David Heinemeier Hansson

January 17, 2022

Case study in motivated reasoning

A few days ago, an anonymous Twitter user claiming to be an employee at a Big Tech company wrote a thread about work that went viral (since deleted, possibly partly by Twitter). Hazard Harrington's thread depicted a company drowning in woke excesses, so of course it sent the internet to the trenches. "This is EXACTLY what we suspected!!" firing at "There's NO WAY this is true, total fanfic!!" and back again.

There's of course no way of knowing either way based on what was presented. This is an anonymous account of an unnamed company detailing personal but unverifiable experiences. (Not unlike a myriad of threads claiming to expose various isms in a similar anonymous, unverifiable format!)

It certainly could be true! The comments were full of folks backing up the account from their experience. (And various recent expositions would probably make some people more inclined to believe it anyway). But could be true applies to all manner of accounts that turn out not to be.

It also could be made up. Like the story about the Oklahoma doctor who claimed his hospital was unable to treat gunshot victims because they were flooded with ivermectin overdose patients.

When a story fits a contentious narrative someone already believes, they tend to become strikingly gullible. There's a name for this tendency: motivated reasoning.

That's the central theme of a new book by Julia Galef entitled The Scout Mindset (here's a good review). It explores the fallacy of motivated reasoning, and tries to teach us how to counter its pitfalls. I'm not yet that far into it yet, but Galef's setup of The Scout (who welcomes being wrong so they can make a better map) vs The Soldier (who wants to defend what they already think know at all cost) is illuminating.

What's so comforting about The Scout Mindset is that it gives us a non-threatening metaphor for personal introspection. Am I being a scout or a soldier right now? That's something you can ask yourself when you watch your own reaction to an account like Hazard Harrington's. And it provides a clear aspiration that we should all be capable of sharing: Try to be a scout most of the time!

The book was recommended to me by a reader who replied to my earlier post about The thrill of changing your mind, and that's probably why it resonated so immediately with me. I too am liable to fall into soldier thinking, but my most satisfying intellectual moments are when the inner scout is in charge.