Julia Galef on the Scout Mindset
May 17 2021

Scout-Mindset-199x300.jpg Podcaster and author Julia Galef talks about her book The Scout Mindset with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Galef urges us to be more rational--to be open-minded about what we might discover about the world--rather than simply defend what we already believe, which she calls the soldier mindset. The conversation is a wide-ranging discussion of our biases and the challenges of viewing the world objectively.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


John Alcorn
May 17 2021 at 1:40pm

Much insight and wisdom in an hour’s conversation!

Scattered observations — Disagreements at the margins, so to speak:


“the idea that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ is a deep truth. I think in our own personal lives, self-awareness is really useful. I think most the time. It can make you unhappy. I don’t fully accept the argument that it’s good for you in terms of your happiness, but I think it’s generally good for you.”– Russ Roberts

I would draw distinctions.

Is self-awareness prudential? Yes and no. Spontaneity serves some people well. Self-awareness ties some people in knots. Personality is a key variable. Psychological luck is a real thing.

Are the unexamined life and self-awareness alike? Yes and no. My intuition is that the examined life involves systematic reflection with an eye to self-fashioning, whereas self-awareness is a situational disposition. It’s hard to plan self-awareness insofar as occurrent emotions have a component of arousal that can short-circuit self-awareness. True, one might safeguard self-awareness by avoiding circumstances that trigger strong emotions; but this strategy might be costly, insofar as emotions are the stuff of life. Anger, envy, jealousy often catch one by surprise anyway.

Is the unexamined life not worth living? My soldier mentality — indeed, every bone in my body — says, Be life-affirming. Many persons have cognitive impairments that preclude the examined life. Many cognitively competent persons lead ‘unexamined lives’ that they themselves cherish. To these persons, it matters naught if a poet or philosopher decries the unexamined life. My intuition is that a free society properly acknowledges that every life is worth living, with few exceptions; for example, persons who justly incur capital punishment, and persons who judge their own lives not worth living. (The examined life may end in suicide.)

Perhaps more later, or another day.

Daniel Pratt
May 18 2021 at 9:37am

I found the short discussion about how much control people have vis a vis genetics, circumstances, and personal control. I tend to agree there is no set division, i.e. 50/40/10, in whatever ratios you want to assign. However, if someone has bad circumstances and controls what they can control, I think they will get better results.  You also see this with successful people who get good in one field and then get good in another and another…. The trick in not having much to work with is finding what may work. This is where I think we get cycles of poverty. If you don’t have a good example, you may not find what you are good at. Also, people shouldn’t ignore the fact that DNA is set in stone. All sorts of environmental factors can spawn epigenetic changes that can cause problems, just as an example.

Dr. Duru
May 18 2021 at 9:38pm

Great discussion. Came at a perfect time for me.

The Scout vs Soldier mindset is an analogy I can put to use when discussing the benefits of introspection and truth-seeking.


Luke J
May 19 2021 at 11:42am

Seems to me that better scouting leads to better soldiering.

Mike Diaz
May 19 2021 at 12:27pm

Good episode.

I’ve noticed that some people (including me) think they are being a scout when in fact they may be soldiering.

For example, consider the following quote wrt to feminism and MRA.

“What do you think made you change your mind or what made you more open-minded? You started out as like a hardcore MRA and now you have a more nuanced view. Why is that?”

How come the example wasn’t of a feminist who now has a more nuanced view of MRAs?

I ask this questions because I assumed this was the example she would give once I learned that she’s an academic who lived in the Bay Area. It’s the soldier in me that assumed this would be the example. I wonder if it was the soldier in her that created the example? It’s hard to know.

I liked this episode. I want to be a scout, but I also want to be a person of principle and sometimes standing up for principles feels like more of a soldiering thing than a scout thing. It’s complicated.

May 19 2021 at 8:43pm

Great episode! It may be one of the most valuable of this year. Julia Galef, may you encourage much scouting!

Julia Galef: Sometimes I notice myself defending things I don’t even believe because someone assumed I believed it and criticized me for it. And I didn’t even stop to ask myself, ‘Do I even believe that thing?’ I just reflexively tried to stand up for it. And, then later, I was like, ‘Why am I defending this?’

I believe there are times when it is very appropriate for scouts to speak up on behalf of ideas that they don’t believe themselves. The point of scouting is to understand, not conquer. When others misrepresent ideas (either unintentionally or else in order to “conquer” a straw man), a scout who wants a discussion that seeks true understanding will want those ideas represented accurately. So the scout may need to speak up on their behalf to set them out clearly, even if the scout does not personally believe them.

I’m not an atheist. But I wouldn’t want an atheist’s position to be misrepresented any more than I would want my own position misrepresented. For the sake of truth, including truth about others, a scout will seek accurate representation of others, just as they would want that for themselves.

Julia Galef: … why should people move from soldier towards scout.

My basic answer is because it improves your judgment. Having an accurate map of the world, knowing, like, where are the bridges crossing the river, and where are the risks and dangers, and which route can I take that will get me quickest to where I’m trying to go. Having that accurate map is really useful for making decisions.

So, we just have thousands of decisions, big and small; and my claim is that the more accurate your map of the world, the more accurate your map of yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, and how other people work, the better your decisions are going to be.

I agree with you, but that is because I agree that Truth exists. It is only possible to have what you propose — “the more accurate map” — if there is in fact an objectively True and knowable reality that a map can be more or less accurate about.

Yet, others might generally reject “the truth” in favor of “my truth” and “that might be true for you, but…”.

In a past episode, the guests effectively proposed scientism, i.e. that science is the only trustworthy way of knowing about reality. In subsequent comments I pointed out that the unavoidable implication of scientism is that every other issue must devolve into a power struggle, since (according to scientism) nobody’s position on anything outside of science can ever possibly be known as true. Only power could decide conflicts. (Enter soldiering.)

In practice, the path of relativism sometimes leads to the forceful denial and exclusion even of facts of science, such as medical facts about a body. The self is regarded as being able to autonomously choose and define what will be the true self.

A scout can still seek to understand another person. But the difficulty is that for some, trying to make a map that accurately fits a hard reality is sometimes replaced by an idea of autonomously defining one’s own “reality” or what is “true for me”.

Phil Summa
May 20 2021 at 8:17am

Interesting, but I found Ms. Galef almost naïve in her view (perhaps expressed too casually in the interview) that (e.g.) politics don’t really matter. Really? Has our cultural amnesia erased the totalitarians of the 20th Century and the tens of millions of deaths they caused? Is central planning versus more markets a non-issue for the welfare of millions of people? Also, from the Judeo-Christian worldview, the soldier, the farmer, and the athlete are all held up as models for life. My conclusion is that she is optimistically overly-relativistic, and seems to place too many items in the “doesn’t matter, be a scout” silo.

May 20 2021 at 8:19am

I just wanted to respond to this that Russ says:

“And, she said, ‘Well, actually, there’s studies that have shown that 50% is genetic, 40% is something else, and 10% is something else.’ I went, ‘Oh, okay.’

…I don’t even know what it means. Does that mean… Is that like a median or an average?”

Maybe people with more expertise in statistics can correct me, but I believe Russ is rightly confused, because those numbers don’t directly apply to individuals, they only apply to groups.

Those figures indicate how much variation in happiness *across the group* is explained by variation in genetics/environment/noise *across that group*.

An individual at a given moment has no variation in either measure so the statistic doesn’t even make sense.

So it’s not the same as saying if a given individual moves from one environment to another they’ll experience some particular percentage benefit.

Now it should be the case that if a lot of variation between people is explained by their environment, then there ought to be ways you can change your environment to be happier. If there weren’t any such things, how come differences in environment between people are causing big differences in outcome across people?

So these things are certainly related, but you’d want a different statistic to think about possible individual gains from living differently.

Keivan MK
May 20 2021 at 3:37pm

“It’s not obvious what information you have to make a rational decision about say whether to get married, who to marry, whether they have children, whether to make a large career change, what to do with your life in general. Information is kind of hard to come by, and I’m not sure we know what to do with it.”

This statement by Russ reminded me of a fascinating paper by Edna Ullman-Margalit entitled “Big Decisions: Opting, Converting, Drifting” at the end of which she suggest that when it comes to making big choices, small decision making (“picking” in her terminology) and big decision making (“opting” in her terminology) come together. Even when such decisions are framed as consequences of arguments, the framework in which these arguments are couched seems to be the outcome and an arbitrarily pick.

Russ Roberts
May 21 2021 at 1:02pm

L.A. Paul in her book Transformative Experiences discussed in this EconTalk episode references that paper as do I in my next book. Great article. Because of copyright, not sure we can link to it, but search and you’ll find it.

Jordan Ballor
May 26 2021 at 10:56am

I appreciated the framing of this distinction of mindsets or dispositions as more of a spectrum than a simple binary.

It would be possible, for instance, to be “soldierly” in defending the preferability of a “scout” mindset, for example…and perhaps that posture would be warranted!

Jim Cote
Jan 7 2022 at 10:22am

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: April 5th, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is April 5th, 2021, and my guest is author and podcaster, Julia Galef. She hosts Rationally Speaking, which she has done since its inception in 2010, and she has just published her first book, which is the subject of today's episode: The Scout Mindset: Why Some People Say Things Clearly and Others Don't. Julia, welcome to EconTalk.

Julia Galef: Thank you. It's so nice to be on your show after listening to it for so many years.

Russ Roberts: That's awesome.


Russ Roberts: You contrast the Scout Mindset with the Soldier Mindset. What are they, and why is it better to think like a scout than a soldier?

Julia Galef: That's the whole book, so, I'll try to be as concise as I can.

So, 'Soldier Mindset' is my term for a phenomenon I'm sure everyone is familiar with in different guises. Basically, it means the motivation to defend your beliefs against any evidence or argument that might threaten those beliefs.

So, you might know this under names like rationalizing or denial or wishful thinking or motivated reasoning, or to some extent confirmation bias. And, Soldier Mindset is just my umbrella term for all of those things.

And, the reason I call it Soldier Mindset is just because the way--like, if you look at the language that we use to talk about reasoning, it's very militaristic. You know, we talk about defending beliefs. We try to support our beliefs or buttress our positions like we were defending a fortress. And, when we talk about dealing with opposing arguments or criticism, we talk about poking holes in someone's case or shooting down an argument. Very militaristic. So, I call it Soldier Mindset.

And then, Scout Mindset is my alternative to Soldier Mindset. And, whereas a soldier, their role is to attack and defend, the scout's role is just to go out and see the landscape, the situation as clearly as possible and put together as accurate a map as they can of what's really there.

So, Scout Mindset is the motivation to see what's really there and not just what you wish was there.

Russ Roberts: I'm a big fan of that, and I love the term. I think it's a great metaphor for thinking about--

Julia Galef: Thank you--

Russ Roberts: a way to live and a way to make your way through the world. Which is: The world is really complicated. Of course, inevitably, no map corresponds one-to-one with reality. So, the scout does have to confront the reality that the scout's vision of reality is imperfect.

Julia Galef: That's absolutely true. And, one reason I added that that subtle little qualifying word in my description that you want 'as accurate a map as possible.' That's accepting the fact that all of our maps even if you're a genius and you're exerting 100% of your effort towards seeing the world clearly--which, I don't think you should be exerting 100 of your effort, but even if you were, your map would still be--if you were doing it right, it would be full of areas of uncertainty. There'd be some question marks. There'd be some: 'Here be dragons' on your map or 'Who knows what here be.' You also just go into this whole endeavor accepting that you're going to be--the map should be drawn in pencil, not pen. You should be erasing things and redrawing things as you learn more about the world and that's just how the process is supposed to work. So, that's absolutely true.


Russ Roberts: So, I'm a big fan of that, and I think listeners would recognize immediately that you and are very simpatico there. Historically, I think people have tried to push people towards Scout rather than Soldier by encouraging, say, numeracy, economic literacy which is part of EconTalk obviously. But, at some point--mmm, it was within the last five years--I got pessimistic about that approach.

Julia Galef: Disillusioned?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, the reason I got disillusioned is I realized that a lot of people aren't like me. Or at least they're not like the way I think of myself.

Julia Galef: That's true.

Russ Roberts: They're not like the way I want to be or think of myself. I like to think of myself as a somewhat objective truth seeker.

Now, I know like all human beings that's not 100% true. I got plenty of soldier in me.

But, what I got disillusioned about is the idea that most people would like to be--even if they're flawed--most people would like to be objective truth seekers.

I've started to think that's not really true.

And, one way to think of your book is a way to convince people that they ought to be, as well as giving them tools for that effort if they want them. Do you agree with that, with my assessment? And, do you see your book that way?

Julia Galef: Basically. So, the way I think about it is: out of the entirety of everyone who exists, there's a large subset that are just not interested in the idea of being more scout-like. And I should emphasize that as you kind of alluded to, it's not like some people are scouts and some people are soldiers even though I sometimes use the word 'scouts' as kind of shorthand to refer to people who are unusually good at Scout Mindset, but still we're all a mix of scout and soldier and we might be more scout-like in some circumstances and more soldier like in others. So, it's a spectrum.

So, out of the whole population, I think a large subset of people are not interested in being more scout-like. They like being soldiers. There is not a project that interests them and I'm probably not going to reach them. Which is fine.

But, then there's also a very large subset I think of people who at least in theory like the idea of being more scout-like. And, they might not like that idea for the same reasons that you and I like it.

You know, I think a lot of being a scout appeals to me because of--I don't know. I find it exciting and admirable and kind of honorable to prioritize truth over your own ego or over, you know, whatever feels convenient or comforting in the moment. So, I have my own reasons for finding this exciting. And not everyone might share those reasons.

So, part of what I'm doing in the book is, like, pointing out this is a mindset that benefits you. So, it's something you should be selfishly interested in even if you don't share my feeling that it's inspiring and exciting to be a scout.

So, that's sort of to get to the second part of your first question, which I didn't really answer which is why should people move from soldier towards scout.

My basic answer is because it improves your judgment. Having an accurate map of the world, knowing, like, where are the bridges crossing the river, and where are the risks and dangers, and which route can I take that will get me quickest to where I'm trying to go. Having that accurate map is really useful for making decisions.

And, we have to make tons of decisions in our lives whether that's about what's going to make us happy or where should I invest my money or what medical treatments are worth trying? Should I enter a relationship or leave this relationship? Should I have kids?

So, we just have thousands of decisions, big and small; and my claim is that the more accurate your map of the world, the more accurate your map of yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, and how other people work, the better your decisions are going to be.


Russ Roberts: We think of two different aspects of that. One is, having more information. Which you could say is like the altitude of the hill across the way, what it's going to take to climb and how far away it is as the scout. What provisions your army is going to need to get around that with when there's no river over there and there is one over here.

The other part of course is the information isn't sufficient. You also have to have a way to process that information in a rational, thoughtful way.

Julia Galef: As much as possible.

Russ Roberts: Right. As much as possible.

Julia Galef: That's sort of the North Star that you're aiming for.

Russ Roberts: Yup. And, I've become little bit skeptical of that. I'd like--I want to come to that in a minute. I actually want to ask you something first about something you just said and then we'll--

Julia Galef: I also realized I didn't finish my thought from earlier, so I'll just flag that--

Russ Roberts: Go ahead--

Julia Galef: Sorry.

Russ Roberts: Go ahead--

Julia Galef: I got lost in my very long train of thought--

Russ Roberts: Don't we all.

Julia Galef: But, what I was trying to say earlier was that there's a bunch of people who are just not going to be interested in being more scout-like, and that's fine.

But, then there's also tons of people who like the idea at least in theory, but they're still a lot less Scout-like than they could be--because of a number of factors: a), they're just not paying that much attention to this as a thing to improve on.

And so, part of the goal of my book is to just make this mindset a lot more salient and kind of point out all the ways in which it manifests and helps you and all of the different circumstances in which you could be more scout-like.

So, I think just having a lot of salient examples can help people act more like scouts, you know, even if they already kind of in theory accepted this is a good thing to do.

And, then also, what I've learned is that a lot of people like the idea, but they have a lot of objections to it or hesitations. And so, they say, 'Yeah, it's good to have accurate beliefs and good judgment, but there are a lot of circumstances in which you really shouldn't be a scout because you need self-deception or wishful thinking in order to be happy, or to be motivated, or to be confident.'

And so, that was another goal of the book--was to try to show people that I think that's not actually true. And that a lot of the things that they think they need Soldier Mindset for, they actually don't need Soldier Mindset. So, they could be more scout-like without sacrificing the things that they care about.

So, that was another goal. I sort of was hoping the book would take that large group of people who sort of are at least theoretically sympathetic to Scout Mindset and help, you know, push them more in the direction of the scout in practice not just in theory.


Russ Roberts: I'm going to ask you a tough question.

Julia Galef: Great.

Russ Roberts: Why do you care?

Julia Galef: Uh, well--

Russ Roberts: I mean, it's great for you/ But these other people are, let's say, living in a fantasy world about whatever it is, whether it's a misunderstanding of some ideological issue, an issue of science, religion, atheism, whatever it is: Leave them alone. Why do you care what they think?

Julia Galef: I guess there's a couple answers to this.

One answer is just that I--maybe it's like the economist in me. I just hate waste. And it just seems like there's all of this unnecessary waste happening where people are, like, leaving value on the table. They could--I think that they actually could make better decisions and not have to sacrifice this kind of valuable ability to see things clearly, and that they're making that sacrifice unnecessarily because they don't notice they're making it or because they think they need to make that sacrifice in order to be happy.

And so, in the name of efficiency almost, I'm driven to show people, 'No, you don't have to make that sacrifice. You can have your cake and eat it, too. You can have your happiness and your clear understanding of the world.'

And so, that goal kind of inspires me in its own way.

And, then, yes: I also think the world would be a better place if people were a little more committed to objectivity and intellectual honesty.

And, I don't want to pressure people into doing something that's not good for them just because I think it has positive externalities. But I do actually think that on the margin moving from Soldier Mindset towards Scout Mindset is good, for people as well as the world. And so, I feel very driven to communicate that to them, because I think that would be--there's a lot of value we're all leaving on the table basically.


Russ Roberts: So, we're going to get to that other point in a minute, but I want to just come back on something you said earlier.

Julia Galef: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I'm going to put it in my words. Actually, let me say it about myself. If you ask me why do I--at least, in my mind--strive to be more of a scout and less of a soldier, I wouldn't say to make me happy. And I wouldn't say to have a better life, in the usual sense that people mean it. I would say more related to, I think, the way you started to phrase it earlier: It's part of who I am. It's part of the way of my identity. It's part of how I see myself. It's, more importantly, something I aspire to in the language of Agnes Callard who was recently--I think her episode is going to come out after yours, but we'll see.

Julia Galef: Oh, great.

Russ Roberts: I think that's a key part of it for me.

And, in fact, I think it's very unclear that it's good for you.

Now, obviously, if you think you can fly and jump off a 10-story building, that's a mistake. But, the level of scoutness versus soldierness that we're talking about here in terms of politics, religion, personal decisions--certainly you don't want to fool yourself about whether a certain kind of food that you like eating but it makes you violently ill, you probably shouldn't eat it.

But, most of the decisions that we have this soldier problem with are ideological, and it's really hard to know what a scout should think--right?--about religion or about politics, or about our values.

And so, I think it's a hard sell. You did a pretty good job. I don't want to suggest that you failed at it. But, I'd like to hear you defend it here.

Most people are comfortable with being in the dark about what really is the effects, say, of the minimum wage, or whether God exists, or whether you should vote Democrat or Republican. They might think they know the answer to all those, but the truth is it's really hard to establish it in any scientific way.

There are some views that are less credible than others. It doesn't mean that we've got nothing to say about those issues.

But, I do think it's--you're at risk. There are two issues here. I think one is you're not necessarily going to be happy. You might be less happy because you're going to lose all your friends if you change, and you have to find a new set.

But the second is, since you can't really find the truth in a lot of those areas, it's not clear how to be a good scout.

So, those are two tough questions. They're different. Take either one or both and see what you think.

Julia Galef: Yeah: You did such a great job of outlining what I see is like the main sort of serious objection to what I'm trying to do here. And I love it; and I thought a lot about that as I was writing the book.

So, I want to start with what you said about--usually when we're in Soldier Mindset, it's about something kind of ideological that doesn't really matter for our lives, like politics. And I think that's maybe half of what's happening here. So, to oversimplify, I would describe the kinds of situations that we're in into three categories.

One category is very sort of concrete everyday situations where Scout Mindset comes naturally to us because it's something with direct consequences for our life and we have little incentive to deceive ourselves, anyway. So, like, being in Scout Mindset about 'What's the best way to get to the train station in time to make my train?' or something. We don't really struggle with Soldier Mindset very much on those kinds of issues, right?

And, then on the other end of the spectrum, there's this category of ideological issues where we have a strong incentive to deceive ourselves because it feels good or because it helps us fit in with our tribe, our peer group. And, conversely, we have little incentive to be accurate. At least, little direct incentive, because as you put it, 'What is the harm of someone having false beliefs about tax policy or immigration or something?' because there's no direct consequences for them. So, indeed, we see a lot of Soldier Mindset in that category.

But, then one category in the middle that I think you neglected is issues where we have strong incentives in both directions, and so we tend to vacillate. So, I think a lot of important life decisions fall into that category, and they don't even have to be necessarily important in the grand scheme of things, just fraught.

Like, one example I described in the book is when I was running workshops--like, teaching workshops on decision-making and cognitive science--I had this strong incentive to find out from my students if there were any problems with the workshop--like, if I was teaching it badly or they were lost or unhappy. So, I would try to ask them, 'How's the workshop going for you? Are you having a good time? Does it make sense?' But, I also really hate hearing bad news and I really hate getting criticism. So, I also had the strong incentive to get the answer that I wanted to hear. So, I noticed after the fact that when I asked people these questions like, 'Are you enjoying the workshop?' I was nodding at them unconsciously. And, a couple times even, like, giving two thumbs up as I asked, 'Are you liking the workshop?' Because I had these two competing--there was this tension between the scout and soldier incentives.

So, I think there are a lot of cases in which people do, at least in theory, recognize: 'I think I would be better if I could be more of a scout about facing my problems head-on or about taking criticism, or thinking about risks.' But that's just hard to do. It could be helpful if I can give them some strategies for making that an easier transition. So, that's part of my answer.

And, then to go back to the ideological situations where: Why bother trying to be a scout because there's no direct benefit to you?

I think that's a bit of a tougher sell. But, I do think that there's a strong case to be made that Scout Mindset is--it's kind of a general habit of mind and a lot of the things that go into being a scout are--they're almost unconscious. Like, the question of whether it even occurs to you to look for an exception to your initial judgment, or the emotional skill of even being able to consider the possibility that you might be wrong about something when you want to be right--those are mental and emotional habits; and I think training those habits through repeated practice is quite important.

And so, it seems to me that if you're practicing those habits even in domains that don't have a direct benefit to you like politics, I think that's good for you in general and it makes Scout Mindset easier in cases where it actually does benefit you because you've been practicing it just as a general habit of mind and not just trying to, like, turn it off and on, when it seems directly useful or not. Does that make sense? Maybe I'll stop now.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, that's a fantastic point.

Julia Galef: Okay.


Russ Roberts: I want to riff on it a little bit. I think--you have a number of examples in the book where you fell victim to Soldier Mindset, and here you are writing a book about it, and you think you'd be really good at it. And it could be you're just not good at it. That's my presumption.

Julia Galef: Wait. Just not good at--

Russ Roberts: You're just genetically soldier-oriented, say.

Julia Galef: Oh, okay.

Russ Roberts: But, I think we're all kind of soldier-oriented; and I think Scout Mindset is something you have to work on.

I had a recent guest on the program, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, talking about happiness; and I wanted to mention this to listeners, because I thought it was such an embarrassing and fantastic example of what you're talking about. I said, 'Well, aren't some people just happy and not happy? I mean, really, can you do anything about it? Can a person actually follow behavior that'll make them happier?' And, she said, 'Well, actually, there's studies that have shown that 50% is genetic, 40% is something else, and 10% is something else.' I went, 'Oh, okay.'

Now, it turns out--in the calm light of day, when I'm being scouty--I don't believe that at all, and I don't even know what it means. Does that mean that on average people--it's not true that everybody is 50:40:10. Is that like a median or an average? Because, there are some miserable people who are probably 10:90:0, etc. One of them is your genetic makeup; one is like your circumstances; and one is what you have control over. And I think the claim was 40 is what you have control over and I thought, 'Oh, that's great.' But, the truth is, it's even worse.

So, that's embarrassing.

Julia Galef: It's embarrassing that you didn't think to question that in the moment?

Russ Roberts: Exactly. And, listeners would give me, I hope, the benefit of the doubt. 'Oh, he probably doesn't believe that, but he didn't want to interrupt her, or 'He had other things to talk about.'

Julia Galef: That's always plausible deniability right there.

Russ Roberts: Yup, absolutely.

Julia Galef: That's what I count on.

Russ Roberts: However: A friend of mine sent me--about, I don't know, a year or two ago--a talk by Arthur Brooks--and he said, 'You're going to hate this.' And, I thought, 'Well, I kind of like Arthur.' I looked at the talk and I was trying to figure out what he thought I'd hate about it. The answer is: At one point in the talk Arthur goes, 'Well, 50% is genetic, 40% is up to you.' And, of course, I immediately realized, 'That's absurd. You can quantify it?' But, when it just came up in that--plus a conversation I was having with an EconTalk guest, even though I'm in actually very much a skeptical mode, usually, as host, it just kind of went right by.

And I do think your point that you make progress in adopting that mindset, by adopting it kind of everywhere--because it's too hard otherwise--I think it's very important.

And I think in personal areas, which you talked about as sort of the middle ground, I think it's extremely important.

I think the idea that 'the unexamined life is not worth living' is a deep truth. I think in our own personal lives, self-awareness is really useful. I think most the time. It can make you unhappy. I don't fully accept the argument that it's good for you in terms of your happiness, but I think it's generally good for you.

Julia Galef: So, I'm actually curious for you to elaborate on your thoughts on this because the--so, this, there were three or four areas that I focused on in the book of areas in which people tend to think, 'Well, Scout Mindset is going to make me worse off in this particular way or this particular area.' And happiness was one of them. Specifically, people tend to think that you need some amount of--

Russ Roberts: Delusion--

Julia Galef: denial or self-deception--yeah--to keep from just being bereft. To stave off negative emotions like insecurity or regret or fear that, you know, are just going to paralyze you and you need to get rid of somehow. So, they think that self-deception is necessary for that.

And, my sense is that actually--I'm not going to claim--I don't think I can justifiably claim that in every single case, Scout Mindset can deal with these emotions and you don't need Soldier Mindset, because I don't think I can know that for sure. But, certainly in the vast majority of cases I've looked at, whenever people claim you need self-deception in order to, you know, deal with regret or something, my reaction is always, 'But, I know people. I have personally used strategies to deal with this issue that don't require self-deception. And, I know other people who are able to, you know, deal with--'

Well, I'll just give you an example. There's something that Daniel Kahneman wrote about in Thinking Fast and Slow. So, he gives this example of like a door-to-door salesman who gets the door slammed in his face. And, Kahneman says, you know, 'Yes, it's maybe a bias. But, still isn't it better for that person's happiness and self-esteem to tell himself: Well, that person was just a jerk. Isn't that better for him than saying: Well, maybe I'm a bad salesman?'

I read that and I was, like: 'But those aren't our only two options.' There are plenty of things at the intersection of honest and also comforting that he could be telling himself instead of reaching for the self-deceptive strategy of saying, 'Well, she was just a jerk and that's why she slammed the door in my face.'

So, he could tell himself, 'Well, yeah, I got the door slammed in my face, but everyone gets the door slammed in their face sometimes.'

Or he could tell himself, 'Well, I used to get the door slammed in my face every day and now it's like once a week. So, I'm making progress.' Or whatever whatever is actually true, but also comforting.

I think there's usually--or in every case I can think of, there are things in that intersection where you can make yourself feel better without having to resort to telling yourself a lie. Does that not seem true to you?


Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think there's two things about that, that are really important. One is just: I think we're kind of--we very naturally gravitate toward the either/or, because two is easier to decide and choose from than seven. So, I think we're a little bit blind to that third possibility. And, as you point out, it's usually more than three. So, it's either, 'Oh: Jerk/I'm-a-bad-salesman: I'll go with jerk.' But, the idea that you could reflect and think about how you can become a better salesman would seem to me to be good advice.

And, I just think in life in general that's such a rich and important thing. And, it's one of the things I like the most about your book: It's that you give a lot of examples where, instead of just saying, 'Oh, well--.' Take another example, 'I'm ugly.' Well, that's depressing. 'I'll just pretend I'm good looking.'

Now, I'm not going to tell you, you should make a really studied effort to assess how attractive one is--you know, across a scale of 1 to 10. But--and, that's one that has a lot of emotional insecurity around there for most people.

But, I think being aware of your shortcomings is usually a positive. I understand it could bring you down the first time you hear it, or the first time you realize, 'I behave a certain way in public,' say. And, I've always thought, 'And I'm justified for that because--' fill in the blank.

An example that that came up again in this Callard episode is anger. 'Oh, yeah. Of course, I got outraged at that person. He had stupid things to say. Can you blame me?' The answer is, 'Yeah, you can.' It's not a healthy thing for you, not a healthy thing for convincing them otherwise. It's not a nice thing. There are lot of reasons not to do that.

And, I think it's very hard for us to seek those out.

And I think the Scout Mindset in that setting is exceptionally important. It's a reflective strategy. It's saying, 'Is there something else here I could turn to besides the standard ways that we think about these?' And, I think that's really fantastic.

Julia Galef: Oh, I assumed there was a 'but' coming there.

Russ Roberts: No.

Julia Galef: Yeah. Well, thank you.

I mean, I agree obviously. Even just kind of strategies like what are you comparing your situation to? It's easy to feel bad about your situation if you're comparing yourself to the most successful people in the world, or to the hypothetical best you could have done. And that can make you feel bad and it can be tempting to reach for something self-justifying to deal with feeling bad like telling yourself, 'Well, it wasn't my fault that I didn't do as well as I could have.' Or 'Well, those successful people are probably all miserable anyway.' Like, those are strategies that can make you feel better.

But, a different approach is just to compare yourself to something else, and focus on how lucky you are to even be alive and healthy and have all the blessings that you have compared to so many people in the world and so many people throughout history. I think that is a true fact and reflecting on it can make me feel much better about my situation without me having to tell myself something false.

Russ Roberts: That one doesn't work so well for me and I think other people as well struggle with it the idea that, 'Well, there are people worse off than you.' Or, your expectations are irrationally high. It's very hard I think for us to internalize that.

I'm going to give you an example from my dad. My dad said, he used to say, he said, 'God gave me an incredible soul and not enough talent as a poet.' He felt things so strongly, but he struggled to write great poetry. He wanted to be a poet. It was a hobby of his that was incredibly important to him. When he passed away, my brother found going through his stuff, the notebook of maybe, I don't know 50, 60 poems that he had crafted over the course of a few decades that he was proud of. He used to tell me, 'I don't really I don't need to be Robert Frost. I just want to be a minor American poet. That's all I aspire to.' Now, I think I know my dad well enough that if he'd become a minor American poet, he would have been disappointed he wasn't Robert Frost.

Russ Roberts: And I think that's a very human thing. And, I think it's unfortunate, because he didn't enjoy the ride as much as he would have. He wrote some great poems. He was not a minor American poet in the official sense that he's not in Wikipedia under Poets.

Julia Galef: Have you published any of them?

Russ Roberts: No, and he didn't either. He submitted some of them. I'm going to put some of them up on Medium that I love. But, the point is that I think this idea--I think it's good to know your limitations and enjoy what you have. Your point was that you should lower your expectations and realize that you're better off than--

Julia Galef: Or, just be aware that you're better off than you could be. So, even if you're not at the very top of where you could be, you can still feel good about where you are.

Russ Roberts: But, my dad didn't even make it to minor American, and yet I think that's a shame. It would've been great for him just to writing poems and sharing them with his family; and it's okay. So, I think rather than focus on, 'Well, there are people worse off than I am,' I think it's great just to be in the moment and say, 'Oh, it's a beautiful poem. It gives me satisfaction. Okay: It's not as recognized as as it could be, but it's still nice.'

Julia Galef: You know, one thing that I've converged on in the last few years, especially in working on the book but just in general, is that I feel like people are just sufficiently different that a strategy for feeling good or motivating yourself or whatever--a strategy that works for one person has only a somewhat good chance of working for other people. And so, that's one reason I tried to give this whole kind of array of different possible--I call them honest coping strategies in the book because I just find there's so much variation and that for one person really being in the moment can be really effective; and for someone else, they might need to have a comparison that they feel good about, and it's not going to work for them to stay in the moment.

Same thing with dealing with criticism, actually. I've had people give me advice for being able to be open to criticism that's like, 'Conjure up a sense of gratitude towards your critic and really appreciate the service that he's doing for you in pointing out your flaws.'

Russ Roberts: Horrible flaws--

Julia Galef: And, I'm just, like, No. Every ounce of my being refuses or rejects the idea of being grateful to a critic. I guess with some exceptions. I can imagine some critics who I can tell really just are going out of their way to try to help me, but that's not the typical critic that I encounter.

So, I use different strategies to be open to criticism like focusing on how much better I'm going to be in the future if I can manage to listen to and integrate this criticism. Or feeling proud of myself. Feeling even smug about my ability to listen to criticism. Those are strategies that work for me and may not work for other people. So, I try to be aware of that variation in humanity.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I talk a lot in the program about getting--and it's embedded in your book; you don't say it exactly like this--but: Learn to get pleasure from saying, 'I don't know.' And, to come back to your earlier point about how certain habits spread across different parts of your life even if you start in one area: My ability to say, 'I don't know,' the first time was horribly painful, and I felt insecure about it. I didn't like it. But, I've now gotten to the point where I enjoy saying it.

Even when it's mildly embarrassing. able to see what's going on here, but, like, I'll see it later. Sometimes I'll say that to myself, 'I'll see it later.' Sometimes I can't even--like the jealousy piece that we'll talk abouRight? Like, when someone will say, 'You should do a program on monetary policy in a world of uncertainty, in an international setting with Bitcoin introduced in half the world.' I always say, 'I don't really understand that stuff.' And, I used to be, like, embarrassed. Was I a bad student in graduate school?

Now, it's so liberating. It's okay to say it. And I say it in lots of areas of my life where I--part of what that's about, and I want to come back to this earlier point about, I would call it growing up, understanding yourself--part of it is about taking off some of your armor, which goes really well with your Soldier Mindset. You know, we go through life with so much armor on for battle; and the more, I think, armor you can take off and still feel safe--because you really are safe, because if someone says you're ugly or you're dumb, in theory, it should not bother you. Even if it's true, it shouldn't bother you. There's so many more things to life than your appearance or just your IQ [Intelligence Quotient]. There's kindness, and there's nobility, and there's courage.

You can work on all those other things. And yet, we're so afraid of that. So, when we can say, 'I don't know,' and take off a piece of my armor that says, 'Oh, I know everything.' Actually, I don't. I don't know. I take that off, and I become less of a soldier.

And I really think that's a nice way to think about your metaphor that--I crash around in life wearing my big suit of armor and it limits my ability not just to know myself and to find the truth, but it limits my ability to interact openly with people. And so, if you criticize me and I go, 'Yeah, you're right. That's a good point.' Boy, you have a human connection there that you can't otherwise have.

Julia Galef: Yeah. That's very well put; and it's a really interesting question why we seem to have this systematic misperception of how bad it would be. Like intuitive, gut level misperception of how bad it would be--

Russ Roberts: Visceral--

Julia Galef: to say that you were wrong about something or to admit you don't know something.

And, I have some evolutionary theories about that I can't, you know, prove. But, one theory that I discuss in the book is that when we evolved in the period of time that the environment that was present during the bulk of the time humans were evolving, we did live in small tribes. So there was a small and fixed group of people to whom you had to look good and remain in their good graces.

And, if you failed at that, it could actually be a matter of life and death for you, if the tribe decided you were untrustworthy or disloyal or something like that.

So, it really was quite important to really err on the side of not risking any potential social ostracization.

And, it seems to me like that instinct which might have made sense in the evolutionary environment, we kind of ported it over to not just the modern environment where it's just less true. Like, it's less true that we rely on a small group of people for our survival and that we have to please them and remain loyal to them in order to survive.

That's less true. You can find another community if you really don't get along with your current community. You can support yourself just fine even if lots of people in the world hate you. So, that's less true.

And, then also I think we ported that way of looking at things--that extreme risk aversion when it comes to any social consequences--we've ported that over to a context where it doesn't really apply so much, like saying you were wrong about something. It feels like you're you're admitting weakness or you're being defeated in some way, the same way losing a physical battle in the ancestral environment might lower your status in the group. But, in practice, it just doesn't actually seem to work that way.

And, that I think is one of the things that makes that process that you were describing of saying you don't know something or you were wrong about something and noticing, 'Oh, this gets much easier as I do it more and more.' One of the things that makes that process work is just literally noticing that you are misperceiving the consequences of saying you were wrong about something: that, in fact--and I heard this from a bunch of people when I was interviewing people for my book. They said, 'It really felt like it would be socially catastrophic for me as the CEO [Chief Executive Officer] to say I didn't know something or I was wrong about something. And I kept being pleasantly surprised that people didn't react badly to that.'

I'm sure that it helps to be generally competent and a generally, like, a nice and capable person and that gives you a ton of cushion to say you were wrong about something or you don't know. But, kind of you have to go through that process of trying it and seeing the consequences and being pleasantly surprised a few times for it to really sink in and for it to be something that you're able to do without too much trouble.


Russ Roberts: So, my favorite thing you said in all that was when you said--you invoked evolution and you said, 'Not that I can prove it.' Because most people would say, instead, 'Well, studies show that we evolved from groups of small bands of 50 or 150 or less,' and blah, blah, blah. But, I love that, and that's just an example of 'I don't know.' It's a way of--you call it 'modest diffidence'--I think is the phrase, and I really like that a lot.

Julia Galef: I think that was Benjamin Franklin's phrase, actually, that I was quoting.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, you were quoting. I like to say [?] 'as you quote.' Good point.

Julia Galef: I don't want to take credit for Ben Franklin's words. He was just talking about how when he was young, one of his favorite things to do was argue with people. I think basically he was referring to what we would now in modern times call 'destroying people in arguments.' And he loved this, and he was good at it because he was very clever. But, he started noticing that people were much more willing to actually listen to him if he expressed his views with what he called 'modest diffidence.'

So, he intentionally added signals of uncertainty or humility in the way he expressed his ideas. So, he would say, 'It seems possible to me that--,' or, 'I could be wrong about this, but--.' He was just so pleasantly surprised at how people were much more open to taking him seriously and even changed their minds sometimes compared to when he was trying to beat them into submission with his arguments.

Russ Roberts: I agree with that except that I have family members who don't like it that I always say, 'Well, that could be true,' because sometimes they think it is true. They're pretty sure of it' and they're tired of me saying, 'Well, I'm not so sure. The world is complicated.' But, anyway.

Julia Galef: Yeah. I guess that's a slightly different--this is like a situation where you're trying to convince someone of something they don't yet already believe and you're acknowledging that it's not certain and that makes them more open to it; as opposed to saying you're unconvinced by something they strongly believe.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Fair enough.


Russ Roberts: But, I want to disagree with you a little bit on the evolutionary basis for our discomfort. I think nothing could be more frightening than going into battle without armor if your opponent is armored. And, although, that is a situation that most of us don't physically literally have to cope with--I've never jousted. I've never worn a suit of armor and can barely imagine it. But, in life, as we get older--and actually sometimes it starts quite young--we find that when we open ourselves to others, we sometimes get bludgeoned. We get kicked, or pushed around, and we develop that armor.

I'm not sure it's totally part of our genetic heritage. I think some of it is part of the tragedy of the loss of innocence that comes from growing up and having to confront people who aren't nice.

And I also would point out--to bring it, tie it to something else--you know, it's not easy to find another circle of friends. But, I would say, when we have to confront the fact that they may not be the right people for us or the example you gave earlier, but I would say that finding a group of people who are nice is not unimportant. And, if you go in and wear your armor and you get beat up, find a group of people don't beat you up when you don't wear your armor. That's a better group to hang out with, usually. There are some exceptions, obviously.

Julia Galef: Yeah. I mean, that's a great example of the kind of longer-term calculus that I'm encouraging in the book: that, there are a number of cases where it seems like in the short term, like thinking just locally, Soldier Mindset is better for you than Scout Mindset. Like, conforming to the group consensus, convincing yourself that you agree with the group is better, because that way you don't lose your friends. And, similarly convincing yourself that you didn't make a mistake is better because that makes you feel better now.

And again, I can't claim that Soldier Mindset is never the best option for you. But, I do think that in most of these cases, if you just widen your time horizon a little bit more, it's less clear that Soldier Mindset is the best case. So, over a longer period of time, you can actually develop more of a community of people who don't take advantage of your lack of armor; or, over a longer period of time you can get better at not making those mistakes so you don't have to self-deceive in order to feel good about yourself.

I use probably way too many analogies and metaphors in the book, but just to give you another one, the analogy that I like to use for this is: it's as if you're at school and you're getting beat up by a bully or threatened by a bully who tells you, 'Hand over your lunch money or I'm going to beat you up.' So, it might seem locally like the best choice is just handing over your lunch money because it's better to lose a few bucks than to get pulverized.

And so, maybe that's true locally. But, if you zoom out and just think in the longer term, 'Is this really my best choice?' it's not as clear that it is, because you have a lot more choices if you zoom out. You can learn to fight. You can maybe set it up so that the bully gets caught and gets sent away to military school. You could change schools or change classes. You have a lot of options, ways to change the game board you're playing on so that you don't have to just accept the trade-off that's right in front of you.

And so, that's kind of what I'm arguing about Scout Mindset--that, we feel like we face all these trade-offs where we have to hand over some of our accuracy, hand over some of our ability to see things clearly in exchange for not getting beat up--like, in exchange for not suffering a blow to our self-esteem or our confidence or our motivation. And, maybe that's true locally to some extent, but if you kind of zoom out and learn other strategies for being happy and motivated and confident that don't require self-deception, then you can escape those trade-offs.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Now, you will have some scars, but my suggestion is wear them proudly. They're badges of honor.

Julia Galef: I can get behind that.

Russ Roberts: Right?

Julia Galef: Yeah.


Russ Roberts: I want to come back to this issue I alluded to a long time ago--it wasn't yesterday, but it wasn't back earlier in our conversation--this question of information and judgment and using it. So, my claim is that in the sort of micro-level that we're talking about right now--perceiving yourself accurately, understanding your weaknesses, growing to accept them or find coping mechanisms that you talk about that are honest, but still helpful and not just a source of pain and suffering--these small issues of self-awareness, I think you're 100% right.

On the larger issues of personal decision-making, I think it's a lot harder case to make. So, I'm going to give you a chance to defend it. It's not obvious what information you have to make a rational decision about say whether to get married, who to marry, whether they have children, whether to make a large career change, what to do with your life in general. Information is kind of hard to come by, and I'm not sure we know what to do with it.

Julia Galef: So, you mean--

Russ Roberts: Well, I was trying to beat around the bush there a little bit. Let me--so, you and I know that you and I got in a Twitter conversation about two years ago, maybe.

Julia Galef: I feel bad that that's been 95% of all our interaction over the years is just this one issue that we've disagreed about.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's all right. It's really fantastic for me because it turns out I got a book idea out of it.

Julia Galef: Oh, great. I hope I get a credit somewhere in the acknowledgements.

Russ Roberts: Oh, you're definitely going to get a credit.

Julia Galef: That's so exciting.

Russ Roberts: So, you made the argument that we should have a survey of people who are thinking of having children, follow them for a decade or two after they've made that decision to have children, and see how their happiness level is compared to those who didn't. When I said--

Julia Galef: Well, not just happiness level, but other, like, 'Do you regret it?'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Assess their wellbeing in as full of sense as possible.

And, I got into a big argument not so much with you, but with people who piled on--as Twitter is wont to have happen--because I actually made the claim that more information wasn't always better. There are a lot of people on Twitter that could not process that. You might be one of them. They just thought, 'Well, isn't more information always better?' And, my response was, 'If it's accurate. But, if you can't get accurate information, it's not better at all. In fact, you just spun your wheels.' So, I think in most these decisions, I don't think you have access to much information. So, disagree with me.

Julia Galef: So, I don't think I would sign on to the claim that more information is always better. Well, maybe in a very sort of abstract technical sense. But, in practice I think there are a lot of cases where if you expect the information to be poor-enough quality, then it's costly and effortful to collect a lot of information and if it's not going to help you make a better decision anyway then it's not really making you better off, practically speaking. So, I agree with that.

And, I also agree that in making complicated complex life decisions where it's hard to know a lot of things in advance and you as a person are going to change over the years and so there's a lot of uncertainty at that level as well--I completely agree it's hard, and you can't usually be strongly confident that you've made the right choice.

It's just that in spite of all those caveats, I still think that for any tough life decision there's usually some sources of information you can find that are at least somewhat helpful. And, the one that we were talking about, about whether or not to have kids, it does seem to me like if you could ask a bunch of parents who had kids or who didn't have kids, how happy they were with their choice that that would give you some information.

And, the quality of that information would depend on various things. Like, it would depend on the sample of parents you talk to, and it would depend on how you worded the questions, and so on. But, I still think that there are ways to do that that would be more useful than zero. And, that all of our other ways of making a choice about a complex life decision like whether to have kids also have their own flaws.

And so, I guess I felt like you were correctly pointing out potential flaws in the idea of getting information from a survey, but you were kind of ignoring flaws in other ways of getting information about that choice, like talking to your parents or introspecting--all of which are useful but flawed, I think, as well.

So, I would just put survey methods--at least good survey methods--in this category of useful-but-flawed ways of getting information about your choices. Is anything in there you think is wrong?

Russ Roberts: A little bit. Not wrong. I want to react to some of that. Although, I want to say first that I think Emiliana Simon-Thomas in that episode said that parents are happier on average. But, it could just be once! No, I'm just teasing.

Julia Galef: Oh, because you were objecting to her practice.

Russ Roberts: I picked on her before and I felt bad doing it a few minutes later. I didn't mean to be sarcastic that what she said was obviously wrong. It was more that I just accepted it as a fact in the moment when I've been so skeptical with my friend.

Julia Galef: I got that.

Russ Roberts: Okay, good. But, I hope she gets it, if she is listening; and I'll give her a chance to respond in the comments and elsewhere if possible.

But, I think the point is that I think we're a little bit seduced by data. And, I think the survey example excites people because it's a fact. It is a fact. X percent were happy or had high levels of wellbeing or whatever you want.

Julia Galef: Right: 'In this particular survey, x percent said that they were happier.' There's a lot of caveats you have to make.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah. And, I'll add for listeners, we're also in a dialogue on Pairagraph discussing this, that I have a response to. There's two up there. We'll put a link to it. People can at least read our opening statements.

But, I think the real danger is being over-seduced by things that look like science. I would definitely talk to your parents, on's parents. I would definitely read literature. I would read poetry. I think those are powerful ways to understand what it's like to get married, to have children, to face the ups and downs that both marriage and parenting bring, for example. It's not a rose garden all the time, 24/7.

So, I think there's information to be gathered. I just think we should be rich thinkers about what counts as information.

Julia Galef: Yeah. I mean, maybe I misunderstood or mischaracterized your view or something, because that sounds like something I agree with. And, I'm often on the side of cautioning people not to trust scientific results too blindly and recognize all of the flaws in the methodology and all of the ways in which a particular experiment doesn't--you can't generalize from that to other things. I'm often making those points.

I guess, you know--it seems like there's a spectrum where on one hand is just asking your parents, like, 'How do you feel about your choice of kids? Were you happy? What do you think I should do?'

And then it seems like just better, or at least as good, to ask additional people. So, if you also talk to friends or neighbors.

And, then at a certain point aren't you just doing a survey?

That was kind of what I was trying to say: is that a survey is just--if you strip away the perhaps-unwarranted prestige that surveys get, which I think you were correctly complaining about--if you strip that away, isn't a survey just you're asking a bunch of people? And, you already agree that asking one or two people can be useful.

So, like, what makes it--suddenly at some point as you add more and more people to the group that you're asking, at some point it becomes a survey and is no longer trustworthy. Is it that they're anonymous? Or, was your point really just about we shouldn't give surveys prestige above other sources of information gathering because they actually don't deserve it?

Russ Roberts: Well, I first have to say that your point about 'Isn't[?] it just surveys?' is a fantastic debating point.

Julia Galef: Oh, I didn't mean to--

Russ Roberts: I know.

Julia Galef: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I know we're having a good conversation, but I love that. I thought that was genius.

So, let me try to squirm out of it. Let me try a little attempt to put that, integrate that with what I was claiming.

I think that's right. I think there's a plus and a minus for an informal survey of people in your circle. One of the advantages of that survey is that you know them much better than the strangers. You have a better maybe way of processing it.

They also know you better. So, they might actually have some insights about your susceptibility to a general result or whether it won't apply to you that you can't get from just reading a survey: 'Oh, 83% of people are happy. That'll be me. Maybe. I hope. Almost, for sure.'

But, I think there's two other parts to it. One is: I think most people who are married or who have children struggle to articulate what that experience is like. So, if you said to me--so when you wrote your book, you were engaged. Are you still engaged?

Julia Galef: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: But, you're not married?

Julia Galef: No.

Russ Roberts: Okay. So, now, suppose you said to me--the cameras go off or we're not Zooming; I mean, we're not recording and you say--'So, really, what's it like? Am I making a mistake?' And, if I tried to answer that question, boy, that's a hard question to answer. I mean, I can tell how much I like marriage. I could tell you what I like about it. And, it probably wouldn't be what you anticipate. So, I think you'd learn something.

But, not every person--and I might be one of them--can really put that into words. It's very subtle. So, that's the first thing.

The second thing I'd say is that given that subtlety and the difficulty of articulating it, you have to put a lot of grains of salt around that sort of subjective textural summary as--just like you did around the seven out of 1-10 that the person on the survey gave. Both of those have advantages, but they have real disadvantages. The seven is kind of silly: 'How are you on a scale of 1-10 with your marriage?' 'Well, I think I'm a seven.' That's kind of bizarro for something as complicated and multifaceted and always-changing as my relationship with my wife and what we create together.

Similarly, if you say, 'Okay. Well, to flesh it out some, how much time you got? Let's spend a couple weeks together; I'll really give you the flavor of it.' Or, better yet, 'Come live with us and and see what it's like day-to-day.' And, by the way, that won't work either. I guess I need a secret--you need to put a secret camera in our house to see what day-to-day life, right?

Julia Galef: We're starting to violate IRB [Institutional Review Boards] regulations here for ethical studies.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly. What's IRB stand for?

Julia Galef: Oh, the Institutional Review Board or something.

Russ Roberts: Okay.

Julia Galef: I was meaning to refer to the board that vetoes studies that professors propose because they're unethical or potentially ethical in some way.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Human subjects, it's sometimes called in the literature. But, no, it could be there's an IRB. It was fun saying 'I don't know.' At first I thought: I should know what that is, but it's okay.

Julia Galef: Well, also, I might have the acronym wrong. So, that's another possible explanation here.

Russ Roberts: I think that's the 'International Review of Books'--so that's not what you thought it is.


Russ Roberts: Let's close and talk about identity a little bit more. You said something really beautiful in the last part of the book. You say that you should "hold your identity lightly." And, a part of that appeals to me deeply, but a part of it, I rebel against it. I think there's something for our wholeness and our sense of self-to embrace it pretty fully. So, first tell us what you mean by holding it lightly, and why you think it's a good thing.

Julia Galef: Right. This is my variation on something that Paul Graham said. He wrote an essay that's pretty well known called "Keep Your Identity Small." He was talking about this well-known problem where lots of beliefs can become parts of our identity. Most famously, political beliefs or religious beliefs. And, they're part of our identity in the sense that we're kind of proud of those beliefs. We feel like they define us. When someone disagrees with them, we take that personally and we feel it's almost like someone's stomping on your flag, your country's flag or something. It's a similar feeling.

And, you know, it's not just politics and religion. All kinds of beliefs can become part of your identity. I lived in the Bay Area for a while and I know that people's views on the pros and cons of different programming languages can be very identity-relevant beliefs for them.

And so, Paul Graham's point was: All else equal, you should let as few things into your identity as possible. So, you don't feel like your views on politics or programming or whatever define you in any way.

And I thought that was great advice. And, I and a lot of people I know were influenced by that and tried to follow it.

My disagreement with it is minor and is maybe less of a disagreement with what Paul Graham himself meant and more with the way many of us tried to implement it, which is just that in practice it's really hard to not let things into your identity--just practically speaking, logistically speaking. You know, as I talk about in the book, I often work with, and I'm a big fan of, and have a lot of agreement with the effective altruist movement.

So, should I say, 'Well, no. I'm not an Effective Altruist [EA] because I don't want that to become part of my identity'? I see the argument for that. But, practically speaking it's, like, very convenient to just be able to say, 'Yes, I'm an EA.'

And, also, not just practically: it's nice to be able to lend your support to a movement by identifying with it publicly. It can help spread the ideas and the cause that you care about and you think is actually good and you want it to succeed.

And so, there are all these ways in which it's actually quite hard to not let things into your identity.

So, I just prefer the phrase, 'Hold your identity lightly,' where yes, you can define yourself as an EA or as a Democrat or a libertarian, but you just try to retain some detachment from that belief. And that involves things like always keeping it separate in your mind what I believe and what the ideology says. And, maybe there's a lot of overlap, but they're still two distinct things. So, you can notice when your views diverge from the ideologies.

And, always keeping in mind that your support for the movement or the ideology is contingent. It's contingent on--'For however long I continue to believe that this cause is doing good, I support it. But, if it seems to me that it's no longer doing good, then I won't support it.' And, just always retaining that separation in your mind: that your support of these causes or ideologies is contingent and is not just an inherent part of who you are; and supporting that cause or that label is not the end in itself. Does that make sense?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think that's a fantastic, important thing. And, Paul Graham, former--not former, he's still a past EconTalk guest--is such an interesting thinker.


Russ Roberts: And I think there's--I want to add something to that from what we talked about before. I think it's really important to remember that other people who fly whatever flags they fly don't necessarily fly them 120%. And, that keeps us from flying the flag at all sometimes, because we worry, 'Oh, they're going to think I'm one of those.' Whatever it is. In my case, it's: I'm a religious Jew. And so people think, 'Oh, well, then he believes--.' You have no idea what I believe.

Julia Galef: Right.

Russ Roberts: And part of the vulnerability that we've been talking about earlier is the acceptance that I fly that flag proudly, while understanding to myself that I may not accept every single tenet, every minute of the day. Right? There are things I doubt. People go, 'Oh, they're like robots. They just believe everything they're told.' Are you kidding? You don't know anybody, then--you probably don't know enough religious Jews, then. You've never talked to one of them. We have doubts. We may struggle to admit the people who are outside the club. That's also part of the problem.

But, the idea that we could respect our friends who identify with a certain viewpoint and understand that that does not mean they have to follow it in lockstep, 100%. Or maybe they do follow it, but they have doubts. Or maybe they have doubts and they're not sure what the source of the--they're working on whether that's something they want to believe in deeply and flag.

But, I think it's really important to have those identities, like you say, for all kinds of reasons: not just so that we can support a cause we happen to be mostly sympathetic to, but just for our sense of self.

And, part of how we make our way through the world that allows us to be vulnerable elsewhere and in other ways. It's a form of armor that, if we're lucky, isn't so off-putting to other people.

Julia Galef: Restrictive?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, restrictive. Yeah, exactly. [More to come, 1:02:32]

Julia Galef: Yeah. The thing you said about people making assumptions about you based on how you identify is--I think that's really interesting and important. There's one example that I talk about in the book of a rare exception on the internet to the general rule that you can't have good productive conversations about highly identity-based things, like politics or feminism in this case.

So, this subreddit is called FeMRADebates. And it's--you would assume if you hear that there's some SubReddit that debates feminism, and it's made up of feminists and MRAs, which is short for Men's Rights Activists, which is a group that believes men are discriminated against in society and is frequently hostile to feminism. If you heard that there's a group like that where feminists and MRAs debate feminism, you would be like 'That's going to be a disaster.' Which I think it usually is, in such cases. But, FeMRADebates was kind of a shining exception to this rule where people had really respectful and civil debates and changed their minds and recognized good points that the other side made. It's fascinating.

And, where I'm going with all this is that, when I talked to a number of the members of the subreddit and asked them, 'What do you think made you change your mind or what made you more open-minded? You started out as like a hardcore MRA and now you have a more nuanced view. Why is that?' A number of them said, 'Well, there's a rule on the SubReddit. There's some rules of conduct and one of them is that you're not allowed to make generalizations about what MRAs believe or what feminists believe.' And you're not allowed to say, like, 'Well, you're a feminist, so of course you must believe that--such and such.'

And, they said that was really important, because they'd come to the SubReddit with just a package deal in their mind about: This is what feminists believe. And, then they met people who said, 'Well, I'm sympathetic to, like, these aspects of feminism. I disagree with these other aspects. But I'm overall--on balance I would call myself a feminist.' And, because people were forced to have discussions about the actual beliefs of the people they were talking to and not the whole--

Russ Roberts: Caricature--

Julia Galef: ideology that they had in their head as what feminists believe, they were able to actually make a lot of progress.

So I think that it's a very valuable thing when you can do what you're talking about and try to focus just on what that person believes and not on what your assumptions are about their identity.

Russ Roberts: And of course, if we're not careful in a debate, we embrace all of the caricatured traits of our identity. Because we feel like we have to: because you're attacking it. 'Since I agree with 80% of it, I'm going to defend a hundred and to the wall.' And, that's a shame.

Julia Galef: Sometimes I notice myself defending things I don't even believe because someone assumed I believed it and criticized me for it. And I didn't even stop to ask myself, 'Do I even believe that thing?' I just reflexively tried to stand up for it. And, then later, I was like, 'Why am I defending this?'

So, yeah, you know: it gives people a lot of power over you, too, if you're not holding your identity lightly.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think that's just such an incredibly important point.

Part of it is just the role our identity plays in our lives. It's, in a way so our identity: our sense of our principles, our beliefs. It is in many ways our armor. It is our way of joining the tribe of people who are like-minded and gives us a sense of belonging. So, it can be extremely important. And, when it's threatened, we do come back often as soldiers and we forget it's not a war. You can actually be part over here and part over there. In a way, that's really the lesson of your book, which is a nice thing.

Julia Galef: Yeah. That's a good summary. You said it better than I could have.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Julia Galef. Her book is The Scout Mindset. Julia, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Julia Galef: Such a pleasure. Thank you so much for the stimulating conversation, Russ.

Russ Roberts: Take care.

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