Discover more from The Scipionic Circle
The Scipionic Circle 76: Pursuing Clear Judgment, Mastering the Uncontrollable, and Measuring Certainty
"When you are stressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgement of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice."
Welcome to another issue of The Scipionic Circle - I hope you find something of value.
I spend hours meticulously forging Compendiums for every great book I read to ensure I glean every nugget of wisdom concealed within their pages. If you would like access to these, please consider supporting this publication.
Food for Thought
I. The Scout Mindset: Clear Judgment Vs. The Solider Mindset: Motivated Reasoning
“When you think of someone with excellent judgment, what traits come to mind? Maybe you think of things like intelligence, cleverness, courage, or patience. Those are all admirable virtues, but there’s one trait that belongs at the top of the list that is so overlooked, it doesn’t even have an official name. So I’ve given it one. I call it scout mindset: the motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were.
“Scout mindset is what allows you to recognize when you are wrong, to seek out your blind spots, to test your assumptions and change course. It’s what prompts you to honestly ask yourself questions like “Was I at fault in that argument?” or ‘Is this risk worth it?’ or ‘How would I react if someone from the other political party did the same thing?’ As the late physicist Richard Feynman once said, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.’
“Knowing that you should test your assumptions doesn’t automatically improve your judgment, any more than knowing you should exercise automatically improves your health. Being able to rattle off a list of biases and fallacies doesn’t help you unless you’re willing to acknowledge those biases and fallacies in your own thinking. The biggest lesson I learned is something that’s since been corroborated by researchers, as we’ll see in this book: our judgment isn’t limited by knowledge nearly as much as it’s limited by attitude.
An aspect of human psychology called directionally motivated reasoning—or, more often, just motivated reasoning—in which our unconscious motives affect the conclusions we draw. The best description of motivated reasoning I’ve ever seen comes from psychologist Tom Gilovich. When we want something to be true, he said, we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe this?,’ searching for an excuse to accept it. When we don’t want something to be true, we instead ask ourselves, ‘Must I believe this?,’ searching for an excuse to reject it.
“Even if you’ve never heard the phrase motivated reasoning, I’m sure you’re already familiar with the phenomenon. It’s all around you under different names—denial, wishful thinking, confirmation bias, rationalization, tribalism, self-justification, overconfidence, delusion. Motivated reasoning is so fundamental to the way our minds work that it’s almost strange to have a special name for it; perhaps it should just be called reasoning.
“You can see it in the way people happily share news stories that support their narratives about America or capitalism or ‘kids today,’ while ignoring stories that don’t. You can see it in the way we rationalize away red flags in an exciting new relationship, and always think we’re doing more than our fair share of the work. When a coworker screws up, it’s because they’re incompetent, but when we screw up, it’s because we were under a lot of pressure. When a politician from the rival party breaks the law, it proves how corrupt that whole party is, but when one of our politicians breaks the law, he’s just a corrupt individual.” — From The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly, and Others Don't by Julia Galef.
II. Measuring Certainty: Harnessing the Scout Mindset to Assess Confidence and Predict Accuracy
“Typically, when people think about how sure they are, they ask themselves something like: ‘Do I actively feel any doubt?’ If the answer is no, as it often is, they declare themselves to be ‘100% certain.’ That’s an understandable way to think about certainty, but it’s not the way a scout thinks about it. A scout treats their degree of certainty as a prediction of their likelihood of being right. Imagine sorting all of your beliefs into buckets based on how sure you are that you’re right about each one. This would include quotidian predictions (‘I will enjoy this restaurant’), beliefs about your life (‘My partner is faithful to me’), beliefs about how the world works (‘Smoking causes cancer’), core premises (‘Magic isn’t real’), and so on. Putting a belief into the ’70% sure’ bucket is like saying, ‘This is the kind of thing I expect to get right roughly 70 percent of the time.’ What you’re implicitly aiming for when you tag your beliefs with various confidence levels is perfect calibration. That means your ’50% sure’ claims are in fact correct 50 percent of the time, your ’60% sure’ claims are correct 60 percent of the time, your ’70% sure’ claims are correct 70 percent of the time, and so on. Perfect calibration is an abstract ideal, not something that’s possible to achieve in reality. Still, it’s a useful benchmark against which to compare yourself.
“A tip when you’re imagining betting on your beliefs: You may need to get more concrete about what you believe by coming up with a hypothetical test that could be performed to prove you right or wrong. For example, if you believe ‘Our computer servers are highly secure,’ a hypothetical test might be something like this: Suppose you were to hire a hacker to try to break in to your systems. If they succeed, you lose one month’s salary. How confident do you feel that you would win that bet?
“Contemplating a bet can also be used to pin down how sure you are quantitatively, helping you put a number on your degree of confidence. Sometimes I hear an ambitious technological forecast like, ‘Self-driving cars will be on the market within the year!’ My first reaction is often to scoff, ‘Well, that’s crazy.’ But how sure am I that the forecast is wrong?
“To answer that question, I imagine facing a choice between two possible bets. I use a technique I adapted from decision-making expert Douglas Hubbard called an ‘equivalent bet test.’ Here’s how it works in this case: I can bet on self-driving cars, and get $10,000 if they’re on the market in a year. Alternately, I can take the ‘ball bet’: I’m given a box containing four balls, one of which is gray. I reach in and pull out one ball, without looking—if it’s gray, I win $10,000.
“Ball bet (1 in 4 chance of winning): Bet on self-driving cars Draw from a box with four balls, one of which is gray. If I draw the gray ball, I get $10,000. If fully self-driving cars are available for purchase in a year, I get $10,000.
“Which gamble would I rather take? I hesitate for a moment, but I feel happier with the ball bet. Since the probability of winning the ball bet is 1 in 4 (or 25 percent), the fact that I feel more confident in the ball bet implies that I’m less than 25 percent confident in self-driving cars making it to the market in a year.” — From The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly, and Others Don't by Julia Galef.
III. Mastering the Uncontrollable: Stoic Wisdom for Accepting Fate and Embracing Life's Journey
“Events may not be under our control, however our attributions and interpretations to them are. To quote Epictetus again, ‘The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.’
“Throughout the swim I encountered many uncontrollables. From rogue tides, unpredictable waves and weather, bad family news, unpredictable seals, wild whales and untamed sharks. But it was Marcus Aurelius who said, ‘When you are stressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgement of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.’ He was absolutely right. When I first heard news of my dad’s illness, I was purely thinking through emotionally charged reflexive reactions rather than logic. The entire situation was being made worst by my judgement of it and it was only because my dad was thinking so rationally that I was able to continue the swim.
“Another concept used to cope with uncontrollable events is known as amor fati which is Latin for ‘love of fate’. The exact term can be traced back to the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who describes it as, ‘My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it … but love it.’ Basically, do not wish for reality to be any different, rather accept and even love whatever happens. Something Epictetus agreed with over two millennia earlier when he said, ‘Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.’ Stoics later came to call this the ‘art of acquiescence’. This is the act of accepting rather than fighting every little thing as stoics tried to cultivate acceptance to whatever happened to them. ‘If this is the will of Nature then so be it.’ Most events happen without you having a say in the matter. You can either enjoy and love whatever happens, or you get dragged along anyway.
“This is why Seneca said, ‘Fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant.’ As a metaphor, imagine a dog leashed to a moving cart. The wise man is like a dog leashed to a moving cart, running joyfully alongside and smoothly keeping pace with it, whereas a foolish man is like a dog that grumblingly struggles against the leash but finds himself dragged alongside the cart anyway. The moving cart stands for your life and everything that happens. The dog stands for us. Either we enjoy the ride and make the best of our life’s journey, or we fight against everything that happens and get dragged along anyway. Which dog has the better life? Both dogs are in the same situation, one just enjoys it much more because he doesn’t fight against what he can’t beat – fate. Nobody wants to get dragged along, so there is really just one option: make the best of the journey the cart driver chooses for you.” — From The Art of Resilience: Strategies for an Unbreakable Mind and Body by Ross Edgley.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Rumi on dancing with the ebb and flow of change:
“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”
II. Hermann Hesse on transforming fortune into value:
“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”
Thank you for reading,