Is It Better to Be a Soldier or a Scout?


When you're engaged in intense discussion on an issue you care about—whether with a friend over coffee, on Twitter or Facebook, or in a public forum like a community meeting—have you ever taken a moment to pay attention to what emotions are driving you? Usually, most of us get so focused on the content of our arguments—what we're thinking, and what we're saying—that we don't stop to isolate what it is we're feeling.

Do you feel like a soldier trying to win the battle for your team? Do you get a little rush of adrenaline when you land a devastating, mic-drop comeback and elicit approving nods (or upvotes)? Do you get agitated, even angry, when someone questions your analysis or your intentions? If you're an activist pushing for some change—say, to influence a city council vote—perhaps your dominant emotion is fear: fear that you won't be persuasive, that you won't be listened to, that you won't be able to correct an injustice or bring about an outcome that would make your world a little better.

Or are you a scout, out to survey unknown terrain and make a map of what you find—knowing that turning a corner might confront you with the unexpected. What does it feel like when someone—a friend, a colleague, your spouse—poses a question or objection to you that you don't know how to answer? Is it the thrill of discovery that hits you first—knowing you're about to learn something new or understand something a little differently? Or is it shame or worry? What if that person is not a friend or colleague but a rival or adversary? Is the feeling different?

A couple years ago I stumbled upon a video of a TEDx talk by Julia Galef that explores the distinction between these two ways of engaging with evidence: soldier mindset, or scout mindset. Galef is a social-science researcher turned public intellectual who has launched various initiatives, including co-founding the Center for Applied Rationality, to help people improve their judgment and better understand and reshape their own unconscious biases.

Galef argues that scout mindset is the best predictor of good judgment and decision-making. "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." The talk is worth a watch. I've found myself coming back to it again and again.

In particular, I think of this video frequently when I use social media, which can be a deeply unpleasant space in the hair-trigger political environment of 2019 America. Increasingly, I've found myself sorting the social-media posts I read that address pertinent or political issues into "soldier" and "scout" posts—and the only discussions I have any urge to engage in are the ones undertaken with a scout mindset. This is true whether or not the original poster is someone I see eye-to-eye with.

Galef's "soldier mindset" is a clever metaphor for something long familiar to psychologists: motivated reasoning. When you're emotionally activated by the need to win a conflict, to defeat an adversary, or—perhaps most salient for the activists I know—to protect someone or something you hold dear, you will be prone to selectively process information, to uncritically accept interpretations of the evidence that bolster your point of view, and to rationalize away contrary or inconvenient observations.

This is not a simple matter, however, of emotional = irrational (solider) while cold and logical = rational (scout). Galef is clear-eyed about the fact that humans can almost never truly separate our judgment from emotions and social motivations—we're not wired for it. Instead, she says [emphasis mine]: 

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."

Scout mindset is something that you have to cultivate, and that starts with understanding that its roots are emotional. It has to feel good to find out you were wrong, and you need to cultivate in yourself the value system Galef describes that will lead to that.

No one is all soldier or all scout, all the time. I've met ideological "rationalists" who take great pride in being logical, impartial observers of the world—and guess what: they tend to be some of the most stubborn soldiers I know. Their ego is caught up in asserting their own rationality.

Scout mindset is hard to cultivate. I'm not great at it. But I try, because I think it's profoundly worthwhile.

What On Earth Does This Have to Do With Building Stronger Towns?

Two things. Number one—more prosaic—is that part of my job at Strong Towns is to understand how our movement and our rhetoric is coming across, and make it more effective so it reaches more people. And I've found a lesson there in this scout vs. soldier distinction.

Number two—more important—is that we live in a world of complex systems. Societies, economies, and cities are unfathomably complex and subject to black swan events that disrupt everything we thought we knew. If you are committed to making that kind of world a better place to live, you have to cultivate a scout mindset. Soldier won't cut it.

I'd go so far as to say that most of history's disastrous decisions were made by well-intentioned people who were thinking like soldiers for their chosen cause. Take Urban Renewal. We're as hard on it as anyone—we've urged urban planners to observe Urban Renewal Remembrance Day as a reminder of the damage wrought by the hubris of our forebears. When you read what those forebears wrote at the time, it's abundantly clear that they thought they were doing good. They were modernizing cities. They were facilitating growth. They were clearing slums—terrible places to live—in favor of places conducive to basic human dignity.

And the thing is, there was no shortage of cogent arguments against what they were doing available at the time—the soldier mindset of the master planners (plus a healthy dose of racism, to be fair) just made those critiques too easy to dismiss. Why are we so sure we're more rational and clear-eyed now? We shouldn't be.

This is not a new observation for Strong Towns: you might want to read what we've written in the past on complexity, and/or on the work of Nassim Taleb, Jonathan Haidt, or Daniel Kahneman.

This focus, among those who don't understand it, seems to give rise to a critique of Strong Towns that I've encountered a few times recently on social media—most bluntly put as "Strong Towns has no principles." I thought this was deeply strange the first couple times I heard someone say it: after all, we pretty prominently declare our Principles-with-a-capital-P. 

Being a scout doesn’t mean you don’t get to say, “I want X to happen. I think X would be good.” It does mean you don’t get to have an ideology that serves as a box into which you cram all the messiness of the real world, chopping off the protruding pieces that don’t fit.

Then I thought about it some more, and I think what these critics are saying is, "Strong Towns doesn't offer categorical, universal endorsements of policies or programs." We're unwilling to say, for example, "Density is good. Cities need to get denser. Period." Once in a while you’re going to see us write or share things that challenge or complicate a narrative we mostly agree with.

I can understand where the frustration with this comes from: you're in the trenches trying to convince your city council to approve a genuinely good development project in your neighborhood—one that would allow more people to live car-free lifestyles; that would bring in new shops and amenities; that would add to the tax base and help make your city more financially resilient. You just watched it pilloried by one angry speaker after another for hours, all with the same exaggerated fears about traffic and parking. And then you log on Facebook and there's Strong Towns, who really ought to be in your corner on this one, posting something about the value of incremental change, and it feels an awful lot like we're saying #NotAllNIMBYs.

Come on, guys; don’t you see that the urgent fight right now is to move the pendulum in one direction, and saying, “Well, yes, but it is a bit more complicated than that” isn’t helping?!

I get it. There's a place for "soldier" rhetoric whose primary goal is to draw battle lines and win an argument, not to draw out nuance—and the city council is such a place, for sure. And we have published, and will continue to publish, pieces you can print out and give to those council members to help convince them. (Into housing affordability, for example? Try this one or this one.)

And being a scout (when possible) doesn't mean you don't get to say, "I want X to happen. I think X would be good."

It does mean you don't get to have an ideology that serves as a box into which you cram all the messiness of the real world, chopping off the protruding pieces that don't fit.

Embrace the messiness. Seek out opinions that challenge your preconceptions, read them, digest them, and empathize with the writer to understand why someone would think that way. Have fun doing it—treat it as a challenge! The answer to "Why would they think this?" almost always involves good intentions. It also almost always involves blind spots. Your own beliefs are no exception.

Offering more questions than answers—and complicating the answers you thought you knew—is something Strong Towns does deliberately. Our cities—our whole economy and growth model—are going through a period of profound dysfunction and disruption. And it's going to take good scouts to navigate whatever's coming.

(Cover photo via US Department of Defense)