as new information comes in.

Critics of the Scout mindset might equate it with enlightened centrists, pedantic effective altruists, or both-sidesing. But I would hope that for people who hold harmful views, like climate change being trivial, there is a path for them to decouple those beliefs from their identity such that their views can evolve as new information comes in. The world would be better if people held their identities more lightly and were motivated by truth seeking rather than winning arguments.

The book also discusses the relationship between identity and activism. Assuming activists are focused on impact, there are identity-centric and identity-distancing activities that have positive or negative impact for the cause depending on the situation. Examples presented are The Humane League moving away from protests and towards negotiating with large companies to pressure them to make changes, and AIDS research activists collaborating with the health agencies they previously criticized in order to improve research outcomes.


Galef proposes that adopting certain beliefs strongly into your identity can be pro-Scout mindset, like “I am someone who seeks truth” and “I am not the kind of person who takes cheap shots or ‘dunks on’ people”.

I loved this book and felt personally challenged by its ideas. It feels like one of those books that will affect the way I think and act for years to come. It has made me exert more effort and have more scrutiny with my media diet: I’ve unsubscribed from a number of subreddits that I’ve realized mostly consist of an in-group insulting the out-group, and tried to read more articles whose headlines initially repel me based on preconceived biases. I have also noticed more often when I fail to practice Scouting in conversation or thinking. I try to remind myself these failures shouldn’t be responded to with shame or frustration, but with recognition and a continued effort to move closer towards rational irrationality.