Why you think you’re right — even if you’re wrong
By Julia Galef:
So I’d like you to imagine for a moment that you’re a soldier in the heat of battle. Maybe you’re a Roman foot soldier or a medieval archer or maybe you’re a Zulu warrior. Regardless of your time and place, there are some things that are constant. Your adrenaline is elevated, and your actions are stemming from these deeply ingrained reflexes, reflexes rooted in a need to protect yourself and your side and to defeat the enemy.
So now, I’d like you to imagine playing a very different role, that of the scout. The scout’s job is not to attack or defend. The scout’s job is to understand. The scout is the one going out, mapping the terrain, identifying potential obstacles. And the scout may hope to learn that, say, there’s a bridge in a convenient location across a river. But above all, the scout wants to know what’s really there, as accurately as possible. And in a real, actual army, both the soldier and the scout are essential. But you can also think of each of these roles as a mindset a metaphor for how all of us process information and ideas in our daily lives. What I’m going to argue today is that having good judgment, making accurate predictions, making good decisions, is mostly about which mindset you’re in.
To illustrate these mindsets in action, I’m going to take you back to 19th-century France, where this innocuous-looking piece of paper launched one of the biggest political scandals in history. It was discovered in 1894 by officers in the French general staff. It was torn up in a wastepaper basket, but when they pieced it back together, they discovered that someone in their ranks had been selling military secrets to Germany.
So they launched a big investigation, and their suspicions quickly converged on this man, Alfred Dreyfus.He had a sterling record, no past history of wrongdoing, no motive as far as they could tell. ButDreyfus was the only Jewish officer at that rank in the army, and unfortunately at this time, the French Army was highly anti-Semitic. They compared Dreyfus’s handwriting to that on the memo and concluded that it was a match, even though outside professional handwriting experts were much less confident in the similarity,but never mind that. They went and searched Dreyfus’s apartment, looking for any signs of espionage.They went through his files, and they didn’t find anything. This just convinced them more that Dreyfus was not only guilty, but sneaky as well, because clearly he had hidden all of the evidence before they had managed to get to it.
Next, they went and looked through his personal history for any incriminating details. They talked to his teachers, they found that he had studied foreign languages in school, which clearly showed a desire to conspire with foreign governments later in life. His teachers also said that Dreyfus was known for having a good memory, which was highly suspicious, right? You know, because a spy has to remember a lot of things.
So the case went to trial, and Dreyfus was found guilty. Afterwards, they took him out into this public square and ritualistically tore his insignia from his uniform and broke his sword in two. This was called the Degradation of Dreyfus. And they sentenced him to life imprisonment on the aptly named Devil’s Island,which is this barren rock off the coast of South America. So there he went, and there he spent his days alone, writing letters and letters to the French government begging them to reopen his case so they could discover his innocence. But for the most part, France considered the matter closed.
One thing that’s really interesting to me about the Dreyfus Affair is this question of why the officers were so convinced that Dreyfus was guilty. I mean, you might even assume that they were setting him up, that they were intentionally framing him. But historians don’t think that’s what happened. As far as we can tell,the officers genuinely believed that the case against Dreyfus was strong. Which makes you wonder: What does it say about the human mind that we can find such paltry evidence to be compelling enough to convict a man?
Well, this is a case of what scientists call “motivated reasoning.” It’s this phenomenon in which our unconscious motivations, our desires and fears, shape the way we interpret information. Some information, some ideas, feel like our allies. We want them to win. We want to defend them. And other information or ideas are the enemy, and we want to shoot them down. So this is why I call motivated reasoning, “soldier mindset.”
Probably most of you have never persecuted a French-Jewish officer for high treason, I assume, but maybe you’ve followed sports or politics, so you might have noticed that when the referee judges that your team committed a foul, for example, you’re highly motivated to find reasons why he’s wrong. But if he judges that the other team committed a foul — awesome! That’s a good call, let’s not examine it too closely. Or, maybe you’ve read an article or a study that examined some controversial policy, like capital punishment. And, as researchers have demonstrated, if you support capital punishment and the study shows that it’s not effective, then you’re highly motivated to find all the reasons why the study was poorly designed. But if it shows that capital punishment works, it’s a good study. And vice versa: if you don’t support capital punishment, same thing.
Our judgment is strongly influenced, unconsciously, by which side we want to win. And this is ubiquitous.This shapes how we think about our health, our relationships, how we decide how to vote, what we consider fair or ethical. What’s most scary to me about motivated reasoning or soldier mindset, is how unconscious it is. We can think we’re being objective and fair-minded and still wind up ruining the life of an innocent man.
However, fortunately for Dreyfus, his story is not over. This is Colonel Picquart. He’s another high-ranking officer in the French Army, and like most people, he assumed Dreyfus was guilty. Also like most people in the army, he was at least casually anti-Semitic. But at a certain point, Picquart began to suspect: “What if we’re all wrong about Dreyfus?” What happened was, he had discovered evidence that the spying for Germany had continued, even after Dreyfus was in prison. And he had also discovered that another officer in the army had handwriting that perfectly matched the memo, much closer than Dreyfus’s handwriting. So he brought these discoveries to his superiors, but to his dismay, they either didn’t care or came up with elaborate rationalizations to explain his findings, like, “Well, all you’ve really shown, Picquart, is that there’s another spy who learned how to mimic Dreyfus’s handwriting, and he picked up the torch of spying after Dreyfus left. But Dreyfus is still guilty.” Eventually, Picquart managed to get Dreyfus exonerated. But it took him 10 years, and for part of that time, he himself was in prison for the crime of disloyalty to the army.
A lot of people feel like Picquart can’t really be the hero of this story because he was an anti-Semite and that’s bad, which I agree with. But personally, for me, the fact that Picquart was anti-Semitic actually makes his actions more admirable, because he had the same prejudices, the same reasons to be biasedas his fellow officers, but his motivation to find the truth and uphold it trumped all of that.
So to me, Picquart is a poster child for what I call “scout mindset.” It’s the drive not to make one idea win or another lose, but just to see what’s really there as honestly and accurately as you can, even if it’s not pretty or convenient or pleasant. This mindset is what I’m personally passionate about. And I’ve spent the last few years examining and trying to figure out what causes scout mindset. Why are some people, sometimes at least, able to cut through their own prejudices and biases and motivations and just try to see the facts and the evidence as objectively as they can?
And the answer is emotional. So, just as soldier mindset is rooted in emotions like defensiveness or tribalism, scout mindset is, too. It’s just rooted in different emotions. For example, scouts are curious.They’re more likely to say they feel pleasure when they learn new information or an itch to solve a puzzle.They’re more likely to feel intrigued when they encounter something that contradicts their expectations.Scouts also have different values. They’re more likely to say they think it’s virtuous to test your own beliefs, and they’re less likely to say that someone who changes his mind seems weak. And above all, scouts are grounded, which means their self-worth as a person isn’t tied to how right or wrong they are about any particular topic. So they can believe that capital punishment works. If studies come out showing that it doesn’t, they can say, “Huh. Looks like I might be wrong. Doesn’t mean I’m bad or stupid.”
This cluster of traits is what researchers have found — and I’ve also found anecdotally — predicts good judgment. And the key takeaway I want to leave you with about those traits is that they’re primarily not about how smart you are or about how much you know. In fact, they don’t correlate very much with IQ at all. They’re about how you feel. There’s a quote that I keep coming back to, by Saint-Exupéry. He’s the author of “The Little Prince.” He said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up your men to collect wood and give orders and distribute the work. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
In other words, I claim, if we really want to improve our judgment as individuals and as societies, what we need most is not more instruction in logic or rhetoric or probability or economics, even though those things are quite valuable. But what we most need to use those principles well is scout mindset. We need to change the way we feel. We need to learn how to feel proud instead of ashamed when we notice we might have been wrong about something. We need to learn how to feel intrigued instead of defensive when we encounter some information that contradicts our beliefs.
So the question I want to leave you with is: What do you most yearn for? Do you yearn to defend your own beliefs? Or do you yearn to see the world as clearly as you possibly can?
Julia Galef: Why you think you’re right — even if you’re wrong
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