State Policy Network
Divergent Thinking: Understanding the Scout Mindset with Julia Galef

By Todd Davidson, State Policy Network’s Senior Director of Strategic Development

For individual leaders and teams alike, success involves a critical element: mindset. And not just any mindset, but one that approaches the environment with curiosity rather than defensiveness.

Author Julia Galef calls it “the scout mindset,” and she joined SPN’s Divergent Thinking Show to discuss insights from her book, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t, and how they can empower state-based organizations to make better team decisions, craft more effective strategies, and achieve greater impact.

See below for interview highlights, as well as the full recording of my conversation with Julia.

Q: What are the Scout and Soldier Mindsets?

Galef: These are metaphors for two very different motivations that can shape our thinking.

Soldier Mindset is a motivation to defend a preexisting belief or to defend something that you want to believe against any evidence that might threaten to undermine it.

In Scout Mindset, your goal is not to attack or defend any particular position. Your goal, like a scout, is to go out and see what’s actually there—as clearly and objectively as possible—and to form as accurate a map of a situation or an issue as you can, including any areas of uncertainty. You are always open to revising your map as you learn more and look at the landscape from different perspectives. So, Scout Mindset is basically trying to be objective and intellectually honest and just curious about what’s true.

Q: What pushes us to be in either the Scout or Soldier Mindset?

Galef: The Scout Mindset comes most naturally to us in situations where we see some direct, tangible benefit to figuring out the truth about the question. For example, what is wrong with my car and how do I fix it?

Soldier Mindset comes much more naturally in times when there’s no immediate benefit. It tends to emerge when there’s some alternate incentive—like an emotional or social incentive—to get a particular answer, regardless of the evidence. Anytime those emotional or social incentives toward a particular conclusion are present, you’re going to see the Soldier Mindset surface a lot more—even if, in the long run, you would be better off in Scout Mindset where you are seeing things accurately and fixing whatever problems are there.

Q: What are concrete ways we can practice the Scout Mindset as teams and use it to make better decisions?

Galef: Three techniques come to mind.

Technique #1: Before anyone speaks, everyone should take a moment to think about their answer.
In group disagreements, one thing that I find helpful is to avoid the failure mode that people often get into where one person comes out with a proposal, and everyone anchors on it.

You can avoid that by having everyone think about their answer before anyone speaks. They can form an opinion, independently of hearing what the group consensus is.

You could take it even further and have people write down their answers and then put them all in the center before anyone gets to talk. At the very least, having a moment to even form your opinion before anchoring on other people’s is very helpful.

Technique #2: Disagree and commit.
The idea here is that there’s a strong sense people have that, in order to be a team player, they have to agree with each other. To feel like you have to agree with everyone else squelches healthy disagreement.

So, how to disagree and commit? First, remember that when you’re debating an idea or decision, disagreement is good and encouraged. Ideally, as you have a productive debate, you may end up agreeing based on the evidence, but often you won’t because people have different perspectives, and the evidence is often incomplete. That’s fine. But once it’s time to move forward with a decision, the people who don’t agree can just say, “I still disagree, but now that we’re going forward, I’m committed to trying my best to make this plan work, and I hope that I’m wrong.”

Disagree and commit separates being a good team player—being committed to the success of the team or the success of a strategy—from what you’re allowed to believe. So, you can still be a committed team player, while disagreeing with a particular decision. That is a valuable separation to be able to make because it’s toxic for the epistemic health of a group if people feel like they must come to a particular conclusion.

Technique #3: Set measurable goals for evaluation ahead of time and have a simple plan on what you will do if the goal is not met.
Another useful tool is to think ahead of time about how you will decide whether a program is working, if it’s needs to be reevaluated, and how you might pivot.

When you leave those decisions for the future, you leave yourself a lot of room to rationalize and move the goalposts. No one wants to throw in the towel or to pivot, but when I talked to managers as part of my research for The Scout Mindset, a main thing they cited in retrospect as example of being in Soldier Mindset and needing more Scount Mindset was sticking with failing programs or programs not worth the time and investment because of the emotional and logistical cost of cutting your losses.

Deciding the benchmarks ahead of time and what to do if the program isn’t working—t o have a concrete plan—makes the negative possibility more tolerable. It makes you more willing to consider, “Maybe it isn’t working and that’s okay because I know what I’m going to do next” or “I know how I’m going to explain that to my team.” Feeling like you could handle the bad outcome if that that outcome were true frees you up to think more clearly and honestly about whether in fact the bad outcome is true.

Q: How can the Scout Mindset help a leader inspire and motivate others more effectively?

Galef: Confidence is important if you’re going to be an inspiring, effective leader or advocate, but there are two different kinds of confidence that people conflate. One of them is important for leadership; the other is not so.

I call these two kinds of confidence our social confidence and epistemic confidence.
Epistemic confidence is about how much certainty you have in a particular belief. If you say, “I’m positive that this plan is going to succeed,” or “there’s no doubt in my mind that this policy is the better choice,” you’re expressing high epistemic confidence.

And if you’re being a good scout, you can’t be one hundred percent epistemically confident about everything. It’s not realistic; you don’t have enough evidence, and the world is messy. If you’re being intellectually honest, you’re going to have varying levels of confidence.

Social confidence is about how self-assured you are. Do you seem comfortable in group settings? Are you comfortable taking charge and making things happen, speaking to the public, etc.?

To be a persuasive and influential leader, you do need social confidence, but you don’t have to be epistemically confident in your plans or your beliefs one hundred percent of the time. It’s a wonderfully encouraging takeaway that you can be influential without sacrificing your ability to look at the world objectively and clearly. You don’t have to force yourself to ignore uncertainty, where it exists, just for the sake of being an influential leader.

Q: How does a leader’s ability to persuade others suffer when a Scout Mindset isn’t present?

Galef: People often think that the more strongly you express a position, the more persuaded people will be. And that can be true in cases where the audience is already on board with you—where there’s no preexisting skepticism. They just feed off your confidence.

But in cases where the audience is not already on board, presenting a one-sided argument, where you downplay, ignore, or deny the weaknesses on your side and only list the positives, is less effective and can backfire.

In my book, I talk about an interesting study where a law school class held a moot court—like a mock trial—over the course of a semester, and the students were randomly assigned one side of the case. They had to prepare their arguments and present them at the end of the semester. The researcher asked the students, “How confident are you that your side is morally or legally in the right?” The students who were more confident that their side happened to be in the right were less likely to do well in the moot court performance at the end of the semester.

One plausible explanation for this is that the more confident you are that you’re right, the less you can see how someone might disagree with you and the less prepared you’re going to be to address disagreements.

Ahead of time, while deciding what points you want to make to your audience, you do need as realistic a picture as possible of how strong your case is and why someone might disagree with you. Adopting a Scout Mindset will help you become more persuasive because it pushes you to consider weaknesses in and counterarguments to your viewpoint and to be prepared to respond to them.

Q: What is the Ideological Turing Test and how can it serve as a tool for strengthening a Scout Mindset?

Galef: The term is based on the Turing test, which was a theoretical test proposed by computer scientists trying to determine if a machine was actually conscious or intelligent. If a person was talking to the machine and to a human, could they tell the difference? Would they know which one was a computer and which one was not?

The Ideological Turing Test is an idea coined by economist Bryan Caplan. It’s a test of whether you genuinely understand the other side’s position, belief, or argument that you don’t hold yourself. The test is to explain that view or argue that perspective convincingly enough that someone who doesn’t know your own views can’t tell if you believe the other side or not.

What I like about the Ideological Turing Test is that it’s not just a test of your cognitive understanding. It’s also an emotional test. It’s a test of whether you can hold your identity lightly. If you can explain a view you think is wrong and even dangerous without straw manning it, mocking it, or deriding it in the course of your explanation, but instead explaining it in a charitable enough way that it sounds like something that someone from that side would even say, that is a test of whether you can detach your ego—your identity—from the discussion of beliefs enough to think clearly and accurately about the landscape of views.

Hear the full conversation with Julia Galef

Learn more about Galef’s work

Book: The Scout Mindset

Additional reading on topics referenced in the discussion:

The Ideas Industry by Daniel Drezner
• Dan Rothschild’s essay on think tanks and epistemic humility can be found in the book: The Future of Think Tanks and Policy Advice in the United States by James Mcgann
Bryan Caplan’s Ideological Turing Test

Categories: Strategy
Organization: State Policy Network
Professional Topics: Strategy