Soldier Vs. Scout
Life is made up of judgment calls, and the more you can avoid distorting your perception of reality, the better your judgment will be.
Scout mindset is what keeps you from fooling yourself on tough questions that people tend to rationalize about, such as: Do I need to get tested for that medical condition? Is it time to cut my losses or would that be giving up too early? Is this relationship ever going to get better? How likely is it that my partner will change their mind about wanting children?
Scout mindset is what prompts us to question our assumptions and stress-test our plans. Whether you’re proposing a new product feature or a military maneuver, asking yourself, “What are the most likely ways this could fail?” allows you to strengthen your plan against those possibilities in advance. If you’re a doctor, that means considering alternate diagnoses before settling on your initial guess.
Even jobs that don’t seem to depend on scout mindset usually do once you look closer. Most people associate being a lawyer with arguing for a side, which sounds like soldier mindset. But when a lawyer is choosing cases and preparing for trial, they need to be able to form an accurate picture of the strengths and weaknesses of their case. Overestimate your own side and you’re setting yourself up for a rude awakening in the courtroom. That’s why experienced lawyers often cite objectivity and self-skepticism as among the most important skills they had to learn over their career. As one leading lawyer says: “When you’re young, you want to help your client so badly you tell yourself, ‘There’s really not an elephant in the room, there’s really not a big gray elephant over there with a pink ribbon on it . . .’”
Being the kind of person who welcomes the truth, even if it’s painful, is what makes other people willing to be honest with you. You can say that you want your partner to tell you about any problems in your relationship, or that you want your employees to tell you about any problems in the company, but if you get defensive or combative when you hear the truth, you’re not likely to hear it very often. No one wants to be the messenger that gets shot.
- Reasoning is like defensive combat.
- Decide what to believe by asking either “Can I believe this?” or “Must I believe this?” depending on your motives.
- Finding out you’re wrong means suffering a defeat.
- Seek out evidence to fortify and defend your beliefs.
- Related concepts: Directionally motivated reasoning, rationalizing, denial, self-deception, wishful thinking.
- Reasoning is like mapmaking.
- Decide what to believe by asking, “Is this true?”
- Finding out you’re wrong means revising your map.
- Seek out evidence that will make your map more accurate.
- Related concepts: Accuracy motivated reasoning, truth-seeking, discovery, objectivity, intellectual honesty.
The scout and the soldier are archetypes. In reality, nobody is a perfect scout, just as nobody is a pure soldier. We fluctuate between mindsets from day to day, and from one context to the next.
What the Soldier Is Protecting
Soldier mindset helps us avoid negative emotions like fear, stress, and regret. Sometimes we do that with denial, like the “This is fine” dog. Other times, we reach for comforting narratives about the world, and opt not to scrutinize them too closely. Everything happens for the best. People get what’s coming to them. The darker the night, the brighter the stars.
A professor might convince herself that her theory is more original than it really is so that she can claim as much in her public speaking and writing. Even if a few people who are closely familiar with her field realize she’s overstating her case, she may still be able to get away with the exaggeration with most people. This often requires her to “accidentally” misunderstand other people’s theses and fail to notice that she’s attacking a straw man argument no one is actually making.
Even those of us who aren’t professional persuaders have plenty of things we might like our friends, family, and coworkers to believe: I’m a good person. I deserve your sympathy. I’m trying my hardest. I’m a valuable employee. My career is really taking off. The more we can get ourselves to genuinely believe those claims, and the more evidence and arguments we can collect to support them, the easier it will be for us to persuade other people of them (or so the logic goes).
What convinces is conviction.
Signs of a Scout
You can probably think of people who are critical of your deeply held beliefs and life choices. People who hold the opposite view on political issues such as gun control, capital punishment, or abortion. People who disagree with you on scientific questions such as climate change, nutrition, or vaccination. People who condemn the industry you work in, such as tech or the military.
Being able to name reasonable critics, being willing to say “The other side has a point this time,” being willing to acknowledge when you were wrong—it’s things like these that distinguish people who actually care about truth from people who only think they do.
But the biggest sign of scout mindset may be this: Can you point to occasions in which you were in soldier mindset? If that sounds backward, remember that motivated reasoning is our natural state. It’s universal, hardwired into our brains. So if you never notice yourself doing it, what’s more likely—that you happen to be wired differently from the rest of humanity or that you’re simply not as self-aware as you could be?
Learning to spot your own biases, in the moment, is no easy feat. But it’s not impossible, if you have the right tools.
- The Double Standard Test: Are you judging one person (or group) by a different standard than you would use for another person (or group)?
- The Outsider Test: How would you evaluate this situation if it wasn’t your situation?
- The Conformity Test: If other people no longer held this view, would you still hold it?
- The Selective Skeptic Test: If this evidence supported the other side, how credible would you judge it to be?
- The Status Quo Bias Test: If your current situation was not the status quo, would you actively choose it?
Thought experiments aren’t oracles. They can’t tell you what’s true or fair or what decision you should make. If you notice that you would be more forgiving of adultery in a Democrat than a Republican, that reveals you have a double standard, but it doesn’t tell you what your standard “should” be. If you notice that you’re nervous about deviating from the status quo, that doesn’t mean you can’t decide to play it safe this time anyway.
What thought experiments do is simply reveal that your reasoning changes as your motivations change. That the principles you’re inclined to invoke or the objections that spring to your mind depend on your motives: the motive to defend your image or your in-group’s status; the motive to advocate for a self-serving policy; fear of change or rejection.
Catching your brain in the act of motivated reasoning—noticing when an experiment’s previously invisible flaws jump out at you, or noticing that your preferences change as you switch around supposedly irrelevant details of a scenario—breaks down the illusion that your initial judgment is the objective truth. It convinces you, viscerally, that your reasoning is contingent; that your initial judgments are a starting point for exploration, not an end point.
In the metaphor of the scout, it’s like peering through your binoculars at a far-off river and saying, “Well, it sure seems like the river is frozen. But let me find another vantage point—different angle, different lighting, different lens—and see if things look any different.”
Motivation Without Self-Deception
The soldier approach to motivation requires you to believe things that aren’t true—that your odds of success don’t matter as long as you believe in yourself, that failure is not an option, that “luck” is irrelevant.
Soldier morale can be effective, at least in the short term. But it’s a brittle kind of morale, one that requires you to avoid or rationalize away new information that could threaten your ability to keep believing in success.
Scouts rely on a different kind of morale. Instead of being motivated by the promise of guaranteed success, a scout is motivated by the knowledge that they’re making a smart bet, which they can feel good about having made whether or not it succeeds. Even if a particular bet has a low probability of success, they know that their overall probability of success in the long run is much higher, as long as they keep making good bets. They’re motivated by the knowledge that downturns are inevitable, but will wash out in the long run; that although failure is possible, it’s also tolerable.
The scout approach to morale doesn’t ask you to sacrifice your ability to make clear-eyed decisions. And it’s a robust kind of morale, one that doesn’t require protection from reality, because it’s rooted in truth.
Influence Without Overconfidence
There are three key principles of influence without overconfidence.
First, you don’t need to hold your opinions with 100 percent certainty in order to seem confident and competent. People simply aren’t paying that much attention to how much epistemic confidence you express. They’re paying attention to how you act, to your body language, tone, and other aspects of your social confidence, all of which are things you can cultivate without sacrificing your calibration.
Second, expressing uncertainty isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It depends on whether the uncertainty is “in you” or “in the world.” If you can demonstrate a strong command of the topic and speak with ease about your analysis and your plan, you’ll seem like more of an expert, not less.
Third, you can be inspiring without overpromising. You can paint a picture of the world you’re trying to create, or why your mission is important, or how your product has helped people, without claiming you’re guaranteed to succeed. There are lots of ways to get people excited that don’t require you to lie to others or to yourself.
Whatever your goal, there’s probably a way to get it that doesn’t require you to believe false things. From now on, whenever you hear someone claim that you need to self-deceive in order to be happy, motivated, or influential, you should raise a skeptical eyebrow. There are multiple paths to any goal, some of which involve self-deception and some of which don’t. It may take a little more care and practice to find the latter, but in the long run, it’s well worth it.
Here’s an analogy: Suppose a bully keeps threatening to beat you up and take your lunch money. You might think your choices are either (1) pay up or (2) take the beating. Framed that way, it might well be correct to give him the money. It’s only a few dollars; surely that’s better than getting a black eye, right?
But if you zoom out and look at the long run, it becomes less clear that handing over the money every time is your best option. Instead, you could learn to fight. Or you could devise a clever way to arrange for the bully to get caught red-handed. You could find a way to change classrooms or even schools. There are lots of ways to change the game board you’re playing on so that you end up with better choices, instead of simply resigning yourself to picking the least-bad choice currently in front of you.
We’re in a similar position with respect to the trade-off between scout mindset and soldier mindset, in which we have to sacrifice some of our ability to see clearly or else suffer a beating to our self-esteem, motivation, comfort, and more. You can accept those terms and say, “Okay, might as well pay up and sacrifice some accuracy, because it’s worth it.” Or you can say, “No, I don’t accept those terms,” and find ways to look good and feel good, while also seeing reality as accurately as possible.