At one time or another, we will all remain loyal to a person or job that’s clearly not good for us, or to an idea that just isn’t valid. Our friends and family may suggest alternatives, become exasperated, or simply shake their heads as we argue vigorously for something we can neither justify nor prove.
Chances are we’ll also refuse to change our minds, even in the face of new evidence.
There are many terms to describe our devotion to entrenched beliefs: motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, rationalization, wishful thinking, denial. Of course, most of us believe that these terms don’t apply to us — but that’s part of the trap. At some point, we will resist a truth that’s right before our eyes.
Sometimes this resistance is benign. We may choose to focus on the good rather than worst in a person or insist that Grandma is going to live to 105 because we can’t bear the thought of letting her go.
But this powerful tendency to see what we want to see can have real ramifications in our lives, as well as for the health of society at large — especially when verifiable facts begin to lose their power to convince people of anything.
We may also miss out on new experiences and connections if we don’t keep an open mind. Stubborn beliefs can cut us off from one of our most vital life forces: curiosity. The capacity to remain interested shapes our character, our relationships, and the way we treat others.
Curiosity can be difficult, too — our reptilian instincts tend to pull us toward the comfort of our preconceived notions.
So how do we cultivate an appetite for truth, even when it challenges us? Experts suggest that untangling ourselves from the snare of motivated reasoning starts with learning to identify when and where we’re caught.
The Battlefield of Belief: The Soldier Mindset
Julia Galef, host of the Rationally Speaking podcast and cofounder of the Center for Applied Rationality, describes herself as someone with a “passion for good reasoning.” As a podcast host, she’s observed how motivated reasoning seems to involve certain habits of thought. She refers to this as a “soldier mindset.”
“We experience reason and belief in surprisingly militaristic terms,” explains Galef, author of The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. “We talk about our ideas as being strong and as impregnable as possible. We talk about buttressing our positions with evidence or shooting down someone else’s argument or poking holes in someone’s logic.”
Most of us know how it feels to experience a conflict of ideas as mortal combat. We may feel a rush of adrenaline or a flush in our faces when someone disagrees with an opinion we hold dear, or when we rush to defend our idea against a perceived attack.
That’s the inner soldier, who has no time for curious exploring. The soldier’s mission is to defend beliefs, and evidence-gathering typically works backward from preexisting conclusions. This makes it difficult to discover anything but what we’re seeking.
“We experience some serious cognitive headwinds in our thinking,” says Annie Duke, a former champion poker player and the author of How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices. “We have ownership over our ideas; we don’t want to let them go. We think they’re more valuable than other people’s ideas.”
The soldier mindset is motivated by more than just a love of combat, though. It wants to protect us from harm, so it guides us to avoid unpleasant emotions, maintain morale, persuade others, and look good and virtuous so we’ll be accepted by the group. In moderation, these are admirable social traits that allow us to function in the day-to-day.
Yet there is a price for defending our psychological safety. Our defenses can blind us to information that we need to make well-informed decisions. They provoke discord in relationships with those who don’t agree with us, and they can lead us to confuse consistency with integrity.
“Cognitive dissonance is built into identity,” Duke adds. “We reason toward the beliefs we already possess, because who are we if we let them go? The fabric of our identity is what we believe to be true about the world and about ourselves. If we let go, we tear a hole in that fabric.”
Still, a hole that appears when we let go of a belief isn’t just an absence of identity: It is a space for new information to enter.”
The soldier mindset isn’t our only option, and you’ve likely already used a different approach. Maybe you acknowledged that someone else was right and you were wrong or a coworker’s plan was better than yours. Maybe you disagreed with someone but continued to listen to them without interrupting or arguing.
These modest gestures might seem like no big deal, but Galef views them as evidence of what she calls the “scout mindset.”
“The scout’s role is not to attack or defend.
It’s to go out and explore and see what’s really there —
and form as accurate a map of the situation as possible.
“The scout’s role is not to attack or defend,” she explains. “It’s to go out and explore and see what’s really there — and form as accurate a map of the situation as possible.”
This mindset doesn’t scan the landscape for threats; it seeks data, with curiosity and interest. It can accept some tradeoffs and paradoxes behind the choices we make and beliefs we hold. It allows us to take in new information, including when we’re under stress.
“[Sometimes] things aren’t the way you would prefer them to be,” Galef notes. “But [when you use a scout mindset], you’ve accepted that, and you’re not fighting it. You’re trying to be objective and intellectually honest, and curious about what is really true.”
What’s more, she adds, a scout can “sometimes see the motivations that make us stick to predetermined beliefs.”
While the scout mindset has a long list of appealing features, it’s often stymied by our tendency to overestimate the value of fitting in and our fear of the costs of not doing so.
We also tend to undervalue its benefits — how it can give us a more accurate view of our own thinking and behavior and help us choose long-term benefits over short-term gain.
Clearing the Lens
The truth is, we’re all a little bit soldier and a little bit scout every day — maybe even every minute. The trick is learning to tell the difference between the two and to nudge ourselves toward curiosity when we feel tempted to become rigid.
“The scout mindset comes in as such a great tool,” says Duke. “It helps us shift what it is that makes us feel good about ourselves. Instead of feeling that we must recover from a loss when we change our minds, we can actually feel good about changing our minds and admitting we were wrong, exactly because it is a hard thing to do. It can become part of who we are, that we are experts at being OK with being wrong.”
Because we can’t change our habits overnight, cultivating a scout mindset is best approached as a daily practice. Galef places self-awareness at the top of her list of traits to hone. “There’s a real art to becoming self-aware in the moment,” she says. It’s also essential to helping us “get better at noticing when we’re shifting into a soldier mindset.”
This may be as simple as routinely asking yourself questions such as I feel some tension here — do I need to adjust my thinking?
A mindfulness or meditation practice can be another tool for building inner awareness as well as a more expansive outward view. “In meditation we get beyond the rigidity of our world, in order to be open to all the possibilities,” explains Roger Gabriel, chief meditation officer for Chopra Global, which promotes meditation as a strategy for increasing well-being.
Gabriel, who has taught meditation for nearly five decades, helps his students develop “metacognitive awareness.” This involves paying attention to thoughts and feelings as they arise while learning to view them dispassionately, without defensiveness. This helps us get to where we can choose a view of the world, rather than defending one.
“Life is all about choices,” he adds. “And when we start to make conscious choices, we begin to ask not just How does this serve me? but How will this serve my growth and evolution? And how will it serve the world around me?”
The Challenge of Groupthink
Perhaps more now than ever, we are living our lives immersed in the opinions and beliefs of others, particularly in the inflamed districts we encounter online and in social media. These platforms can feel like the battle theater for the war between soldier mindsets.
Some experts believe the tendency to hyper-identify with our positions is hardwired into human consciousness. “Our tendency is to want to believe things that enhance our status, identity, and sense of self,” says Jonathan Rauch, author of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. “And our natural inclination is to associate with people who believe those same things.”
Our tendency is to want to believe things that enhance our status, identity, and sense of self. And our natural inclination is to associate with people who believe those same things.”
Just as we seek safety by curating our self-image, we also tend to take refuge in identifying and thinking along with our groups, whether they be political, professional, or familial. This means we often find ourselves merging with a collective soldier mindset. This unexamined embrace of group beliefs can come between us and our own judgment and lead us to make choices we might not make otherwise.
Staying in a scout mindset, however, keeps us free to make our own decisions, even if they aren’t always in perfect lockstep with our social groups. In his book, Rauch offers rational dialogue and constructive disagreement as antidotes to political polarization and disinformation.
“It starts with our self and having a certain amount of epistemic humility,” he explains. “Even when we’re feeling the most certain, we might be wrong. To try to live an inquiring life means that when I see a new idea, I ask, What can I learn from this idea? rather than How can I make it go away?”
Finally, the quality of our thinking ultimately matters more than the amount of data we accumulate. We may be weighted down with information, but if we’re still in soldier mindset, we’re likely to assume that those who disagree with us are simply uninformed. In her book, Galef shares a study by Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan, JD, that suggests the greatest polarization of opinion is among the most informed.
“This is a crucially important result,” she notes. “Being smart and being knowledgeable [can] give us a false sense of security in our own reasoning.”
The Company We Keep
We are social creatures, and the people we spend time with help influence our tendency toward defensiveness or open-mindedness.
“Are your friends and the people you interact with online the kind of people who will attack you for showing any uncertainty?” asks Galef. Or are they people who love to discuss ideas and issues and rarely take things personally? It matters. We’re susceptible to social pressures around our beliefs, and styles of arguing that thwart curiosity can be contagious.
But so can open-mindedness and nondefensiveness. During her years as a professional poker player, Duke learned to notice the way players can deceive themselves — such as blaming losses on bad luck while chalking up every win to skill and smarts. She realized that to get better, she had to ask not just the players she’d beaten but also the ones who’d beaten her for insights on her game.
“I had to train myself in a scout mindset, going to my peers and begging them to tell me what I did wrong,” Duke recalls. “How could I have played that hand better? What did I see and what did I not see? We ended up having a social contract: Be direct and to the point.”
Finally, the scout mindset thrives on the buddy system. Having friends who are pledged to curiosity and inquiry can be a sort of compact. This is based not on mutual criticism but a willingness to give another person the space and the freedom to explore ideas and opinions freely, without fear of being ridiculed for changing one’s mind.
“You don’t have to overhaul your entire life,” Galef says. “But it’s a big help to find more time for people who are more scout-like. They actually get excited when something turns out to be more complicated than it seemed, or they applaud you for changing your mind or noticing when you’re wrong about something.”
In other words, the scout mindset isn’t penalized for being wrong or trying again. And that may be one of the greatest freedoms of all.
The Scout’s Toolbox
Because we’re wired to protect ourselves against threats to our egos and sense of belonging, it can be challenging to lower our defenses and boost our curiosity. The pursuit of greater curiosity is a long-term project, and there are a few simple techniques to help you along the way.
“A good tool is to simply become more willing to consider unpleasant or inconvenient possibilities about what may or may not be true,” says Julia Galef, author of The Scout Mindset. This can be as simple as asking yourself, What if I’m wrong about this? And then noticing that the sky does not fall if you realize that your belief was incorrect or you decide to change your mind.
Galef also encourages these strategies:
- Tell people when you realize they’re right and you’re wrong.
- Notice how well — or poorly — you tolerate criticism. (Galef admits to shortcomings in this area.) Aim to increase your tolerance in the name of growth.
- Make things less personal. When you’re discussing issues, focus on the issues. Refrain from making ideas extensions of people.
- Visualize a simple plan for doing something you’ve been avoiding, such as apologizing to a friend over a slight. When Galef visualizes how she will apologize to someone, it becomes clear that she really should, and that it won’t be as difficult as she imagined.
- Take the outsider test: Look at a conflict through the eyes of a neutral outsider who has nothing at stake.
- Do the status quo bias test: Consider whether you’d accept your current situation if it wasn’t what you were already used to.
This article originally appeared as “Get Curious” in the January/February 2022 issue of Experience Life.