The Profile Dossier: Julia Galef, the Rational Thinker Helping Us Update Our Beliefs
“Discovering you were wrong is an update, not a failure."
Julia Galef wants you to imagine for a moment that you're a soldier in the midst of battle. You attack, you defend, you protect, but mostly you want to win.
Now, imagine playing a different role: a scout. Unlike the soldier, your goal as a scout isn't to defend one side over the other. Instead, you're there to understand, survey the terrain, identify threats and obstacles ahead and come back with a map that's as accurate as possible.
She often uses the "soldier" and "scout" roles as metaphors for how all of us process information and ideas in our daily lives. The two mindsets demonstrate how clearly we see the world.
"Some pieces of information feel like our allies — we want them to win; we want to defend them. And other pieces of information are the enemy, and we want to shoot them down. That’s why I call motivated reasoning 'soldier mindset,'" she says. "Scout mindset means seeing what’s there as accurately as you can, even if it’s not pleasant."
Galef is the president and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, a non-profit organization devoted to training people in strategies for reasoning and decision-making. She's the rare type of person who takes pride in changing her mind.
Galef sees herself as an ambassador to the rationalist movement and believes that we can use reason to improve our judgment as individuals and as societies.
"We need to change the way we feel — to learn how to feel proud instead of ashamed when we notice we might have been wrong about something, or to learn how to feel intrigued instead of defensive when we encounter some information that contradicts our beliefs," she says. "So the question you need to consider is: What do you most yearn for — to defend your own beliefs or to see the world as clearly as you possibly can?"
Here's what we can learn about the art of changing our minds and upgrading our beliefs.
On becoming a rational thinker: Galef is an ambassador of the rationalist movement: a community formed on the internet whose adherents strive to strip their minds of cognitive biases. In her new book, she elaborates on her ideas. "I take these ideas I think are great and try to explain them to a wider audience,” she says. In this profile, Galef argues in favor for adopting a “scout mindset,” rather than a “soldier mindset.”
On honing our reasoning skills: When it comes to what we believe, humans see what they want to see. From tribalism and wishful thinking to rationalizing in our personal lives and everything in between, we are driven to defend the ideas we most want to believe — and shoot down those we don't. In her book The Scout Mindset, Galef arms us with a handful of emotional skills, habits, and ways of looking at the world that we can use in our everyday lives.
On developing a scout mindset: In this TedX Talk, Galef introduces a metaphor of soldiers and scouts to describe two very different approaches to thinking. To illustrate these two mindsets in action, she tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair: how one man was wrongfully convicted of treason and how another realized this fact and fought to exonerate him.
On why our minds weren't built for truth: Our brains like stories full of vivid details and descriptive language. Although we have a capacity for reason (which separates us from other animals), humans are pretty irrational beings. But here's why so few of us actually seek out truth and we prefer to rely on the stories we create to fit our belief narrative.
On decision-making during uncertainty: Even though COVID was very much a reality in other parts of the world, the U.S. failed to take measures and prepare its citizens for the impending pandemic. "I can't explain the initial failure without invoking motivated reasoning," Galef says.
On how to change your mind: We're so focused on changing other people's minds to be congruent with our beliefs that we forget the most important person whose mind we can change is ourselves. In this podcast, Galef explains how we can become more open-minded by actively seeking out new evidence that may contradict our existing beliefs.
On distinguishing reason from nonsense: Galef hosts the "Rationally Speaking" podcast, in which she interviews scientists, journalists, and people with different perspectives on a topic. She often asks her subjects the following questions: “What have you changed your mind about?” and “What do you think are the strongest arguments against your view?” Get ready to become intellectually honest by challenging your own preconceived beliefs and prejudices.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Update your beliefs using the Bayes' Rule: The Bayes' Rule is a formula that tells you how to weigh evidence and change your beliefs. Here's how Galef suggests you apply it to your own life: Understand that your beliefs are grayscale — and that your confidence in them can change — as you learn new things. Next time you think you agree with a political party 100% of the time, ask yourself: "What do I actually believe, and can these new facts help update my belief system?" This framework helps you think for yourself and avoid blind tribalism and dogma. (Watch her explain it in more detail here.)
Divorce your beliefs from yourself: In this visualization exercise, Galef recommends picturing the belief that you're defending in an argument as existing a few feet away from your body. "So when the person I'm talking to attacks it, I can picture the attack being directed at this thing that's not me," she says. The reason it's helpful to personify your beliefs in such a way is that it doesn't feel like a personal attack. You can then be more objective when evaluating how your belief stands up the attack.
Treat your arguments as a collaboration: In many arguments (especially with close relatives), the form often precedes the content. In other words, we tend to follow a pretty strict formula regardless of what we’re arguing about. As Esther Perel says, "One of you starts to raise your voice; the other rolls their eyes. One goes up a notch; the other walks away.” To get out of this emotionally laden cycle, Galef recommends treating your arguments as a mutual negotiation in which both parties stay logical, rational, and calm. "Think of an argument as a collaboration in which you're working together to discover the truth about X as opposed to an adversarial situation where one of you has to win," she says.
Celebrate being objective, not right: When you feel that you're right about something, you're validating your ego. It's a human impulse that feels good. Galef recommends taking that need for self-validation and directing it into the goal of being objective and rational. Congratulate yourself when you've evaluated an argument as dispassionately and fairly as possible instead of congratulating yourself on simply being right. One is driven by emotion, the other is driven by rational thought.
Stop yourself from labeling your counterpart: Oftentimes, the way we label people can lead us astray. Imagine if you could hear a political candidate's ideas coming out of the mouth of someone of another race and gender. If things (or people) are packaged differently, could we hear them differently? Galef believes so. When you're feeling frustrated, irritated, or hostile toward a person with whom you're arguing, try this mental exercise: Take the words they say and visualize a friend or family member that you respect saying the same things. "Try to evaluate the arguments as if they're coming from someone you like more, and I think you'll find it much easier to consider them fairly than you otherwise would," she says.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Discovering you were wrong is an update, not a failure, and your worldview is a living document meant to be revised.”
"Scout mindset is what allows you to recognize when you are wrong, to seek out your blind spots, to test your assumptions and change course.”
“The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else.”
“Everything happens for the best. People get what’s coming to them. The darker the night, the brighter the stars.”