I recently read a fascinating article that was about a TED talk explaining two different mindsets: one very common mindset that leads you to make errors in judgment, and the other that can help prevent those errors. This is the type of article that’s right up my alley, so of course, I read it with great interest. The mindsets were described as the soldier and the scout.

First, a little about these two mindsets from the author:

Imagine for a moment you’re a soldier in the heat of battle — perhaps a Roman foot soldier, medieval archer or Zulu warrior. Regardless of your time and place, some things are probably constant. Your adrenaline is elevated, and your actions stem from your deeply ingrained reflexes, reflexes that are rooted in a need to protect yourself and your side and to defeat the enemy.

Now, try to imagine playing a very different role: the scout. The scout’s job is not to attack or defend; it’s to understand. The scout is the one going out, mapping the terrain, identifying potential obstacles. Above all, the scout wants to know what’s really out there as accurately as possible. In an actual army, both the soldier and the scout are essential.

Julia Galef, the author, explains the concept of motivated reasoning which explains why someone with a soldier mindset is not able to be objective. She defines it as:

a phenomenon in which our unconscious motivations, desires and fears shape the way we interpret information. Some pieces of information feel like our allies — we want them to win; we want to defend them. And other pieces of information are the enemy, and we want to shoot them down. That’s why I call motivated reasoning “soldier mindset.” . . . 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, and what we consider fair or ethical. What’s most scary to me about motivated reasoning or soldier mindset is just how unconscious it is.

As she points out, these mindsets are under the surface, and they are emotional. We don’t realize that we are operating in this way because we don’t realize that we aren’t being logical and objective. One key to recognize our mindset is to pay attention to which emotions are engaged. While the soldier mindset is related to our unconscious favoring of an outcome, the scout mindset is motivated by curiosity.

scouts are curious. They’re more likely to say they feel pleasure when they learn new information or 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 their own beliefs, and they’re less likely to say that someone who changes her 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. For example, they can believe that capital punishment works and if studies come out that show it doesn’t, they can say, “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 found anecdotally — predicts good judgment.

The key takeaway about the traits associated with scout mindset is they have little to do with how smart you are or how much you know. They don’t correlate very closely to IQ at all; they’re about how you feel.

The author shares a quote from The Little Prince to explain the value of a scout mindset: “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.” Soldiers follow orders out of duty and loyalty; scouts use different parts of their brains to find unforeseen solutions.

Her conclusion about the value of shifting our mindset from soldier to scout in summary:

We need to change the way we feel — to learn how to feel proud instead of ashamed when we notice we might have been wrong about something, or to learn how to feel intrigued instead of defensive when we encounter some information that contradicts our beliefs. So the question you need to consider is: What do you most yearn for — to defend your own beliefs or to see the world as clearly as you possibly can?

In thinking about the two mindsets, a Bible story came to mind, one that we will be studying this year in the Old Testament. While the Israelites wandered in the desert, twelve spies (one from each tribe) were sent to scout out the promised land, the land of Canaan. Their mission was to determine whether the Israelites could conquer the Canaanites and take (or take back) their land. They return to the camp and ten of the spies report that the Canaanites are undefeatable, exaggerating the size of their forces, and claiming that they are giants that make the Israelites look like grasshoppers in comparison. The Israelites all start kvetching again and wishing they were back in captivity in Egypt, and Moses and Aaron lament that they were ever stuck leading these faithless people, falling on their faces. It’s a great story.

The reason I thought of this story after reading the article is that although they were sent as “scouts” (the word used in the KJV), they had a soldier mindset. Even Caleb and Joshua who reported that they could defeat the Canaanites had a soldier mindset. Nobody was acting with curiosity to understand what the actual situation was. They all went in with their pre-existing biases, either for or against war. Some of them didn’t want to wage war because of the potential for defeat, and others wanted to demonstrate their faith by waging war and relying on God’s help to win.

Likewise, apologetics often function this way. As I’ve described before, the way I see apologetics is that both sides are biased–critics and apologists–starting with their conclusion and seeking any evidence, no matter how weak, to support that argument. All the apologist has to do is show that there’s some possible way for the thing to be true, for the critic to be wrong. And the critics of course only have to show that the religious argument is weak in some way. Apologetics starts out trying to prove that the Book of Mormon was historical, and ends up showcasing a dude riding a tapir into battle, wielding an obsidian sword on the way to synagogue. Unbelievers don’t find apologetics convincing–they are only comforting to those who are already predisposed toward belief. Critics don’t find them convincing, but then again, critics have their own biases, their own soldier mindset. Reality doesn’t need defenders. As we used to say in business, when you’re explaining (or defending), you’ve already lost the argument. The truth will come out whether you fight for or against it. Truth is better than arguments.

A scout mindset would be interested in finding out more information and letting the information lead where it will. Was Joseph Smith a good man? (Or Gandhi or Buddha?) Did Book of Mormon people exist historically? How much of the temple ceremony is divine inspiration vs. human creation? These are questions that will often lead to shades of gray if you take a curious approach, but doing so means finding a way to be dispassionate about outcomes, not hoping to find out that they aren’t true or that they are true. Identifying and setting aside our bias toward outcomes is very difficult to achieve. It requires practice.

It occurs to me that a scout mindset is far more valuable to us in a missionary-minded church. Investigators don’t have a soldier mindset predisposed to defending Mormonism, so if our missionaries do, they aren’t going to be convincing–they will actually erode faith by trying to build it on what isn’t sustainable. Faith isn’t built on proofs and evidences of historical facts or theological ideas. Faith stems from subjective spiritual experiences individuals have. If historical facts don’t line up with our narratives, we have to be willing to discard them in order to retain what really matters: subjective personal experiences with the divine.

Unfortunately, we do a terrible job of creating a scout mindset, and instead give a lot of instruction to our membership to develop a soldier mindset. Here are some examples of trying to instill a soldier mindset:

  • Prohibiting bringing in “unapproved” materials in teaching or anything outside the manual.
  • Telling people to avoid any troubling or controversial information as a way to preserve belief.
  • Manuals that include unsustainable claims such as that the Pentateuch was written by Moses, claims most scholars disagree with.
  • Having approved answers and questions designed to elicit specific answers rather than allowing people to openly discuss and follow the spirit.
  • Expecting people to “defend the family.” Defense is about loyalty and soldiering. Instead, we should try to strengthen our own families.
  • Instructions on what can and can’t be part of bearing one’s testimony.
  • Instructions to “obey” and “follow the prophet” when not coupled with personal revelation and seeking understanding (blind obedience focus).

There are some examples of a scout mindset, too:

  • Instructions to follow the spirit, even if it takes a lesson in an unforeseen direction or causes you to change the topic of your talk.
  • The idea of bearing testimony can be if it’s an honest expression of the heart rather than rote phrases that are acceptable.
  • The idea of avoiding “vain repetitions” in prayer so long as we really do, once again, speak from the heart and not just use the same old phrases.
  • The Joseph Smith Papers Project and having more openness in exploring Mormon history.
  • The new council format for the third hour of church.

Let’s see what you think.

  • Can you think of other examples of the scout mindset or the soldier mindset in church? How would you suggest increasing scout mindset in our congregations?
  • Do you think it’s important to avoid a soldier mindset in order to avoid error?
  • Does this help you evaluate your own motives in analyzing information?